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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: How does an improvising musician forge his or her own creative path, both as a composer and a performer? Where does inspiration come from? And what's the balance between structure and freedom? Who better to ask than Dave Douglas, the trumpeter, composer, and educator known for fusing disparate musical elements into brilliantly unexpected sounds.

I spoke to Douglas—who's bringing a one-of-a-kind program to Jazz at Lincoln Center this week—about his sources of inspiration, composing a suite of music for his latest album, Little Giant Still Life, and the alchemy that happens in live performance.

This is Lincoln Center with Dave Douglas.

KG: Okay, so let's being. Dave Douglas, welcome to "This is Lincoln Center."

DD: Thank you so much.

KG: Thanks for being here with us today.

DD: I'm really, really happy, not only to be playing on the stage but to be invited for this podcast.

KG: Tell us about what is bringing you to Jazz at Lincoln Center.

DD: Well, I was invited to do a project around Dizzy Gillespie. It was recently his 100th birthday. It was a challenge for me, because his music has always been so huge that I almost didn't know where to dive in—just the greatest virtuoso of the instrument and a wonderful soul, a great human ambassador. So this invitation allowed me to put together a band of just heroes that are great improvisers and that I know will also take the challenge of thinking about Dizzy Gillespie personally and seriously. Ambrose Akinmusire is a trumpet player, somewhat younger than me, who I think is a really important exploratory voice for the instrument. Bill Frisell is a guitar player and composer who has always, from the beginning of my career, been one of my heroes. Gerald Clayton, the great pianist; Linda May Han Oh is playing bass; Joey Baron's on drums.

This one has taken me longer than most. It's been a very difficult process putting the music together, because I didn't want to just play the songs the way Dizzy played them. I feel like, in honoring someone, it's important to say, in 2018, why is this music important; what do we have to say about it of our own that would convince somebody, wow, this was really something. So I'm making my own versions and my own ways of encountering the music. I've written some original pieces along the way that are, for me, part of the process of thinking about Dizzy Gillespie.

KG: So let's kind of start with the beginning, young Dave Douglas growing up in Jersey. What were you, as a kid growing up, what were you listening to? What was on the radio, the family record player?

DD: Well, I feel like—just so lucky that there was all this music in the house. There's no other professional musician in my family. But my father played a little jazz piano, like he could play tunes. He also played Baroque recorders. He had a group that rehearsed at the house on Sundays. And then he also—when extended family would come, he had guitars and banjos and sort of there was an Appalachian folk music vibe going on. 

But my father also had a small record collection, and that's really how I ended up gravitating towards jazz and improvised music was that he had bought the Smithsonian collection of classic jazz, which probably came around 1972 or so, curated by Martin Williams, who, in retrospect, just made such brilliant choices. So I grew up obsessed with all the sides of those LPs, and eventually gravitating towards the two most recent ones, which were Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and Gil Evans, people who are all still such guiding figures for me. So to think that, in 1972, I had these records in my home—a lot of them had been recorded within the previous five years—kind of miraculous.

KG: I read somewhere—maybe your Wikipedia page—

DD: Lies, lies, lies, lies!

KG: You had a big moment in Spain.

DD: Yeah. My junior year in high school—so I guess I was 14—I spent a year living with a Catalan family, just outside Barcelona. For some reason, again—the miracle of the universe—for some reason there was this group of young musicians my age that were playing original music and were into Weather Report and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and all the things that I was discovering. So I fell in with this group and started playing gigs and learning Monk tunes and Wayne Shorter tunes and Jobim tunes, and just the kind of music that we call standards that you play when you are a young jazz musician.

KG: When did your formal training start?

DD: Well, I'd always had lessons. I had piano lessons very, very young and I hated them, because I could never do anything the same way twice. They were classical lessons, and that was the ultimate wrong move, was to do something that wasn't on the page—at least that was my perception of it. So my father had decided that I would be the piano player and he would be the horn player. He bought a trombone at a yard sale and brought it home, and within half a day I was the trombone player. I just became a horn player. Just something about the single line aspect of it and the uniqueness of the sound and the shading melodically that you could do. . . I loved it, and then I guess I was seven, and I couldn't reach all the positions of the trombone, but also in the school band, the trumpet always had the melody, and the trombone had the long notes. So I switched when I was nine to trumpet.

I had great teachers in high school and I went straight from my high school to Berklee College of Music and met a lot of great players who are now important figures on the scene. I had a trumpet teacher who told me to quit after a year of lessons, so I transferred to New England Conservatory, where I met the great teacher John McNeil, who introduced me to the technique of Carmine Caruso, who was here in New York at that time, still teaching in Times Square. And I'd always been struggling with the technique of the trumpet. It didn't come easily to me. I had terrible, what we call "chops." It wasn't until...

KG: Even at that point, when you were dedicated to—

DD: Oh, yes. I mean, the guy told me to quit. There must have been a reason, right? So. . .

KG: And why didn't you take it to heart?

DD: I don't know. I was just determined to do it. I think that I was already thinking like a composer, even though I wasn't a serious composer. I was thinking in terms of, what do I want to say; why is this music touching me so deeply; and how can I share that with the other people in my life and in the world; more so than—

KG: That's pretty big thinking for a 19-year-old kid.

DD: I don't think that it was that well stated at that time, but in retrospect, I think that's what I was feeling: like, I'm going to get the trumpet to work for me, because I need it to be this voice in passing along this music that I love. I didn't even think of myself as a trumpet player at that time.

So it was really because of Carmine Caruso. I moved to New York, and I studied directly with him for two years. It really changed my life and it made the trumpet possible. It was like your body catches up with your imagination. It was suddenly like, I can do these things that I'm hearing in my head.

KG: What was it about him or that technique that you were learning that really made that happen?

DD: Okay, we're going very granular here. This is super nerdy, but—well, a lot of people know about Carmine Caruso. There's a lot of people still around that studied with him. He died, I guess, in 1986 or '87. He just was a radical visionary about how to learn an instrument.

His whole philosophy was about—he was very Zen—the flow of time and doing things at their proper time and not rushing and not dragging and teaching your body to use the most effortless flow in your practice.

So Carmine Caruso was never interested in what kind of music you were playing or what kind of horn you were playing or any of that. It was just like, we are here now, and we're observing these practices. We're just doing this. If you would ask an extraneous question, he would just say, "Shut up." He was very gruff. When I studied with him he was probably 85, 86 years old.

It was—I needed that discipline. I needed that—almost like a meditative routine to just figure out... I mean, I still struggle with the trumpet. It's a very difficult instrument. But I feel like that daily checking in, being aware, accepting what's happening, not letting it perturb your flow, is the central lesson that I got from Carmine. And then later on there was a woman named Laurie Frink who had been Carmine's—I don't want to say top student, but someone who was very, very close to Carmine. After he was gone she developed her own teachings based on this philosophy, and she became really crucial for me.

Now, one of the things that Laurie Frink did for me was that, at the time that I started studying with her, I had some very unique instrumental challenges. I was playing the most demanding music I've ever played in my life, and maybe the most demanding music that brass instruments get asked to play, and doing a lot of extended techniques, so, the kinds of sounds that you're not really taught to do in any legitimate sort of way but that you encounter in new music and in highly energetic music and playing with, for example, loud drummers or in electric situations.

Actually there's a great story about me losing my chops in Europe on a tour and my band getting ready to go into the studio over there. I was in Zurich, and I just felt like, oh my God, I can't play. So much of that is psychological, of course. But also it was just one of those things. Everything's falling apart. And I called Laurie from Europe. So it was probably 6:00 in the morning here in New York. I left a message on her machine. I said, "Well, I'm really desperate; I know you're not up, and whatever; it's not your problem." But 10 minutes later the phone rings in my hotel room in Zurich. I'm like, "Oh, I can't believe...!" She goes, "Shut up. Put down the phone. Do this." I play, and then I pick it up.

KG: So it was actual exercises. It wasn't, "Let's talk this out."

DD: Yes. She says, "Okay, I heard you play that. Now play this." I would do [sings]. She'd go, "Okay, here's what you need to do. You got a pencil and paper?" She gave me three exercises to do. So in other words, she knew my situation well enough that she could hear, over the phone, what was going on in my technique that was causing problems and she gave me these exercises to counteract the issues.

In a way she could have said anything, right? Because I was soothed. My teacher was there for me. She had a solution. I did the record. You can hear the record. It came out. There are still a few notes that I hear when I listen to that record where I'm like, oh, I remember how my chops felt that day. But also, it's basically... it came together.

"I think every improvising musician would tell you that, yes, you have to have a huge base of knowledge, and yes, at some point you have to just forget all of it and act in the moment."

KG: So what is that foundation? I want to talk about improvisation with you. I want to talk about composing. But what's the bedrock of all of the work that you're able to do now?

DD: Well, first of all, I would just say that the answer to those questions is going to be different for every artist you talk to. But I do know that—I think every improvising musician would tell you that, yes, you have to have a huge base of knowledge, and yes, at some point you have to just forget all of it and act in the moment. For me that message has become increasingly important in my thinking about composing, because I feel like I compose for improvisers. So I have to confront this thing that a purely notated composer doesn't have to confront, and that is the vision of the players. So I have to accept—accept is the wrong word. I have to welcome someone else's vocabulary. So I have to write something that's specific enough that many different players could play it with their own vocabulary and it will still have an identity and a profile and a shape.

KG: And reflect your original idea and inspiration for the piece, too, I would think, right?

DD: Yes, but I also feel like that, if we talk about the elements of composition being basics like melody and harmony and rhythm—and there's a lot of other ones; timbre and density and articulation and program and all the things that a composer thinks about—when you add in improvisation as an element of equal importance, it sort of changes the game a little bit. It's not an abdication of responsibility. I think, if anything, it's more an acceptance and awareness of one's community. It makes you think about, who are the people that I play with?

One of the reasons that I have found myself in this practice is because my compositional heroes wrote for improvisers. Coming up the most fascinating thing for me was always the question: How did they do that? What did they say to the musicians to get them to do that result? Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Gil Evans is a great example. You hear it, and you just think wow, it's so magical, and it's so beyond what could possibly be on a piece of paper, and yet he communicated this idea in a way that a group of musicians were able to come together and form a society and lift up this vision that he had.

There's an awareness in the practice of the composing that there's going to be something else that emerges from this thing, this information that you're giving to the band. Your hope is that it becomes something of its own where everybody's voice is heard. Where it is your piece, but also something else is happening. There's an alchemy that happens in the moment of performance that's unique to that moment.

KG: How does inspiration work in all of this in terms of when you're composing, say, the set elements versus when you yourself are actually improvising with a group of musicians? I would think, when you're improvising in the moment, there's a certain amount of just in the moment inspiration. Is that coming from the music that's being played? Is it coming from the mood that you're in? Is it coming from the state of the world, from a book that you just read or a painting that you just saw? What is in that moment that leads to improvisation?

DD: First of all, I would just say yes to all those things. Well, maybe the biggest element is just—it's not like anything just emerges like a bolt from the blue, from nothing. We all have our influences, and we all—I mean, our first influences are our family. But we all have musical influences, too. We also have our idealized versions of what a great performance is.

I just feel like that jazz and improvised music gives us a wider canvas on which we can explore that than a lot of other ways of making music. I'm not putting that out as any kind of a value judgment. It's just, I find that the musicians that I'm able to play with and the tasks I'm able to give them allow for a lot of freedom in the expression. I think that everybody's thinking about all the lessons they learned on their instrument, and all the vocabulary. I used to feel I was writing my pieces for specific players and now I feel like I'm writing for players who have a certain experience and education and background.

KG: So that foundation has to be there. There has to be a certain level of—

DD: Yeah, like a good tenor sax player knows a certain number of things. So when I write a part for tenor saxophone, I'm using that in a way to sort of—in a language that we both speak. It's the same—people ask me a lot about electronic musicians because I've used electronics in my work quite a bit, and I sort of feel like it's the same conversation. It's just that, because the electronic component is newer, for a composer it just takes more time to think about, how do I speak—what's the language here? How do I speak to this electronic musician in a language that we can have a mutual understanding about what sorts of things are the basis of the piece? I like that.

You know, your question about what happens in the moment of performance is also interesting, because not every moment has the same set of parameters. There might be some moments within a piece that are—the only instruction is get from point A to point B. Others—there can be much more strict parameters that we use.

I feel like those lessons are directly from the great masters of American music—Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. When we learn to play "bebop" or jazz that emerged in the '30s and '40s, there are very strict rules. It's like if you played Bach and you were reading figured bass. Yes, you're improvising, but the rules are quite strict. So I feel like that music is the same, and the rules evolved into the '50s and '60s.

Now—I moved back to New York from travels in the mid '80s. I didn't really seriously start composing until almost 10 years—a little less than 10 years—later. But I felt like, by the time, the rules and strategies and processes available to my generation of composers for improvisers were expanded infinitely.

KG: What about now, 20 years later?

DD: Well, I don't feel like—none of us ever threw away the rules of bebop or swing-era jazz or hard bop or free jazz. I just feel like each new generation incorporates everything and moves on and invents some new things.

Now I guess I would just say that I find myself also playing with a younger generation of musicians and just the skill set is very different. I think that because of the advances of education in jazz, in improvised music, young musicians come on the scene way, way, way more advanced than we were when I was that age, technically and in terms of exposure to the music. But, of course, like any artist, they still have to go through a phase of "Who am I really? What do I really have to say? What's the best way for me to say it?"

KG: I'm sitting here with your most recent CD [Little Giant Still Life] in my hand. It's fun to hold CDs. I don't usually have so many CDs anymore. Tell me about this record.

DD: This is a collaboration with a group called The Westerlies who, actually, I first heard just up the street at Juilliard some years ago. It's a brass quartet: two trumpets, two trombones. They have some wonderful projects of their own, but when I heard them, my composer brain sort of kicked in. I said, okay, I want to write something for myself playing with you guys, and I'm going to add a drummer. We ended up adding Anwar Marshall—great drummer from Philadelphia—and I wrote a suite of music. It took some time for the project to come together, but I was just thinking about all the unique sounds I could get as a composer.

KG: So take me through the process. You said it took some time to come together. How long does it take to compose a suite of music, or does it vary? Is it sometimes quick, sometimes long?

DD: It varies—sometimes long, sometimes quicker—I would say a year and a half for this book of music to develop. During that time I rediscovered the painting of Stuart Davis. There was a big retrospective of his work at the Whitney. I was reading about him and thinking about it. He was an amateur jazz drummer and a lot of his works sort of refer to music, and especially jazz. I just developed this attraction to his works that became a sort of analog, a template, for the way I was thinking about laying out the music.

There's a very visual component to it for me. I guess it's also—because it's improvised music, it's always good to get out and play a few shows and just check things out. I am a great believer in revision and I find after I bring a piece to a rehearsal, I almost always revise it, and then I revise it again after we've brought it onstage. Not because it was a failure or anything, but more—just the act of doing it gives me some insights into what the material is and I feel I'm better able to shape it.

KG: Do you continue revising after it's been packaged and on the shelves as well, or do you tend to let them go?

DD: Usually not. Usually once it's recorded and it's on a release, then it's finished. Sometimes, if a group continues to tour, certain pieces I'll continue revising. But I don't see it as, really, a change from the recording. It's more just, we're out here in wherever, playing this show and tonight we're going to play this piece this way. There's an openness built into the pieces, because I feel like it's your job as a bandleader to keep the energy fresh. So sometimes you have to throw those wrenches into the works to shake it up, wake it up.

KG: Now, while you're composing something like this, over this year and a half—you are, from what I can tell, a very busy guy. You're teaching. You're playing. You're composing, I would think, different things at any given time. How do you—or do you—compartmentalize all of these things, or do they all just kind of inform the other?

DD: I think that it's all of a piece for me. I started a music company about 12 years ago that houses all of my recordings, Greenleaf Music. That is sort of a new way of encountering the changing industry for recorded music, I hope. So everything comes under the umbrella of that. I feel like, while things are compartmentalized, they're all part of the bigger project of serving the music and serving the community.

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, and Ian Goldstein.

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