Spring Garden Music


John Berndt interviews Jack Wright in 2001

John Berndt introduction: In many ways The Red Room owes its existence to the inspiration, both musical and methodological, from the example of Jack Wright. Considered by many of the younger generation of American improvisers to be one of the most significant figures in free improvised music (an obscure figure, though ultimately perhaps more important than Zorn, Brotzmann, Parker, and Braxton in the sheer strangeness and integrity of his live improvisations), Wright has devoted himself solely to freely improvised music since 1979. During this time he has toured the US, and to a lesser extent Europe, and played an incredible number of solo concerts (88 concerts in 1988 alone, at least half of which are solos), playing very often with new players and open to playing with just about anyone. Along the way, he also played with many well-known players, while always remaining a sub-cultural and highly idealistic presence in many grass-roots improvisation scenes. His activity seems always characterized by a lack of professional rigidity, incredibly strange yet communicative musicality, and a profound emotionality which recalls John Coltrane in its endless searching and vulnerable integrity--if not in its aesthetic. In 2001, he is 58 years old, and lives in Boulder, Colorado, making frequent trips to the East and West Coasts and Chicago.

John Berndt: I want to start on a tangent here, and discuss your relationship with “ethnic” or “world” music recordings. It has always struck me that you have been hugely influenced in some way by field recordings and that this shows up in your playing in a way which is hard to characterize. What are some of your favorite field recordings, and how do you think hearing these sounds has influenced your music aesthetics, if that isn’t too broad a question.

Jack Wright: Funny you should ask. The other day the gas man came through the house; I was playing a recording of my music, and he said, "Let me guess. You're an ethnomusicologist and you travel around the world collecting recordings!" So that's how improvised music might appear to the uninitiated.
Around 1980 I began noticing non-Western music for the first time, and became a dj on the Philly radio station that had a slot for it [Wright lived in Philadelphia before moving west in 1988]. I was attracted only to the strangest sounds--instruments and vocal techniques—and especially to the music of village life. I felt a kinship with the setting of the music, for often you could hear insects, birds, children laughing, people probably amazed at the recording gear and the earnest ethnomusicologist. It was relaxed and matter-of-fact, to my mind a more attractive relation of music and community than I found in the Western avantguard, where I ambivalently located myself, which was and is so full of its own importance. Perhaps I was drawn to this unself-conscious musicality because it countered my own tendencies to take my music so seriously. This, and not specific sounds or musical ideas to be borrowed, was the influence, that somewhere backing me up is this fragile village, rather than music school or the avantguard. My partners and my listeners are this village to me; we know that, more than most people, we need music to live, we need to be making it. This is our vulnerability, and what connects us on a deep level, past all the disconnections.

John Berndt: Apparently when you began playing saxophone again in the early 70’s it was conventional jazz for a few months, then into free-form jazz, then beyond recognizable connection to jazz. What were some of the crucial points or influences when your playing went off the map from anything that could be considered Jazz? Were there personal influences, or recordings you heard, or events in your life which provoked going in a stranger direction?

Jack Wright: Whether one is a jazz musician or not I would respond to first as a question of one’s origins and roots. Unlike most of my partners, I would say I am one, simply for reasons of my personal history. I have never perceived myself as going off the road I began in the mid-fifties, when I thought jazz was where I was headed. It doesn't make my playing any better or worse, and I would never advocate jazz over other musics. That is just my playing tradition, where my heart lies, rather than classical music, which is my major listening music tradition, to which others have been added. Cultural innovation neither renounces nor sentimentalizes tradition, it grows out of it. That is what I and my improvising friends are doing--linking, elaborating, and transforming many traditions, including jazz. It's not surprising then that I rarely listen to what is called contemporary jazz. It mostly bores and even disgusts me--as if they were the ones who betrayed the tradition by merely repeating it.
On the other hand, if someone says my playing is outside the boundaries of jazz I would have to agree. That person would be looking at a certain definition of jazz, as having meter, pulse, etc., that would distinguish it from other musics. This is what we all do in common parlance, and that is also the level of academic categories, such as the Ken Burns series exemplifies. Category work like his can often provide useful information and images, even if the approach is ultimately useless to actual creative playing. What you and I and our other friends are doing for the most part exceeds any category known by such historical characteristics. Its character can only be known after the fact, and we are in process of creating a form of music, the direction of which is as unknown as jazz once was. Some players, with jazz origins like myself, want to fight for their inclusion in the jazz category, but I think that is misguided, a weak, defensive argument. When we are playing music we are in love, in pursuit of our love, and there is nothing to defend. Twenty years ago I said, "one thing I like about jazz; there is no hall of fame"; hence no gatekeepers, no academic specialists to draw the lines. Well, since then the hall of fame has been created, Burns and his chosen critics are the gatekeepers, and the least we can do is ignore it as fantasy irrelevant to our own.

I see three major periods of my playing, first of which was free-form, lyrical, boyish, full of melodic ideas, jazzy, with shifting tonal centers. I had generally one good normal tone throughout, that is, it was the center, rather than one choice among many. A beautiful music, light and vital and youthful, representing the rebirth of my life out of a huge darkness. I was influenced especially by early Ornette and Eric Dolphy, with the scalar intricacies of the late Coltrane. And, like many jazzers whose roots are in the fifties, I loved speed; I was exceptionally fast, much faster than I am now! But very early on (1980) I met Todd Whitman, a reed player who introduced me to all the rough, hard sounds of the contemporary Europeans, Brotzmann and Evan Parker, who were pushing the envelope of saxophone sound wide open. I felt offended by this, for my embouchure was trained to please people, that is to be “pleasing”. Yet this raw music of Whitman's touched my own emotions; I knew this was a door I had to open, a kind of loss of innocence.
My music became more extreme and exploratory, and in my solos I felt more fear and rage coming out than I ever could as the little boy, freely bopping along. Yet I still felt I must demonstrate that I could indeed "play" the instrument—at least, demonstrate finger dexterity. I was pushing out, yet held back by the desire for validation, protecting my flank from some ghost, an inner jazz critic perhaps. And when I played with others, especially jazz-based drummers, I couldn't keep from getting hooked on the drive energy of free jazz--the fast pulse. This is like a moving train; when you're not on it you feel you aren't going anywhere. It makes the music dependent on a certain definition of energy, frenetic and powerful, and leads to a sense of aimlessness when it is absent. In my opinion it was and still is a form of attention-grabbing, like not allowing any slow-down or lapse in the conversation, or else the other will start to ignore you.
Soon after moving to Boulder from Philly I underwent a collapse, a disgust with myself and my music and a desire to retreat from the music world, and especially self-promotion. I found nothing fresh in my playing, and went back to practicing scales. This was at a time when there was little in the way of venues or interest in improv except the Bay area, yet I kept coming east, eventually finding you and Baltimore. Your enthusiasm for my music, John, really woke me up, I couldn't understand why you didn't think I was a has-been, or didn't care if I was!
Anyway, I was looking for a way out of my usual patterns when I heard Bhob Rainey play, in '98, I think, and felt, now here is a completely different approach--slow, sometimes almost inaudible, a different kind of energy and tension in the music. Since then, his influence has been equivalent to Todd Whitman's, opening up new possibilities. I learned to play from a greater place of strength, to breathe differently in the music, to take time. It also gave me a way to connect with players who had no past in free jazz, and so it expanded my range of desirable partners immensely. Yet I would see it more as an addition to my music than a replacement, for what I find a hindrance is being locked into a mode, dependent on it as an emotional need or an aesthetic truth. I could describe my aesthetic as requiring always a larger space to move around in. I find cubby holes that turn out to be amphitheatres, but I don't disown where I've been, because it is all just the unfolding of beauty, never finished. So I still play with a free jazz "drive energy" at times, but feel free to drop it. It's what the jazz musician would call my "roots music", that would get tiresome if played to validate my relation to the tradition.

John Berndt: One of the shocking things about your musicality is that you don’t seem to have a “vocabulary” per se, a bag of tricks, yet your playing is usually recognizable. What is your relationship with cultivating extended technique sounds, and how does that work with practice and performance?

Jack Wright: You are quite generous to say that! In fact, I often squirm to
hear myself pull one trick after another out of my bag looking for something
"interesting", especially in solo, where I have no influx from others to bounce off of. Then I wake up to the sheer joy of playing, the "why am I doing this, anyway!" This overcomes the self-consciousness of trying to impress people, to hide my vulnerability under a supposedly convincing display, which fortunately cannot quite convince me. For all the silly games of the daily mind at work, at least as a musician (and also in writing and painting) I'm in a way sworn to self-honesty, a pact with myself. It's an island of safety from ego concerns, a place where I know how to follow the rule and love the strictness of it, and the results. No matter how humbling it is, sooner or later it can't help but take me deeper into any creative work; in fact, the humbling is inseparable from the work.
What amazes me when I listen back to a solo I like is the quick shifts within an overarching flow of ideas. I don't know where they come from, but often musical thoughts will overlap, as if competing for attention from me. Some sound will begin to emerge, even accidentally; I'll prick up my ears as if I am a bystander, and it gradually pushes the dominant theme out of the way, rudely at times. I sense continuity, without a piece having any concept or theme to unify it; it is melody, yet does not repeat or produce self-conscious variations to validate itself.
To answer your second question, my practice has been changing; for the first time I am playing long tones, like they tell beginners to do. I'm also consciously practicing multiphonics, which I never did before. Mostly, however, I play scales, because I love the intricacy of patterns, how much complexity you can fit into your head, so different from "just playing" which I rarely do when I'm practicing. Generally, I love concentrated practice; I do it for its own sake. Practice is part of my private life, it is music, just a different kind than standing in front of people. But I find it hard to keep this perspective. I get away from it because practice is functional to keeping the lip in shape, and it's easy for practice to devolve into a functional role, under the demands of touring.
As for extended techniques in general, I have tended to avoid one or another until I find some musical use for it. For instance, until I dropped the "drive" energy as the universal goal of my playing with others, I could find no valid use for multiphonics. Now they make all the sense in the world; I am drawn into them by the music context, rather than as a device. This follows what I'm seeing around me today. In the early decades of free improv, when new techniques were the mark of a fresh approach to traditional instruments, they were often considered the new standard to be displayed. But at this point I find players using a more integrated technique, where nothing is "extended" because no technique by itself connotes a radical departure. Contemporary improv is more and more dealing with its own past, not the past of jazz. So now every technique tends to be subordinate to the direction of the music, and pyrotechnics are not flashed as a distinctive badge of mastery. Of course, there are some in every audience who will be impressed by circular breathing, the kind of “look, ma, he ain’t breathing!” reaction, but if we want to stay on course we know we aren't about impressing people but rather opening up our musical hearts. And for me, this opening calls for the hugest range of sound the imagination can wring out of body and instrument.

John Berndt: Can you say a few words about how the emotionality of your music is related to the failure of the revolutionary movement of the late sixties, or other events in your life… what that transformation was like, and where did it take you later?

Jack Wright: In the sixties I was an academic, a European history teacher and student, and I was gradually drawn into Marxist revolutionary groups. I threw myself out of the middle class, you might say, and dedicated myself to the overthrow of existing society, which seemed a reasonable dream due to the situation at the time and our limited perceptions. Following the huge disappointment of that dream, another kind of revolution had to occur on an interior level for me; the chickens came home to roost. As a result, and at times in spite of myself, I was not able to treat music as a personal career, without a backlash feeling of self-betrayal. I didn't want to leave the illusions of the political avantguard only to pick up those of the Artist, behind which I saw the approved social role.
Yet I have begun to see through this, to define artistic career apart from the social reward system, in a way that makes sense for myself. I am getting out from under the “outsider” role without joining the pursuit of success, overcoming an old dualism of rebel and conformist that has been with me for thirty years. This shift is leading me to attempt contacting professional musicians as I did briefly and unsuccessfully twenty years ago, but has not created an interest in earning a living through music. At the time I committed myself to music, I was quite happy to make my living outside music, earning what I needed for physical existence with a different part of my being. If I didn’t want to be an Artist I certainly didn’t want to be an entrepreneur of my music! I didn’t have the dream of one day living off of music; the dream was to live for music, and I was living it, and still am. So, although I play for money I am not a professional in the financial sense. Mine is not a career in music but a musical career, in the sense of focused energy, reflective awareness, development and change of my music and of my relation to other players. I avoid doing things for business reasons, whether it’s the choice of where to play or how to increase my “exposure” or with whom to play. If I am recording more now it has nothing to do with sales, but rather that I find the studio to be an environment more friendly to musical growth and change than I did in the past. And with self-recording, more realistic financially.
This sounds very idealistic and lofty, but it is far from the case. The fact of the matter is that the desire for recognized artistic success is very much a part of my makeup, at times overwhelming. Some insistent voice in me wants me to be known as the greatest saxophonist, not to mention achievement in my other pursuits. Moreover, in fantasy I would revel in trouncing all other contenders, vindicated at last in the world’s eyes. In fact I have to fight against this for any space at all in which to appreciate those outside my circle of partners; people who refuse to play with me are quite unrealistically a kind of enemy. This dark side is quite a hindrance, and very embarrassing, yet without noting it my approach to the music world would be misunderstood.
My music has a lot to do with an extreme confidence I have in my musical abilities and destiny, an inner, rock-bottom security I have assumed ever since earliest childhood. This confidence, however, runs up against any calculation of actual interest others show in my music. This seeming contradiction has created an emotional force so strong, that any effort to actually enter the race of competitive career, or even signs of comparison with others, only unleash bitterness, antagonism, envy, malicious gossip, and despair. I obviously care, get hurt by rejection, as if I had no confidence in my ability at all. On some level I cannot imagine others not having the same enthusiasm for my music as I have, which could be a supreme egoism.
This would be crushing, except that I also see in this the refusal to bow to the notion that music is a private and subjective matter of the marketplace. If that were so it wouldn’t connect us except as consumers, and music overflows that. I know it is possible to gain an audience through commercial shrewdness, but I don’t want that kind of audience. My faith in my music, by itself, does not require people to choose me ahead of others, which is the consumer choice, but to open listeners to the depths of musical feeling, which I share with them and other players. The commercial game opens the door for one person at a time, and I am sure this could happen with me if I let it, if I worked for it, created the right image, played with the right people. But I am too proud, you might say. And it offends the collectivity I have with my partners, which is by no means a narrow or closed group; I would have to choose which ones to bring with me, and an old communist/anarchist like me would not do that. For me the very form of music itself, free improv, implies a non-commercial collectivity. So here perhaps is some continuity with my political past, something better than the “underground” role.
If I don't engage in some of the sordid games of getting ahead of the next guy, it is in the last analysis because it obliterates my happiness simply with playing music. I might get tied in knots at the slightest hint of my static, low level on the hit parade, ashamed of my minuscule discography and lack of high-visibility partners, enraged at the ladder-climbers. Then I remember, "oh yes, I don't have to enter the race at all”, and all that native confidence in my playing comes on as a strength and not a curse. With this comes the realism, the objective discrimination that allows me to see that we are all, professionals and non-professionals, just in love with music, and disguising and confusing it with the games we play. My music grows by this love and artistic discipline, this overriding confidence and happiness with where I am, and not by efforts to put myself on the map, or despair at the one-horse town I represent in the scale of things.

With regard to the shape of my music itself, in the mid-eighties my music had a hard assertive edge, probably reflecting both my war with the music world and my disappointment with the revolutionary collapse. Don't let those bastards off the hook, was the message—to some extent my rage played the music. I feared becoming soft and accommodating, or mellowed with age. But I found that syndrome to be a trap, and partly through a period of studying and writing in the nineties I worked at least towards facing what was going on inside me. I came to a more balanced emotionality, one that allows me a tenderness that would have been abhorrent to me in my free jazz days, and at times closer to my earlier innocence.
I remember once around '93 in Chicago, I had told my partner, Bob Marsh, that on that nite I wanted to play without my usual overwhelming force. Once on stage, however, I couldn't help myself; I exploded, or all my anxiety exploded. I was angry with myself afterwards, that my emotions had such a hold on me. Now that doesn't happen. I think it might roughly be the difference between acting out emotion and playing from the center of feeling. So there has been some shift in me, some melting into tears, which gave me the title my 1992 cd, THAW, even though then it was largely a hope, that my intensity could transform into something larger. Moreover, in the past ten years both parents and my dear sister have died, and I was deeply engaged in caring for each as they left. That time filled with weakness and death no doubt has had an impact on me, especially since I had a great deal of solitude in which to absorb it all.
As I've gotten older I've found that changes of musical direction get "thicker", like a paper folded over and over. One gets strangely used to being uncomfortable, awkward all over again, in new ways: "how could this still be me?" But then I find strange correspondences, messages I may have scribbled decades ago. For instance, in 1980, in response to a questionnaire for a New York- based improv organization, I wrote: "What do we want to be free for?”, which had been my question while engaged in revolutionary politics. It has no answer, but I am playing in pursuit of this still today.

John Berndt: More than any musician I know, you seem to like to be put in difficult, new situations, at least after the fact. Are there any new trends in your music, or the improvisational milieu, that you find particularly stimulating or challenging these days?

Jack Wright: Maybe half the mistakes we make in life are tied up with expectations. In the mid-seventies my comrades and I sat around a table grieving our failed revolution and wondering aloud if we could wait long enough for the next swing of the pendulum to bring it in reach again. Well, here we are now, and the idea of revolution has changed and deepened for me, as something that flows between inside and outside, psyche or mind and world, inseparable. I have spoken of the inside motions, for myself; the outside is the extraordinary growth of interest in improvisation among young musicians today and the proliferation of directions. In the past five years there has seemed no end of new and adventurous playing, and I find in it no nostalgia for the good old days of the last cultural upheaval, in the sixties. For some reason people have come upon this form of music that has no seal of approval, barely even a public acknowledgment. It has virtually been reborn, with a new energy, the most positive development I can think of in our otherwise academic and moribund culture. There is nothing to equal it; an art-form that has no controlling superego of standards. All power to the imagination--a visionary like Blake would be delighted. I don't call it "revolutionary,” but it is perhaps a harbinger or indication of greater cultural change coming, the pendulum has got to swing sometime. I myself wasn't ready for the cultural thrills of the sixties when they happened; this time, I am ready and giving my all. It is an exciting time to be making music.

John Berndt: Any famous last words?

Jack Wright: Twenty years ago I figured I would normally have an audience of six to eight, and I often felt sorry for myself, angry and betrayed. Or that I would be vindicated in the future. Now is that future, and the audience is about the same size, but I am content enough with this not to envision or seek change. Somewhere in there I realized that I have all I need--plenty of challenging partners, freedom of movement, and venues where I am welcome--if not always paid!--to play. Nothing heroic here, my path is to accept the current situation without complaining--improvise with what is here. More audience? Sure, I'll just set up more chairs. But they won't be of help to find the source of music within me, when I get confused or disgusted. So to any of my partners who think they're stuck on the lower stages of an upward path, and to myself in my forgetful moments, I suggest that we've got everything we need to reach the highest level of music right here and now. Improvisation dispenses with preliminaries; we only need to be consistent about that. Just as an earlier group of artists had to dispense with the honor awarded to masterpieces, we have to abandon our longing for recognition, our place in the sun, or at least deal with these needs separately. Difficult, beyond speaking of it, to stay on the track of our love of music, yet our music entitles us only to more and richer music, and we should not belittle this gift. Let's just do what we're here for, to play for our sensual delight, our expanding beauty, and to share it with those who have ears to hear it.