Interviews

Greg Osby My Conversation with Greg Osby January 1999 -- Part 2 / Part 1

By Fred Jung

FJ: Let's talk about your two latest outings, 'Zero' and 'Banned In New York'.

GO: The cats on 'Zero' are, pretty much, part of my touring band. Too many people do these all-star bands and stuff to try and sell records and get bookings. Then when they do the gigs they show up with some cats that nobody knows and the audience is upset, and rightfully so. I'd rather get some cats that are capable, and hungry, and eager to learn, and glad to be there. I don't want these jaded veterans on the scene who won't follow my directives and answer every request with, 'Man, you know who I am? I played with so and so and I've been on the scene for forty years!' I don't have time for that, playing Father Goose. And secondly, the concept of the recording is a blissfulness that one experiences when you're in a group and everything happens for the right reasons and happens at the right time. And that happens when you have a touring band, because there's like a kinetic energy that's shared with everybody, a telepathy. Cats go places with you and sometimes they proceed you. It's just the greatest situation, rather than have a group of all-star cats and everybody's trying to be hotshots, and nobody's listening, and everybody wants to flirt with the chicks in the front row, so they're not really making music, they are just trying to bring attention to themselves. The drummers are playing too loud and the bass players are playing the wrong stuff because they're distracted. The piano player is playing too many chords because this chick crossed her legs. I would rather have a group of cats who want to be there. So, 'Zero' is the term that I use for the zone that one enters into when everything is happening for the right reasons and all the mechanics in music are working. All the particulars and the variables in the music are being used by the cats as blueprints, as opposed to me writing a whole bunch of conceptual music and the cats just play straight bebop licks. That's not only a total copout but that's not what I was aiming for. It's, kind of, an offshoot of a Zen concept, where you reach a total state of emptiness. You have an empty palette where you are able to access all of your knowledge and all of your information, without any diversions or obstacles that sometimes happens when you have cats in the band that aren't listening.

The live recording 'Banned In New York' is the Greg Osby band in its natural element, live as it is with people no paying attention, people not applauding, people talking through the music. I just wanted to capture that as it is, as opposed to a stage situation, where you tell the audience that you're recording so they applaud with a lot more zeal, and they're overexcited, just because they know it's being recorded. I didn't even tell the band that it was being recorded because when musicians see the red record light go on they tense up and do things they normally wouldn't do, or they mess up a lot because they just get uptight. I wanted to capture it as it was, true to form. I wanted a low fi recording, so we recorded it on a mini-disc player on the table, right in front of the bandstand. It's an ambient recording with all the natural sounds, the cash register ringing and the waitresses dropping glasses. There was a table of businessmen talking and ignoring us, and some guy bringing his wife and it was their anniversary and she's drunk and she's laughing. There was one drunk guy in the back and he was like the only guy applauding. And it was like this, 'Ya, you sound great.' And that's what happens at jazz shows. It's not like rock and roll where people are in droves and it's just like a wave, stadiums and stuff. Jazz shows are maybe two people listening out of twenty in attendance.

FJ: With all the background noise, was it an editing nightmare?

GO: No. It was actually pretty much as it was. I just had to go and spruce it up a bit sonically, but I have this seemless set that I do. I don't really stop. We do a lot of segue-ways and we metamorphose from one song into another without announcement and without me telling jokes. To me that's a musicians way of saying that they don't have enough music prepared or they're just stalling, trying to get their wind back. 'This next tune, I wrote about my dog. He was such a cute puppy.' The older cats say, 'Back in '48, me and my wife went down to Miami. We went fishing and I got stung by a jellyfish and this song is about my stinging big toe. I hope you like it.' That's not funny and it's not even important or pertinent to the music. Miles didn't talk and they made a whole lot of music. All I do is announce the cats at the end. That's all people need to know. They don't need to know the titles. This isn't radio. I'm not an announcer. (Greg starts to do an imitation of a radio announcer). 'Right now, we're gonna play a selection from Greg Osby's 'Zero' CD and this is a wonderful recording with Jason Moran on piano and it's like an hour and ten minutes.' All this information, like liner note information, and it's like, who cares! That's the problem I have with radio too, they talk too much. 'This is a wonderful, swinging little ditty and it reminds me of 'My Wild Irish Rose'. I think their efforts would have been better served had he not used Jackie McLean and had he used Sonny Stitt. I figure that would have been a better choice.' They put all their opinions into it and it's like, man, just play the damn record, would you! When I go see these musicians and they're just talking too much or telling jokes and saying, 'How you feeling out there?' I mean, come on. Are you Jackie Gleason or what? So the recording reflects a Greg Osby set. Some people may think I'm an asshole, but I just want to make music and do things right. I just hope people enjoy it. That's the best I can do.

FJ: Any touring plans for the new albums?

GO: We always have tour plans. We had a tour scheduled for August, but that was cancelled. I had to cancel, because I had too many open dates that I couldn't fill. We may have a date and it might be two or three days off, because a lot of the promoters and people out there wouldn't respond in good enough time. I had been working on that tour for, like, six to eight months, and it cost me a whole lot of money in faxes, and emails, and sending out press packages, and CD's, and promotional materials, only for people to tell me that they didn't have any dates open. I was like, 'You could have told me that eight months ago!' People losing things. 'Sent another package.' 'I've already sent you, like, two!' 'Well it was misplaced.' Click. People wanted me to do door gigs, play for the door. 'Man, I'm almost forty years old, you want to play for the door.' So I just couldn't afford to keep the band in a hotel for three or four days until the next gig. I mean, it's one thing to come back from a tour and break even, at least I didn't loose money, but to have to kick money out of my pocket is, like, paying, that's like buying a tour. It just didn't work out.

FJ: Is arranging a tour that much harder on the West Coast than it is on the East Coast?

GO: Yes, because it's more spread out. Especially from the upper northeast sector, I mean, from D. C. to Boston there's tons and tons of colleges and you can drive, do that drive in less than eight hours. From New York to Philadelphia is an hour and a half. From D. C. to New York is three hours, three and a half hours. On the West Coast, you can find yourself in a ravine with the van turned upside down, with the wheels spinning, trying to make the next gig. It's lengthy.

FJ: Do you like playing the college circuit?

GO: I was trying to get in there, but unfortunately a lot of people that book the colleges are students and they look at Billboard or Gavin, whatever those music charts, whatever. They look to see who is on top of it and they don't see my name so they don't want to book it. They just book the same people. So it boils down to who is popular, once again. Who is media friendly, or who talks. Most of the time people do interviews, they don't talk the way I talk. They say all the right things. It's love and peace, and everything's beautiful, and I love everybody, and I want everybody to love my music, and thank you. God bless you. I love you. I love everybody too, but I also say I want to be an individual and I want my music to sound different and I don't want to sound like anybody else. They don't want to hear that, because it's like, they think, 'You're an upstart.' No, not an upstart, I just want sound like, when I talk I don't want to talk like somebody. I don't want to sound like Chris Rock when I talk, 'Hey, what up!' I want to sound like Greg Osby, so I don't want my music to sound like Steve Coleman. I don't want it to sound like Kenny Garrett. Is that so odd? I don't think so.

FJ: What are you listening to right now?

GO: I'm listening to a whole lot of stuff. I'm listening to, in particular, the complete recordings of Don Byas, the complete Mosaic recordings of Herbie Nichols. I'm listening to a lot of Ben Webster. I'm studying his vibrato. I'm listening to this Paul Gonsalves collection that I have. What else? A variety of pop music, George Michael, Bjork, a little hip hop here and there. It's really diverse. It can change just like that. I don't set out to listen to just jazz. It's whatever catches my fancy.

FJ: What inspires Greg Osby?

GO: Individuals. People that aren't afraid to express themselves, not to a degree where they're offensive to others or it's just totally inappropriate, but people who have studied and who have formulated things and who come up with a concept and a presentation that is reflective of higher learning. It's studied and scientific and it contains a certain degree of intellectualism. That's the problem that I have. People always say that Greg Osby music doesn't make any reference to the blues or this and that or whatever, but I've lived the blues. I'm from the ghetto. I don't have to play the blues on my record to know the blues. I'm Black. What more do you want? Do I have to be Mr. Bojangles to play the blues? That's the problem I have. They think that Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were idiots. These cats were very intelligent and the music was very intelligent. These people alienated people in their day. Duke Ellington got scathing reviews by critics. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and everybody else that I like, they were dogged, so I think I'm in good company. I just look for people that go the extra mile.

FJ: Describe yourself in one word.

GO: Curious.

FJ: Elaborate on that for me.

GO: Because, I want to know. I'm really frustrated when I'm confronted with things that I don't know, so I have to dissect them and extract the particulars, and the stylistic characteristics, framework, make-up. I want to know. If there's something of value then I probably can extract it and incorporate it in my own work and thus it will just be a compound. It will fortify what I'm doing. It's really ignorant to listen to everything as a fan and say, 'Yes, that's really nice,' when there's something of value there. In every situation that I'm in, I try to be a fan of it, as well as listening to it analytically and ingest the material. I discard the excess, but I try to use something of value.

FJ: What's in the future for Greg Osby?

GO: More variance and more study. I want to do a record with voices and strings. I probably won't ever be able to perform it live. I don't get those kinds of gigs, but I'd like to document it. I'd like to document all that I can. This 'Banned In New York' being released in December, less than six months after the one that proceeded it, because one recording a year isn't enough for a jazz artist. Jazz is sold on volume and availability and accessability, as opposed to some big media build up. People will gravitate toward your art in their own time. No amount of hype will make them hear it any better. They can have all these grandiose ads in all these publications and upon the first listen, people may not get it at all. Many recordings warrant repeated listening, because it's just too much to comprehend at once.

FJ: At the conclusion of your career, what would you like your musical legacy to be?

GO: I would like people to think that here's a man who didn't repeat himself, who was always searching, who was always looking for the missing element, or the next phase, in constant transition, in constant growth and in progression. That's all that I can offer. If it's touted great or trend setting or phenomenal, that's a judgement I can't launch. I just hope that it's recognized as something that's honest or earnest.

-Fred Jung

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