A Fireside Chat with Greg Osby April 11, 2000
By Fred Jung
You would think with the stock market roaring, the weather seemingly pleasant, and Greg Osby finally getting some props from the rest of the traditional media, the smile on my face would be from ear to ear. Sadly, there's something missing. After a brief introspective quest, I figured it out. I am out of a worthy campaign. Working for McCain was a slight fix, but that ended practically as soon as it began. So what is the next campaign? And that is when the imaginary light bulb in my head went off: a Greg Osby box set. Right? That is it. I want an Osby box set. It is the only way most people will get an opportunity to listen to some of his earlier work like Art Forum, Black Book, and 3-D Lifestyles. So I have rented a bus. I'm driving this sucker cross country and picking up volunteers. Get on the bandwagon now. Crowds are building and room is very limited. Contact Osby via www.gregosby.com or toss me an email and let's get this campaign rolling. I even have a title, The Art of War. But Greg better give me shout out in the liner notes. I present to you, one of the major voices in this music, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
GREG OSBY: I'm from St. Louis, born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. I started playing clarinet in 1972 at age twelve in junior high school. I got my hands on an alto saxophone after about a year, a year and a half later. I fell in love with the instrument. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to participate in a variety of local funk bands, soul groups, R&B bands, blues bands, and things like that at that period, the early to mid-'70s. All the groups had these big horn sections and so I had the benefit of learning how to blend and play in a section. I think that is critical to one's development, to learn how to hear and to learn how to balance yourself within a large ensemble - especially big bands. In 1978, I got a scholarship to go to Howard University in Washington D.C. and stayed there for a couple of years and then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1980, where I met and became friends with a great group of young players, most of whom dominate the musical scene right now. I guess it was my destiny. All I had to do was play the game and connect the dots and things fell into place. The ways things have happened for me have been very interesting because even back in high school as a young man, I was extremely career minded, painfully career minded, to the degree that I never ever went to any football games or basketball games, wrestling matches, anything like that, any parties, any social activities. I was always on the road on the weekends and during the summers, I was practicing in groups and most of the guys in the groups were much, much older than I was. They were in their thirties and I was fifteen, sixteen.
FJ: You missed out on the glory of your youth.
GREG OSBY: But you see, Fred, I don't look at it like that. I had an accelerated education in manhood and in business, how to book gigs, how to travel and how to stay in hotels, how to organize a performing music group, how to collect the band fee and do accounting, the whole thing. It was kind of a prep school for the independent lifestyle that I lead right now. I've never really had a job where I had to punch a clock or anything. I have always made my living with the saxophone. Even throughout high school, I earned more money than some of my teachers. So I figured that this might not be a bad road to pursue.
FJ: That is a cool thing to put on a resume.
GREG OSBY: (Laughing) Yeah.
FJ: Good thing you switched over to the alto, it looks cooler than the clarinet.
GREG OSBY: Yeah, absolutely, I got my hands on the alto and a flute, so I kind of had the main woodwind doubles covered. I played those all throughout high school and college. Once I got to New York, after a couple of years in Jack DeJohnette's group, in 1986 or '87, I got rid of them, the extra doubles and I just kept my alto and soprano saxophones. It helped to narrow down what my instrumental focus would be because there are a lot of people that shlep all those instruments to and from gigs and they don't have an identifiable sound on any one of them, even though they may be proficient on them all. Even now, I only play soprano on rare occasions.
FJ: But being like Rahsaan Roland Kirk is back in style these days, some guys play nine instruments and they are not good at any of them, on the other hand, you have focused primarily on the alto and soprano.
GREG OSBY: Well, certainly, it will increase their availability for certain types of work. In New York, primarily studio work, which really isn't that plentiful anymore, now that we have MIDI and digital sampling. It used to be a human driven industry. If you needed a horn section, you got real horns, but now you get synthesizers and samples. But, show work on Broadway or certain types of GB (general business) gigs, you know, weddings and fraternity organizations and stuff like that, whatever, you can certainly make a very good living if you play a lot of instruments and you can accept a lot of calls. However, you have kind of a nameless identity or a faceless identity on those instruments because you may play them all well but it's entirely possible that you may never develop an identifiable sound or direction, which is something that I've been concerned with from the very beginning.
FJ: Do most of the cats these days even have an identifiable sound?
GREG OSBY: I think it is changing, Fred. Throughout the Eighties and definitely throughout the Nineties, it wasn't really a concern for a lot of people, but I see a lot of the younger players, you know, Jason Moran, Mark Shim, some of the drummers, Eric Harland, Nasheet Waits, they have a readily identifiable sound on their instrument of choice. I think that is due to them just being observant and recognizing the perils of being a jack of all trades and accepting all these miscellaneous gigs and not focusing on the essentials that are necessary for personality development in music. Just think of all of the people that we laud as great, we don't celebrate them without good reason. We acknowledge them because of the identifiable characteristics in their performances and compositions. One can usually recognize them in two notes. It's like name that tune. I recognize John Coltrane in two notes. Not only because of what he played, but because how he sounded. I recognize Miles Davis in one note. Sonically speaking, who has a tone and an approach like that? I can recognize Art Tatum because of the way he played. Nobody approached the piano quite like that. I recognize Thelonious Monk because nobody voiced chords that way. His very touch on the piano immediately states his identity. That's Charlie Parker. That's Andrew Hill. That's Sonny Rollins. That's Ornette Coleman. That's Cecil Taylor. That's Don Byas, etcetera, etcetera. All different -all individuals. For some time now, many musicians have been more concerned with being emulative, copying somebody so much that they became test tube musicians or clones of a more renowned musician's best attributes. To me, although that's somewhat of an achievement, it's not the accomplished musical destiny that should be an artist's main goal, in my opinion. However, things appear to be changing for the better and there are a few real individuals emerging on the scene once again.
FJ: I have noticed that even with the Down Beat Blindfold Test, a cat will listen to Monk or Mingus and gets it right away, but play anything new and they're stumped.
GREG OSBY: Right, right. The thing is Fred, Monk and people of his generation had the benefit of getting that road dirt under their fingernails. They had an opportunity to play much more extensively on a daily basis with accomplished musicians and right now, it's very rare for people to do tours and play on a daily basis. A lot of people are what I call living room musicians. They practice a lot by themselves at home. They don't put their ideas into practical application as much and aren't doing one nighters and barnstorming - nuts and bolts touring and what have you. That kind of activity not only helps to develop your character, but it helps define your musical identity because you have to adapt to certain situations on a daily basis. You have to adapt to audience quirks. You have to adapt to variable conditions in some of the venues that you have to play. You have to be physically capable of maintaining a certain persona and stature. You have to be focused and quite healthy really. So we're dealing with a different set of challenges and a different set of requirements. It's not fair to place those same expectations on a lot of the younger cats, but on the other hand, they have other things that they should be responsible for given that a lot of information is more readily available to them.
FJ: Do you think you have a readily identifiable sound?
GREG OSBY: I'd like to think so. If not so much with the character of my tone then hopefully the content of my performance logic is definitive. Actually, a signature sound has been one of my main areas of concentration ever since I can remember and I am always attempting to improve and modify it. When I was a student in college, I practiced out of piano books and violin books and I would transcribe solos from other instruments so that my playing wouldn't be adorned with only alto saxophone characteristics. I wanted to transpose some of the information from other mediums and other genres just so I could develop another language of my own that I was responsible for. I thought a lot of people were too concerned with sounding like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker or other prominent icons of the music. They were just copying them to the point where it was absurd - turning themselves into living caricatures of those player's best attributes. Personally speaking, I'd much rather hear a cat struggling and attempting to find his own voice than to hear someone playing someone else's style and concept with conviction. That's like a lazy co-worker loafing on the job and then taking credit for the efforts of others when the boss comes around. As a musician, it's much more rewarding when your playing is reflective of the research and study that you are solely responsible for.
FJ: I remember back in the day when you were the apprentice and now you have matured into one of this music's dominating forces, spawning notable sidemen of your own, Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, and Eric Harland, among others.
GREG OSBY:It's a good time for me. I think I can provide them with some legitimate information that may help them to avoid several pitfalls as practicing, professional musicians. I can give them business information, compositional and conceptual information, and also just be there for them as someone that they can consult or refer to if they have a certain problem. I may not have the complete or definitive answers, but I can possibly provide them with some leads or some guidance that could possibly be inspiring. This is what I wish that I could have had when I was in my early twenties. I wish I could have had a personal mentor or somebody that was just a few years older that have could looked out for me, that took me under their wing when I was a developing young musician. I had to seek out the answers to many issues and questions that I had all by myself, so I'm willingly volunteering this information because it is all meant to be shared and it only fortifies the musical scene at large. It isn't to my benefit or to my credit to be stingy with information and if more artists would take advantage of the teachings of the elders , it's entirely possible that we would have a Jazz "scene" gain. .
FJ: My smile is ear to ear that you are now getting the mainstream media attention that I have been on a soapbox about you for as long as I can remember. One person who deserves some credit for your success is Blue Note President, Bruce Lundvall.
GREG OSBY: Yes, absolutely. Bruce, he's been instrumental in keeping me on the label actually, because a couple of my recordings didn't do that well sales wise and some of the suits that Bruce had to answer to, they were suggesting that I be let go. And Bruce stood his ground and put his foot down as said, "No, Greg Osby is one of the cats that helps to define the label and he gives the label integrity and it is to our benefit to keep him on." I'm really indebted to him for going to bat for me. He also signed me under the condition that nobody would get in my way, creatively speaking. I've been able to express myself in a variety of ways in many contexts. I negotiated that, to be honest with you, Fred, when I signed with Blue Note, back in 1990. I'm celebrating my tenth year now, actually. It's been a good association.
FJ: That just shows how old you are.
GREG OSBY: (Laughing) Yeah, but I had a record deal before Blue Note for about three or four years. When I signed with Blue Note, I said that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I knew exactly how I wanted to present myself and I really didn't need an A&R cat or industry people in the studio from the label making suggestions that went against my natural musical grain or my artistic tendencies. I didn't want to be fighting with people and I didn't want to misrepresent myself either. I want to be proud of everything that I do, even though it may not always hit its mark. Sometimes the projects wind up being so challenging to listen to that I'm the only one to "get it".
FJ: A fine example of what you just referred to is your CD, "Zero". I recall when that album came out, it got a very lukewarm reaction. I remember telling you then how much I dug the album, but then you did "Banned in New York" on the heels of that, which everybody was into and they went back and re-listened to "Zero" and they loved it.
GREG OSBY: That's very true. Across the board, people are eating their words and I'm not smirking about that, I just wish that people could be more tolerant in the first place. You know Fred, the thing about it is that when people go back and listen to music that they dismisseed previously, it is unfortunate because the sales reports don't reflect that kind of afterthought. Soundscan only reflects sales during the initial months of a new release, and that is the period when the label notices if an artist is or isn't selling "units". Many great artists have been kicked to the curb prematurely because their music was too deep to be fully comprehended right away. As a listener, sometimes you have to regroup and give the music another shot. But honestly, whenever people "get it" is fine with me. If they have problems comprehending what my musical intent is, I'm very accessible. I'm all over the internet (Osby's website is at www.gregosby.com). I'm willing and able to explain some of the finer points of the music to anyone that is interested. Information is free. But getting back to Bruce Lundvall. He sees it. He sees the big picture. He's looking for young. talented artists who aren't jaded and who haven't been coerced into thinking with a clouded and uninformed perspective. He's into developing them while they are impressionable and easy to talk to, easy to get at. His primary intention is to help nurture them and build careers, as opposed to trying to get them to do concept or commercial records that sell a lot of units right off the bat - which could be the worst thing for someone who hasn't had enough schooling or experience in this business. Of course he wants to sell a lot of units and get awards and all that kind of stuff, win polls and whatnot, but he also recognizes the virtue of career development because he used to be the President of Columbia Records and since he signed a lot of great pop artists he knows very well how the business works.
FJ: Let's talk about your latest release, The Invisible Hand.
GREG OSBY: The Invisible Hand is my description of the guidance that is given by the unseen forces and influence of people that you respect, Sometimes you hear these voices. In many ways it's likelistening to your conscience: "No, that wouldn't be the right thing to do, go in another direction, maybe you need to study more or you need to wait until you expand your knowledge about this subject so that you can make informed decisions ". I hear these voices. And when I am writing, imany times it's almost like another hand is guiding my hand. After a composition or project is completed, I ask myself, "How did I come up with that? Where did I get those ideas from?" You know that it's got to be something that is otherworldly, that's not explainable. Especially when you produce sounds so much like someone that you admire, you have to know that they had a hand in on it some kind of way. This recording is my personal statement and tribute two of the participants on the recording, Jim Hall and Andrew Hill, because sometimes I feel like their spirit is with me. Their spirit, as well as the spirit of other great individuals that I admire and have admired in this music. Whenever I want to do something or get to a place in the music , I wonder what they would do and somehow I get answers through inspiration.
FJ: People may have a preconceived notion that Jim Hall is squarely "in the pocket," but they are forgetting that he did some groundbreaking work with Sonny Rollins back in the day.
GREG OSBY: Absolutely, and Jim, what he does is almost an antithesis of his temperament. He's so warm and so nice, but Jim knows a great deal of music and he doesn't fool around when he gets on the bandstand either. He's into this subtle, acoustic environment. He's doesn't play very loudly either. He's not really into banging, bashing, velocity or volume. He's into the colors and dimensions of his group and everybody participating, he's concerned with making everyone else sound good as a component, a piece of the puzzle. I learned so much from him with regard to phrasing, melodic intent and editing. Sometimes less is definitely more, I've found.
FJ: Then, you have Andrew Hill. You can build a shrine around "Point of Departure".
GREG OSBY: Oh yes, Andrew is one of a kind. He's an extremely probing and deep thinker. They need to erect a University of Andrew Hill, his own method, his own prospectus, his own way of looking at things, his own logic. He's like no other and it pains me that people have this throwaway description that he's simply coming out of Monk or he's coming out of this and that. Andrew, I have sat and talked with him hours on end, all night long. We've been on the road and he's told me exactly where he's coming from. He's broken it down for me. He's very, very generous and informative with what's gone into his music and he's also very constructive with his criticism of me and what measures I can take to fortify my music - what I can do with and what I can do without. That, Fred, is priceless information.
FJ: Gary Thomas plays flute and tenor on the session. He's a monster.
GREG OSBY: Gary, he's my old buddy. We started college together twenty years ago, twenty-two years ago actually. He was the first guy I met when I got there. We used to share a practice room. We were always conceptualizing, talking about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. He's an enigma. He's one of those guys that really didn't have that much formal training. He stayed in college one year at Howard University and he went into the army after that and so everything else he's learned, he is largely self-taught and for somebody to be that accomplished, well, it's not that amazing in his case because Gary is a very, very intellectually adept individual. He's extremely intelligent and has a capacity for absorption that exceeds that of most people that I know. I really wanted to pit his flute playing against what I do because a lot of people aren't really aware of how proficient he is on the flute. And his tenor saxophone playing speaks for itself. He is so unique in his tone, his approach, and just his choices of content. It is so personalized. He has his own compositional and improvisational method that is peerless in my opinion. He's my favorite tenor saxophone player on the contemporary scene.
Initially, I had code named this project. I called it my "misfits" project because I wanted to assemble a group of people that probably wouldn't play with each other under normal conditions and to see what that would yield. I wanted to get Don Byron, but we started to get into scheduling conflicts and budget restraints and I had to narrow it down to what it's become. Andrew Hill and Jim Hall, because like I said, since I had been doing double duty in their groups, they was the first choices that came to mind. I also wanted to enlist the services of my old roommate and my musical little sister Terri Lyne Carrington, who is peerless as well. She is my favorite drummer under forty. She is coming out of so much music knowledge and history and she has lived so much music since she was a little kid. A lot of people don't know a lot about her prowess. She was so complimentary and musical that I couldn't have done this recording without her. And Scott Colley, I have been playing with him with Andrew and Joanne Brackeen and with Jim Hall. I don't want to say that he's a musician's musician, but he can do so much more than just play the bass. He contributed so much melodically. His function wasn't just that of bass anchor or bass pivot. He was in there weaving in and out of my lines and filling in a lot of the voids. He was essential to the sound of this piece. It would have taken on a totally different character had he not been involved.
I'm very, very proud of it and I hope that people in my peer group will recognize this project as a representation of the potential that lies within bridging the generation gap. You have a lot of projects that are comprised of a lot of young people or just a lot of older people and very seldom, combinations of the two. There's a lot of lessons to be learned. For my money, a lot of records that come out, they sound young. They don't sound bad, but they sound young. They don't sound like the recored musicians have been on the road a lot or they've learned a lot of life's lessons. They just sound like accomplished musicians as opposed to people that have lived some of the stories that they are attempting to tell. If they have a lot of these masters on hand, it helps to bring a solidarity to the sound. It brings a functionality to their music and to the genre that they are representatives of.
FJ: We've spoken of this before, but jazz music is telling a story and if you have only lived a buck and a half, what are you going to say?
GREG OSBY: That's true. Listening to some of the records by young guys is like drinking wine that was bottled yesterday. It's like tasting new wine and your reaction is usually "Oh, man, this is horrible." It's not seasoned. It's not aged. It's not ready. "I'll have a sip in a few years." This is not the rule. There are exceptions. Just listen to Jason's (Moran) recordings.
FJ: Last time we sat down, you mentioned how you wanted to take some time off and go into a self-imposed study sabbatical.
GREG OSBY: I'm studying every chance I get, but it is difficult to stop everything and do nothing but practice and commit myself to research because I'm committed to several projects at the moment. Since the recording was released, the has been a somewhat heightened interest in my music so I have to roll with it.
FJ: People catch up eventually.
GREG OSBY: Yeah, but the music that I was equally as proud of (before "The Invisible Hand"), it was ridiculous. I couldn't buy my band a gig with my own money! (laughing). So I wanted to take some time off and do some studying, but I just have to do it on the airplanes or whatever method of transportation I'm on. I can get snatches and snippets of knowledge anywhere. I always travel with a computer, lot of books and tapes and mini discs and all kinds of writings , just to maintain an air of expansion and progress as far as getting knowledge is concerned. I don't want to become stagnant or complacent in my learning.
FJ: Read Sun-Tzu's Art of War.
GREG OSBY: I've read that. Three times, actually
FJ: Nothing slips by you.
GREG OSBY:Well, some things. That and The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. They're a couple of my favorites. I also read lot of tactical and organizational material. Philosophy, strategy, reference materials, books like that.
FJ: Tour plans?
GREG OSBY: Yes, we're planning an extensive US tour soon. It looks like it is going to be in May, starting around May 2nd. I have a weekend in LA and we go to the Bay Area, Seattle, and Portland. Looks like it is going to happen this time. I usually have to cancel tours in the US because there's so much territory to cover and not enough gigs to pay for expenses. I normally can't make it work, financially speaking. But now I might have some sponsorship from a couple of corporations who are going to underwrite it and now we can keep the band in the hotels during the off days as opposed to me going broke paying for it all of the time.
FJ: Let's give a shout out to the advanced think tank at this corporation.
GREG OSBY: I can't name the corporations. They'd rather remain anonymous, which suits me fine.
FJ: We'll just refer to it as the Greg Osby Fund.
GREG OSBY: Yeah, that's good. That'll do. (laughing).
FJ: Where is the LA gig?
GREG OSBY: It's at the Jazz Bakery.
FJ: And the future?
GREG OSBY: I have a record in the can that was completed before The Invisible Hand was done. Bruce Lundvall thought it would be a better idea to release The Invisible Hand first because it makes a far more compelling story because of Jim Hall and Andrew Hill's involvement. The other record is called "Inner Circle" and it has Jason Moran, Stefon Harris, Tarus Mateen on bass and Eric Harland on drums. They are some of the younger cats that have been playing with me as part of my so-called inner circle. It's kind of a chronicle of a working band, as opposed to The Invisible Hand, which was a special project.
FJ: That should be a kick ass record because you guys have been playing together for about three years now.
GREG OSBY: Right, it's due for release in the fall.
FJ: You and inner circle are definitely defining Blue Note in the new millennium.
GREG OSBY: Well, Bruce also recognizes the virtue of staying out of the artist's way and making a project succumb to the "too many cooks" syndrome. I have heard that type of tampering a lot of recordings. It happens when corporate interests supersede the creative aspirations of the artists. I've been extremely fortunate in that respect.
I don't want to say I'm skeptical, but Blue Note's parent company, Capitol Records, and their parent company, EMI merged with ,Time Warner, who just merged with AOL. So with all these corporate mergers, it's like the boss and the boss' boss, and the boss' boss' boss getting in the mix. They may look at some of those sales reports and see the stuff at the bottom of the totem pole and decide that a lot of this Jazz "product" isn't selling, that it is actually costing them money. So then they do a broad sweep and get rid of a lot of truly creative people. I'm sure a lot of them are not fans of the music at all, so I am a bit leery of what can possibly take place. Our music has far too many detractors. I'll try to be positive, but it happened over at Verve and Impulse. They let a lot of people go when they merged. So we will see.