Thoughts on Don Pullen
I read the following at the Don Pullen Memorial which took place in New York City at St. Peter's Church on June 11, 1995. It was an incredible celebration, with many people associated with Don performing, dancing, singing, speaking, and reciting:
I first met Don when he was conducting a master class in Oakland, in the summer of 1990. During the two-hour seminar, he basically proceeded to turn the entire audience, many of whom were distinguished jazz teachers and performers as well as students, completely on its head in terms of how they thought about music. Here was somebody, I found, who instead of, for example, focusing on which scale sounded good with which chord, and on the right way to approach a voicing, was dealing with *concept* on an almost cosmic level. He talked about the relationship between playing "outside" versus "in", and how you could combine the two, not just over time during a solo, but often at the same time, between the two hands. He told people to not be afraid to take chances; to always search for something new and to not be afraid of what you might end up with. And all in all he came across as a sincerely warm, caring, and totally dedicated and serious individual. After volunteering to play for him during that class, he accepted me as his student, and I began a two-year teacher-student relationship with him which was the most inspiring and important of my entire life.
Don became not only a teacher to me during that period but a mentor and role model as well. Almost as eye-opening as his comments on music conception were simply his comments on life; on the music business, its ups and downs, and how to deal with them psychologically and on a practical level. And when it came time for me to begin to play out in the "real world", Don was the first to recommend me to others; in fact, I first met both saxophonist David Murray and violinist Billy Bang, both of whom I now work with regularly, on a tour Don insisted I take when he was unable to do it himself.
In short, all I can say is that Don was one of those rare creative geniuses who could inspire others not only through his music, but through the example he set as a human being. He will be deeply missed."
My liner notes for the David Murray-led Tribute to Don Pullen album:
This album was a special project for all of us because each of our lives was touched by Don in distinct and very important ways. I was a student of Don’s for the two most formative years of my musical development. When I first met him at a master class in the summer of 1990, I already knew the musical approach I was taking was "different" from those I heard around me. But since I was coming from a more rigid, formalized musical background, it was a revelation to meet someone whose approach to music was so radically open-minded. Don, essentially, courted and tamed chaos; at times teasing and cajoling it, at other times walking with it arm in arm, and on many occasions simultaneously pairing right-hand abandon with left-hand calm. But in whatever lessons Don taught, there were always a couple of recurring, fundamental themes: to not be afraid to take chances and, in fact, to seek out and embrace the unknown; and to always search for your own, sincere inner voice, expressed through both improvisation and original composition. These are important lessons, perhaps now more timely than ever in this "young lion" age. And while such pursuits are certainly lifelong affairs, hopefully we have done some justice to Don’s vision on this date by paying tribute not by directly imitating his style or approach to tunes but through an honest commenting on his life and music, with our own, personal voices. For this date I also brought in two of my own compositions, written back when I was a student of Don’s: "Easy Alice" (the title of which is a play on Don’s famous tune "Big Alice"); and "Out of a Storm". I hope you enjoy "The Long Goodbye".