D.D. Jackson

I am an Emmy Award-winning composer and Juno Award-winning jazz pianist and educator. As a composer, I specialize in writing, arranging, and producing memorable, custom-made music for t.v., film & other media. I consider myself an "artistic problem solver": I strive to get to the essential conceptual truth of what the client is looking for - and to express it in a creative and supportive way. [READ MORE] or [BIO]

a new Trudeau opera

Just found out that Canada's unofficial poet laureate George Elliott Clarke (winner of the recent Trudeau Foundation Fellowship, sort of Canada's MacArthur "Genius Grant") and myself were just commissioned by Harbourfront Centre in Toronto to write a new jazz-influenced opera on the life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada's former Prime Minister. We're both very excited, as it will give us an opportunity to particularly focus on the Trudeau who was instrumental in bringing to the country Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one by-product of which was the country's current brisk multi-culturalism.

 

Solo piano in Taiwan (part 1 of 2)

Just got back from an exciting few days on my first visit to Taiwan. My ties with Taiwan are fairly strong historically: my mother’s father was a diplomat originally from Mainland China (he served as China's first Ambassador to Canada in 1942), but after the Communists took over in 1949 ended up representing Nationalist China in the United Nations Trusteeship Council and later also served as Ambassador to Mexico. But this was actually my first trip to this beautiful and welcoming country (though I’ve been of late inching ever-closer to the place of my mother’s birth, mainland China, with recent performances in South Korea, my 6th trip to Japan, and earlier performance in Hong Kong, so the general region is definitely becoming increasingly familiar)…
The entire affair was organized by a presenter named Hung Chia-Hung and his girlfriend Josephine, and they did an admirable job of promoting this premiere event of their company Rigel Arts.

One of the first things I did once getting there, in fact, was to attend a press conference they had put together, at which I also played a couple of pieces for the invited press. Sure enough, by first thing the next morning, the day of the concert, there were pictures of me in all three main daily newspapers, and by that evening the 900 seat auditorium at which the concert was to take place was almost completely sold out (also conspicuous, as evidenced in some of the photos below, were large posters of me put up all over town - a bit strange to see my image everywhere bu it definitely got the word out :-))
I had also been approached quite a while ago about performing and/or recording with a great native Taiwanese violinist Chi-pin Hsieh (who plays regularly in a fantastic violin/piano duo with his wife, pianist Kaiya Chang), and so I was pleased to finally meet him and perform with him as my special guest as part of the concert.
Rehearsing with Chi-pin in preparation for evening’s concert

At the beginning of the 2nd set, Chi-pin, with whom I had first rehearsed only earlier that afternoon, joined me on stage for our own personal (and often manic!) takes on Monk’s “Well You Needn’t”, as well as “Just Friends” and a fast blues composition of Chipin’s entitled “Green Tunnel”. From our first notes we truly spoke the same language and ultimately had a wonderful time interacting at-the-moment with each other and really pushing the proceedings musically. It was truly a memorable experience (and one that may perhaps make it onto CD in the future), and I was humbled by the enthusiasm of the audience. Afterwards they even lined up for CD signings in droves (against a backdrop of those omnipresent posters again!) and I was treated to a reception right at the concert hall location sponsored by the Canadian Trade office, complete with a welcoming Canadian flag hung up for good measure.

The next day, I presented a master class at the university at which Chipin and Kaiya teach, with much help from them not only on their respective instruments (at one point, all three of us jammed together on two pianos/violin, plus a keen and talented saxophonist student from the audience..)…The entire event was translated as we went along into Chinese (which gave me the unusual opportunity of having actual time to ponder and ultimately consider adding to or amending what I just said as Chipin or Kaiya busily translated!) The audience was keen, and the initial 2 hours planned for the workshop eventually stretched into 3 and a half hours, once we started taking their eager questions towards the end.

solo piano in Taiwan (part 2 of 2)

Chipin and Kaiya really are at the forefront of Taiwanese jazz and jazz education currently, and during the course of my stay they told me of their plans to open a Taiwanese Jazz Institute during the summers, in conjunction with American Voices (a fascinating organization, founded by pianist/artistic director John Ferguson, which brings American jazz and other musics to the vast reaches of the world, with a particular focus on the former Soviet east bloc nations).
It’s always exciting to ponder the music that will result when one combines exposure to the vast jazz tradition with local cultural influences. Organizations like this Taiwanese Jazz Institute as well as American Voices are I’m sure helping to plant some very fascinating seeds that will no doubt bear fruit as the next great phase of jazz's evolution worldwide...

New Year's Eve in Japan

Just got back from my 6th and probably most memorable visit to Japan. When I was originally contacted about performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with a large orchestra based in Kobe (site of the infamous earthquake of 10 years ago) on New Year's Eve, I was excited but also not looking forward to being apart from my wife of just two months. When they then suggested that I would need to leave for the rehearsal from NY the day before Christmas, and would return on New Year's Day, I was doubly hesitant. Ultimately, though, I arranged to have my wife come with me, and it became quite an adventure watching her as she visited this magnificent country for the first time, experiencing all of the wonders I had enjoyed on my own for the last few years, from the high-tech to the ancient temples of Kyoto.

We left Christmas Eve and spent Christmas Day essentially on the long flight. The next day I rehearsed with the orchestra in Osaka. Osaka is easily the 2nd most technologically dazzling city next to Tokyo and I was therefore delighted that my wife would get a glimpse of high-tech Japan, especially since Tokyo wasn't on the itinerary this time around.

From the moment of my first arrival for that rehearsal, I was surprised that there were camera crews on hand filming my first meeting with Maestro Sado in which we first reviewed the score, to the rehearsal and post-rehearsal, culminating in the filming of the actual concert a few days later. The conductor himself cut a fascinating figure. A former student of Bernstein apparently for several years, his conducting style still possessed severall Bernsteinian conducting traits, from the way he used (or didn't conventionally use) his arms and hands, to his facial expressions. He had a natural synergy with the orchestra and radiated a certain kind of magnetism that made him a natural leader.

My wife Liz and I spent the next couple of days sightseeing in Osaka and nearby Kyoto, even braving the train systems on our own in order to visit some of the more ancient temples. We then traveled to Wakayama City where I performed at a beautiful little club called Jalan Jalan, one of the typical intimate affairs with an extremely passionate and attentive audience. Finally, we would our way to Kobe for the big performance of the Rhapsody in Blue on New Year's Eve.

Rehearsing Rhapsody in Blue before the orchestra arrives (Kobe, Dec. 31/04)
It was part of a 3 hour-long concert featuring an eclectic mix of programming, from orchestral marches and waltzes by Strauss, to an excerpt from Bernstein's Candide, to a jazzy rendition of a Japanese folk song I participated in, to the Rhapsody itself. The performance went well and was very well received, though as usual I found it much more difficult, really, to prepare for something in which I "in theory" needed to hit all of the right notes, vs. improvising as usual. I had done so much practicing in the few days leading up to the event, in fact, that after the concert every one of my fingers were covered in bandages to protect enumerable broken nails and painful finger-tips.

Also on the program immediately following the Rhapsody was a duo version of my own composition "Hopes and Dreams" from Suite for New York with a great trumpeter from Japan named Tomonao Hara. It was dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and to the survivors and their rebuilding effort; the 10th anniversary of this devastating event, in fact, in many ways dominated the proceedings that night.

 When it got near to midnight, we inexplicably played "Auld Lang Syne" not AFTER but before midnight (perhaps something lost in cultural translation?) - Tomonao and I did a gospel version which seemed to rouse the crowd, followed by the inevitable countdown, complete with giant TV screen behind us. After cheering and on-stage celebration, the orchestra followed, again somewhat inexplicably, with a rendition of that Commencement staple, "Pomp and Circumstances", to which we walked off the stage in marching rhythm...

On the whole, it was a memorable few days and a truly unique way to usher in the new year...

Musician-in-Residence, St. John's College

Just got back from an exhilarating and exhaustive 10 day visit to St. John’s College at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where I was serving as a designated “Musician-in-Residence” (from what I understand, their very first). St. John’s College has it’s origins in Shanghai, China where it was founded in 1879 by the Episcopal Church of America and existed there until 1952. It’s various chapters since then always dreamed of keeping it’s vision alive and so they helped found St. John’s at UBC in the late 1990’s. It’s new Principal, Tim Brook, actually emailed me up out of the blue (underscoring as always the benefit of maintaining an accessible and up-to-date website!) and asked me if I’d liked to do it, describing himself as an admirer of my music, etc. I was thrilled at the opportunity – this was precisely the sort of creative outlet and opportunity to share my ideas that I have been increasingly seeking of late, and so I enthusiastically said “yes” almost immediately (possibly to his slight surprise? :-))…

My stay was organized such that there was some sort of event in which I was to take part pretty much every evening, but Tim thoughtfully left the days for me to do as I wished. After a long flight and slightly disorienting arrival on Feb. 5th, I awoke Feb. 6th in the living quarters I had been assigned. St. John’s is essentially a graduate student residence hall on the edge of UBC’s campus, just steps from the Pacific Ocean (though the actual view of the water is shielded by some dense forest vegetation obscuring a long hill drop to the water below, accessible by various paths). The Principal, his wife and son as well as all the students live all at the hall and also routinely eat together in the dining room – all residents are, in fact, required to participate in the meal program as the administration rightly concluded that this was the ideal way for residents to get to know one another. My room, I soon realized, was generously-sized, with bed, desk, bath, comfortable chairs, tables, etc. But most striking were the two walls worth of windows with office blinds, which, when opened revealed the outdoors, and created an inviting atmosphere in which to work:

My first day’s activity was a duo/trio concert with trumpeter Brad Turner and cellist Peggy Lee, two of my musical colleagues who were involved both in my Suite for NY recording and my jazz opera Quebecite (which received it’s Vancouver premiere in Oct./03 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre)…Their background (most notably Peggy’s) was coming out of the characteristic freer jazz scene that I’ve come to associate with Vancouver’s more experimental sound, and my goal was to try as hard as possible to make this concert a meeting of the minds, vs. merely dictating my own approach as might be the case with a more typical leader-sideman relationship. Each of them contributed original musical material upon my request, and I tried hard not to step on their conceptual toes during the performance. Sure enough, the performance ended up being essentially a combination of their freer, more open approach with my often more manic approach (!), with the two combining perhaps most effectively with an old composition of mine called “For Monk-Sake” (written, I revealed to the audience, 10 years ago, meaning I was officially now “old” :-))… It was well attended and the crowd was thankfully quite enthusiastic….

The next day I was invited to dinner at the residence of Principal Tim Brook and his delightful wife Fay and their son; he had also invited some other interested St. John residence music students for the occasion and it was an enjoyable way to take the pulse of the community there. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal and I met a host of quirky and fascinating personalities, including majors in cello, piano, choral singing and composition, as well as a broadcaster involved in a local multi-cultural t.v. channel…

Afterwards, St. John’s had arranged for me to do a master class with UBC music students. UBC doesn’t have a jazz degree program per se, but their jazz head, Fred Stride, is enthusiastic and obviously doing a terrific job with the resources available to him. Some of the students who attended actually were not music majors at all, but the level of competency was quite high. I spent the first part of the class talking about my own history and my own conceptual ideas, and then I brought up two separate groups of students to play and coach, focusing on some of the tricks of the trade from the NY scene, particularly with its emphasis on rhythmic precision between the piano/bass/drums section, interaction and supporting of soloists. We also experimented with some Don Pullen-esque freeing techniques. It was thankfully very well received and a promising start to the upcoming week.

On Tues. was my big solo piano concert at the Music Building’s Recital Hall, and I was pleased that there was a large Bosendorfer piano for me to play for the occasion. The concert gave me the chance to practice what I preached, in a sense, and served perhaps as a useful introduction to where I really was coming from musically. Although the attendance was relatively spotty, the audience was again quite enthusiastic; it certainly seemed like much of St. John’s artistic community was in attendance and it fueled many further mealtime discussions in the ensuing days…

On Wed. I was invited by the Principal of the seemingly “rival” college nearby, Green College, to do a brief lecture/demonstration. Green had a kind of formal, “old English” air, with beautiful building architecture and a smaller student body. They, too, remarkably had a Bosendorfer piano at hand, though in this case it was unfortunately an older instrument, and I managed after piece #3 to actually break off it’s sustain pedal, thus putting a prompt end to the performing portion of my presentation. (I later found out that the pedal mechanism had actually been put together literally with fishing wire and chewing gum, so I suppose I can’t add this instrument to my list of past “abuses” at least officially :-)…) I told them that it was interesting that the latest column I recently submitted for Down Beat is called “When Things Go Wrong”, and covers just these sorts of predicaments that have arisen in my career over the years…Despite the sudden cut-off, I took many interesting questions and had a very pleasant discussion with some keen graduate students, most notably a classical piano major whose curiosity I suspect I particularly peeked…

On Thurs. it was time for me to do a similar, informal lecture-demonstration for St. John’s students. I had earlier over breakfast asked in passing a Tibetan student and musician to sit in with me for an informal jam session after the lecture that evening. When night rolled around I was feeling a bit fatigued and it took a while to warm up into my presentation and performance; I also had frankly forgot about my offer of playing with him, but was happy when he insisted after my talk. We all ended up lingering until late in the evening, hours after my one-hour presentation had ended, playing music together, and just talking. It was quite evocative of those rare days back in music school when time seemed irrelevant and the focus was entirely on expanding one’s mind through interaction with others…

Friday I had “off”, and was delighted to be able to shut out the outside world and focus on my preparation for my lecture the next night organized by the Vancouver Institute.. My days in general were a delight – despite being lent a cell phone, I had taken to keeping it off, and had the freedom of being able to explore the “inner self” through reading and study, no doubt well beyond what might even have been needed for the actual lecture. It was very meaningful to me just to have this license, and it made me reflect on how little one makes the time for such things when the “real world” returns. Tim was so respectful of my privacy that he on two occasions secretly dropped off bags of groceries with “supplies” that greeted me upon my return to my room after a walk; again, a wonderful license just to study and explore…

The lecture at the Vancouver Institute (a prestigious organization that has featured a number of highly varied speakers for over 45 years) took place Saturday, and it was really the event that I was most looking forward to. I had decided to talk about the issue of “Can Jazz Be Classical?”, using Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (which I had recorded and also recently performed with orchestra in Japan) as a jumping off point for discussion. Another “things go wrong” episode occurred initially when my wireless mike refused to go on (some of my musician friends later told me that they could hear the student sound technician cussing quite loudly as he tried to get it to work, I’m sure quite embarrassed!) but I tried to take it in stride, and this predicament, in fact, gave me the opportunity to play the entire Rhapsody in Blue (minus the orchestral sections) upfront, rather than after breaking the piece down into its component parts; this turned out, in fact, to likely have been the better approach to begin with anyway. Afterwards I discussed it’s characteristic use of blue notes (and performed “St. Louis Blues” as well as Gershwin’s Second Prelude to further illustrate my points); I examined certain characteristic rhythms emerging out of stride piano by way of ragtime that made an appearance in the work (performing a bastardized version of “Carolina Shout”); and then talked about how the piece’s supposed “formlessness” was actually more of an “open form” conception common to jazz which was really one of the reasons I think the piece actually worked so successfully. I then took questions and in my answers managed to discuss Wynton Marsalis and the whole Lincoln Center debate centered around neo-classicism, my own groups and my approaches to them, the prospects for combining jazz with classical, and so on, concluding with the performance of some pieces of my own. The whole affair thankfully seemed a resounding success and it was really exhilarating for me to try and share my ideas in this different environment, and also to attempt to speak in terms accessible to the general audience attending the event.

 Sunday was winding-down time; in fact, Tim had announced after my lecture the previous night that it was my last presentation at St. John’s, and consequentially everyone presumed I would be leaving first thing Sunday. In reality, I had one more off campus event to attend to on Monday, but I was able to spend part of Sunday attending the Chinese New Year’s Day parade celebration taking place in Vancouver’s large Chinatown, watching various dragon dances and every conceivable Chinese organization in Vancouver proudly march, and had a pleasant dinner with other faculty connected to Tim’s field of Chinese studies later that day…

Monday was my lecture/demonstration as part of the Kiwanis Festival, for visiting high school students from the area. It was a bit of a challenge to try and connect with the audience with limited time and no possibility of interaction; by the end I tried admittedly to “wow” them over with my “flashy” version of Monk's "I Mean You", and realized after-the-fact that speaking in more black and white vs. subtle terms might have overall served the occasion better. Still, I was immediately approached by a very confident trumpet student who complimented me on the lecture and immediately asked if he could jam with me for a few minutes. We found a side practice room and did an impromptu “I Remember Clifford”…

Another student had been observing my various presentations throughout the week at St. John and had similarly asked for a private lesson, which I granted him Monday evening, and in many ways it was for me the highlight of the week, and underscored just what I find so fascinating about teaching (apart from the obvious opportunity to get others excited about music in general and encourage them). He was a first-year guitar major, and he really wanted to get a sense of where I was coming from conceptually; how I thought about composition, transcribing solos, and on and on. By the end of the lesson, through the process of answering his many probing questions, I had almost learned as much about myself as he perhaps had; teaching certainly forces you to reflect on your own approach since you’re obligated to understand it enough to be able to describe it in words to others. It was all in all a pleasant end to a truly enjoyable stay.

JaraSum Jazz Festival, South Korea

Just returned from a whirlwind few days in Seoul, South Korea, and the nearby Jara Island on Gapyeong, where I was a participant in the inaugural JaraSum Jazz Festival, at which I was scheduled to perform solo piano, followed by a workshop for students on Day 2. As it turned out, many of the festival's initial plans had to be re-arranged at the last minute due to a relentless rain that begin early on Saturday Sept. 11th and didn't let up until Monday morning the 13th. Saturday's events, after much delay, were ultimately postponed for some and cancelled for many, a disappointment for particularly such compatriots as guitarist Mike Stern and a fascinating-sounding world-music/jazz inspired group I was hanging out with called "Asia Spirit", as they were eventually all forced to leave without doing a performance, after much initial waiting around. Still, it was refreshing to hang with them all in the hotel lobby in the JaraSum region we were initially brought to while the organizers decided what to do. It's always amazing how kindred spirits musicians can be with one another - there's certainly something about being in the business of harnessing the moment that makes for an openness and sense of embracing the now that is always very inspiring to be around, especially after devoting so much of my time of late to the other half of the equation: sitting in front of my computer, composing, doing business, practicing, and on and on...
On Saturday later in the day I finally met the organizer whom we called "J.J.", who sadly announced the day's cancellation but asked, since I was scheduled to stayover one more day anyway, if I would perform Sunday instead. I happily agreed. On Sunday, the concert almost didn't happen again - the grounds were still utterly muddy, the rain continued it's drizzle, and they had already decided to consolidate several stages into one large stage, featuring artists originally scheduled for that day along with artists such as myself heldover from the day before.

What was ultimately remarkable was that despite the rain, which by the time I performed had reached a literal torrent, a crowd certainly at least in the hundreds still dutifully and passionately sat, some with umbrellas, most with blue raincoats thankfully handed out by festival organizers, for the entire day's festivities. Between each act, the organizers hurriedly swept the stage of vast puddles of water, and on occasion the blue canopy they had erected that day to cover the area where the musicians were performing would swell with water, resulting in random floods around the perimeter of my playing area. As I began my set, there was a particular upsurge of rain, and it got so bad that as I routinely tapped my feet as I played, large splashes of water bounced up all around me. Frankly, I was a little afraid of being electrocuted (!), but they had everything under control, and the crowd was amazingly receptive and dedicated.

This was the first JaraSum Jazz Festival, and if the passionate devotion of the fans and organizers despite the many Nature-based obstacles was a clue, it will not be the last.

Bluiett/Jackson/El'Zabar mini-west coast tour

Just got back from a whirlwind four day mini-tour of the West Coast with my collective group Bluiett/Jackson/El’Zabar. The group had until recently been on an unofficial hiatus. As Bluiett has often said to me, he didn’t want the group to be one in which we were actively soliciting gigs; he felt (perhaps rightly) that he was at a stage where if the interest was somehow “in the air”, then he’d be there, ready to play, but otherwise he didn’t want to force it. This was, incidentally, also the attitude he and the World Saxophone Quartet have always had - they’ve always just seemed to keep going, to continue to find work, with the word continuing to spread and success building upon success for now some 25 years. If word of mouth is any indication, we thankfully were off to a nice, renewed start. We played Hot House in Chicago last week and were pleased to receive a rave review; this recent leg involved the Eddie Moore fest in Oakland, followed by the Jazz Bakery in L.A., and finally the Kuumba Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. The Eddie Moore fest had recently been forced to move their quarters from Yoshi’s to the much less tried and true Oakland Asian Cultural Center and they found themselves having to consequentially rebuild their audience base. A free-wheeling concert the night before ours featuring the legendary Sonny Simmons along with Michael Marcus was, in fact, rather poorly attended, and so we didn’t necessarily have high hopes for our performance. But thankfully we had a decent crowd, and the program was even picked up for live radio broadcast on KPFA (both my girlfriend Elizabeth back in NY and my father up in Ottawa, Canada were surreally able to hear it live, in fact.) It was a rousing success, and really made us look forward to the subsequent nights, which, in turn, kept surprising us with the level of enthusiasm of the audience. Perhaps Bluiett is on to something with his “letting things take care of themselves” philosophy about the group. There certainly is something very unforced, spontaneous, and joyous about the music we’re enjoying making with each other; it’s really quite a fun and exciting conception and we’re all gratified that people are so sincerely moved. Hopefully we can get another album in the can soon and “keep rollin'”, as Bluiett might also say…

Last Few Months Update

 A lot has happened these past couple of months – I’ll try to recap:

Jan./02 was spent pre-occupied with the Arts Presenter’s Conference, where I had decided to have my own “D.D. Jackson Booth”, with my agent, Jenny Barriol of Alloverseas, llc. manning it most of the time on my behalf. It required a tremendous amount of preparation, as we displayed a professionally produced video culled from various previously-broadcast performances of myself from the past several years, which we then played over and over again at the booth; we updated press materials; had made a professional 5 feet long sign; and, perhaps most importantly, networked and organized several showcases, including Joe’s Pub with Dafnis Prieto and Ugonna Okegwo (from my CD), and also several in conjunction with poet/storyteller David Gonzalez, at the New Victory Theatre Performing Arts Space. 

It was an utterly exhausting experience, but we now realize quite a worthwhile one, as actually the majority of the people who heard us have since approached us seriously about potential future bookings.

After APAP I put together an opera demo for the Canada Council in preparation for the opera project I’m pursuing with librettist George Elliot Clarke for the Sept./03 Guelph Jazzfest. The work deals with the interactions between two interracial couples - one featuring a Chinese girl and African-Canadian man (modelled very loosely on my parents!); the other an Indian woman and Creole man. I hired a great bunch of players at the last-minute, with violinist Chris Howes, vocalist Dean Bowman, Eric Rockwin on bass (from a great group called “Gutbucket”), and a drummer with whom I had previously never worked named Kirk Driscoll. It was actually quite exhilarating working under such a ridiculous time constraint (the whole two song demo, from writing, to arranging, rehearsing, recording and mixing was put together in 3 days) and I was very pleased with the results. Upcoming over the next many months will be lots of phone-conference back-and-forths between me and George, followed by at least 2 critical workshops, culminating (knock on wood), in the final performance in Sept./03....

Also recorded music for a very interesting debut film of a filmmaker friend of mine from my hometown of Kanata named Alex Baack. The film is called “Untitled: A Love Story” and documents a relationship between the main character, played by Alex himself, and an invisible girl. Alex's goal is to submit it for consideration at the upcoming first annual Tribeca Film Festival for firsttime filmmakers, and I wish him well - he certainly has put his heart and soul into the film. For the work I wrote and recorded a solo piano score, mostly plaintive music, with different themes representing different characters and their interactions. A good experience, and I can certainly use my work on this film to try and do more music for film in the future, something which has always been one of my long-term goals...

A few other interesting developments: I was nominated for the 4th time for a Juno Award (in the category of "Best Contemporary Jazz Album") for my most recent CD “Sigame”. The awards will take place this April in St. John's, Newfoundland. And I just got back from the Jazz Report Awards in Toronto (now newly re-christened the “National Jazz Awards”), where I received the Socan Award for Jazz Composer/Songwriter of the Year - a very nice honour. As part of the event I also performed with John Geggie and Mark McLean, a slightly truncated version of my tune “Summer”, from Sigame. All in all a very tight, professional evening, broadcast live on CBC radio across Canada.

 The highlight for me was at least making eye contact with the great Oscar Peterson, who was there to be inducted in the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame. He looked sadly feeble in his wheelchair and could barely stand to receive the award; he after receiving it played the piano and again sounded weak and tired. But he was all elegance and class as always. I made a point of trying to meet him after he was wheeled off the stage, and basically quickly introduced myself and managed to get off the words: "thanks for the inspiration!" before he was whisked away...

Thoughts on 9/11

The most important event of the past several months was of course the tragedy of Sept. 11th, which I’ve struggled to write about because the emotions I was feeling about the event were (and still are, to a large extent), so raw. It also felt like everything that could be said about it was said, information tumbled one pile on top of the other, in the literally hours immediately following this cataclysmic jolt to the NY and the world’s psyche. I do remember early on being so outraged by how many times Fox News and MSNBC were indiscriminately re-airing shots from various angles of the planes crashing into the towers and the towers subsequent fall that I mailed some very angry emails, asking them to please be sensitive and less sensationalistic. I also remember being in essentially a daze for probably at least 2 months following the event; like a war refugee (which in some ways we all were, at least psychologically, whether we directly lost someone or not). I remember attending various spontaneous gatherings, in particular at Union Square on 14th street, to which I was drawn on an almost daily basis following the disaster, the grounds there covered at first with ad libbed emotional outbursts, poems, and prayers for humanity, scribbled on brown-colored drafting paper. I remember the endless pictures of “have you seen this person?”; wanting to do whatever I could to help the wounded by offering to donate blood, but realizing quickly that there was little to do because people essentially either got out relatively intact or perished; and I remember the need to be with friends and loved ones almost constantly; being alone was unthinkable; staying in the city, at first, quite questionable.

I remember going up to Ottawa shortly after, and, like millions of others, being nervous about getting back on an airplane, and I remember doing my first post-disaster gig with John Geggie, a duo concert which took on the air of a reflective memorial, before transitioning to joyous interaction. And I remember, for a time, seriously re-considering whether I wanted to be in the city any more at all.

Now it’s several months later, and while the spectre of being a nation forever at war has receded somewhat, being now replaced with more immediate, day-to-day concerns of running my “business of one”, the memory will never completely disappear. Just recently there was an article in I believe Vanity Fair (which I bought initially because of it’s cover devoted to characters from the upcoming Star Wars: Attack of the Clones!), and there was a surprise article about an upcoming film to be broadcast on tv and possibly released in theatres documenting the WTC disaster literally from the inside. Just reading about what the film crew, who just happened to be in the buildings when the disaster first struck, went through made me shudder inside; my stomach cringed and I couldn’t even continue reading. So the memory fades but will never be forgotten…

New Music Festival Premiere

Just got back from a weekend in Minneapolis where I participated in the new music “Festival Dancing in Your Head”. When I was first approached by my old classical music friend Phil Ford from Indiana U. (now a budding professor and musicologist at the U. of Minnesota) about doing the commission, I regarded it as a special challenge, to try and write something in the more specifically notated, classical idiom; we spoke of trying to add a jazzy/notated/classical piece to the new music canon, something which people even without jazz background could conceivably play. After I expressed interest, Anthony Gatto, the president of Headwater’s Music and the organizer of this year’s festival Phil co-founded with him, formally commissioned me to write a 15 minute work by late this past winter, and in my typical “I don’t need time! I need a deadline!” Duke Ellington-esque way, I put off thinking about the piece until a host of other more immediately pressing projects were out of the way. As it turned out, my latest CD, “Sigame” was completed by the end of July (it’s due out Oct. 9th), and so by the beginning of August I finally got around to really zeroing in on the piece.

I decided almost impulsively to focus on the variation form – namely to do 10 variations on a simple, Satie-inspired melody that I had had lingering in my head for some time. What I didn’t anticipate was how much of a mental block I would experience. Some of the stigmas against jazz composers – namely, the notion that they historically have lacked an ability to deal with coherent, larger scale form - started haunting me as I contemplated writing a piece which, by it’s very theme and variations structure, didn’t lend itself at all to over-arching form or large-scale development. In short, I was experiencing some serious Indiana University (where I received my B.Music in Classical Piano Performance in a suffocatingly close-minded atmosphere about jazz) flashbacks as I pondered what sort of piece I could legitimately present at not a jazz but a New Music Festival.

My way out of this dispair occurred quite quickly after I called the commissioner, Anthony Gatto, and found a much more open-minded attitude towards musical style than I had anticipated. Much had changed, it seems, since Indiana, and apparently today a New Music festival literally seemed to mean any new music which could on some level qualify as having legitimate artistic value, and to Anthony this seemed to mean stylistically almost anything under the sun. This meant that at the festival (on the same day as my 15 minute piece which was to be part of a huge music marathon running non-stop for 10 hours) the audience would be treated to artists as diverse as Tibetan Monks to various wacky pseudo-musical performance artists, to Steve Reich to “Hmong mouth organs” to the Bang on a Can All-Stars to electric trombone. There was even an actual jazz trio, a local band named “Happy Apple” that I very much enjoyed, that were being commissioned also.

Freed from my self-imposed constraints, I proceded to write a piece which instead of being merely 10 variations in the classical piece, I renamed 10 “Inspirations”, since they were, after, not only strictly notated, but in some cases also very much improvised depending upon my inspiration of the moment. The result, though rough around the edges, was well received (to hear the full MP3 of the performance, go here and click on “10 Inspirations on a Simple Theme”.)

Most importantly for me, I got an update about how at least some people are handling the concept of “new music” today. The festival as a whole was ultimately extremely successful and well-received. At times it unfolded much like a good jazz concert, with flights of seeming brilliance (and, to be fair, the occasional moments of dullness). But on the whole it was truly re-invigorating to see a group of people so hard at work presenting music not joined by specific, narrowly defined genres, but by simply being new and fresh. And this open-minded, category-defying view of music-making has shot my mind into all sorts of new creative directions. So, flawed piece and all, I am happy to have had the opportunity of participating in my first true “New Music” event….

 

D.D. Jackson Group in Japan

Just returned from my 3rd sojourn to Japan, this time the first as leader of my group. I brought a slightly scaled down version of the D.D. Jackson Group - myself playing piano and Roland VK-7 (a very sophisticated Hammond B3 organ emulator keyboard, which I brought over from NY); Chris Howes on el. violin; Andy Woodson on a brand new fretless bass he bought with a wonderful wooden, full tone; and James Gaiters playing drums. We did what I often jokingly refer to as the "elitist" circuit - extremely small venues (some holding only 20 people), but with quite large cover charges. The irony is that despite the typically small size of the rooms, I really think we ended up playing some of our best music. People have often said that the music of the D.D. Jackson Group was better suited to outdoor jazz festivals, since there is a powerful, rock-like and electric element to the writing and playing. Yet we paradoxically found that the smaller the room, the more we broke down textures, and truly listened and interacted with each other. 

I think this perspective reached it's zenith during our 2nd last gig, at the Body and Soul club in Tokyo. Again - tiny, but very complete room; wonderful sympathetic owners; small but exceedingly enthusiastic audience (people who actually applauded in recognition, for example, when I announced I was playing my piece "Peace Song", which I had previously performed with David Murray in Japan on a number of occasions). Perhaps it was just the looseness that inherently occurs after travelling for a couple of weeks, but we literally laughed our way through the final set that night. The audience picked up on it, and so the overriding atmosphere was one of the giddiness of the moment, as we pulled and pushed the material with which we had become so familiar in new ways, and shared our discoveries with the receptive crowd. [click here for some live MP3 files from this Body and Soul gig]

Similarly, I had also performed a solo piano concert as part of the tour, in Nagano a few days earlier. Again - tiny, tiny crowd, but perhaps the best solo concert thus far of my career (from my very biased subjective perspective), and a truly great time. Afterwards we all sat down for the traditional post-concert meal. A woman who had heard me perform there with David 2 years ago in broken English explained that she, too, was a pianist, and proceeded to sit down and play a broken version of Bach's "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring", inviting me to continue. Still meditative from the concert earlier, I volunteered to do my "jazz spin" on the piece, and I'll never forget leaving the club that night to the delighted standing ovation of the owner and the few remaining guests in appreciation of the last minute improv....

A Canadian in New York

On July 1rst (Canada Day!) I premiered my large scale work "A Canadian in New York: Suite for Large Classical/Jazz Ensemble" at the Prospect Park Bandshell as part of Celebrate Brooklyn. The title was obviously a slightly tongue-in-cheek homage to Gershwin's American in Paris, but the work was similar in other ways as well: I was really trying to create as sincere and seamless a hybrid as possible between the worlds of jazz and classical music. The performance was actually the culmination of a year of exciting musical investigations for me. I tend to be a "completist" in my research; I want to know as much about a subject as possible before I feel "qualified" to confidently depart from it, to contribute my own two cents to the picture. Consequentially, I studied a great deal of particularly 20th century orchestral works, attended NY Phil. rehearsals (the work was originally intended to be scored for full orchestra), studied chamber music scores, and also gave myself a crash course on the history of jazz-classical hybrid works, both from the classical angle (Rhapsody in Blue, Milhaud's La Creation du Monde, etc.) to the jazz (Third Stream, John Zorn, Frank Zappa, Hannibal's "African Portraits", Mingus' Epitaph, Butch Morris's conductions, etc., etc.) Of course, as always seems usual, once internalizing this stuff I realized that I had a firmer, intuitive grasp of what I wanted to do than I at first suspected, and so there was the inevitable "letting go" point where I just trusted my instincts and "went for it".

The resulting work was scored for "classical" string quartet (though in this case I used some very diverse players quite comfortable in the jazz world so I could be certain they'd grasp the feel of the piece - Nioka Workman on cello; Marlene Rice and Carlos Baptiste on violin and Linda Blanche on viola) plus Chris Howes on electric violin; Jack Walrath on trumpet; the great James Spaulding on alto sax and flute; Vincent Chancey (of Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy) on French horn; J.D. Parran on baritone sax, plus a rhythm section of myself on piano; the incredible Ralph Peterson on drums; Ugonna Okego on acoustic bass; plus special guest Bobby Sanabria on percussion and David Gonzalez doing poetry.

It was quite an extended evening, as the premiere was preceded by a full hour of fellow Canadian Andy Milne's "Cosmic Dapp Theory", followed by Carribean-Canadian Austin Clarke reading from his book. By the time my piece began, in fact, we were way over schedule time-wise - I think I went on around 10:10 pm, long after the sun had set, and people were already trying to decide how they'd get back home - and the work ended up being about 85 minutes in length - over 3 times as long as the amount of music I was originally commissioned to write (!)

The work was in four movements, dealing with different aspects of my experiences as a Canadian living in New York these past 11 years. The first, "The City", attempted to conjure up in more literal terms the sounds of the city, from the sounds of traffic hustle and bustle, to bebop and funk riffs, to gentle walks in the park. It was the most extended and perhaps ambitious movement and lasted some 30 minutes. The form was roughly sonata form with a contrasting slow movement and lots of development, including an opening Bartokian string quartet texture built on the perfect 4th motives to follow introduced by David's poetry ("Listen to the sounds of...the City...") and some free, swinging sections featuring Spaulding. And I was thrilled to have my first chance to truly conduct a large group - I sat at the piano with my back directly to the audience, and with the musicians surrounding me in a semi-circle so I could conduct at the moment "conductions" (borrowing a chapter from the techniques of Butch Morris and David Murray in which background figures, tempos, even solo forms are indicated, on the fly, by the conductor's direction). Movement II was based on "Suite New York" from my solo piano album "....so far", and was more romantic in scope and mood, ultimately building on an ostinato-like chord progression as the basis for the solos. Mov. III was an homage to El Barrio, featuring the great Bobby Sanabria, as well as poetry from David, and was built around a 7/4 latin-oriented groove, with some pizzicato, fugue-like strings serving as intro and interlude. And the work ended on a more relaxed note, with "Brooklyn Lullaby" - my homage to the laid-back, family-oriented, tree-lined streets of my new home.

All in all, it was perhaps the greatest musical moment of my career (whether or not the audience agreed!- though the people who stayed til the end seemed very receptive to the work)- there is nothing, for example, to compare to the feeling of asking 14 musicians to play louder - LOUDER and actually hearing the enormity and intensity of the resulting sound (!) I truly hope that I can continue to develop in this direction by touring with this work hopefully in Canada, and by expanding this piece for full symphony orchestra, and by also creating new, hybrid works which explore new classical/jazz/"beyond" works down the line...

Yukon adventure

Just got back from an unbelievable experience in Whitehorse, Yukon. I was appearing as half of a duo with storyteller/poet David Gonzalez in a presentation of our "Mytholojazz" (which basically retells the Orpheus myth in a manner designed to appeal to older children-to-adults, through David's words, singing, gestures, movement, and my jazz-oriented original music). Until now, my image of the Yukon had been colored by the same sort of stereotypes much the world probably has of New York (crime-ridden, gritty, rude). In my case, I had in mind a barren place, cold and remote; a place so cut off from the world as to presumably have little appeal; virtually uninhabitable. But almost from the moment of my arrival, I was drawn in by the sheer beauty of the place and its people. Whitehorse is remote, and in many ways is one of the last possible outposts; the literal edge of civilization. But I think this fact is what also gives it such an intoxicating allure to such a wide cross-section of people the world over. There's something very cleansing about being in such a pure, unfiltered environment; at one with nature, mountains, sky (and even the occasional grizzly!) I found myself marvelling at how quickly one is forced inward in such an environment; how rapidly the fast pace of NY (where one is often tempted to be "on", 24 hours a day, one's mind in a perpetual state of "distraction) gives way to a coming-to-terms with oneself. One of our hosts, Chris Dray, the director of the Yukon Arts Centre and a fascinating man in his own right, made the point clear by stating that it was a common occurrence that those who cared to stay in Whitehorse more than 6 days often found themselves staying for years; it takes that small amount of time to be drawn in by the north's charms, and I don't doubt it.

The people were a diverse lot - some came from Toronto, or Vancouver; one woman was even a dancer originally from New York who got "hooked" and never left. But what joined them all, I think, was the sense of inner peace they had discovered up north; the thrill of living in harmony with nature instead of fighting it. They all described to me long, hard winters, with literally 5 hours of daylight (and a ritualistic celebration each year on the Winter Solstice called "Longest Night" in which the community joins together for an endless evening of stories and music); followed eventually by the warmer season, in which it is not atypical for sunset to occur at 12 midnight (while we were there, it was getting dark around 10:30 pm, which was already in and of itself bizarre). They described the appeal of the small town with it's evocation of times gone by in the outside world, and where everyone knows everyone elses' name. And several of them expressed their determination to leave, seemingly wondering how they got there in the first place, but also secretly knowing that if they left, they would never find any other place quite like this again (which is why so many people leave for a time, only to later return)....
And what a genuinely appreciative crowd! What a pleasure to bring our own creation to such a far away place and have it be received to warmly....I will not soon forget my few days up North, and I will try very hard to take a piece of that experience with me, even as I return to the hectic pace of my everyday life here in the "big city"...

Musings on Wynton after the Jazz at Lincoln Center

 Just got back from, of all things, a press conference announcing Lincoln Center's 2000-2001 season, of which I am unexpectedly a part. They've started a series of "Jazz on the Hudson" pairing so-called "mainstream" and "avant-garde" pairs of duos together in a single evening; I, in a pairing with Hamiet Bluiett, will, apparently, be the "avant-garde" half, in Mar. of 2001.

The whole press affair, which included hors d'oeuvres, plus speeches by Wynton Marsalis and others and a performance by his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and others, really revived in me the urge to express some of my own views on the whole neo-classical movement. Much as I am pleased that they are trying, with this Hudson series, to expand slightly their definition of what does and does not constitute "legitimate" jazz, I found myself being disturbingly intoxicated by the sheer force of "legitimacy" created by the occasion, as Wynton described his very single-mindedly Louis Armstrong and overall traditional approach to programming JALC will present next year. There is something strangely comforting about a vision of jazz which offers a "respectable" reference point - the equating of Jazz with classical music; which offers a very systematized approach to what should be taught, and to what, in fact, should be regarded as jazz or non-jazz in the first place. In their speeches, the JALC people described today a program which has outreach to thousands upon thousands of high school students, all of them learning about Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and "swing" and "blues", plus world tours, bringing the music of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to people all over the world.

So what's wrong with this picture? Not to sound like a broken record (not only my own broken record, but many others' as well), but jazz ISN'T the same as classical music, and it doesn't need this parallel to be considered "great" - it is a music with entirely different aesthetic values, some of which (mostly by coincidence), may coincide with the classical world, but overall most of which should be taken on their own terms. There is nothing wrong with learning the tradition, and in many ways, I credit Wynton for teaching people about the rich legacy of the history of jazz. But jazz isn't only about history. Everything that needs to be said in jazz hasn't been said. It isn't enough to play Louis Armstrong's repertoire, and to joke about how "we're trying to bring our own thing to the music - but this is Louis so all we can do is try" (the implication, at least as I took it, being that Louis is so unapproachable, etc. that it's enough to try and play his music respectably like he did it, without building on it or adding further innovation).

Jazz, in fact, has always been as much - if not more - about the future than the past. At one point, Wynton made an astonishing generalization about "other" forms of expression that to him presumably fall outside the sphere of legitimate jazz, stating that there was basically no need for the more "abstract" forms of jazz (and by this I presume he means all of the various musics that emerged after 1969 - the loft jazz scene, the AACM, all the way up to the downtown "Knitting Factory" scene, etc., etc., etc.) He supported this notion by arguing that these abstract forms were, after all, less popular than what JALC does; that with the more presumably "avant-garde" stuff, the music needed to be propped up by government grants, etc., while JALC was actually genuinely popular and accessible.

But if one reviews the history of jazz and what has made it great, we are, ironically, almost always consistently struck by the fact that with the exception of the swing music of the 20's and 30's, most of jazz's crazy, individualistic "innovations" were the bane of many critics and the general public when they were first created; and that it took a long time for many of these developments to resonate with the public at all; in short, to be "popular", if ever (Thelonious Monk, whom many people still regard as "avant-garde" compared to the more "traditional" bebop fare of his day, is but one example). So the argument that the fact that a music is well-received by the public makes it more "legitimate" is certainly challengable (and I won't even site such "popular" artists as Kenny G :-)).

And much as JALC is an unquestionable success story, is this really, as Wynton purports, in itself an argument for the legitimacy of their musical values? Or is it, in fact, as I believe, a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if someone with a broader outlook were in charge of JALC, someone who treated the entire history of the music, with all of its crazy offshoots, it's forays into pop, funk, acid-jazz, avant-garde expression, and various conceptual approaches (not just bebop/swing) with equal weight; who welcomed innovation and commissioned some of the most individual compositional voices - Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Davis, and on and on, to produce yearly large scale works. What if this person were as appealing as Wynton as spokesperson, and who expressed these open-minded views with the same fervor that Wynton does his more conservative ones. Can't one imagine in this instance that this more open-minded jazz philosophy would become the predominant view of what is legit in jazz? Isn't what is and isn't considered legitimate in jazz more, after all, about politics and posturing that some "objective" universals? Can't there, in short, be room for more branches of the "jazz tree"?

In my opinion, in order for jazz to be vibrant and to continue to grow, it is actually crucial that people reflect in their expression innovation; personal expression; that people not be afraid to try something new. Jazz is about innovation. Yes, it's about tradition, too, but as some have said, "the only tradition in jazz is innovation" - ie. you must build upon the past, or the music perishes. And yes, if one is honest in one's expression; if one reflects one's own life experiences to create a personal music, then some will find it "avant-garde", or, conversely, perhaps "commercial", or many of the other generalized dismissives often hurled at any form of jazz-related expression not related to the more narrow definition of jazz with a capital "J". But is this any different than what Monk went through, when he first emerged, with his music? Or Ornette Coleman? Or Miles? Or Coltrane?

It's safe to "legitimize" jazz by equating it with classical music - who, after all, can argue with a music proven by the ages to be great. But jazz ISN'T classical music. It's a living, breathing, art form. And people are needed out there that are courageous enough to forge new pathways, to push for the new; and to see how this relates to what has come before without, however, losing the "now".
Jazz on the Hudson is a small step, and I'm happy to be a small part of it.

My first RCA CD's

 An eventful summer. Recorded my first two albums for my new label of RCA Victor (BMG). The first, a solo recording, was completed this past May in Montreal. It was really intended as a "summing up" of the things which have influenced me stylistically in my life thus far, particularly from the realm of jazz and classical music. The music was coincidentally recorded at an old RCA Victor studio in Montreal; a nice, oversized, warm-sounding room with a huge Bosendorfer Imperial Grand, and I'm quite pleased with the result. 

The idea, I think, is to pair this album with my 2nd recording for the label, which will be released a little later on, and which I just finished recording, with a veritable "all-star" band; pretty much everyone on their respective instruments I consider to be my favorites, particularly with the musical conception I was going for with this recording. The group included: Jack Dejohnette on drums, Cameroon electric bassist Richard Bona (who also sings on a track), James Carter on saxes on 4 tracks, Mino Cinelu on percussion, and Christian Howes on violin. I think people who know my past work will be very surprised when they hear it: it focuses on the more melodic and groove-oriented aspects of my writing and arranging. So I think when the two releases are ultimately considered together, they will paint a fairly accurate portrait of my desire to be as far-reaching and open-minded in my influences as possible.
Just received my first copies of ...So Far (the solo album); it was gratifying to have "physical evidence" of the whole process that's been going on for the past year of preparing for these releases, getting a new setup established behind me, etc.....

Thoughts on Fred Hopkins and Jaki Byard

 It has been a particularly painful last couple of months in jazz - the world lost two great musical spirits; I lost a musical colleague/friend and my first jazz mentor.
Bassist Fred Hopkins was a true original and like the truly original instrumentalists in jazz he was blessed with a readily identifiable style and sound. But more than just the music, Fred was a warm, incredibly gregarious, open person, almost childlike in his gentleness and also mischieviousness. With Fred this vital nature of his was inseparable from his music - Fred the person and Fred the musician were one and the same.
So many memory fragments of the time I spent with Fred as his musical colleague come to mind: - how, when flying for a gig usually with one of David Murray's bands on a plane headed for Europe, Fred could someone get to know everybody on the plane by the time the 6 hour trip was over; - how Fred used to always manage to arrive a fraction of a second "late" to the bandstand, particularly at our more dramatic big band hits, so that he could make a sort of "fumbling", grander, more amusing entrance. Or how, when taking one of his patented free-wheeling, out of time, often bowed bass solos, Fred would "accidentally" brush up, with his bow, against drummer Andrew Cyrille's cymbals, and would then continue to use this as the basis for his improvisations.
And what improvisations! Often Fred, when given a chance to do an a cappella solo, could segue to a point where he'd have the bass literally lying on the ground, and he would pull it's strings almost recklessly; like Billy Bang and many other open-minded conceptualists, he could take things so "out" that almost anything conceivable became ripe tools for creative input. But also like Bang, Fred when in the right frame of mind and when called upon could play with time within a swing context in a truly original way - his sense of swing had a fullness of tone, a sense of forward momentum combined with an almost effortless carefree quality that I have never encountered in any other bass player. Part of what came of Fred being Fred was a particular unpredictability as to what he might do with an actual chart you gave him, and there are stories of him erroneously playing notated charts upside down, or playing one chart for half the piece until the leader noticed the problem while the rest of the band played another chart. Even these things you just accepted because Fred was always so fully Fred: without a doubt one of the greatest bass players in jazz, but also one of the most unforgettable characters I will likely ever meet, someone you couldn't help but love.

Jaki Byard was my first jazz teacher, and I studied with him when I did my Masters Degree in Jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, from 1989 thru May of 91. I was originally assigned to another teacher there, but before my first day when I found out Jaki had recently been added to the faculty and after doing a little research, I knew I had to work with him. Jaki's lessons were always casual, almost irreverent; sometimes we'd just sit there for the hour with the Manhattan School studio's two grand pianos and play the blues in all 12 keys the entire hour; sometimes he would reminisce about what Monk "really" was like or how Sun Ra was doing the whole "cosmic" thing quite knowingly as an "act" or how he studied with Earl Hines. But somehow the net effect was that what he really taught me was how to be truly open at the piano - in fact, what better introduction to jazz piano than from the true walking jazz piano historian himself, Jaki Byard!

And what an open mind. In his playing and teaching, he touched equally upon authentic stride (which I think in reality actually rhythmically colored almost everything he did no matter how "progressive" the context), the bebop tradition, all the way up to Cecil Taylor and perhaps beyond. And he respected other forms of music, as well: one of the first memories I have in Manhattan, when I was...