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Friday, October 15, 2010

Woody Shaw: Shawnuff Did, Shawnuff Said (Coda Magazine, ~1985)

Trumpet player Woody Shaw in Conversation with Montreal Writer Marc Chenard

Within the long and often remarkable history of jazz trumpet playing, many have been called but few have been chosen. Though there has never really been a shortage of able and talented trumpeters, only a handful of "stylists" have come forth, setting new standards, be they of a technical or conceptual nature. Satchmo, Little Jazz, Diz, Miles and Brownie are all names belonging to a special category of which legends are made.

To that list, one may add the name of Woody Shaw: after all, when both Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis wholeheartedly endorse him as an important contributor to that lineage, he has a right to see himself as one of "them". Now some ten years after his debut as a successful band leader with many critically acclaimed albums under his own name, he has now moved away from the spotlight to devote his energies towards further developing his own playing, be it as a sideman or as a freelancer, working with various "local" rhythm sections.

MARC CHENARD—After having had regular working groups over the last ten years, you are now active as a freelancer. How did this change come about?

WOODY SHAW—The main reason for that is simply to keep working... More importantly, though, is the fact that I broke off with my personal manager. As you know, I had a record deal with Columbia in the late seventies, just before going to Electra Musician. When I look back at it, I made some pretty good records for Columbia... They never got less than three stars. Most of them had four or five star ratings and I am very proud of that. My records were a kind of "break even" type of seller for them, and when your albums sell from 35 to 50 thousand copies each, that is not bad in the jazz world.

Back in 1982, the whole record industry went through a metamorphosis of some sort; some impresarios even got crooked and burned some performers money wise. So the whole scene got topsy-turvy. Then, a lot of people were dropped from these major record companies, including Freddie Hubbard and myself. We were considered to be a wrote of money in terms of record promotions, overlooking the fact that we are legendary trumpeters.

As for myself, I believe that it is the lack of personal management that explains why I do not have any record deal, and which has now forced me to become a single artist. But don't get me wrong: I enjoy this status very much. Besides that, you really have to make it worthwhile to go touring with a band nowadays; just the prices of airfares are high enough…

In the early eighties, you did your first European recording as a leader for Soul Note in Italy, a label that seems to be attracting many American jazz musicians. Were you under contract with them?

One of the Italian promoters brought to my attention that none of my Columbia recordings were distributed there, except as high priced imports. I am very well liked over there, even if I had not done much touring over there for a while, But Italy is a soulful place. In any event, it just came about that one of my club dates in Bologna was recorded, and it just happened like that, on a very modest budget. But that was a one shot deal only.

Since that time, my record output is starting to become a little spotty. With regards to my Elektra period, I consider it to bean extension of my one on Columbia, because I followed Bruce Lundvall when he changed labels. But looking back at that period, no one every supported him jazzwise on either of those labels.

As for the two albums I did for the Elektra label, "Master of the Art" and "Night Music", I must admit that I am not particularly proud of either of them, They come from a live session done at a now-defunct club called the Jazz Forum, which was a real nice place, almost like a loft. But I had just come back from a seven week tour in Europe and was really tired. I only had a day to prepare the whole thing. It so happened that I ran into Bobby Hutcherson who was just about ready to leave on a European tour of his own. In my estimation, I find that some of the cuts were really not worthy of release. But it was called "Night Music", and it was set-up like a jam session, of which both recordings are excerpts.

Given the fact there are not so many brand new recordings of yours available, have you purposely drawn away from that to concentrate on your own playing and composing, or do you want to do more things just as a sideman?

Well, I got rather involved in a couple of things that kept me away from my playing, and I even became a very miserable person for a while. Yet, my love of music hasn't changed. To me, music is a tie with the universe and it just gels with my own personal philosophies. But I am not a bitter person, even if I have learned lessons from overextending myself. In being a nice guy all the time, people will take advantage of you and stab you in the back when you turn around.

Nevertheless, the music is still what keeps me together. In fact, I consider myself to be one of the great trumpet players, because trumpet players try to imitate me now, and as a contributor to the legacy of the jazz trumpet, I am proud of that. Amongst the young cats coming up today, I can tell if there is a Woody Shaw influence and what it is exactly. The most important thing to me is to be able to hear one's personality coming through the instrument, Just as there is a Freddie Hubbard style, there is a Miles Davis, a Dizzy Gillespie and a Clifford Brown style, and also a Woody Shaw style.

As of now, I am more intent on developing my own style of playing, Very interestingly, the new Blue Note label, which is now under the auspices of Capitol-EMI, with Bruce Lundvall at its helm, has proposed that Freddie Hubbard and I do a date together. But with our conflicting schedules, we haven't been able to do the record. (Note: The session has now been released as of Fall, 1986). In my mind, it will be a landmark recording.

For the moment, I am making myself scarce—But the agents in New York don't seem to consider me, just because I do not have a record deal, even though I am Woody Shaw, a legendary trumpet player Miles Davis critically acclaims as one of his favorites... and he does not say that about many! Dizzy Gillespie also says that I am one of the great innovators, not just trumpet stylists but innovators on my instrument. In the last couple of years, I have become a little salty, but now I think I am a much mellower cat than I used to be. You know, Down Beat last did an article on me three or four years ago. So, even if they overlook me, I'll still be polishing my craft every time I play.

Playing in a quartet, as I have been doing; now, is very demanding, particularly for a trumpet player. Yet, it now gives me the chance to really work on my own playing. Being the only horn player is a challenge too; after all, a trumpet player cannot play as long physically as a saxophonist, for instance, But, In many ways, he says much more because his solos are somewhat shorter.

Even though I love the saxophone legacy, it tends to bore me sometimes, and I don't care how much technique they have. Now, I have studied with saxophone players, and it seems to me that some of their idiosyncrasies come out. in my own playing, which makes my own playing unique in a quartet. I've been challenging I myself in order to see if I can do a whole gig! without another horn, not even with a fluegelhorn or a mute, In this context, I can best work I on my own sound and further develop my own; style. So when I get together with other horns' on some special occasions, I can carry on that! Woody Shaw style. You see, I was achieving a sound in the groups I had with Steve Turre and Carter Jefferson, but the record companies clipped my wings by not giving me a chance to record.

A lot of people have been asking me of late what I think of Wynton Marsalis. Well, I met I him when he came to New York, and I was. looking forward to hearing a budding genius. And it was time for it too. I needed someone to, inspire me. For a while everybody had been complacent and was busy making money. When Wynton appeared, I wasn't surprised. But, in, the middle of all the publicity, those who had already established themselves were sort of cast aside for someone new in our society which is; geared toward youth anyway. Nowadays, you have musicians with phenomenal technique; but in the times I came UP, only a few musicians had done their conservatory, And do you know why that is? Because the art of trumpet playing in jazz is a unique one. Louis Armstrong, even Harry James, they represent the art of jazz trumpet playing. And the same can be said for Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Maynard Ferguson. No one plays like them in legit music.

Now as for this new breed of musicians with their "ultrasonic" conservatory technique, I say: so what? Tell me a story from the heart of your soul and what your existence in this universe is all about! I may be a little philosophical about it, but when people marvel at their technique, I have to say, So what? I've got my own technique. As a matter of fact, I get calls from students all over the country who want to come and study the way Woody Shaw plays the trumpet.

You said you were honing your craft as a trumpet player. Do you also devote as much time to composing as you do to your playing? I see you have a new album out where you are just playing standards.

I must admit that I have been rather lazy about composing and arranging. Now that I don't have a record deal I don't compose as much, but it's starting to bother me now, because I am a writer too. And people like my tunes too. I guess I lost faith and confidence in myself over the last couple of years, but now it is back stronger than ever. In a way, I can characterize myself as a subtly intense individual, and I am trying to work on that aspect of my personality.

But with all these problems that have affected me over the last couple of years, I feel that they have helped me to be more creative as a composer and to know what my place is in the music. I do feel a bit salty, as I said before, because I know I can sell records. I have a record produced by a low budget company which is up on the charts, so why don't I have a contract? In fact, I can do something commercial, and I would not mind to take a crack at it. But I resent people who tell me not to do that because they see in me a last vestige of someone who hasn't made any compromises. After all, I am here to make money with my recordings. But don't get me wrong: I wouldn't sell out either. Basically, there is nothing wrong with having a hit record. There was a time I put down cats who tried, but now that I am a little older…Don't forget, it's called "the music business".

Earlier, I spoke about Wynton. To me, it is time we need a trumpet player like him. But, on the other hand, it is time for me to reemerge. I am sure that when you listen to me, you hear more depth, more individuality, and more awareness. Now, if you want to base yourself on the appreciation of technique, it's not jazz. I don't use any of the standard trumpet methods to stay a good player, even though I did play out of them at one time. So if you are basing yourself on European standards, you are limiting yourself. But jazz isn't solely an American expression; here in Canada, there are some excellent jazzmen. Jazz is much mores universal language whose standards are just as demanding as any other genre.

I hate to say this, but Maurice Andre does not kill me. For one, I don't like his vibrato. But that doesn't mean I don't like classical trumpeters; in fact, there are some who really amaze me. In essence, I check out the whole spectrum of trumpet playing. People ask me if I can play the Haydn trumpet concerto, but that is a corny piece, not because of the style, just simply because there are more interesting ones, Now the Hummel Concerto in E Flat, that one's a bitch! I can respect Wynton for recording that.

As for my own recording projects, I want to do something with Freddie, but I want to do this for the legacy of the trumpet and not just to have a cutting contest with him. Both of us knew Lee Morgan, and he was an important player in the tradition we represent. When I arrived on the scene back in the early sixties, I was at the tail end of an era when it was respected to have your own style,

And you think that is disappearing now?

Yes it is. The proof of that is in the new records they make and the people they put on them. It has no lasting value. I would like to have my place in the recording industry and I feel optimistic that I will have a record deal soon. I remember when I was working with McCoy Tyner in the late 60s: he did not have a record deal, and work either! McCoy used to tell me, he does not know what's wrong with a lot of these young cats: they want so much money and they don't want to pay any dues. So, when young guys come UP to me and wonder why I don't hire them, I can tell you that I don't like such an attitude. When I first came up to Sonny Rollins to ask and play with him, my heart was in my throat. I was almost begging, He said yes and spaced out on me in his own particular way. Even though I've been very critical, I am still proud of the course that modern jazz has taken on in terms of education, because it fortifies the future of the music. But I didn't learn to play in school, and I feel fortunate about that

The art of playing jazz is a unique one, and I don't care what technological wizardry is used. Take an example: the drum machine. Now that has to be an insult to mankind! But I keep my-self abreast of this technological "robot music" they make now. I still prefer listening to some Beatles music of the sixties than any of the shit they make today. In fact, I am starting to get afraid of technology, especially when it deprives man of his creativity and his ability to exist with nature.

More recently, I have been involved with Tai Chi. As a form of holistic exercise and meditation developed by the Chinese some three thousand years ago, it is closely related to the Taoist philosophy, which says that nothing goes undone. The Tao is nature, God. This perspective on life rings so true to me, especially when you go and check it out for yourself. This philosophy helps me coexist with all this madness around us. I can just turn myself off for an hour, just walk in slow motion and breathe in deeply to cool off both mind and body. Now I've been on the drug train. And I'm not ashamed of it either. In the long run, you have to fuse all the right elements together and set a goal for yourself, even if that is a very hard thing to do.

In a way, I feel sorry for these younger cats coming up today, because there are not as many record companies now "those that are around really do not give the artist a chance to grow. You see, they wave big money in front of them and say. "If you do this, we'll make a star out of you!" Now when you look at people like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, they had to scuffle around a lot in the sixties before they ever reached their present status. They are stars today, but they had to pay their dues too.

You see I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which is only thirty miles away from the Big Apple. I've been coming to New York City all my life. Originally my parents are from South Carolina, and my father went to school with Dizzy Gillespie, which explains in part why Dizzy took some interest in me. I was born in the South too, but came north when I was a few months old Since Newark is close to New York, it always had a pretty healthy orientation, at least musically. Also, my mother and father had a lot of those 78s with a lot of the music of the forties, Boogie-Woogie, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan singing Black Coffee, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine. From all of that, I guess I was destined to become a jazz musician. Moreover, I was steeped in gospel and spiritual music, becalm my father used to sing, so that too geared me towards music.

And what brought you to the trumpet? There's no reason in particular, save to say that the first time I heard one, I said to myself that is what I had to play. But before that, I first wanted to play violin, then trombone—and I still do fiddle around with it from time to time, though I will never become a trombonist. I had trouble finding the instrument I wanted until I heard someone in my neighborhood playing Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, then I got involved in the local trumpet and bugle corps, and that was the first time I picked up the instrument. It just turned out to be a natural for me. I figured out all of the fingerings by myself, even though they were all wrong, but I still got the notes out.

In Junior High School my music teacher, who happened to be a trumpeter, took interest in me. He saw I had a natural gift. I have very fond memories of him, but he was tough: if you got out of line he would kick your butt, so I respected him for that. One day, he told me that he wanted to give me private lessons, and that I should even go to Julliard. He was more into the legit aspects of trumpet playing, but what I liked about him was the fact he never put down any of my black jazz heroes, as most of those well-schooled musicians did. He even respected them. For instance, he used to say that Miles plays all right, but with a lot more practice he'd play much better. He thought that Dizzy Gillespie was phenomenal, but with a little more schooling he could also be a remarkable legit player. He got me to read a lot, and told me that if I wanted to get into jazz, I'd have to be able to learn to read syncopation,

Apart from those lessons, I did not take any from other people. However, my studies with him prepared me for the future. It was quite amazing, when I think about it, that this white Jewish cat takes an interest in me, a young black kid, and tells me that I will be a great trumpet player one day. And it happened too! He even comes to my gigs and I say: "What are you doing here?" He was involved in a few dedications they gave me in Newark and it was just a gas when he came up and told me that he would never have known that I would play like I now do. But just hearing him play trumpet on that occasion and knowing how much he thought of me was like a fuel for me to just keep on going. In a strange way, I can relate to Wynton Marsalis because he represents the course that my teacher wanted me to follow. What got me away from that was when I heard Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan. I said: "No way!" Lee, for example, was amazing: at 18 he was playing in Dizzy's big band. He was a natural wizard. He al

Are you thinking of forming your own band now, or do you just want to keep on working as a solo performer for the moment?

Actually, I would like to do both. On the one hand, I like the freedom of working as a solo artist, but on the other, I'd like to have my own group to do some writing for. But in order to do all of this, one needs a good manager to watch out for one's own interests. I don't mean an agent, because I do my own bookings. In fact, my phone is ringing all the time. I think they miss me. That's good, because not too long ago I was not doing a thing. I was even wondering if they had forgotten all about me. I was getting so depressed, I stopped practicing. All of this is due to that phenomena I was describing earlier, something new versus something old, or established at least. We talked about Wynton: he's good, but he's no Woody Shaw!

In such a competitive business, which jazz is, it's nice to know that people come to see me because they want to hear my unique sound. When I arrive in any city, it takes all the doubts away when they fill up the club every night.

The strange thing when you play an instrument is that when you play mediocre—or badly—people still love it. But when I am at my best, they don't say a word! Other musicians have told me the same thing, but I haven't figured out why that is. Maybe I am making people feel good with this talent I have, and I might be telling something in a "mesmerizing" way.

Between sets you told me that you had changed trumpets. How did this come about?

I thought I would play Bach trumpets for the rest of my life. But it is a very demanding horn, It's a good horn to train on, because it demands certain things from you, For instance, you must practice 2 to 3 hours every day. When I was in California some years ago, I spent a lot of time woodshedding, playing up to six hours a day, just building up my technique and chops.

Interestingly enough, most young trumpeters use Bach today, but they have no individuality, the reason for that being that it's such a rigid training horn. If you have a Bach, there is no doubt about it, you own a Cadillac. But, on the other hand, it tends to stymie your individuality. Freddie told me that he loves Bach but it's just killing him. We are getting older, so we need something to make it easier.

That is why new brands of trumpets are being developed, For my own part, I have switched to Yamaha and I am starting to break it in now. Now, what these new companies are doing is that they are taking the characteristics of the well established brands, but making instruments that are easier to play. I am all for that! I am over 40 now. I do not have as much wind as I once did,

Recently, I encouraged the young trumpeter Wallace Roney to try something else than Bach if he wanted to sound like himself. He did that, and you should hear him now. Sure, it's always good having a Bach, but if you want to play yourself, you have to find an instrument that is you.

There is another reason why I got this horn: I am breaking it in in preparation for my date with Freddie. People can say all they want about him, but he's one of the great trumpet innovators in the history of jazz. Freddie Hubbard has taken the instrument up to the level of it being "conservatory-wise". Freddie Hubbard innovated it in that sense, and not Wynton Marsalis.

That I belong to the lineage of Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard makes me feel good, and I am also glad to be associated with those players, moreso than those of today. On Monday nights I usually go to listen to Mel Lewis' band at the Village Vanguard, because I want to see and hear those new cats coming out from conservatories. Man, what they can read on those charts, I can't. What they read on sight I would have to bring home and work on. That's to be admired, for sure, but that leaves me cold too. Bob Brookmeyer did an arrangement of My Funny Valentine that almost sounds like it's out of Bela Bartok, then Mel tells me that's the tune, I say: Where? In any event, I like listening to big bands but I don't really like playing in them. I even had my bit of experience in big bands and it was invaluable. To me, any musician should play in a big band or orchestra setting, that's essential for one's own training,

I tell a lot of young players that I had to earn the right to play jazz. Some complain that they have to do this latin gig, but I used to do some of those too, but they are all surprised to know that. I even did commercials. But since my eyesight has been affected by retinitis pigmentosa (a.k.a. tunnel vision), I cannot do much reading now. But I am confident of re-gaining my sight, and there are even some signs pointing to that.

In my own career, I have come to the point where I can use my horn to express my innermost feelings. I just do not play music now, I play me! I try to make people feel good. I do not like to play when I am angry, because I become very volatile. To me, I don't want the trumpet to be a stereotyped high-note screech instrument. In fact, listening to Chet Baker has been very enlightening to me.

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