So here is the first installment of my interview series of Southern California musicians who focus on 'Creative Music', or music that utilizes compositional elements and improvisational elements. I plan to interview as many musicians as I can, from longtime Angelenos, to up and coming players, as well as some recent transplants to Los Angeles, so I may get their perspective on LA compared to some of the other 'Creative Music' hotbeds. (Look for upcoming interviews with: Susie Allen, William Roper, Steuart Liebig, Wadada Leo Smith, Emily Hay, Ulrich Krieger, and more)
I'm not a professional interviewer and took my inspiration from Art Taylor's
book, where he decided to interview jazz musicians, from a musicians perspective. If you haven't read it, it is a very good read and the tones of the interviews are quite different the usual reads you get in the regular" journals.
My first interview, I decided, would be someone who has been a fixture of the 'Creative Music' scene in LA and one who could also give some historical perspective of Los Angeles' often neglected scene. Unfortunately I lost most of the historical talk due to my own ineptitude. (Vinny and I are due to conduct a follow-up interview to readdress these matters in the near future) So what follows here is the second part of the interview where we talk more about how Vinny went from painting to saxophone, some of his upcoming projects, and we touch on the state of the music business for an improvising musician.
Hope you enjoy and please leave some feedback for me so I can grow!
Me: I know you have an interesting background in starting music and I was wondering, when did you start playing music and how? I mean; I sort of know some of the story...
Vinny: I mean, that's not as interesting as the other stuff...but...
Me: Well, I want to do both and I want to talk about your music too. You personally.
Vinny: I started as a painter, a lot of people already know that and I was, like I said before, living in New York, that's where I was born. And when I started painting I used to...painting is kind of a lonely thing, you know? You got to sit in a room and I worked on big canvases with a certain amount of...eventually a certain amount of finesse (laughs) and a lot of modulation of color and little forms and stuff so that one color might start as one thing and then transform to this other thing but, create this moving shape thing, very, kind of tone conscious. All the precepts of what I do with painting kind of transferred over to music but, that's a whole other thing.
Seems to me that one day...I was listening to everything, but I started to get this bug about jazz and improvised music and new classical music. I was listening to a lot of Indian music and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They always kept talking about improvisation and even in the blues guys, they talked about improvisation and they kept using the word jazz and I kept buying stuff and it didn't really...it was okay, you know, I was listening.
Me: What age were you?
Vinny: I don't know, I was in college.
Me: So you were in your twenties?
Vinny: No, 'cause I graduated college when I was twenty-one. So I must have been like twenty, nineteen...something like that. Anyway, to make a long story short, one day somebody said, You like this stuff all the time; you should go see it." And it, it had never dawned on me that you could actually go see these guys play. 'Cause I had gone to rock concerts and all that kind of stuff. Fillmore and seen Hendrix and all those kind of things and blues guys and Indian music live. But it never, I didn't know where to go, or do any that kind of stuff and this guy, John Colagne, he's an old friend from years back, he says, Oh man, I saw 'Trane and Dolphy play together at this place called Slugs." And I said, I mean I didn't know anything, I said, You're crazy, they never played together!" and he said. Yeah they were on the same stage, I saw it!" I said, Awww, you're nuts!" (Laughter from both of us) I mean I really, seriously didn't know anything yet and so I went one day to find this place called Slugs and, I think that, I'm trying to think who I saw first, but I think that the first group I saw was Alice Coltrane
maybe. Alice was there with Carlos Ward and Bob Cranshaw played bass maybe...drummer must have been Ben Riley, or something like that. Oh, and Pharaoh Sanders
played and I was like Oh...this is home!" you know? So I started going there like, really, pretty regularly and...after awhile I started to get antsy so I took some paper with me and started to draw. And then I started to meet everybody because they were interested, Who's this guys that always comes and draws these pictures?" So then, I met a lot of musicians because they all would all look at the pictures. I think the very first time I met Dave Holland
, I was drawing pictures of Miles and he came by said he was going to be there next week and he was surprised we had come back the next week and he said, Oh, I like these drawings!" and he said, Can I show these to Miles?" and I said, Uhhhh...yeah...okay." (Laughs) You know, if you want to keep one its fine with me!
Anyway, uh, uh, we became friends and I started to meet more of these people like Dave Liebman
, (Anthony) Braxton
, Barry Altschul, Chick Corea
, blah, blah, blah, on and on, you know. And uh, from drawing, I started using my painting, eventually, as music notation. Tried to. That's kind of further down the road. I was looking for a way to interact with their music more. Dave Liebman, a dancer, and I, and a percussionist did a concert, ah, Nancy Toft was the dancer and Armen Halpurian
was the percussionist. We did this concert of Live Media." I had painting...I would do live-action painting and stuff, but the medium wasn't really...its not like now where you could do stuff like fast and really work with light the way that Carole Kim
or one of those...that stuff; there were no computers. There was nothing, it was very primitive. I have a video of it someplace.
Vinny: Yeah, it's actually...I was thinking about it the other night or so. (Laughs) That would be cool to see again.
I had to transfer it from ah...the original video tapes were reels
; you know, I had to transfer it from reels to...
Vinny: Yeah, yeah something like that (laughter) yeah, its pretty funny.
Anyway...uh...at one of the concerts I had drawn this shape and stuff and I worked on it as a painting and I showed it and Dave (Liebman) saw it and said, Oh, this would make a nice album cover." And I guess Chick liked it and so they used it for Song of Singing
Me: Oh, really? Wow!
Vinny: Yeah, and that's how I got money to buy my first saxophone and that was 1971 so I was maybe 25 or so. Yeah, I used to think I started playing when I was twenty-one, but wasn't possible because I had been out of school so it was later, you know.
Somebody said, Well, that math doesn't add up Vinny." (Laughter) So I realized, Oh shit!" I was twenty-five when I started.
So, I got a saxophone and I wanted to take lessons. The only guy that actually sounded different to me at the time...because you gotta remember, I was hanging around with guys like (Dave) Liebman and Steve Grossman
and Mike Brecker
; and they all come from that Coltrane thing pretty strongly, and they all gave me a lot of pointers and tips; it was great, really fantastic! Matter of fact, I was staying with Dave Liebman, 'cause I didn't have a place of my own at the time and a he gave me some really good pointers. Embouchure things...and you know, how to start.
Vinny: Yeah and so I took a couple, two, three lessons with Anthony. You know, G scale, C scale, Bb scale
Vinny: Yeah, and he went on the road so that was that, for that. And then I got books and taught myself and I started traveling...and it was very difficult to paint and do stuff, so I wound up playing more and then I wound up concentrating on it and trying to do things with more portable medium like laser beams and stuff like that, but it was very expensive at the time and I kept blowing them up and I just started to gravitate. Music was easier and I wound up on an Indian reservation as a substitute teacher with a friend of mine who was a great bassist and he said, Oh, you have a saxophone, lets play!" and I said, Oh, no, no, no! You're like...you know what you're doing", I said, I just got this a couple of months ago" you know. He said, Alright, I'll write out some exercises, you play those, and we'll get together..."
But he had studied with Pran Nath
, the Indian vocalist and stuff and had played with Nina Simone and Roland Kirk and stuff. So he would, you know, do stuff, and I would improvise; 'cause that's all I could do...make stuff up, 'cause I didn't know anything, so that was just...whatever...
I did that for a little while and wound up with my first band. One year...almost by the end of the first I did a gig...and so then I got the bug and I...this is a little out of sequence, but you know...I was still trying to do painting as music notation when I landed a spot...then I realized like, most people just kind of do what they do"...so if I learned how to play this a little better, I could show them what I wanted musically, but you know, once you know how to play it better, you're basically writing music. So, you don't really need to paint anymore. So that...one kind of supplanted the other.
And then for a long time I did a lot of the album covers for Nine Winds
(Vinny's record label) and that kept that part alive; I haven't done a lot lately. So its been mostly writing. really concentrating on music; really doing it, you know?
Me: How long has that been since you really did the visual art?
Vinny: A year and a half.
Me: Year and a half?
Me: That's it? (Laughter)
Vinny: Well, albums covers...
Me: I was expecting like, you know, twenty years! (Laughter)
Vinny: Maybe a little longer maybe like, 2 or 3 years...you know. Something like that...
Vinny: well, the last few years the label has taken kind of a...its kind of been on hiatus because my mom was ill and it had been a lot of traveling and other things happen and you know personal life stuff happens and it gets in the way. You have to deal with that as opposed to putting out CD's and stuff. Most of my CD's in the last few years have been for other people, as a sideman, or else on other labels, you know. I have a CD with Bert Turetsky,
a CD with Peter Kowald
, on a bass player; JC Jones from Israel; Kadima Records
, and he's putting out...as you can see he's a bass player and he concentrates on bass player records, so...I have another one coming out with Mark Dresser
, so there's that. I just recorded...so what's in the can, is a box set of the large ensemble, I have a CD with Bobby Bradford
, a duo with Ken Filliano
, and then two projects I have to record are the ah...there's an octet that I did that's coming out soon, I hope. And then there's two...yeah, Kio's (Griffith)
supposed to be doing the artwork...and then I have...what else?
Me: But, these are all on other labels...
Vinny: No. The things that are on other labels...I was called to be on the Albert Ayler
tribute CD and uh...I just got a copy of this new Weasel Walter
CD I did with John Lindberg
, and Weasel, and William Winant
, Henry Kaiser
, Joe Morris, Liz Albee...
Yeah that just came out...and then there's a trio with Weasel and Damon Smith. That came out where I played mostly bass saxophone and saprillo. I think there's one cut on tenor. So...those things are on other labels. The other litany of stuff is...I was trying to do the box set on Innova
(record label) but I haven't heard anything from them. I sent them some stuff; they were interested; they were gonna try to get a grant to do some production and stuff, but now I haven't heard anything. My emails have gone to the void...wherever...(laughs)
Yeah, so... I'd have to activate Nine Winds again but at this point in time, it's easier to have somebody else do the artwork for now.
Me: Right...this actually segues perfect. As far as activating Nine Winds or any of this, what do you think about the climate out there for recordings and physical CD's versus non-physical CD's, distribution, and with the Internet, stuff like this?
Vinny: Distribution for our music is a fallacy. It's always been a fallacy. You know, I mean no ones gonna put it in stores if they don't know who you are. This goes back to that other thing...you know? I mean, people need to have an artifact to review. You can't...there aren't that many people who specifically review downloads.
I have a download quintet record on Redline Park
(Online Record Label) I've got one review from that; that's pretty cool and uh...its nice that its there and people can access it. I have a lot of music on my website where people can download that music, but they can also buy the CD from Cadence North Country
(Jazz Distributor) or Indie Jazz
, or Jazz Loft
, or one of those places, you know; or, Downtown Music Gallery
. I mean, in the United States, those are the places to buy this kind of music. So you really don't need distribution, you just send it there, you know. Cadence North Country has digitized a fair amount of music on Nine Winds and out that out and pretty soon we'll be on Dram (Online)
, which will be music you can listen to online, streaming, but not download. So people who; if they want those CD's, can go to any of those distributors and get them.
Me: So, you think; with this music you still need to do physical CD's to be viable?
Vinny: The people who enjoy this music are collectors. They want to go back in time and have an artifact and go back and see the progression of what the music is. You can't really do that; as much, with the downloads. Now, they'll take that artifact and put it in their computer and stuff, you know and maybe listen to it once and have it in a portable medium like that. So, I think you need to do both nowadays. You need to cover three or four bases. You can't just do one thing, you know. Just the way it is and that's fine. The prices have come way down from when I started. CD's were very cost-prohibitive when I started; as a matter of fact, I think I was a holdout for vinyl. I lasted until 1988, the last batch of records we did was 1998 and then we switched to digital format, but I prefer...ah...I like CD's because of the length; you can really get a thing. Most people that put out CD's, they don't think of the CD as a concert performance, they think of it as an LP and I don't think that peoples attention...people don't have time to listen to that kind of thing unless their in a closed environment; like their on an airplane, their in a car, their in such and such. They like to shuffle around. Well, I like to make CD's where it has a nice ebb and flow with the compositions and stuff and...it takes you to a place when you finish. So, it's a different approach to recording. I frankly think there is too much... there was too much stuff. Now everybody's kind of scaled back if you notice, you know? They've kind of glutted the market with a lot of music so that everybody has to pick and choose. Now, not everybody's buying CD's so people have become more picky, and can actually discern what's good, what's not so good, who they want to hear, who they don't want to hear. So that's an interesting development.
I was talking with Jeff Kaiser
the other day, and I was telling him...and also Bobby (Bradford); just because both those people have been at school (CalArts) here for a visit, I was talking about them as like...It's very curious to me that when we started playing music, we did gigs in order to make a recording. Now people have to do recordings in order to get a gig. So the whole things been flip-flopped, you know? Its kind of been inverted; and I think that will change also. 'Cause there aren't that many places to play right now, and that goes in an ebb and flow also. Lets see what happens, but its kind of curious. Actually, it's a very challenging period of time, but I really think that you have to address multiple formats for the music at this point. Even if you just do downloads and CD's you cover a lot of bases that way too. Plus, reviewers and radio stations which really help you to increase your base of operation, if you will. They want artifacts to listen to. There haven't been any programmable, download, radio stations that I know of. You do have podcasts, but a podcast is still somebody gets a CD and organizes his show from the tracks. They don't go looking around on downloads, because downloads are too difficult to deal with. They can just rip a couple of tunes from the CD and then podcast it. It's a lot easier. Doesn't mean they have to go back to the CD but they do have to do it once and that's a sale! Just my opinion, but it seems to be the opinion of a couple of people in the industry right now. You can't switch from one to the other even Maria Schneider
, she had a record that was only downloadable...after the download point in time, people wanted a CD and she had to make CD's eventually.
Me: That's interesting!
Vinny: You go to gigs, you can sell a download card, or you can sell a CD. I mean, most people would probably; for the ten bucks, would probably like to have the CD.
Me: Right, yeah, that's the conundrum...I think
Me: Myself too, downloads kind of don't mean much to me...personally
Vinny: I think that also, in the long run; this is again another opinion, but I think it devalues how people view the music. I don't know if that is true or not...can't really say that that's true. It seems to me to be a devaluation of the music, 'cause there is nothing. It kind of just floats there. When you have a CD, its like oh... you can look at that, you can; with a microscope, read the liner notes or whatever (Laughs)...but it is an object and it is a direct connection to the artist when you do that.
Me: It's an art object.
Vinny: It's a much more, personal thing. When you download something, it's like an abstract. It's just the way that is, you know?
Me: It's like the difference of having a sculpture and a picture of a sculpture.
Me: Especially for artists who art really means something and it's not just necessarily pop and single driven, something like that. Which I think Jeff Gauthier
tries to do with Cryptogramophone
Vinny: He tried to create a...His model was the ECM
model and a nice very stately thing, music of a certain kind that would, you know, keep a label profile very even and stuff like that. He tried to do it kind of old school too with distributors and blah, blah, blah; and I don't think that model works. It works for ECM because they're who they are and they started it. I mean, I don't think it works for Nine Winds because Nine Winds is; first off, one of these labels where we don't have a separate category for everything. Everything is one thing. In a sense it probably hurt some of the chances for groups like Quartet Music, but it did get their music out there. On the other hand, people expecting an electric Nels Cline
album and get an acoustic album are going to be disappointed. So there's that too. You know my model is like, I like all kinds of music so I don't really care, you know? I don't have to have a profile. I'm representing the West Coast of North America. There's a lot of different music there. We go all the way from Mexico to British Columbia. There's no way in hell that people that live in the San Joaquin Valley are going to play the same music as the people on Victoria Island. It's just different.
Me: You have a bit more of a Do-It-Yourself kind of attitude.
Vinny: I do. And we try to get the biggest bang for the buck that we could within a certain amount of budget. If things didn't sound good, we didn't put them out. Although some people think that the large ensemble records don't sound that great, but I don't have the money to bring fifty people in the studio. And to be honest with you, in Los Angeles a lot of those studios aren't there anymore that hold fifty people.
Me: Yeah, where would you even record it?
Vinny: Yeah. Fox sound stage
, which I don't have the money for.
Me: My friend Frank Macchia
, he did two orchestral albums, (saxophone concertos) but he used a Czech orchestra (City of Prague Philharmonic)
through video link because it's infinitely cheaper.
Vinny: Yeah, it's like a hundred a minute...
Me: I think he paid about ten thousand dollars for each of his recordings total and he recorded his saxes at home.
Me: It's still ten thousand dollars, but it's infinitely cheaper than hiring an orchestra...
Vinny: If you had an orchestra like that in Los Angeles, you would pay a thousand dollars a minute. The record would have cost a hundred thousand dollars.
A Little Bonus:
Vinny on writers in NY vs. LA and the lack of research on Los Angeles' jazz history
Vinny: The thing about these writers is they're supported there. They have an interest there. People care about the things. The Times puts people; you know, it's a good position to have, to write about that kind of stuff. The people here don't get any support. The musicians don't get any support. The people that write about it certainly aren't going to get any support and they don't have an outlet to put their writings anywhere. And the people, who would be good candidates, get frustrated just like the artists do. They don't want to deal with having to put out themselves. Now this guy, Charles Black you know, he wrote a very good thesis for his masters thing and with a little more input, or fleshing out, it would be a great book, you know? Steve Isoardi written two books one about Central Avenue and the second one was...no, three books, the second one was called The Dark Tree" that was the story of Horace Tapscott, and the third one was about the people around...am I right? 'Central Avenue', 'The Dark Tree', and then there's one more book about the people around Horace (Tapscott) and the community surrounding him and stuff. So those books have been written. Those are good. The Central Avenue book is also quite good. These are all taken from the oral histories. That happened at UCLA, they did me someplace; I have it. They did Bobby (Bradford). This (A book Vinny is showing me) is called Beyond Central Avenue", and they did Bob (Bradford) and a number of...Buddy Collette I think, I'm not sure about Buddy, I think they may have done him. So, there's the documentation. Actually UCLA has a big archive of a lot of stuff. One of the best things about the archive is that Mark Weber's photographs are in it, if you go look up Mark Weber on the internet, you'll see a certain period of time when he went to everything. All kinds of music and photographed it and just did interviews with people, he used to write for CODA magazine.
Me: I think I saw some old pictures of you and Alex Cline playing...
Vinny: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I mean, he's got tons of them, but here are a lot of John (Carter) and Bob (Bradford) and stuff like that. As a matter of fact, he used to ride around in a car with John (Carter) going to gigs and stuff and interviewed John all the time. Taped everything, so that archive is at UCLA...it's a treasure trove. So there is a certain amount of documentation of what happened.
Me: Why no research then, I wonder?
Vinny: Well, people don't really understand the importance of the scene. Like I said, Mingus, Dolphy, Don Cherry, Ornette, you know, they all honed their skills here and at a certain point, went to the East Coast. Now why they went to the East Coast, I don't know. John (Carter) and Bob (Bradford) stayed here. Horace (Tapscott) stayed here. Maybe bands traveled, and they went to New York and stuff. There were a lot of people playing in New York at one point in time. You know, it was the center of a lot of places like that, but not anymore than Central Avenue (In Los Angeles) or some of these other obscure places in other parts of the United States right after the war. But there were only a few places where Bop kind of took root. One was here. 'Cause like I said, Teddy Edwards, Howard McGhee McGee, you know, ah...I think Dodo Marmarosa he even, but I'm not sure about that. Maybe I'm thinking of somebody else, but I think it was Dodo Marmarosa and a few others were all playing Bop here already. Wardell Gray...I mean arguably, Teddy Edwards might be the first Bebop tenor (sax) player. Somehow, that instrument and Bebop, you don't think of it. You think more of the alto. Frank Morgan was here and a few others. So, I don't know, I don't know, but there as always a scene of very strong music here. You wrote down your questions?