Les Tomkins talking to the Gary Burton Quartet in 1969
Do you see any validity in the supposed fusion of jazz and pop? It has even been suggested that eventually it will all go into some kind of a melting–pot and just be headed ‘music’. Have you, as a group, played, are you playing, any part in this?
Gary Burton: I don’t think that they’re coming together into one central music. There’ll always be a jazz and pop and a variety of other things. However, there is an open area, particularly in improvised music, where one can deal in certain aspects of both musics. In other words, you can be a jazz player and incorporate some rock–type or pop–style elements into your music. Or you can be a rock player and play jazz–type improvising in your performances.
There is this in–between area of exchange. That’s been going on, in fact, between jazz and a lot of other kinds of music, many times in the past. Jazz and Latin music have a certain middle ground, on which they co–exist, but yet neither one has fused into the other. It’s typical of jazz that it would be like that.
Steve Swallow: Yes, I agree.
Bill Goodwin: It takes from all areas and makes it its own.
Swallow: In the end, yes. The whole melting–pot theory is specious; it’s been proved specious in terms of sociology. It’s illusory, And the same is true in music;. I believe that it retains strong identities.
Goodwin: You trying to‘ say that jazz is not a democracy?
Swallow: No. But there are characteristics of many musics that young improvisors like ourselves have made use of. Because of our youth and also because of the increasing availability of music you can hear music from throughout the world without too much difliculty.
Goodwin: I think anybody that’s got their ears open is bound to be influenced by what they hear. I mean, you can’t ,turn your ears off, and you hear music in elevators and stuff.
Swallow: Right. But the identity of the music you play doesn’t reside in that. You synthesise those materials to create a vocabulary to play with, but the important thing is the emotional content of what you do. And that’s dependent upon you and your specific environment.
Dave Pritchard: This particular band was probably the first really eclectic group that brought it all together. That’s one of the things that I noticed. It was the first jazz group that I could totally relate to. I’d played very little jazz before; mainly, I’d been playing rock and a little classical guitar. This group made me aware of how eclecticism can come off–without being pushed, you know.
Burton: Generally, we’re not just looking for things to be different and all that; we just like to be open to anything that appeals to us, for something to try. Ifwe think we can get some sort of meaning out of it, and it provides a worthwhile enough vehicle for us to experiment with. then we give it a try. And not everything has turned out to be a long–running success, or has held our interests for a !ong period of time. Some things have been very–successful. Using elements of Country music; for one, was something we just tried once to see how it would work, and it’s still there today.
Swallow: What has to happen, though, as a result of there not having been a merging of musics, as sometimes believed, is a re–evaluation of the terminology that’s used to define the music, anyhow. The use of the word jazz, in particular, is up for consideration at this point. How I relate to jazz is not the same as other people relate to it. Earlier in my playing career I had a much stronger romantic identification with jazz music. And the word jazz was very viable to me at that time. But it’s no longer so viable as my music becomes more personal to myself.
Goodwin: It’s basically just a category, like pop, Country and Western.; a label you put on something to classify it, so you can sell it.
Swallow: Yes, it’s a merchandising device, primarily.
Pritchard: I’ve always felt, somehow, that the first idea of rock and jazz merging together was an economic thing, in one sense. Like, for record companies, if jazz was becoming more like pop, it would mean more widening of markets for it.
Burton: I wouldn’t want to just put it down, though. Because there are a lot of musicians who sincerely believe in the combination of the two musics. Who are jazz players who have found a lot of meaning in the newer pop music that has come along in the last decade, that wasn’t here before, and feel that they’re limiting themselves if they play just traditional–type jazz and don’t play some of these other things that they like. Then there are the rock players who want Co expand their setting, and make use of more extended improvisations, experiments and things that up to now have been the special luxury of jazz musicians or classical composers.
And there’s a great number of musicians from both sides who are involved in crossing the border and using the other music, with the most serious of intentions. There have been instances, of course, of people trying to go pop to sell more records; that goes on. But you have to take seriously many of those engaged in trying to make a music for themselves out of the mixing of the two.
Some very good records have been made in this middle area. Dare I say it? – ourselves. We’re involved in this area, and I consider us to be very serious; and we’re not actually trying to combine the two. Some ambitions are to blend the musics as equally as possible. Ours, on the other hand, is just to make use of whatever is availabIe. A lot of our music would be considered jazz in the traditional sense of playing on a song; other , songs are not so stylistically reminiscent of jazz. We’re not just trying to create a new hybrid music.
Goodwin: I think we’re just trying to make the music that we like; I knowthat’s what I’m trying to do.
Burton: No, it’s more than that. I mean, you could ask, say, Barney Kessel what kind of music he’s playing. and he’ll say the music that he likes. Which is not the newest kind of thing. And if I played like that, an older style of music, even though I liked it, it wouldn’t necessarily have the meaning that I’m striving for in my music.
Goodwin: Well, you wouldn’t play music like Barney Kessel.
Burton: But there are people my age who do have that style, and happen to love it, YOU know. I mean. there’s a lot of importance put on the factof a musician getting to play what he wants to play, and that’s certainly part of it. For me, there’s more to it than ,that; I want my music to serve some particular purposes as well. To do that, it has to be concerned with what’s going ‘on today in many ways.
Goodwin: Oh sure, if you’re a concerned person at all, I thmk you can’t get away from your music reflecting that. But still, you could find yourself in another context and play something that you liked and related to.
Burton: That’s true.
Goodwin: We’ve all played other kinds of music than we’re playing now, and enjoyed it. I know I’ve played some I’d rather not speak about, but there’s usually something I could get out of it. It’s like a relative thing–thirty per cent achievement on this level, or something.
Swallow: One of the reasons, I think, that our music falls stylistically into that middle area that tends towards popular music is because of the intentions of the people who write the repertoireGary. Mike Gibbs and myself, primarily.
Speaking for myself, the reason I came to write the kind of songs I do, in part, at least, comes from the fact that I’m interested in the song form, rather than improvising without reference to repeated structure. In that respect, I share an area of interest with a lot of popular music composers, and not with jazz composers.
Not that I believe this to be a fault jazz. A lot of techniques can co–exist within the jazz community. But there’s that word again, and you run into trouble because there are such vast technical differences between the musics played by various musicians in jazz music. And there are vast emotional differences as well, because there are all kinds of different people playing it.
Goodwin: As far as actual instruments, there are very few original approaches. A drummer might hold the sticks a different wav than another guy, but basically you’re working wi,th the same drum vocabulary. Like, rock’n’roll drummers play the same licks as jazz drummers.
Swallow: Sure you do. But you and Sunny Murray have very vast differences in your basic approaches.
Swallow: And I would like to co–exist with Sunny Murray’s music.
Burton: But, in more general terms, that brings up the question of the avant garde movement actually doing harm to jazz, in that it is discouraging people from getting involved in the music. And I would say, on a certain popular level, that it probably is. I mean, there are a lot of people who, with visions of Benny Goodman in their heads, come strolling into a night club, stumble on to a new music group and are just driven right back out, saying: “Well, gee, if that’s what’s become of jazz–forget it!” A lot of the older generation of critics say the same thing, too.
Goodwin: Thev sav it about rock’n’roll music.
Burton: They’ve reacted the same wayright. But we’re talking about music that has a tradition. Jazz has a tradition of followers and all that sort of thing, many of whom are getting discouraged by the trend of things. Actually, it’s a thing we can’t really control; we have to let the musicians zo where they will, what seems natural to them. Steve made a good point, that we should pay careful attention to allowing as many types of approach as possible to come forward. It’s important to preserve some of the other less adventurous approaches, to let the older, more established styles continue, without having to get rid of them immediately and go on to something else. There’s a lot more room in which to experiment that way.
Goodwin: There’s so much music available that it’d be a shame to turn yourself off to any of it, really, as lame as some of it may be.
Burton: Except that one does. I find myself turning myself off to lots of music in order to concentrate on my own. In order to keep a clear picture “Is the avant garde movement actually doing harm to jazz . . . discouraging people? . . . on a certain popular level, it probably is.” Gary Burton of what I’m doing I get very careful as to just what music I’ll expose myself to and how much time I’ll spend listening to one thing or another.
Goodwin: With me, in the past, if I heard another drummer play something I would get to the job that night and I’d play it. You know, I played like that drummer for that night. I was a different drummer every night for many years. But now I seem to be able to retain my own thing, no matter what I hear. There’s more of a detachment. It’s interesting that you don’t feel that way.
Burton: Well, I used to listen to records constantly and have no problem with my own identity; I used to enjoy immersing myself in lots of different music. I hardly do at all now.
Goodwin: I notice I don’t do it as much as I used to.
Burton: Of course, I’m not home as much as I used to be, where I could easily listen to records and everything.
Goodwin: You don’t keep a record collection, do you?
Burton: No. I hear things on the radio and at people’s houses and so forth: SO I usually know what’s going on cur.rently. But it seems that if I get too involved with it. it conflicts with the thinking that I seem to want to do about my own thing. That’s just come on in the last few years, actually.
It has been said, possibly by people who want to bury their heads in the sand, that jazz hasn’t really progressed in the last 20 or so years. Presumably all four of you would disagree with that viewpoint.
Burton: Well, it seems so obvious that jazz has gone through many changes. Whether one wants to consider them progressions or retrogressions or whatever. it’s his own business. But it’s been far from stagnant, I’d say.
Goodwin: Considering the music is still so young, relatively speaking.
Burton: There’s always the question as to how long the music will remain a fertile territory, you know, and one never knows that. Some musics have been short–lived and lasted one century; some have lived on for several. That’s something we don’t really know, until you have the history to look back on. So I can see how somebody could say: “Well, we must be near the end now. I don’t like it anv more” and that sort of thing. But I ihink it would be impossible to tell at this stage. It seems to me that it’s still changing a lot.
Swallow: Yes, I resent that question; it’s like comparing jazz to a Chevrolet or somethine. You’re lookinz for changes every. year and all that stiff. Jazz music is linked to traditions of music playing that go back many thousands of years. It has nothing to do with the rate of change that appears in all the products we buy.
Pritchard: I would agree very much.
Goodwin: But the trouble is, it’s become a commodity like everything else.
Swallow: The people who want it to change very fast are the ones have have to push it in the supermarkets.
Goodwin: That’s always the problem. One person considers it an art, another looks on it as a commercial product.
Burton: Even the musician himself is faced with that problem. We have to consider it as a product, to a certain extent, because our livelihood is made selling it. Travelling around, being paid for our services; and trying to sell our records and our songs and our music in general, It’s a weird paradox that one lives in.
I’m sure it must have gone on 400 years ago as well. It’s probably gone on as long as there’s been musicians. really. Very few musicians ever got to be supported by any government or anything: they’ve always had to earn a living and sell their music.
Swallow: Yes. It’s interesting, too, that we’re all sons of the white middle class and we’ve all come to play this music. Us and a lot of other people, too.
Goodwin: I happen to be a son of the white upper class!
Swallow: Okay–sorry. You know it’s a fascinating phenomenon that so many of us have to come to play a different music. There seems to be a lot of that. There are people playing classical European music who have nothing to do with Western history. Japanese, Indian, Negro musicians, all in symphony orchestras and things. It’s very similar to my situation.
Goodwin: Well, if you can play it, I guess you got a right. man.
Burton: The exposure to so much tha; our generation has had from an early age is a great advantage; it makes all the difference. It also depends on what one has in mind to say with ,one’s music.
Swallow: We’re different from like, Bix Beiderbecke in the early ‘thirties, addressing himself to the white college people. Which is essentially what we’re doing–40 years on. Things have changed so that what the music means to us and our audiences is probably quite different. Especially the audiences.
Goodwin: When you’re playing, do you ever wonder what the people are thinking out there?
Swallow: No. I hope they’re not! Would you say that jazz today is as much a product of education as it is of emotion? It’s produced mainly now by musicians who have had a pretty broad schooling.
Burton: Yes, it’s true most jazz musicians today have some training.
Pritchard: I played classical music as a relief, and I’ve been expose,d to quite a few, just because you can easilyget to them. Also more people can get formal education nowadays:
Burton: I still think that most jazz education is in the form of experience, rather than actual classroom transfer of knowledge.
Swallow: You could even say it’s anti-academic in certain ways.
Burton: Compared to a lot of music, some essential things can only be learned on the job in jazz. Only the most mechanical aspects of it are actually taught. I went to a school that specialises in teaching jazz, and no doubt the best one at it [Berklee], so I know how that works. It’s really kinda foolish to even think of it as being taught–what really makes jazz jazz.
Certainly, today almost any kind of music requires some sort of detailed study. There’s very few musics in the world left where you just sort of amateurishly join in. Even rock–it was only for that first couple of years that the natural, innocent approach was in vogue. Now it’s so complex that they want everybody to read, or do something a little bit more than just play a few chords. The demand for skill came on quite early in rock.
Swallow: Most of the innovators in jazz who set the increased technical standards that caused the music to raise itself were non–academic people themselves: Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, etc. They were naturally gifted players. If an extremely gifted person confronts an instrument cold, he has certain distinct advantages over people who have to go through a notation system to arrive at an understanding. It’s verv direct, and it’s one of the things that defines jazz and sets it apart from the music that’s taught in the academies.
Goodwin: You sort of learn it, and then find out what you’re doing later.
Swallow: No. You find out what to do. Because there you are with a bunch of other people who play, faced with the necessity to make a group music.
Burton: You have to try to get it together without any exact clear–cut path shown to you. It requires immediate involvement.
Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.