What do you say?
When I came to IU, I was very quiet and a biologist. Things weren’t going well. The only thing I could do was stake out in a practice room and shed little what I could, because it let me escape a bad situation for an hour at a time. I tried to get into the school where I could do more and failed pretty spectacularly. I had a pretty solid reputation as a guy who had no idea what he was doing.
I felt like the things I wanted to do weren’t quite good enough—like I had to be more complex, much quicker, play higher, play denser. I had to be smarter than the other person, had to have all the changes memorized deeper than they did, had to outdo them before they outdid me. Cut or be cut. I had to be a thing that I wasn’t, you know? I come from a bunch of people from the most country places you can imagine. Nobody on either side of my family has lived in a big city for at least 3 or 4 generations. My extend family maybe has 7 years total of postgraduate study. I come to IU and I have to play this super-urban, highly stylized bebop to fit in and be included? Is that what all jazz is like?
What do you say when someone you wanted to grow up to be like dies?
The whole time, though, I was continually captivated by this guy Ornette Coleman. He was saying that it was okay to be kind of a hick, he was saying that it was okay to not have to do math in your head while you played, he was saying that it was okay to not know every tune, he was saying it was okay to do your own thing even if nobody around you bought into it at the moment. And he’d fought for what he wanted, too; he’d fought through WAY worse than the things that I was experiencing and it worked out for him. Maybe the places I was coming from were legitimate.
And that sound! You could say anything with it, and all of it sounded like it was for me, like Ornette was playing just for me and nobody else. This kind of private reassurance, like ‘I get where you are, and they were wrong about me, so maybe they’re not right about you either and you can do a thing or two.’ Or maybe, ‘I get what it’s like to be way more excited about something than everyone else around you, even when it doesn’t make sense and kind of tends to turn on you and make things harder, and I know what it’s like to say ‘today’s not the day you get to me’’.
What do you say when someone you want to grow up to be like dies while you’re exploring his work?
I more or less bludgeoned my way into a degree program, but still wasn’t doing the things I wanted to. I knew I wanted to explore this music that was making me feel so strongly, so I founded a group to do it with. I studied for months to get ready, I read two or three biographies, I pulled a bunch of tunes from his records. We went through a few personnel iterations and settled on a particularly strong one. And I watched something really wonderful happen to these three other people; I got to see this music change them too. I got to see them become more open and to stop questioning themselves so much. I saw people play things they’d never thought of playing before, almost every rehearsal. That’s so cool to see.
Then I started to write for other groups, and all of them had some kind of relationship back to Ornette’s concepts. There was just no escaping him for me—every project I had would eventually come back to something Ornette had done, it just worked out like that. It was what I wanted to do, it was the way to get my ideas out, it was a perfect vehicle. There is a way, using Ornette’s rules, to get everything I want to get across emotionally to the world out.
And things have started to work out. Things are working out. And I’m doing it more or less according to what I hear, what I really truly hear.
What do you say when a hero dies who helped you hear yourself?
You say enough.