Courtesy of George Lewis

Black Saint



I ran across a copy Homage to Charles Parker in a used CD store back in the day when I was buying for Tower Records. Forget what you know because it kicks you in the head. I played it in one of the stores after ordering half a dozen copies for a listening station from Black Saint's North American distributor and I was chastised by an elderly customer. From that point forward, I have been driving the Lewis bandwagon. Perhaps no one in the States outside of Chicago has intrigued me more than Lewis. Funny, that Lewis is a card-carrying member of the AACM. It is truly an honor to present to you, George Lewis, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

GEORGE LEWIS: Boy, Fred, that was a long time ago that decision was made. I barely remember (laughing). I think I just kind of fell into it. I don't think there was some burning desire to do it. I would say that after having done the usual, sort of, school band thing and having gone away to college for a while and I became awaken to the possibilities of music when I met the people in the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This is with Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman. These people like Steve McCall, these were the people who I think awakened to the possibilities of music and caused me to develop a passion for it, or rather awakened the passion that was already there.

FJ: Prior to your fateful encounter with the initiators of the AACM, you were a member of the Yale student body.

GEORGE LEWIS: That's right. I was studying philosophy, I think, but somehow I think I was always headed in this direction. You know how it is. Sometimes you're headed in the direction but you don't really know it and you need someone to tell you that you're headed in that direction. Anthony Davis was there at the same time as me. Also, Robert Dick was around. Alvin Singleton was a graduate student. Gerry Hemingway lived in the community. Leo Smith lived in the community, so it seemed to a certain point as though all these people, there was the environment and at that time, there was also the professor at Yale, Willie Ruff, the French horn player was organizing the Duke Ellington Fellowship so you could have lunch with people like William Warfield or Dizzy Gillespie or Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington or Willie "The Lion" Smith. So all these things basically, you end up in a very rich environment and you start to see that the destiny is there. You just have to find someone to make you more sensitive to what the destiny is. And even the philosophy work I did was largely related to music anyways (laughing), so it could have gone a different way, but I was lucky that it didn't.

FJ: Upon conferring with Muhal Richard Abrams, Joe Jarman, and Roscoe Mitchell, did you discover that the foundation of what was to evolve into the AACM were in place?

GEORGE LEWIS: Funny thing. I've been writing a book on the AACM now and I hope to have it published next year. The University of Chicago Press has agreed to publish it. But even before I started doing formal research into the AACM, I knew that it was a formal organization, like it started in 1965. I became acquainted with them in 1971. And so from the very beginning, they moved to create a formal structure chartered for non-profit tax exempts and a board of directors and by laws. They had weekly meetings. They had a school. All of this was pretty organized. I think that the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, kind of, emulated that organizational structure. That organizational structure still exists today. It's just that the group of people primarily in charge of it only exist in two places, New York and Chicago. From the beginning, it was formally organized. I'd say that the AACM was kind of a social movement, Fred. That's my impression and it was based around, I think there is a key and the key is that notion of atmosphere. What people needed more than anything else, they needed to be awakened to the possibility that they could change their situation, that they could determine their own destinies, that they could decide for themselves what their music would be like and what its materials would be, what its infrastructural possibilities would be, what its aesthetic and philosophical directions would be. And I think that the AACM was primarily geared toward making sure that you understood that and that you could act on that understanding. So, yeah, I would say that there was a lot of group collaboration. People played each other's music. There were possibilities for doing theater oriented pieces or performance art oriented pieces. There were possibilities for doing electronic work. People were very interested in that. People were very interested in cross-cultural collaboration and people did that on their own resources, that is to say, they organized their own, or we organized our own concerts, organized our own events. I think that was a part of it all, was that while organizing things for yourself, you became responsible for your own destiny. You weren't necessarily complete subject to, in other words, you were your own agency. You weren't completely subject to being a victim or being pushed around.

FJ: Is that kind of self-reliance commonplace in today's economic interdependency?

GEORGE LEWIS: I think it's happening more today than ever. For example, a lot of artists, musical artists are producing their own work and producing their own CDs and producing their own multimedia productions. They're producing their own concerts. They're doing their own booking. They're managing themselves. And I think that's critical. I mean, that's happening internationally, it seems to me. It is in direct response to the ongoing attempt to police cultural expression, so people just decide for themselves that they don't need to do that. There are organizations that have specifically taken parts of the AACM model. For example, the Asian Improv people like Jon Jang and Francis Wong and Anthony Brown in San Francisco were heavily influenced by that model and moved very far toward producing their own work. They have this wonderful record label and so on. And the AACM wasn't the first, of course, to do this. I think it is a particularly good example of how to keep it going over the long run: 1971 to 2001, that's a pretty long time.

FJ: Should there be a governing body that defines what is and what is not art?

GEORGE LEWIS: Should there be? I don't know. I think the real question is can there be. And probably the answer is no, but attempts will be made, both formally, governmentally and through corporate forces, who will also attempt to dictate, largely by attempting to exclude or erase alternative histories and through circumstances, the only thing you can do to survive in that environment is to make sure that you have a space to produce your own work. And attempts will be made to police and erase. That's just how it is. You just really have to resist.

FJ: Having been granted an NEA Fellowship, how important is the vitality of the National Endowment for the Arts?

GEORGE LEWIS: Well, it was extremely important at one time. And it could be important again. My impression is that the first thing about it to remember is that it is a public agency. I think that is where a lot of the source of its strength is. You see, Fred, at the time the NEA was formed, private foundations didn't really give grants to, well, African-American artists in particular never got Guggenheims or Ford Foundations or Rockefellers or any of that sort of thing. It just didn't happen. So the difference is, with a public agency, you do have some recourse. With a private agency, they can give a grant to Donald Duck if they want because it doesn't matter. With a public agency, there is some sense of responsibility to the public. Of course, so what happens is that there is a network of competing forces, but essentially, there was a critical moment in advancing the arts in this country. Having the National Endowment, and there is still a role and it's an important role, but I think the role has been somewhat diminished due to the right wing in this country, who seems to be able to use the NEA as part of its fundraising apparatus, the latest cow in the creating of government funds, supposedly. It's very cynical. It seems to me. But overall, the NEA was very important and it could be important again. And there are lots of state agencies as well. There are some here in California and Illinois. A number of states have these and it gives a chance for regional and local artists to have influence on what happens to enhance the overall climate for the arts in this country, enhance the overall notion that we should have a public intellectual aesthetic life in the United States as other countries do.

FJ: Without the benefit of grants and unless lauded by Lincoln Center or teaching in some capacity at an institute of academia, is it possible for an artist to sustain himself?

GEORGE LEWIS: Well, my impression is that if you take yourself out of all support structures, then you really have nothing. The key is to, you find as an artist, your job is to find out what support structures are available and to try to become a person that can get those things. It might require major labels. It might require grants. It might require concerts and so on. There are all kinds of things that it might require. I see them as being fairly equivalent. I don't know many people who do not take advantage of one or more of these things, going into schools and doing workshops over at the universities and doing concerts. Everyone is looking for these things. The only artists I see who are not really taking part in those support structures, if they don't have any means of support, it is very difficult to survive unless they are independently wealthy. The question is how do you find that support rather than how do you survive without it.

FJ: What approach have you taken to find the support?

GEORGE LEWIS: In my years, I've been involved in most things that artists of my generation have been involved in like grants from private and public sources. I've taught in universities. Before I had a full time job, I did various workshops around the world. I did concerts with small and large number of people (laughing). It was a very difficult period, I have to say, a great difficult struggle. No one said that being an artist was easy, especially if you decide to do something that's personal and perhaps beyond the scope of what's normally supported in the public media. So I'm always amazed at the invisibility of so many different kinds of music in this country. It's sort of an amazing thing. It's like this total lockout and then when they decide to publish even a little bit of it, everyone is given a pat of the back. There is a lot of self-congratulations for the very things they suppressed. Now, they are giving you a glimpse of it. I found it odd that with the Jazz movie that we just had, you couldn't hear any of this music anywhere in the United States for years and years and suddenly, they decide to do one short shock of a few weeks of it and everyone goes nuts and now, it's totally disappearing again, which is we're back to normal (laughing). It was so quick and it was amazing because it showed how suppressed that music really is and that is just one example of music that is totally suppressed here that you don't really here, which is heard routinely around the world.

FJ: Why is a music that was once perceived to be synonymous with being hip being suppressed?

GEORGE LEWIS: Well, it has always been the case during my lifetime. Maybe when I was like seven or eight, we used to watch people like Cannonball Adderley and we would watch him on television. There were these shows with Oscar Brown, Jr. and then suddenly, it all disappeared. Not only that music disappeared, but you couldn't really hear, you could hear a lot of country and western music, but you couldn't see the Temptations on TV either. So there was just a lot of suppression. I'm really not sure the reasons why. Perhaps it is something that people felt it was important to suppress, the people that were running these shows were not interested in African-American cultural expression and felt that they had the power to suppress it and they did.

FJ: With the continuing administration that teaching at a university requires and the commitment that comes with writing a book, where do you find time for your musical expression?

GEORGE LEWIS: I don't compartmentalize my life in that way anymore. Everything I do is connected with the music, whether I write articles or books, or whether I perform or compose, or whether I make computer interactive media pieces. It seems to me that those are all connected and I don't see any reason to separate them. In other words, Fred, I am doing everything that I want to do and there is nothing I don't want to do. And so that's a great position to be in. I've spent a lot of time getting to this point, to where everything I do is connected and where there is nothing that is being done which is not on the agenda and I don't regard teaching or being in the university as a burden. It is in fact an opportunity to help to change the face of how music is regarded in this country and around the world. So there is no time left over (laughing). No, there is no time left over.

FJ: What needs to be changed?

GEORGE LEWIS: Well, I think that first of all, the first thing is replacing what was erased historically. That's the first thing. We have to reach back and recuperate lost histories, erased histories. We have to make sure that contemporary voices are heard. And we have to provide an atmosphere to do that. Now, the AACM provided one model and I think take the AACM model right into the university. The faculty and the students seem to be on the same page with regard to what's needed to revive notions of culture and sort of erase those boundaries, while at the same time, leaving a space to what people think of art or art music or whatever they like. For us, we're looking to produce sort of artist/scholars, who will take primary responsibility for contextualizing their own work. So if they're doing all this work, they should also be able to present it to people and they should be able to connect it up to other contemporary discourses that is going on in other disciplines, visual arts, the other art forms, anthropology, sociology, the sciences. So we are preparing people to do that so that when they do go into the world and do their work, whatever it is, whether their work be more scholarship oriented or whether it be more in terms of creating music or things surrounding music or whether they're doing some combination, which is what we really look for. Whatever they're doing, they should be able to provide people with a context. What I was thinking about this morning is that there are people that say, "Oh, I just play," or whatever. Well, I don't interact with those people very much. The people in the AACM never said, "We just play." And the people with whom I have been able to react with since that time, who I've learned from over the years, that wasn't the philosophy. There was a notion of introspection there. It seemed to me that the university could support that environment in ways in which they hadn't done before, transforming education and transforming the educated as well.

FJ: Who has the most influential role in shaping the way music is perceived by the public: the artists, the record labels, or the critics and media?

GEORGE LEWIS: It is kind of hard for me to answer that question. I will tell you why, Fred. You know, it is hard for me to talk about what other people experience. In other words, the music from the standpoint of whom? When I pick up the paper, I don't see certain people, so if I'm a big newspaper reader, then that's face of music that I see. If I'm kind of involved in the arts, then I see things that the newspaper doesn't show and so it seems that people, the question is phrased in a way that makes it seem like we're all kind of subject to the whims of one or another of those groups. I don't feel subject to the whims of critics or record companies or any of that. I feel as though I have an agency to look for myself and if you want to do that, then it's more about the face of music for you than this sort of generalized face that sort of sits there and oppresses everyone. So from that standpoint, I would say all of those groups that you named have an impact, but I would say that the primary impact is the individual creates that or each individual creates that for himself or herself and should take an active role in doing that. There's not much more to be said. Otherwise, you give undue credit and power to people who really don't deserve it. Someone from CNN makes someone famous and then that person becomes the ruler (laughing), and since I don't feel that I am ruled by those people, I don't see any reason to give them credit or any time in talking to you about them. Rather, I would like to encourage people to think for themselves, to explore and find out what's in their community, what's out by their community, what's around the world and then they can create their own face of music. That's going to be the critical thing.

FJ: Documentation of your music has been few and far between. Has that been a conscious decision on your part?

GEORGE LEWIS: Well, basically, a few years ago, I made the decision that the most important thing was to do projects that I really liked (laughing) and to do things that I was kind of interested in and also, that I needed to move beyond the projects that had been done toward more expansive infrastructure, larger forms, larger scales, and those things take more time and so as a result, I take that time. There's not a rush to produce anything. It seems that when it's produced, it should be really good. I feel that the last few recordings, the Endless Shout (Tzadik) thing, the Voyager (Avant) thing, Voyager for example or Endless Shout or Changing with the Times or the duos with Bert Turetzky (Conversations on the Incus label) or this new one that's going to come out pretty soon on the Spool label, which is this Compositions for Creative Orchestra. These represent the kinds of things that I am interested in doing now. I would like to try to put out one or two a year, but I don't see myself going past that with any notion of quality. I guess that's where I'm headed. I found that doing duos with another individual was not where I was headed in life, although I've always wanted to sort of have those happen, but also be much more diverse in the kinds of projects that get done so that people really get a full sense of what I do and I also get a full sense of what I do (laughing). In a way, the recordings are kind of for me as well. I can feel good about them and there are a lot of other things besides recordings. I am continuing to make the interactive installations that involve computers and continuing to write music. And the other thing is that I found that the writing of essays, which get published in various journals, I mean, one got published in John Zorn's Arcana book. I found that more people actual read those than were listening to, more people were exposed to those than could be exposed to the CDs and that it was another way of presenting ideas. So I guess I don't feel the need to operate on many fronts and I'm not really privileging that. I think I see them as being very different and also, there is another thing. I need to write. That's important. I find it's a lot easier to get something published in written form and so, a lot of that has come out. I find that I get a lot of mail from people of what they've gotten out of these writings. It's provided a space for other people to think more expansively about their own creative process. That is what CDs do as well. People listen to it and they're inspired and they're encouraged to continue along their own creative path. So I guess I see them all as being part of the same form and I'm very flattered that you feel that there isn't enough, Fred.

FJ: In a less than perfect world, would being a source or catalyst for creative thought be enough?

GEORGE LEWIS: If you are going to be taking the idea of the AACM seriously, that's what you'd be. That's what people have done. If you look at what Muhal Richard Abrams has done. He has, in addition to producing his own amazing music, he's also provided, by doing the concerts in New York and just by his example, he's provided a kind of source of encouragement for people to realize themselves. I want to do that with teaching. I want to do that with the recordings. I would like to do that in every way I can. I think it is just a task than a challenge. It is just a task. You find yourself doing it. Once you set yourself along that path, you naturally gravitate toward the actions that are required to make that happen and also, you are trying to figure out new ways in which you can make that happen. I set a goal and along the way, some more interesting thing happens. The goal transforms itself and then you start to find that eventually, you realize that the thing you wanted to do was not quite as interesting as the thing that you're doing, but that the thing that you wanted to do led you to the point that you are doing something else that is important. I guess I do have a number of things that I would like to see happen. We have talked about some of those things already and so the idea is to move towards making those things happen. In a sense, it can be as simple as creating a more inviting work environment or creative environment for people. They feel less stressed by the need to conform to established notions where they can break out on their own and feel supported by some environment. There is a very interesting group of young people here in San Diego, this Trummerflora Collective. Have you heard about them?

FJ: I have a recording.

GEORGE LEWIS: They seem to be doing this. They seem to have adopted some of the ideas from the AACM. And they come from sort of diverse backgrounds. Some of them are my former students and some of them are not. They are different ages and soon, different genders, which will be good. Their idea seems to be to create their own concerts, to create their own CDs, and to explore their own notions. Many people doing experimental music come from not only improvised music, but also various forms of rock and various forms of whatever. It's kind of hard to make these labels now. They're also involved in videos and performance. This is sort of where I think these things can go. There is this Spruce Street Forum. A funny thing has happened in San Diego. It used to be this very conservative place and then all of the sudden, things started happening. This wonderful woman started a place to bring people to come and play. These people are coming like Ken Vandermark is coming. Oliver Lake came and Leroy Jenkins came and Andrew Cyrille came and we saw Tim Berne last week. And that encouraged other people. Henry Threadgill is coming. So suddenly, San Diego has become this place where you can hear very exciting music, both from a local perspective of people producing it and from these people who come and people like Quincy Troupe who are teaching at the University of California long with me are organizing events. So it's kind of interesting. I have to take a path in nurturing that in some way. So I can do my part in the university and also, in helping to advise about the Spruce Street Forum concerts. I just try to be there, attend and I am part of the board and try to be helpful. What I am saying is that in terms of what's happening here, there is kind of an awakening and I feel as though the kind of attitude, which fostered the AACM, which led to that success can be sort of taken anywhere. It can encourage people who are not directly involved in any organizations to create their own organizations and to do things on their own and to enhance their communities. This little Spruce Street Forum is kind of known all over the world. People are calling from all over the world trying to play in San Diego (laughing). A lot of them have never heard of it before. They all say the same thing when they come. "When was the last time you played here?" And they say, "I don't remember," or "never." Tim Berne said that he played here in the Eighties or something (laughing), in the early Eighties.

FJ: Isn't San Diego a Republican stronghold?

GEORGE LEWIS: Well, it's still a Republican stronghold. But somehow, right under the noses of the Republicans, all this interesting activity is going on. I feel I am definitely part of the creative community. It's where I always wanted to be. Thanks, Fred.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and how do you play tennis on grass? Email Him.