Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus
“ The bottom line about jazz is that it's not a music for like a zillion people, it's not that. ”
Saxophonist Roy Nathanson was in one of the earliest versions of The Lounge Lizards, which he left to found The Jazz Passengers, a group that slowly morphed into his new ensemble, Sotto Voce. In between he also co-led a duo with keyboardist and composer, Anthony Coleman and released, among others, the ground-breaking album I Could've Been a Drum (Tzadik, 1997).
As an independent composer he also scored the work of monologue artist, David Cole. He also scored music for several PBS programs and even wrote children's songs for the HBO series, Happily Ever After. All the writing, together with his career in acting, worked in concert to further the narrative aspect of his music, and a life which has always mixed aspects of the cerebral and the whimsical.
- Early Years
- New York Melting Pot
- Debbie Harry
- Words and Music
- Jimmy Heath
- The Life of an Actor
- Grants and Commissions
- Fire at Keaton's
- The Rock Concert
- You're the Fool
- Sotto Voce
All About Jazz: Aside from singing and composing, you are a multi-reedman. Had you always worn all three hats?
Roy Nathanson: Yes. I had played clarinet when I was kid. I was a pretty good clarinetist coming from parents who are musicians. My mother was a classical pianist, but had a lot of problems in her life and was never really able to have a career. My father played kind of big band stuff. He also wasn't a really great saxophonist, but my mother was really a good pianist. So I kind of grew up in a musical family. I was pretty good by the time I was fifteen... Then I kind of freaked out from classical auditions and then stopped playing for a while. Then I got really involved in politics; like lefty, radical politics.
Then when I came back to playing and I heard Coltrane, I was at Columbia... I started practicing alto like a maniac so then I dropped out of college just practice and play.
AAJ: You co-founded the Jazz Passengers with Curtis Fowlkes. Your more recent work under your own name seems more theatrical... combining music with spoken word and acting even within the space of one song. Had you this in mind from earlier in your career or did it slowly evolve?
RN: When I was in college, years ago, zillions of years ago; I went to Columbia. I was majoring in acting, (with a minor) in music. It was the early '70s and I decided that being an actor was the counterrevolutionary thing to be because you could not make up your own things. So then I just got involved in theater. I sort of was in the avant-garde theater world of the East Village; a lot of my friends were in that world. Which was also very gay, you know mixed gay and that was not normal for most jazz musicians. But I knew John Lurie from that scene because we both loved all those characters.
So I guess I always felt that for me, music was kind of an extension of culture and of storytelling. But at the same time when I was first playing all I cared about was playing. I was like any lunatic that wanted to play jazz. That's why I dropped out of Colombia.
Then I moved out to California and played with the circus. It was called to the Major Chumley's Combined Pandemonium Satire Show. It was really a hippy circus. I was studying with Charles Tyler... I was nineteen... Butch Morris was out there.
But then when I got back to New York I started working for Jazz Interactions which was a nonprofit jazz organization. I heard Sonny Stitt... at this point all I was interested in was Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers and Albert Ayler and all that stuff. When I heard Sonny Stitt at one point and I though this was really amazing, I gotta figure out how they do that. So then I started studying with Jimmy Heath.
Even though I was doing sort of theater, I would write scores for my friends and would help act in them in the East Village, I was also doing the same stuff that any young jazz guy was doing at that time; going to big band things and all that kind of stuff. Because back then there was no jazz in school really until the late '70s.
Then I got a gig with Charlie Earland and toured with him for a couple of years. I was good friends with Marc Ribot and we would sort of be all in bands together, he got a gig with Jack McDuff. After that, the thing to do was to get a gig with an organ player and then after that you play with Miles or something. That was still part of that kind of apprenticeship world. I just sort of caught the tail end and it also dovetailed with the world of the East Village, becoming friends with Lurie and combining that with theater.
That's a really round about way of answering that question. It's true that I had a multi-purpose idea of what it was to do music. It was all sort of under the general heading of theater or storytelling or narrative; or something like that. So that when I finally did the Passengers, I had already been doing scoring for David Cole who was a monologist. I did some film scores already before I did that.
I was around the Lounge Lizards and the Lizards were so much about combining those things even though all (John Lurie) did was really play music. Just the fact that he had this thing about fashion and the way the music was perceived was a kind of postmodern idea in that it was aware of itself.
John was very aware of how it was impacting the audience and the relationship between music and the audience. It was a kind of pop art the way that Warhol was, or something like that. He was really dealing in that currency. In fact when we did the Passengers I kind of didn't like that. I did not like the distance that John had to the audience and sort of the way he seemed like a star.
Curtis [Fowlkes] and I were from Brooklyn; we met in the early '80s playing at the Big Apple Circus; which was more like Cirque de Soleil or a Broadway show or something. Curtis was involved in it from the beginning and they always hired good players, Lenny Pickett did it. It was a real OK paying gig. So it was not nearly as funky as the other circus that I played in before.
Curtis and I got Ribot into the Lounge Lizards. So when I started to get something together, first of all I wanted something that was more compositional and had: more chord changes, more harmonically interesting and more compositionally challenging and at the same time funnier and goofier. I was always interested in making sure that, like Louis Armstrong's thing, like comedy... I wanted to have the thing constantly be the way a Dadaist thing is...kind of off balance or something. That's one of the things I liked about the ambiguous sexuality stuff and the ambiguous everything. I really wanted to feel like it was somehow off balance. Quite the contrary, it was more like the living theater than John [Lurie], that there was no barrier between the performer and the audience.
AAJ: New York is such a cultural melting pot and your compositions draw from such a wide field of sources. Could you have found this artistic voice anywhere else in the United States?
RN: No. I definitely don't think so. And that's an interesting point. That was one of the coolest things about the East Village at the time too, was that since I really came from New York; it wasn't like I just visited New York, my roots were so Brooklyn. And in the way people do these things, these American things...being with Curtis we covered the Jewish, black, Brooklyn experience and tried to bring Vaudeville and bring the sort of intellectual tradition of those things together in some way. That was the idea. We were conscious of that.
The interesting thing was that the first gig we ever did with the Passengers, which was at the Knitting Factory after we had been in the Lizards for years. We had a reputation; the Lizards would pack the shit out of that place. And people all came out for the Passengers gig and Marc (Ribot) was on the gig and E.J. (Rodriguez) and Brad (Jones) played bassoriginally we had Tony Garnier but then Tony got a job with Bob Dylan, which he still hasand Bill (Ware). It was completely packed. We got a rave review in the Times; it was like OK this is the next great band. The next gig we had, 90% of that audience didn't come and it was because they perceived something that was very obvious; it wasn't the Lounge Lizards and it was not related in any way to pop... John (Lurie) was self-conscious of the iconography of what he was doing; even if we thought we were performers.
Plain Old Joe (Knitting Factory, 1993), which I have 8 million copies of, is actually the history of the Passengers... and of the whole downtown scene. Because we were kind of the first wave and then really got popular from the Knitting Factory. You know Zorn had already been popular... (the) Lizards had already been popular. But like two months into the Knitting Factory, we played and we were kind of like a Knitting Factory world hit! We did the first tours of the Knitting Factory. So it looks like we're going to just have this thing with Curtis [Fowlkes] in the early Passengers... and I was the MC and then we just both played. So we just started as me and Curt just doing duets together really, then we added all these other people.
Then Bob Appel who was a founder of the Knitting Factory with Michael Dorf, got this job at Windham Hill. And Windham Hill was starting a new company called High Street, which was supposed to be their answer to Electra Nonesuch. They hired us as the first act. So that was our first major label thing and the idea was to get really good singers to do the shit that we had already been doing, with just us... But we still wanted to make the singing secondary to the playing. That was the thing that was cool about the Passengers was that we had vocals and we had this kind of theatrical stuff; but that was always second to the compositions and the playing. That way it was always a very serious jazz band... like Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or like the Art Ensemble.
AAJ: Have you ever had an audience just not get what you were doing or given the nature of your work do you mainly get the already converted?
RN: I think at this point I have been around a long time and I think I've had my ups and downs... There was a time in the early '90s when the Jazz Passengers was really the next big thing. If you went back to the New York Times you'd be amazed to see Curtis's picture, with me, on the top and the small little picture of Cassandra Wilson and stuff like that. We really looked like the next big thing and then it wasn't. So I think I have been blown higher than I should be... and then I have been blown lower than I should be.
Now things seem to be definitely back to something, for sure. I mean I just did this enormous gig in Paris. I think that when I play in New York, people come out and I think the people who come out now really do know what I am about. I have enough history that I very rarely hear anybody being surprised; except for a new piece, or a different poem, or a different idea. I'm 56 years old now and I think that my career trajectory has been so specific that I think that's true basically.
There's been like three or four times where people thought they were gonna make money on me; big record companies put money into the Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill album (Six Degrees, 2000)... and put money into the thing with Debbie (Harry) doing vocals... Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill was really the last time and that was just in 2000 it really wasn't that long ago. In the early '90s people really thought they were going to put big money into the things and the fact was it's so in between everything and what I do is so weirdly specific.
Even more recently I had a radio play, the thing about my father in the hospital; that was originally a script wrote... Chantal Akerman a really famous Belgian director who's done also some pop movies but she's a serious, serious intellectual Jewish holocaust survivor. I was in the movie of hers 'cause I did some acting during all of this stuff. And then I wrote that script with her sort of helping me and she had actually raised money for me to do a big giant movie of that; like $6 million dollars. And then she cancelled out saying that it was too much my script she couldn't figure out a way to make it hers. Which was fine but then they pulled the money out, that's why we ended up doing it just as a radio play... So I think by the time I'd done Sotto Voce (AUM Fidelity, 2006), it's the first time finally in my life that I really felt satisfied. I don't expect to fill big halls, any of that kind of shit...
AAJ: A song by Serge Gainsbourg was arranged by you for Debbie Harry, for a Virgin France compilation (1997). The more casual listener immediately associates her with Blondie, but she has worked to great effect with you many times including collaborating with The Jazz Passengers. How did this partnership initially start?
RN: Debbie's thing was Jazz Passengers In Love (High Street, 1994), this was the first of the vocal records. And Debbie was really good. She got to be a real good singer. I didn't put her on there because I thought she was just going to be famous, it really was because she was campy. She understood the kind of irony that I came from in the East Village. She had that same relationship to downtown theater that I dug. And so she was able sort of act the lyrics in a way.
I knew Hal Wilner, I had done stuff with Hal Wilner. I wrote a song for Annie Ross called "Imitation of a Kiss" that Jimmy Scott sang on the record, In Love (Windham Hill, 1994). I had worked and done few other things with Hal, and so we got Hal to produce that record for that new company and we got a bunch of these different singers to sing. Actually the truth was I barely knew Blondie but I knew Debbie slightly from the old days and mutual friends. I knew she would get my lyrics, which I wrote with my friend Ray Dobbins so we co-wrote the song "Dog In Sand." That was the first time I actually met Debbie. Then we had to do a tour for the record we just asked her if she wanted to do the tour, she was all into it... We did the tour and she was so cool it was ridiculous. Then we did these little tours in Europe that were regular jazz tours where she would schlep around her suitcase.
The crazy thing was...and this is amazing, Thomas Stowsand was the booking agency with the Saudades Agency in Austria, he was the main jazz booking agent in Europe; he booked everybody... the Lizards, Wayne Shorter, everybody. I called him and told him Debbie Harry was interested in touring with us and do you want to book the band? And he said, "Well, nobody knows who Debbie Harry is. Now if you went out with D.K. Dyson..."
But then [on the tour] there were people yelling out "Play Blondie tunes." They did do that. When we were first on tour in America they totally did that... On the first tour they would always yell out "Blondie." But the thing is people are not stupid, they find out... that's kind of the message of that Passenger's thing. They were there for some other reason. And the same thing when people would come out for Debbie, the first couple of crowds were like crazy, tons of people would come. After that...not that many people came. We definitely had good crowds, but was not anything like she would get normally because they knew they weren't gonna get that. So they liked what they liked. We got an interesting mix of people. It went a couple of years; then I got married, I had a kid really kind of late in my life and the Debbie Harry thing was over.
But regardless we sort of got deflated from being her background band. So by the time I had my kid and the Passengers weren't playing I would be playing gigs for nobody. So I had couple of gig years that I hardly played for anybody.
AAJ: Both lyrically and in the construction of your pieces there is a definite literary bent. You cite author Italio Calvino as an inspiration. What other authors feed your head?
RN: Well you know I got this graduate degree in poetry in the last few years and that was really great because I got to read way more than I had read before. I had always liked Whitman and I love Ginsberg... I like Langston Hughes, but to say those people influenced me I don't think... I have read a lot of people that I really like and actually not even super famous. There is a friend of mine named Jeff Friedman who is a great poet.
Back in the day I was really influenced by Calvino. I mean I used to carry Invisible City everywhere you know. And I just liked the idea of this kind of surreal stuff. I was influenced also by films, Louis Bunuel, I love Almodavar. I love the Spanish surrealists, like Antonio Machado's poetry. And I love the Marx brothers. I read tons of the S.G. Perlman. There is a poet from Pittsburgh named Jerry Stern. I mean a lot of them are Jewish, that's definitely true. I guess there something in there somewhere. Ginsberg was one of the first people I ever listened to. I'm friends with Anne Waldman a little bit but Ginsberg was special for me because I love that incantational thing. There are other poets from that same time like Philip Levine. I did my paper on some of the early Amiri Baraka films like Meditations On Twenty Volume Suicide Note. I love some of that stuff... and Gabriel Garcia Marquez of course. You can't not love Marquez.
AAJ: From your time in The Lounge Lizards to Marc Ribot's Rootless Cosmopolitans to your duo project with keyboardist Anthony Coleman there is an everything, but the kitchen sink aspect to all the records you are on. At this point in your career would you find being on a strictly straight ahead jazz date artistically limiting?
RN: I just did this thing on the music of Eric Dolphy with Ross Johnson and Myra Melford. And we are going to make that a project. We just did it at American hall; there is some live concert footage on the web if you want to check it out. This has been kind of a cool year, because after doing this degree in poetry, now I am sort of getting back to playing. I really wanted to build the playing and the speaking, the language thing together. Now that I have done that, I'm getting back into playing.
What's really cool about doing this is: I am 56 and have been playing professionally for 35 years... and to do this Dolphy stuff was so great because as a player he's definitely, hands down, my favorite player. I always loved that it was swinging so much and that it had just this intervallic idea that is compositional. He was taking, building melodic ideas that were (like) shapes. I just dug that so much. And that he wasn't really hearing the chords... Not that he wasn't hearing them at all, but they were more like seasoning.
George Schuller's father, Gunther Schuller, has these charts that he arranged for Dolphy that he never did. So we performed two of them. So it was me, Myra, Brad Jones...who was amazing on bass with all this stuff. And we did all the stuff from [Eric Dolphy's] Out To Lunch (Blue Note, 1964) and we did a couple of other things. It was the first time I did a gig like this after all these years... You can't say that this is a straight-ahead gig, but there was no poetry... And it was repertory, so for me to do a straight up a repertory gig... I totally, totally loved it; because it was a guy that I love. I could do Ornette or Dolphy or Mingus; that I could do because that made sense to me.
In the last year I transcribed tons of this stuff, I didn't write it up, but I learned tons of solos and that's what I practice now. All I practice now is Bach; Cello Etudes is the warm up... and then the Dolphy stuff. We're going to do something with it definitely because Myra is real into it. We did it the once just a month and a half ago, right before I went to Europe... and I'm going to make a record of the subway stuff on Enja, in the beginning of August.
>I am playing the Vision Festival in June . The French kids are coming to do the whole big version of the subway thing, they wrote all these subway poems; but they're not going to be on the record. It's just going to be Sotto Voce on the record with the Bill (Ware) as a guest. I've also arranged with Bill for this really good singer, Susie Hildegard... I'll be doing some touring with that stuff.
We've got to book the Dolphy thing. Somehow we're gonna make a record of this. It's kind of a couple of projects down the road. Even though we just played the gig, I would doubt that we'll do another thing with it until possibly the winter, or spring of next year... it takes a long time to get a thing done.
AAJ: You studied under Jimmy Heath who is thought of as more of a straight out bopper. Have you had a chance to play with him since your own eclectic musical identity has been formed?
RN: No, you know it's funny you should ask that because Jimmy is way more of a straight-ahead guy than his brother. We played this festival in the mid '90s just with the Passengers somewhere in Holland. Percy was on the festival and we all hung out at this bar afterwards and did this kind of hip-hop, Phish kind of thing. The guys in the rhythm section, everybody was blowing and goofing around; he hung with us the whole night and he heard our gig. And he loved it. He was really cool about it.
No... I've never even tried to play this stuff for Jimmy because he wouldn't like it. He's just not about that stuff. He was a great teacher, he was a great guy to have around but I was 22 or 23 and things went a different way. I learned a lot from the guy.
You know that's one thing that I have finally accepted: the fact that there's a lot of ways to do this stuff and to see music and to make sense of art; a lot of them are mutually exclusive.
AAJ: Aside from the many musical situations you have also tried your hand at acting in films by Chantal Akerman, Jim Jarmusch and Elaine May. How did you first get into acting and is it something you have desire to continue doing?
RN: Well actually that was part of the association of the Lizards and stuff like that. Jim Jarmusch had a band called the Del-Byzanteens at the time; if you were a filmmaker you had a band and if you were in a band, a lot of the time you did films (like me and John). People who were in that art world, in the downtown theater world... the idea was things bleeding into each other. Now it's much less that. Next came the '90s, where it was really about the experts; experts in writing scripts, experts at this, experts at that. Back then it was like you wrote your thing and then you performed it and you wrote the music to it. I always thought of it like Chaplin, I always loved Chaplin's stuff he was a big influence on me, he did that; you know he wrote his own music and did all that. I liked the soulfulness of that.
I am acting now, but I don't want act in somebody else's thing; I studied acting with this woman Mira Rostova. My brother died when I was young and I kind of spaced and banged my arm and that came up to be a problem when I was about 25, it looked like I wasn't going to be able to play anymore so I started acting again and I studied with Mira. She had been Montgomery Cliff's teacher. She had this whole idea of the fact that people are driven to say something... you not speaking about things, when you're doing a lament or you're doing a surprise, there are certain things that you're just doing. Certain emotions just force you to do things naturally; just doing those words... they come from you in an organic way. I think when I am doing my poems I am doing that. So I feel like I am satisfied... to say the things I want to say.
When I was going to Mira, I used to play ballads for her because I thought that I was speaking the words when I would be playing them. I wanted to sort of transition the idea of acting as language, that the language of words and the language of music were essentially not separate things. That's I think a whole thing that's been an evolving idea for me.
AAJ: You received two meet-the-composer grants to create work for children and also teach at the Institute of Collaborative Education. How does your life as an artist impact your teaching technique?
RN:I got these grants and worked on these pieces with kids, who were immigrants or second generation... Indian, Chinese or Korean, where I taught out in Queens. We made these pieces that were based on their experiences. I then had them even sort of score their texts. So I got really early into doing that kind of stuff.
AAJ: The New York Transit Museum has just commissioned you to do a piece. What is the nature of this work?
RN: What I am doing now is the coolest thing that I could ever do. The Banlieues Bleues festival in France hired Sotto Voce to play. It's a major jazz festival, but they have a real outreach program to the community and it's in the suburbs of Paris, which had those riots, where there are a lot of North African people. I taught teachers to teach their kids to write. Since I had done my manuscript about the subway I thought, "Well, why don't they read about the metro." We found about ten texts, the best of the texts of all these kids, and have scored them. Then I went there and performed them.
We had a beat box chorus that Napoleon [Maddox] conducted and a regular chorus that Tim (Kiah) conducted and then this community orchestra played the music that I wrote. And it was such a gas that I came back and at this crazy high school where I teach at, Institute for Collaborative Education, we have kids from all type of backgrounds and they all take the subway so we had them write their stories. The English teacher, Jeffery Romanoff, who had these kids in a group, they wrote their stories and I had my kids in my band score them. So then I took twenty of my kids to Paris with the Jazz Passengers and 40 kids from France were on stage and we did this whole thing with Magic Malik (he's an amazing flautist from Guadalupe), he played with us there... he did two nights and we did a whole week. We are going to do it again here; 25 French kids are going to come stay at my kids' houses. The Transit Museum sponsored the free concert at Cooper union on May 21st.
A friend of mine who has done film for years from the early avant-garde video days named Andy Gurion did video for it. There's all these subway samples and stuff. It's called Subway Moon.
The record I am going to make for Enja is going to be called Subway Moon and it's going to be just the Sotto Voce part. That's the shame of it. There is going to be some film that the kids did of the two things, of the New York and the Paris. I don't know what we'll end up editing together; it's a shame because it's such a beautiful thing. But there's a piece in French, they did a thing on it for BBC News Service, where the kids are interviewed.
I have only had teaching jobs where I could still go on tour. So it's not like it decided now I'm teaching period, I probably tour or two or three months of the school year and in the summer; altogether I am probably on tour for three or four months a year. But they know me as a professional musician; I had Debbie Harry play with my school band...I try to make them understand that the art that they're making is alive in the world now, it's not preparing them for being an artist later. But they're making art this second.
AAJ: The album Fire at Keaton's Bar & Grill features many other great guest stars who fit seamlessly into the piece. Did you envision who would be singing what first... a sort of later day Ellington effect?
RN: Remember I had already made this kind of super-duper, guest star list record six years before that with Jazz Passengers In Love and Bob Appel was the executive producer on that record too. So in a sense when they hired me, this was different, when they got the Passengers to do Jazz Passengers In Love I was gonna write the songs and Hal was going to produce it so he was going to get these special guests. Then Bob said, "Why don't you do a scored through piece... a whole song cycle?" I said, "OK, I'm going to do that... I'm going to create this whole reality..."
I had this idea with my friend Ray Dobbins, he's done a lot of writing with me over the years. The original idea of Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill was that I was going to co-write with different lyricists and I was going to just mostly write the music. It was kind of the idea of this utopian bar... I remember years ago I was in a bar in Charleston, South Carolina with Charlie Earland in 1981... This place was incredible. It was in this racist town and they had black and white, gays and straights... It was amazing! There were all these intellectuals talking about all kinds of incredible shit at this bar. So that to me was a utopian environment... So each person was supposed to imagine (his or her) own utopian bar situation and then the bar was supposed to burn down. So it was this virtual idea of a tragedy.
RN: It was also, my son had just been born; it was a very moving time for me. I wasn't playing out as much; it was definitely the period where I played out the least. The idea was based on Elvis (Costello), with whom I had already done something before... he was going to do a bunch of the lyrics but he was having a rough time himself. He couldn't get really anything together so that it looked like we were fucked. So me and my friend Ray basically wrote all of the lyrics in like two days. It took a year and a half to write. There's a lot of music on that record. So then Elvis said he loved the lyrics and he'd be happy to sing them. Once Elvis was doing it then it was easy to get anybody else because we just fell in with the right person and we just asked everybody and everybody said yes. I don't think there was anybody who didn't do it
AAJ: In the long course of the album's gestation did it ever lose its flavor for you?
RN: No. Definitely not. I won't go through all my personal stuff but I've had a lot of tragedies in my life; it's funny that I do feel that everything happened organically... not that I don't wish some things had not happened but I guess I feel that an experience for me is not over... until the experience is over. Like the Passengers had started to do a project of the music of the Supremes, about a year and a half ago. There was some good stuff in there but clearly it just didn't feel organic. Years before that we did the music of Slim and Slam and that didn't really work so we just dropped it. We're going to do kind of a combination of Slim and Slam and Spike Jones.
This thing seemed so touching and then David Cole did something, it was also collaborations with people I really knew. Once Debbie was on it and Elvis was on it, it was really interesting and we went different places to record this stuff. We were going to get the guy from Genghis Blues, the throat singer to sing that piece "Lost" that the Dominican guy sang. We went out there and he couldn't get out of bed to do it out in San Francisco. So that's when we came back and found the other guy to do it. That shit was so fucking beautiful. But then the record didn't hardly sell anything.
AAJ: You had mentioned ambitions to do a theatrical production of the album and a video. Are those plans still actively being considered?
RN: I think the time has passed for that kind of thing. That's just the way it is, but it's a shame because we did it at Royal Festival Hall in London, and then we did it at a couple of big festivals. It was sixteen people in the band and all these fancy people, it took a zillion dollars to perform and there was no way to perform it without all those people. It was just too much of a Busby Berkeley thing to be able to do ever again. But the equivalent of PBS in England did a video of it.
It was a big drag because the guy who did the video behind the performance was John Jezerin, who was a guy who won the MacArthur for his video stuff... so he did this thing and instead of making it like a bar set: we filmed ourselves in a bar with Debbie as the bartender and we also had this incredible fireplace, all this shit was really beautiful. But then somehow it got all fucked up where the English company didn't get clearance to use his footage so when we did the piece John didn't want to let them use the footage, there was a whole big fight and it was a big drag. The long and short of it is they didn't make it the way it could've been made, as beautifully as it could've been made. It's OK but it's too bad it could've been an amazing video made of it... So that's already done and it's never going to happen again.
AAJ: The University of Wisconsin Geology Museum sponsored "The Rock Concert: a Celebration of Time," which also became an album (in 2005). How did this commission come about?
RN: I have a friend named Vicky whose childhood friend was this guy Joe Skulan, who runs that museum. They were looking for somebody, they have these amazing things happen in science, but nobody can actually perceive them. So they had this idea...
They just found this piece of geological material in the west of Australia... Zircon, a piece of a little pebble. With this new kind of dating they had been able to date it to 4.4 billion years ago, before that the oldest piece of geological material had been 3.8; that the earth had cooled enough to allow things to harden. That means that they were wrong, they always thought it took 500/600 million years for the earth to cool... I just think it's really cool to think about. It is an amazing difference.
So I wrote a piece that talks about how we perceive numbers and talks about how we perceive time. When you were born...that's the farthest you know. So I would talk about how when my mother sent me out to buy stuff at the drugstore that was to me 3 billion years ago. And we have this character of my science teacher that we locked in the closet and he gives you the real deal on objective time. I tried to compare these things and also, in the composition, to juxtapose different time fields and different actual metrics things against each other. So that it became kind of a meditation on time basically.
AAJ: The album is a sort of skewed valentine to the daily life of youth and their concerns. It has great seemingly divergent ideas, which flow into one another linked together through the idea of this ancient pebble and your old neighborhood in Flatbush in Brooklyn. It seem as if with the nature of memory and time you could keep adding movements to the piece despite it being associated to some extent with your youth. Are there tracks or ideas, which came to you after the fact?
<RN: No, not really... it's just like a poem. When it was really about was the fact that I just moved back this neighborhood that I had left. When I had left it was after all these tragedies in my family and so in my mind I had left it when I was 12/13 years old, every thing was great and then I left. And now I came back and it was 40 years later, it was crazy.
It was also connected with that idea of that crazy pagoda, which is a real thing. That pagoda was really there when I was a kid and you would walk past the house and the lights were never on. And you pass it now and the lights are never on. It's really freaky. That was a strong enough image for me to think about, memory in transition, and the fact that it was made of rocks.
So then it was hilarious, and actually there's a funny story connected with that: the guy who made the discovery and the guy who developed the dating system for the rock (from the University of Perth in Australia), came to the concert. So the two of them are sitting there and I have this kind of slapstick scene at the end where they can find the rock. He was freaked out that the dress rehearsal, he was like he did not want us to put the thing on. He said it was disrespectful. I think we had to do something where we didn't use his name or I can't remember what... When people saw it, they loved it; and there was a standing ovation and he was like the first one to stand up.
One thing that's weird in my life is that I am always doing these gigantic projects that you can never do again. But that's one of the nice things about things teaching now and having this kind of domestic life, having different expectations... I try to have some idea or something; then I do it. For years, I was railing against how marginalized this kind of music and art that I was doing was.
I remember when I was teaching at this elementary school around the time of those grants and Blondie had this reissue... and I did a record in 1998. The secretary of the school, who had seen me and knew that I had been on tour with Debbie for four years by then says to me "Hey I see your friend Debbie Harry got back in the music business." It's like what we do just is not even the music business. It's not even what most people define as music.
AAJ: In 2001 you were commissioned by Public Radio International in association with WNYC to create the radio play You're the Fool. This too is connected with time and memory. You play on of the main characters named Jay who is dealing with among other things, his father's Alzheimer's...
RN: If you look at the discography between 2000 and 2006, I really don't even have a commercial record but I did a lot of stuff on The Next Big Thing. It's originally recorded for WNYC, which is New York public radio and then it is syndicated on PRI. It was all over the country, but it didn't get to every city. It was on for like four years and I did the theme song for it. They commissioned me to a whole record and then commissioned another sax quartet; so instead of doing records I was on this show with a guy, Dean Olsher... I did a lot of stuff on that show. It was a great thing, but it's done now.
AAJ: In your mind when creating these types of works is it separate for you and your artistic identity from the more musical "you?"
RN: It's pretty much one big whole body now. In fact until very recently, that was what was interesting about the Dolphy thing, I feel like I finally freed myself. For the last five or six may be even eight years, I feel like I don't really feel like I can play music without attaching words to it in some way. I can do it but it doesn't feel like it's the full deal. Now I've become so saturated with that idea and that identity of it, that it's kind of easier for me to defy them now, than it ever was before.
AAJ: I have noticed that you have all sorts of commissions, do you ever find it restricting because you are expected to work upon a certain theme?
RN: The theme is not restricting, but the rules can be restricting. Like: the Jazz Passengers are more famous than Sotto Voce, so I would get a commission for the Jazz Passengers but I wanted to use different instrumentation because that's really what was correct for the piece but the people who grant the commission don't want that; they want you to use that instrumentation. How do you know what the hell the instrumentation is until you write the piece anyway? The thing about it is that there's so little money for commissions and stuff, for art commissions; compared to Europe. It's one thing that you're going to get $30,000.00 to do something, I'm not complaining, I have gotten my share of stuff, but getting $5,000.00 for something that's going to take six months to do... you can't pay your bills or do anything like that and have so many restrictions, it's just ridiculous.
AAJ: Memory is an interesting terrain in that even though we may know what inhabits this mental landscape the location itself always seems to change as we grow older... the memory continues to morph. What is the appeal for you of using youth, memory and time as a muse?
RN: We just went on a family vacation. I went to Washington DC with my ten year old kid. I was in Washington in 1971 demonstrating against the Vietnam War and saw some friend of mine get bashed over the head and get 50 stitches. I was there and playing a blues album with Charlie. I was there playing the 9:30 Club with the Lounge Lizards. I went through seeing the same place with totally different identities. Now I'm walking around the Washington monument with my wife, with the camera... walking around with all the tourists.
Usually, I personally I can't really enjoy things at the moment. I can only enjoy them through memory; which is kind of a problem with me. I actually had fun...we were with this other family, our friends and she is always pissed because basically I practice all the time and work all the time; I'm a workaholic. So it took three days away and I barely did anything, which is amazing for me. I liked it at the moment but I still like it better in retrospect.
Memory is like the window of art. It's the biggest window of art because it's a way of organizing; it's the way of controlling and organizing. I used to love the Lawrence Durrell stuff and also the Oliver Sacks stuff was great. I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, I love all that stuff... Also, if you've had real tragedies in your life, all of your life then becomes about how you organize memory.
AAJ: Your album Sotto Voce, features Napoleon Maddox doing human beat box in lieu of someone playing traditional drums. Was this a stylistic preference that you had wanted as you wrote the music?
RN: The couple of years before Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill, before Sotto Voce; I was doing this stuff for The Next Big Thing and teaching, but I wasn't going on tour nearly as much as I had. I got a regular gig at this place called Barbes. I had gone through a couple of different phases: like in the '70's when I was starting to act and play together, then I did the straight ahead jazz stuff that I did with Charlie, then the Lounge Lizards and the Passengers, and the writing of songs.... But when I really started getting serious in the last three or four years of writing, I really worked those pieces out at Barbes. It was much less like when I would get people to sing with the Passengers or when I would score a movie.
We did it without the drums; me, Sam and Tim. Curt wasn't even there, except for sometimes. The guys from the Passengers are great players, to get all those guys to rehearsal sometimes is impossible; everybody's older now. So these guys are young; Tim was in his late 20s and Sam; they were more willing to come to my house and rehearse all the time. Because I was trying to sort of build the music around the language. Then we got Gerald Cleaver played drums for a while, and he's really good but he couldn't make it a lot. The truth was, it never sounded right with drums. It was too overpowering and it didn't sound right with nothing.
Then Claire Daly, a baritone player introduced me; we were doing a different project and Napoleon had worked with her, he sat in with us. I heard that guy and immediately thought "this is perfect." This is going to be like a bridge between the language and the music. It works like crazy. Plus he doesn't only beatbox. He goes from beatboxing to singing, if you'll notice sometimes all of a sudden he's singing. And that's the cool thing because then it becomes a continuum between talking, singing and playing.
That's still where I am now because that's why I would rather do that subway thing with Sotto Voce, than the Passengers. I am going to have somebody play drums for a couple of tunes on the subway thing but basically I want to tour this material with Sotto Voce, because I still think that any of the material I'm doing with poems, and moving from poems to song; the beatbox works better.
AAJ: Did you have to approach how you played and sang differently with the beatboxing or is rhythm, rhythm?
RN: That's the good thing about the beatbox. I feel like Sonny Rollins and these guys first felt when they didn't play with piano. Back then they did not want to play with piano players because piano players were restrictive. I feel like that about the drums; they're so noisy. I really like the way beatbox sounds, because I am really into the sound of the alto and it feels like it is so much easier to hear it with the beatbox. I like it better. Now, you can't do as many things as with a great drummer, but still he holds down a groove and that's enough.
AAJ: With your use of beatbox and on other albums people playing samplers you seem to be able to fuse what is current in regards to technology and trend effortlessly into your works. Do you seek out all the new things or does it come to you via your collaborators?
RN: I just try to stay alive a little bit and stay aware of things that are available to me. The first time I heard that sampler... frankly there's been so many times that I have done different things in my career that I thought, not necessarily that I would be a big deal, but I did think that the ways, the directions I was going was going to be big. I thought it was inevitable that the stuff I did with Anthony Coleman, that the next thing would be that jazz musicians would use samples all the time. Why wouldn't you use samples all the time? When it's possible to do music and actually attach those notes to pitches on the keyboard, why wouldn't people do that all the time? But in fact when we started doing it, in the early '90s it was on some pop music and in fact that first sampler stuff I did was in 1990 with Jazz Passengers in Egypt, so it was this big Jazz Passengers comedy-theater we did with Yuka Honda, who was doing sampler (she was then in Cibo Matto), we sampled The Ten Commandments theme. It was a cool way to bring the real world into it. Like the Dada stuff with music concurrent. I thought it was going to be a more artsy thing, than it turned out to be. It turned out to be a big part of pop music and not a big part of art music, it was weird.
AAJ: Have you ever tried to incorporate a new piece of technology which just did not work?
RN: Well I think that the only thing I've used is samples. To not use samples feels like the elephant in the room, it's just such a big thing. It's stupid, like not using a piano for something... such a big deal. And then the beatbox thing, I don't think of it as a new technology. It's so around, we played with The Roots one time as the Passengers, and so I've heard some pretty cool combinations. I actually wasn't looking for the beatbox thing; then I heard Napoleon, I heard how this was definitely going to work. He's a smart guy. He had his own radio show in Cincinnati, he's a real intellectual, and he really knows stuff. I don't think of myself as somebody who's really, broken serious new ground with that. I don't even really think of myself as an avant-garde musician, I think of myself more as an eccentric like in the eccentric tradition of American music. I don't think that I have really searched for new ways of using the sampler; I just try not to be backward. I don't feel like I'm really an experimenter with sounds as much as a "mixer and matcher" kind of guy.
AAJ: This is my one stock question: Do you have any dream projects which as of now are unrealized?
RN: Oh yeah, definitely. I've met some really interesting poets through this program; like a guy named Russ Gave, a great, young black poet who teaches at the Indiana University now. We play basketball a lot together. I wanted to do an opera on a basketball court. I wanted to have all these different characters; all these people on the basketball court singing, like tons of them.
AAJ: What is the purpose of art and how can people better get it into their daily lives?
RN: To me the purpose of art is just to recognize the elegance in everyday life. That's why I wrote the subway, it's an amazing thing. Everything that happens is an amazing thing. It's a consciousness thing, to really be able to see the humor and power in moments.
Roy Nathanson, Sotto Voce (AUM Fidelity, 2006)
Roy Nathanson, Fire at Keaton's Bar (Six Degrees, 2000)
Roy Nathanson, Little Fred (Les Disques du Crepuscule, 2000)
Jazz Passengers, Live in Spain (32.Jazz Records, 1998)
Jazz Passengers, Individually Twisted (32.Jazz Records, 1997)
Roy Nathanson, I Could've Been a Drum (Tzadik, 1997)
Jazz Passengers, In Love (High Street, 1994)
Jazz Passengers, Plain Old Joe (Knitting Factory Records, 1993)
Roy Nathanson, Lobster and Friend (Knitting Factory Records, 1993)
Roy Nathanson, Coming Great Millennium (Knitting Factory Records, 1992)
Jazz Passengers, Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory Records, 1991)
Jazz Passengers & Marc Ribot, Implement Yourself (New World Records, 1990)
Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk (Strange & Beautiful, 1988)
Lounge Lizards, No Pain for Cakes (Polygram Records, 1987)