Patrick Brennan: Rhythms of Passion
AAJ: Did you have any other formal musical training? What about the bass, which you also played?
PB: I went to Thomas Jefferson College, a since closed small experimental college in western Michigan that was part of Grand Valley Statevery, very inexpensive, very open and very interesting if you took advantage of what was possible there. The music department consisted of Bob Shechtman, a New York area trombonist and bassist who also practiced Euro-classical composition. He was iconoclastic and a real polymath with tremendous enthusiasm. Music was only one of many interests in my playbook at the time, but on a whim I looked into composition classes with him, which he gave one on one. I had no idea that he wasn't adding any new students at the time, but he took me on immediately.
The first assignment he gave me was to design a piece of music. I thought the man was out of his mind, but I went along with it and came back with a bunch of shapes drawn on score paper. He then made suggestions based on those shapes and through the dialogue of his weekly critiques a composition gradually evolved. About four months into that process, my mind went "pop!" I got it. I've been serious about music ever since.
He had to cajole me into his theory class, but once he got me to sit in on one, I was spellbound. We did all the basic European stuffcanonic writing, etc., but Bob explored all this outside the sanctimonious correctness so endemic in most formal music departments. In the middle of a two-hour session analyzing a single measure of Beethoven, he'd drop a needle down on a Duke Ellington record and ask everyone to listen to the bass drumand for good reason too. For him music was music and musicians were musicians. No differencesa very liberating head.
He'd also heard me on bass trying out some jumble of Charlie Haden with Gary Peacock's way of playing with Ayler. After that, he kept me after every class to play his bass while he played piano insisting that I play the damned roots of the changes in quarter notes and "Lay back! Relax! Listen!" I did do a little bit of private study on saxophone and on the bass while I was in school as well. All in all, I left school not so much with well developed skills, but with great conceptual tools, much of which I also owe to Basil King, with whom I studied painting, that have since served me well. I've been able to study and learn on my own. And just before I left for New York, I was also strongly affected by a two-day workshop that Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell presented at Kalamazoo College.
In New York, I did a year at Jazzmobile with John Stubblefield, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess. When I hit a wall in my development some years later, I went to Stubblefield for a lesson about twice a year for a couple yearsa great mentor, a generous man and a fantastic musician. I was lucky to know him. And that's all the formal study I've done. But the informal learning from musicians on and off the bandstand has been even more informative and important.
The bass fed me through school; got me most of my paying work in New York and introduced me to lots of musicians. Saxophonist Marvin Blackman, who was my most important informal teacher and mentor, hired me quite a bit, usually for the bottom dollar gigs, but I was an apprentice who was learning so much that that didn't matter. I love rhythm sections and I adore the instrument, but I can understand why Mingus would want to slug a sideman: it's very hard to lead a band from a bass. The instrument is also physically very unforgiving, and you need to practice a lot just to keep your strength available.
When my gigs narrowed down to piano bar gigs playing massacred standards, and the neck snapped on the bass in '84; I thought twice about investing in the repair. However, every time I've dropped one activity, the others have become stronger. I'd stopped painting about five years before, which opened up a lot more concentration for music; and putting the bass aside, for me, opened up more space for the composing and the saxophone. I've never stopped hearing the bass in my hands though, nor thinking like a painter for that matter.
AAJ: Why did you move to New York City?
PB: New York's the center of the world, right? Or so I thought at the time. Its reputation is mythical. All the heroes had gone there (almost)painters as well as musicians. I wanted to grow. I wanted to be challenged. And most of all, I needed to associate with as large a pool of musicians as possible to have a better chance of playing the music I've really wanted to play, which is still a reason for being in New York all its heavier problems aside.
AAJ: Have you and are you able to support yourself solely from the music?
PB: Money. Money. Money. Money. Money. Almost never in New Yorkon the road when it would happenin Europe, just barely. But that's been the plan all along, and I'd really love to. It is a bit contradictory to practice a labor intensive art while playing hooky from it to pay one's way. But this isn't a particularly unique circumstance. If enough people are unwilling or unable to pay what adds up to living wages for musicians, this is going to define both a musician's options as well as a band leader's relationships with collaborating musicians. I've gone on strike quite a few times over the years because of this, but as yet to little effect.