Don Byron: Music Wikipedia
DB: Yeah, but it wasn't necessarily in my intention to co-opt Eastern European music as jazz. It was my intention to play that music in a way that interested me. And the things that interested me were not necessarily the jazz-like things about them. If you have a kind of music, there's moves you can make and move you can't, there's scales you can play and scales you wouldn't play, rhythms that you would play or wouldn't play, ornamentationwhich is a very important thing in my worldornamentation that you would play that you wouldn't play in other musics. And unless you're willing to think separately about these things, you're not going to really learn that much about any of them, unless you're able to objectify what makes something sound like Chardash? What makes something sound like a Bolero. Unless you're really willing to sit down and look at the difference between what makes certain musics sound the way that they sound, you can't really learn anything. I was never really interested in doing a "jazzy idea" of things or fusing jazz with Klezmer music...that idea, you don't really get the idea of how a thing works, unless you're able to bring a certain kind of alertnessthe same alertness that maybe enabled you to play jazz, but it's an alertness about difference elements. It's not to say that once you played some jazz you can't go back. That can't be.
GC: Obviously you've done a lot of teaching, do you think that young musicians should be exploring lots of different types of things, or do you think that young people today have this mindset?
DB: I have to confess, I've never really taught at a super jazz school. I've done residencies at super jazz schools, but in terms of teaching full time, the schools that I taught at were not the kind of schools where everyone was thinking about a central non-classical ideal. So for me, those kids were more open to what you told them. At one school I had one kid who had only played Mariachis, and I had him writing out [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard stuff. I was really trying to get him to understand the note choice involved in what Freddie was doing. The kids that I taught had either very specific goals...one kid wanted to be a producer, but he also played bass, so I was trying to get him to learn a bunch of James Jamerson lines, and then learn them on the piano with the chords that go with them in the correct space. It's not like he did those things for me...[laughs]...but those kinds of things were more the kind of kids that I had.
I had one kid who was into high-tech Bluegrass. But he couldn't play his instrument! So I tried to turn him onto a book about fingerings so that when he got into certain situations, he'd know how to get around. So the kind of kids that I taught were usually into one kind of thing. On the other hand, they weren't necessarily as technically dedicated as someone who goes to a Berklee sort of place, or a conservatory...they didn't have that kind of time. A lot of times they were doing other things.
GC: Personally, in my experience, I see that if you study music at a college level, you're sort of herded into a very narrow scope. Classical musicians study excerpts, and the three Bs, in jazz you study the swing era up through the '60s. What is your take on that? Is there any way to fix that?
DB: I tend to think there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, if that's what you want to know. If somebody says to me that they want to play like some middle of the road kind of player, that's really cool But if you decide to say that you want to play like [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter or [pianist] Herbie Hancock... that decision to latch on to all of the aesthetic elements that go along with that...I think it's the best guys in jazz, especially the ones who've got kind of an outside and an eclectic side...focusing in on those players will kind of elevate a lot of things about the way that you're thinking. The question is, in a jazz kind of place, how are you thinking about the players? Are they great in this unnamed kind of way? Are they completely reduced to their technical elements? Is a certain amount of dealing with the impulses of playing free music, is that discussed? If all of those things are discussed, then I think you'd kind of come out with a well-rounded version of whatever it is that you're doing. But if you only focus in on a technical element or the free part...I think that when you focus on that level of player, you see so many different kinds of streams of study in one person.