Ran Blake: From Music to Film and Back
AAJ: Wait a minute did you just say you auditioned for the Modern Jazz Quartet?
RB: Yes, well not to play in the band [for entrance into the Lenox School]—it was mostly John Lewis, but I think that Connie Kay happened to be around ---it was at Atlantic Record studio which later they were to hire me—that was another great event —working at Atlantic records and meeting Ray Charles and Chris Connor and [Lennie] Tristano all of that happened because of the Lenox school. I went down and John Lewis said “you’d better let that Ray Brown give it to you” and he did and he also said good things about me but he was tough. [Bob]Brookmeyer said I’d never amount to much.
AAJ: That’s funny (editor's note: Bob Brookmeyer and Ran now both teach at the New England Conservatory)
RB: And then the guy that I thought that would really shoot me was Oscar Peterson! He said I needed a lot of work; I don’t know he said something very kind; my regret is that I didn’t go to Canada for a year and study with him.
AAJ: What kept you going if you had people telling you that you had so much you needed to do?
RB: Well I don’t think, I didn’t, I don’t know--- can I answer that more privately?—I felt terrible. Gunther [Schuller], who would also give me many "kicks"... Oscar Peterson of all people endorsing me! Brubek was very kind and George Russell who we know may be self centered, he drove to my concert in Suffolk, Connecticut and [was] very caring. One had to have the balance because I had no, I mean Gunther [Schuller] can really knock me, but it’s funny [Stan] Kenton I thought would love me but he said "you’re attempts are ludicrous..." and I thought he would be the one—I thought that’s what Oscar Peterson would say!who has a speed and velocity on the piano that I don’t even hear, it’s not that my hands can’t ever do a scale; But he was endorseful! So was Bill Evans; I did have a lonely time—guys my age did not, guys and women did not particularly seek me out. But after the Lenox I did play in the Eddie Young rock group in Windsor Locks, Connecticut and I know one man came up and said "What an interesting pianist, he’s shocking why don’t you fire him?" and Eddie Young said "Not on your life, but I admit he’s not for all tastes." And the guy came back a month later and said I was not too bad but this was a guy enjoying bottled drinks that were not from Poland Springs if you know what I mean.
AAJ: I know what you mean. (laughter) So what would you attribute a five plus decade and career as a recording artist to? Why have you been so long lasting?
RB: I don’t think half the people at the conservatory know...am I well known?
AAJ: You are so well known (laughter). I was recently in Beirut, Lebanon—halfway around the world and people (non musicians) were asking about you!
RB: Well some people care about music of mine and some don’t, I mean that’s not for me to say. I can tell you about what's long lasting about Thelonius Monk or George Russell...
AAJ: Well I mean I'm at a period in my musical life where I see other good musicians that I know making some very serious “quality of life” decisions and for most of them that means putting their musical pursuits on the back burner so that they may procure the type of stability that being an artist rarely offers. And though you developed during a different in some ways less volatile time---I'm sure you've seen the same thing happen among your peers, yet it hasn’t affected you. What do you attribute that to?
RB: Well because maybe I take months off [and] I practice and do sitting near the tape recorder and then I go near the piano and see the movies and I live alone and [I]really am very private in the world of the subconscious, trying to strain the sub conscious, but I think maybe I’m long lasting because I like to forget myself part of the year with other people; its true if you were to do two concerts the night before my own concerts I might stay in my hotel room and see a film noir because I need to get in that world but I think maybe forgetting yourself part of the time and then of course once and a while taking yourself seriously and remembering the pastthe glorious past and the horrible fascist history of Europe and also the tragedies and the also the great people; to this day I wish my goal was to be able to work on happier/ positive music just because its easy to be in my comfort zone and do only gray dark music.
AAJ: So you’ve been an educator now for some forty plus years, what differences have you seen in the student realm? With the advances of technology and the different social focus for each generation you must have seen some differences in the students that come through your door at the conservatory?
RB: Of course. In the '80s it was very self absorbed but now with technology, I feel out of it sometimes. Peter Row [New England Conservatory provost] says “as faculty grow older they get more intransigent and closed.” I think this is true part of the time and part of the time I keep learning. There is much more of an in impatience with the students. I don’t feel it’s because people are selfish I just think that so many young musicians are coming out so quickly and are worried because they have economic problems. I wasn’t extremely rich but I had it way easier than you have economically – and I worry about the other students and that’s what I wish I could do, or rather what we can talk about, at that alumni meeting in New York --- I feel that with all this explosion in tolerance of all music its very hard to have a vertical history—it is important to know about Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith and John Lee Hooker but if you are totally learning every geographical music all over the world., it can be hard. I think we’re much more open now but we don’t hold the music long enough and then maybe a music of an earlier era is forgotten. You can not hear everybody. And if you’ve given a certain music a chance then you have to then slim your choices. And I think that for so many students, there's so many clinics, so many distractions at school. We have such a greater faculty [at NEC] that more people want “smorgasbord” work and that’s good and bad because there's much more tolerance but not many people will drive in at 85 years of age like Dorothy Wallace to hear a concert. [editor's note: Dorothy Wallace was a famed patron of the arts and a great supporter of Ran Blake's music, she died in 2001] It’s all too available so the downside is that I find that like a lot of people really don’t know my records very well or can’t discuss what the third track is of a particular cd because it's all hurried. I’m beginning to get like that myself --- I’m getting so many records to hear that before I get to know one person they already have two other records out. I worry about the market place, I feel that students are too worried about it and they maybe have to be by necessityyet it’s getting in the way of their growth. But yet I’m pained with them when I see how little money they are making and I guess you have to have some validity. I want to figure it out Matana and I wonder if some day I will? I think it’s very hard now being a musician.