Greg Osby My Conversation with Greg Osby January 1999 -- Part 1 / Part 2

By Fred Jung

Out of all the conversations that I have had with musicians, politicians, three former Presidents, actors, and even one with Mr. Cunningham from 'Happy Days', Greg Osby is by far and away the most outspokenly honest, unabashed individual that I have encountered. I met Osby, initially, at a local club in Los Angeles when he was touring in quintet with Marc Copland, Randy Brecker, and Dennis Chambers. Although we had never met, we spoke in great length about everything but music. I was eager to speak to him again, on a more formal basis, and I got an opportunity to sit down with Osby from his home to talk about his new releases, his career, and his peeves about the jazz industry. Often viciously lambasted by certain members of the press, Osby has managed to persevere and has documented his legacy admirably. The following is an uncensored, unedited portrait of one of today's finest young talents, in his own words. Misunderstood? Maybe, judge for yourself.

FJ: Let's start from the beginning.

GO: Well, I'm from St. Louis and I had an R&B and blues background. That was the kind of stuff I heard. I mean, the closest things to jazz I heard was organ trios and soul jazz, groove oriented jazz. Upon learning how to play the saxophone, around the age of fourteen, I was listening to people like Cannonball Adderley, Grover Washington, Jr., Maceo Parker, Wilton Felder (Jazz Crusaders), people like that, King Curtis, more of the soulful saxophone players. They appealed to me more. A couple of years later, I was introduced to Charlie Parker, more advanced players. And that sparked the real interest, because prior to that it was more of a hobby. I didn't really get into the particulars of jazz until 1978, when I went to Howard University. There, I was introduced to a caliber of players that turned me to the intricacies of the music, before that it was playing for fun.

FJ: You were a student at both Howard University and the Berklee School of Music.

GO: Well, Howard's musical program at the time was pretty underdeveloped at the time, so I did not learn that much about jazz or contemporary music. I learned a lot about classical composition, and choral writing, and counterpoint, and progression, things like that, but it wasn't really accessable to contemporary situations. I was a bit impatient, because there was nothing that I was learning in the classrooms that I could use. So, I visited Berklee during the spring break of my second year and there was a healthy contingent of young players there. I just couldn't wait to get there upon guesting in on a couple of ensembles and playing in a couple of the classrooms. They gave me a scholarship to go there as well.

FJ: You have had the opportunity to play with some heavy players. Who do you feel were most prominent in your development as a musician?

GO: Jack DeJohnette, because he's a real liberal leader. He didn't establish any dictates, 'You must do this. You must do that.' He allowed me to bring my own compositions to develop freely and to openly explore any viable options that I saw necessary. He didn't put any limitations on creativity or direction. So thus, I was able to advance at an accelerated pace. I turned down offers to play with some other groups with established leaders at the time because I found that it would probably stifle my development. They would not have been keen on some of the directions that I wanted to pursue. With Jack, he's legendary for his openness. He was reciprocal with any information. He respected where I was coming from as a young cat. He was respectful of my concepts and my approaches and he wanted to know what was happening so he could address it more accurately. It was the best proving ground that I could recommend for somebody to be with, a leader who is broad minded like that.

Well, Steve Coleman and I are collaborators. We're like best friends. We play the same instrument. M-Base is a collective that Steve Coleman and I started in 1985, out of the need for some kind of a musical situation that young musicians could write and create compositional and improvisational directives. There was no hangout scene in New York at the time when I got to town. There was no real dominating jam session situation where cats could talk shop and exchange information, informally get together once or twice a week amongst ourselves, the people that we pooled and talk about music, talk about music business, talk about production and music presentation, specifics. It was something that we felt was necessary because the music was in retrograde at that point. People were really looking to the past and more concerned with historical values as opposed to pushing the envelope and propelling themselves as a group into the future. Plus, we didn't want to discard any of our resource material that was fundamental in our musical make- up. We all come from R&B and soul music and funk, other types of jazz expression, other types of folk music, and we wanted to incorporate that in a contemporary offering, as opposed to a lot of our peers who just dismissed everything that was a part of their make-up, which we didn't think was honest. That was what that was about. So we pooled a lot of people and wound up with a select group of about fifteen, that included Cassandra Wilson and Geri Allen, Robin Eubanks, myself and Steve, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Teri Lyne Carrington, and a few others. It worked out really well.

Andrew Hill. Well, he called me, I guess he heard about me through the grapevine or he heard a recording. I don't know really how he got in touch. He was seeking out someone who had an alternative approach, as opposed to a real traditional and stock approach to navigating through music. It was like hand and glove because I had been a long time fan of his. I didn't even know how to access him or how to reach him at all. I've learned a lot from him. He's been one of my private mentors. He is very informative and very generous and liberal with his information as well. And those are the kind of people I gravitate to, that don't horde information, but that encourage growth through the exchange of information. He's as open to the reception of information as he is with giving it. Generationally speaking, that's very rare. A lot of people of other generations, they are reluctant to be that free with a lot of young cats today, who they consider a threats. When I got to New York, they considered a lot of young cats just on the scene as being responsible with taking their jobs. So I was really happy to work with him.

FJ: You made a reference to your experience with more traditional musicians and their stubbornness to truly aid in a younger musician's growth. Take a moment and why don't you elaborate on that.

GO: I think it is detrimental to the growth of the individual in need, because we don't have a lot of group situations where young players can apprentice themselves with established elders, to go out on the road and learn how to be a man, learn about life and learn about the business. So you have to suffer the school of hard knocks with your peers. We have groups of youngsters who are tripping over one another because they have to go through it, as opposed to asking somebody about it and getting the knowledge first hand and circumventing certain pitfalls. I'm part of the last generation of musicians who was able to play with a lot of established giants. I played with Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Jon Faddis, McCoy Tyner, and the list goes on and on. I was able to play with a lot of people, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland. Now, it's at a point where I'm in that gray area and a lot of these young players that come to town are seeking me out because there are no groups left. Betty Carter just passed away. Art Blakey isn't around anymore. There aren't any cats from the previous generation that are cultivating the talents and the abilities of these younger players.

FJ: So where do those younger musicians get that knowledge, or will they get it at all?

GO: Well, they come to me fully prepared instrumentally speaking. They can play their instruments a lot better. It's remarkably better than the better players that came to town when I first came to town because there's so much access now, so much intellectual access. We have CD's. We have DVD's. We have VCR's. All this stuff wasn't really available when I came to town. We have computers. We have the internet. So people can become more proficient a lot more rapidly. Still, there's that seasoning that they're not getting because they're largely trained in college. It's an academic experience that they have. They don't have that one on one continuity with audiences, learning how to captivate audiences, how to pace a set. Their compositions lack a certain grit and a soul that was prevalent when I came up. I came up in it. From 1974-1978 I played in all these R&B bands and blues bands in St. Louis. The average guy in the band, his age was like thirty-five, between thirty-five and forty-five. So I was like a young blood with all these cats. I learned the ropes first hand, so by the time I arrived in New York, I was a seasoned veteran pretty much. I have playing professionally since I was fourteen. But, a lot of young cats now, they just don't have it. They're awkward in front of the microphone. They're awkward in front of people and their progress is a retarded kind of growth. It could be remedied if there were a lot more elders accepting young players, but a lot of elders choose to play with their peers.

FJ: Why do you think that is?

GO: Because they're more comfortable and there's a big difference in the sound. There's a big difference in the sound. Younger players lack the meat and potatoes experience and it doesn't come forth in their playing, in their art. They are just going to have to figure out another way. It's kind of like the bebop revolution, a lot of those players in the early 1940's, they were dismissed by their elders. They had to band amongst themselves and come up with a new interpretation and a new format. That's what we tried to do with M-Base. We still do it to a large degree, but it has become a lot more difficult because everyone has their own personal accounts to deal with. Back in the time when we first started the whole collective, no one had a record deal, but now Cassandra is the great diva of jazz and Steve and I are busy with our own accounts.

FJ: Your unique approach to your music has been very maligned by the jazz media, has that kind of negative press effected you?

GO: Right, but that's not going to stop me. That's just people's personal taste and their inability to allow for change. These are people that are probably, painfully right wing and conservative, and they just can't take anything that's variable.

FJ: What do you think 'they' are afraid of?

GO: They're afraid of change. People are fearful of the unknown. That's just a fact, historically speaking, when something unknown is presented to people, they either want to rid the world of it or suppress it, stop it at its source. When people are confronted with things that are unknown, they have to challenge their intellect. They have to use their framework of reference, and if it's shallow, well then they have to actually do some work and do some research, and a lot of people are too lazy. That includes a lot of journalists. They use stock terms. They use the same lexicons when they describe things, so the quickest thing to do is dismiss it, rather than to say it sounds like something that I don't know what it sounds like, therefore I'm going to have to educate myself. It almost belittles their knowledge and their intellect. A lot of people have the audacity to criticize my liner notes. How dare me, a lowly musician try to have an intellectual discourse about music. You just play your music and let that be that. I have fought off recording engineers who are aghast that I know, that I can talk shop in the studio, on their own turf. They don't appreciate that. It's compartmentalization. People want you to stay in like a certain bag so they can label you. America is classic with that. They get caught up in fads and everything, and when it runs its course, then they discard it and they come up with a new thing. They don't want somebody to come up with something that has credence or has value, firmly based in something that's logic and is well grounding and challenging. God forbid. I don't subscribe to complacency or expectations. I go through great, whatever measures necessary to make my music sound as personal as I am. I'm an individual. My music shouldn't sound like every other saxophone player and I shouldn't present myself in an environment that's reflective of common tastes, or whatever. I'm hopeful that people will be drawn to the elements inherent in my music, but I can't compromise my art, water it down just to make it palpable, because I have to live with it. I don't want to look back at my track record twenty years from now and say I did albums so I could get a good review or I could get five stars in some publications. I did this. No, I won't be happy with myself then. Everyone that I admire, they took even bigger lumps than I take, so I think I'm on the right path. I think that if critics start liking me too much, then I must be doing wrong.

FJ: Then is the current state of jazz suppressing to you?

GO: No. People will be suppressed if they have a suppressive state of mind. You have to be oblivious to obstacles. It's just part of my nature to be defiant. I just won't succumb to people that are small minded, that are narrow in their vision and in their scope. They possess an inability to accept change and things that are different. These are people that subscribe to fads and trends and the flavor of the month. I don't even want to pander to those types of people, because that's not my mindset. It never was my prospective. I'm into something that is hopefully artistic, that has validity, truism, will sound as fresh as it does today, something that is particularly timeless. That's what I'm looking for, timelessness in my music.

FJ: What ingredients do you need in order to make music timeless?

GO: Elements that are, I don't want to say classic elements, elements that don't date themselves. Using famous people on your record. Using sidemen that everybody else uses. When I get a band together, I want to get a band of people that are individuals, in it of themselves, so that it gives the music a totality of individualism, as opposed to getting the hot young players, or the hot, new young lions, or the young Turks, and all that kind of stuff. I'm not interested in that. I want cats that will take my lead, my blueprint and make better music out of it than I could give them directives towards, as opposed to a cat that will paint by the numbers, connect the dots. That's not even art. I'm just following the lead, the stepping stones, stepping up on the stepping stones and the building blocks presented to me by the people that I hold dear as giants of the music, preceding through my musical life and through my music course, as they did and not as people who are 'popular', or at the top of the charts, or media friendly, or whatever. These people, their music is largely unchallenging to me. It's uninteresting and sedentary. It doesn't even contain any elements that are provocative or conceptually they're not even different from anyone else. It's like pop music. It's disposable. Most of it, to me, is a waste of a record deal. I know cats that play on the subway or play on the street, they play a lot hipper than 95% of the people that have record deals because they're walking parrots or mynah birds, so they pattern themselves after somebody famous, and that's why they become famous. I pattern myself after people that are famous now, but who were scorned in their time. They took lumps and they made hefty sacrifices to do something that was original and unique. You take history, Fred, and that's just the way it is. People that we recognize as trendsetters and people that changed the course of whatever art, they were provocateurs. They didn't care what people thought. I may not be the richest cat in the world. I may not work as much, and I definitely don't have the media profile, and it's hard for me to get bookings to this day, but I emerge from my gigs happy, knowing that I wasn't doing a tap dance with a black face, coon shining, and shining people's shoes, and singing 'Mammy.' I'm just making an inference, Fred. I mean, musically speaking, I just can't do that.

FJ: So do you feel when Joe Henderson does a recording of 'Porgy & Bess,' he is bowing down to that pressure?

GO: Yes, right, because he was influenced and swayed by the A & R staff at his label. He is a classical example of an icon in jazz, who has an impressive catalog of his own, and he's doing the music of somebody else, and that's when he gets a Grammy. So what do they do, they follow that up with another record, and think he got another Grammy or something. So given that formulaic approach, everybody's trying to do that, these concept records, or these songbook records, or stuff like that. That's stock. I think he had a lot more to offer as a composer, but a lot of people want to take the easy road. That's a disappointment to me as well, because I know he has a lot to say.

FJ: You just stated that you are having a difficult time getting gigs, why do you think that is?

GO: That's because the music is so challenging that people, see, Fred, we're in a culture right now, that largely people have the attention span of a flea. They won't sit down and listen to something that contains any alien elements. I don't feel my music is that alien, it's just that, it's just personal. They can't refer my music to somebody in their record collection, or somebody at the top of the Billboard charts, or somebody that possibly plays at the Lincoln Center, or something. They say, 'Well, he's out or he's avant-garde, and I don't know what that is.' We have all these quick images out on videos, and people want quick gratification and they look at a review in the New York Times or something like that and they say, 'I guess I'll go see that because it got a good review.' They're not recognizing that the writer may have been paid off, or they may have bought him some dinner or something, or gave him a whole bunch of CD's, or whatever. There's all kinds of ways to get good reviews, and it's not necessarily because that which is being reviewed is worthy of a good review. There's like a whole sub-system in music, or the music scene in New York and a lot of people that are highly regarded as fine and dandy by the media, most of the musicians don't give them a blink, especially the older cats, because they say, 'He's building a career on sounding like so and so, name your musician, or he sounds just like so and so. His rhetoric is reflective of the writings and the teachings of so and so. I know it and I can show you the quote.' I'm not interested in any of that. I would rather sleep nights knowing that all my conceptualizing and all my studying and everything, the realization of that in the group and on recordings is sound. Once I can do that, then I'm happy. I don't need twelve cars. Hell, Fred, you can only drive one at a time. As long as I have a roof, and air conditioning in the summertime, and food on my plate, I'm cool. I don't need all that other stuff. That's no reflection of the art. That's a reflection of how sound it is. Like I said, to make a long story short, I want to sleep nights, and not build a career off of stealing someone else's concepts. If I wanted to do that, I'd be a rapper.

FJ: You have mentioned your obvious distaste for the current crop of media, do you think the music would be better served if the media elements were to disappear?

GO: I just think that there just needs to be a more sound alliance between the media and their subject matter. They need to do a little bit more music research and be a little more honorable to their profession, by calling cats up and asking them what went into the making of the music, and what are you working on, and what are you reading, and what's going on. I don't particularly like your record, but can you tell me what's happening. And then if the review is negative, then at least the cat will have done some homework. I don't try to write music in the style of someone without, at least, trying to extract particulars from that type of recording. I'm not going to write some Baroque music and never listen to Baroque music, and yet, say, 'Yes, it sounds like Baroque music.' I really want to know. So, how in the world can you be a writer and write about Greg Osby and you never even talked to Greg Osby! You don't even know Greg Osby and you just like making suppositions and conclusions based upon what you think it is. That's inaccurate. That's inaccurate documentation of, it's a falsehood. And then, to make matters worse, now it's documented. It's hardcopy for posterity to refer to, so now they are referring to misinformation, and so that gets perpetuated. That stunts the growth of students and anybody seeking out, all because the cat that wrote this article was too lazy to call somebody and ask him what went into the music.

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