My Conversation with Greg Osby January 1999 -- Part 2 / Part 1
By Fred Jung
FJ: Let's talk about your two latest outings, 'Zero' and 'Banned In New
GO: The cats on 'Zero' are, pretty much, part of my touring band. Too many
people do these all-star bands and stuff to try and sell records and get
bookings. Then when they do the gigs they show up with some cats that nobody
knows and the audience is upset, and rightfully so. I'd rather get some cats
that are capable, and hungry, and eager to learn, and glad to be there. I
don't want these jaded veterans on the scene who won't follow my directives
and answer every request with, 'Man, you know who I am? I played with so and
so and I've been on the scene for forty years!' I don't have time for that,
playing Father Goose. And secondly, the concept of the recording is a
blissfulness that one experiences when you're in a group and everything
happens for the right reasons and happens at the right time. And that happens
when you have a touring band, because there's like a kinetic energy that's
shared with everybody, a telepathy. Cats go places with you and sometimes
they proceed you. It's just the greatest situation, rather than have a group
of all-star cats and everybody's trying to be hotshots, and nobody's
listening, and everybody wants to flirt with the chicks in the front row, so
they're not really making music, they are just trying to bring attention to
themselves. The drummers are playing too loud and the bass players are
playing the wrong stuff because they're distracted. The piano player is
playing too many chords because this chick crossed her legs. I would rather
have a group of cats who want to be there. So, 'Zero' is the term that I use
for the zone that one enters into when everything is happening for the right
reasons and all the mechanics in music are working. All the particulars and
the variables in the music are being used by the cats as blueprints, as
opposed to me writing a whole bunch of conceptual music and the cats just play
straight bebop licks. That's not only a total copout but that's not what I
was aiming for. It's, kind of, an offshoot of a Zen concept, where you reach
a total state of emptiness. You have an empty palette where you are able to
access all of your knowledge and all of your information, without any
diversions or obstacles that sometimes happens when you have cats in the band
that aren't listening.
The live recording 'Banned In New York' is the Greg Osby band in its natural
element, live as it is with people no paying attention, people not applauding,
people talking through the music. I just wanted to capture that as it is, as
opposed to a stage situation, where you tell the audience that you're
recording so they applaud with a lot more zeal, and they're overexcited, just
because they know it's being recorded. I didn't even tell the band that it
was being recorded because when musicians see the red record light go on they
tense up and do things they normally wouldn't do, or they mess up a lot
because they just get uptight. I wanted to capture it as it was, true to
form. I wanted a low fi recording, so we recorded it on a mini-disc player on
the table, right in front of the bandstand. It's an ambient recording with
all the natural sounds, the cash register ringing and the waitresses dropping
glasses. There was a table of businessmen talking and ignoring us, and some
guy bringing his wife and it was their anniversary and she's drunk and she's
laughing. There was one drunk guy in the back and he was like the only guy
applauding. And it was like this, 'Ya, you sound great.' And that's what
happens at jazz shows. It's not like rock and roll where people are in droves
and it's just like a wave, stadiums and stuff. Jazz shows are maybe two
people listening out of twenty in attendance.
FJ: With all the background noise, was it an editing nightmare?
GO: No. It was actually pretty much as it was. I just had to go and spruce
it up a bit sonically, but I have this seemless set that I do. I don't really
stop. We do a lot of segue-ways and we metamorphose from one song into
another without announcement and without me telling jokes. To me that's a
musicians way of saying that they don't have enough music prepared or they're
just stalling, trying to get their wind back. 'This next tune, I wrote about
my dog. He was such a cute puppy.' The older cats say, 'Back in '48, me and
my wife went down to Miami. We went fishing and I got stung by a jellyfish
and this song is about my stinging big toe. I hope you like it.' That's not
funny and it's not even important or pertinent to the music. Miles didn't
talk and they made a whole lot of music. All I do is announce the cats at the
end. That's all people need to know. They don't need to know the titles.
This isn't radio. I'm not an announcer. (Greg starts to do an imitation of a
radio announcer). 'Right now, we're gonna play a selection from Greg Osby's
'Zero' CD and this is a wonderful recording with Jason Moran on piano and it's
like an hour and ten minutes.' All this information, like liner note
information, and it's like, who cares! That's the problem I have with radio
too, they talk too much. 'This is a wonderful, swinging little ditty and it
reminds me of 'My Wild Irish Rose'. I think their efforts would have been
better served had he not used Jackie McLean and had he used Sonny Stitt. I
figure that would have been a better choice.' They put all their opinions
into it and it's like, man, just play the damn record, would you! When I go
see these musicians and they're just talking too much or telling jokes and
saying, 'How you feeling out there?' I mean, come on. Are you Jackie Gleason
or what? So the recording reflects a Greg Osby set. Some people may think
I'm an asshole, but I just want to make music and do things right. I just
hope people enjoy it. That's the best I can do.
FJ: Any touring plans for the new albums?
GO: We always have tour plans. We had a tour scheduled for August, but that
was cancelled. I had to cancel, because I had too many open dates that I
couldn't fill. We may have a date and it might be two or three days off,
because a lot of the promoters and people out there wouldn't respond in good
enough time. I had been working on that tour for, like, six to eight months,
and it cost me a whole lot of money in faxes, and emails, and sending out
press packages, and CD's, and promotional materials, only for people to tell
me that they didn't have any dates open. I was like, 'You could have told me
that eight months ago!' People losing things. 'Sent another package.' 'I've
already sent you, like, two!' 'Well it was misplaced.' Click. People wanted
me to do door gigs, play for the door. 'Man, I'm almost forty years old, you
want to play for the door.' So I just couldn't afford to keep the band in a
hotel for three or four days until the next gig. I mean, it's one thing to
come back from a tour and break even, at least I didn't loose money, but to
have to kick money out of my pocket is, like, paying, that's like buying a
tour. It just didn't work out.
FJ: Is arranging a tour that much harder on the West Coast than it is on the
GO: Yes, because it's more spread out. Especially from the upper northeast
sector, I mean, from D. C. to Boston there's tons and tons of colleges and
you can drive, do that drive in less than eight hours. From New York to
Philadelphia is an hour and a half. From D. C. to New York is three hours,
three and a half hours. On the West Coast, you can find yourself in a ravine
with the van turned upside down, with the wheels spinning, trying to make the
next gig. It's lengthy.
FJ: Do you like playing the college circuit?
GO: I was trying to get in there, but unfortunately a lot of people that book
the colleges are students and they look at Billboard or Gavin, whatever those
music charts, whatever. They look to see who is on top of it and they don't
see my name so they don't want to book it. They just book the same people.
So it boils down to who is popular, once again. Who is media friendly, or who
talks. Most of the time people do interviews, they don't talk the way I talk.
They say all the right things. It's love and peace, and everything's
beautiful, and I love everybody, and I want everybody to love my music, and
thank you. God bless you. I love you. I love everybody too, but I also say I
want to be an individual and I want my music to sound different and I don't
want to sound like anybody else. They don't want to hear that, because it's
like, they think, 'You're an upstart.' No, not an upstart, I just want sound
like, when I talk I don't want to talk like somebody. I don't want to sound
like Chris Rock when I talk, 'Hey, what up!' I want to sound like Greg Osby,
so I don't want my music to sound like Steve Coleman. I don't want it to
sound like Kenny Garrett. Is that so odd? I don't think so.
FJ: What are you listening to right now?
GO: I'm listening to a whole lot of stuff. I'm listening to, in particular,
the complete recordings of Don Byas, the complete Mosaic recordings of Herbie
Nichols. I'm listening to a lot of Ben Webster. I'm studying his vibrato.
I'm listening to this Paul Gonsalves collection that I have. What else? A
variety of pop music, George Michael, Bjork, a little hip hop here and there.
It's really diverse. It can change just like that. I don't set out to listen
to just jazz. It's whatever catches my fancy.
FJ: What inspires Greg Osby?
GO: Individuals. People that aren't afraid to express themselves, not to a
degree where they're offensive to others or it's just totally inappropriate,
but people who have studied and who have formulated things and who come up
with a concept and a presentation that is reflective of higher learning. It's
studied and scientific and it contains a certain degree of intellectualism.
That's the problem that I have. People always say that Greg Osby music
doesn't make any reference to the blues or this and that or whatever, but I've
lived the blues. I'm from the ghetto. I don't have to play the blues on my
record to know the blues. I'm Black. What more do you want? Do I have to be
Mr. Bojangles to play the blues? That's the problem I have. They think that
Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were idiots. These cats
were very intelligent and the music was very intelligent. These people
alienated people in their day. Duke Ellington got scathing reviews by
critics. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and everybody else that I like,
they were dogged, so I think I'm in good company. I just look for people that
go the extra mile.
FJ: Describe yourself in one word.
FJ: Elaborate on that for me.
GO: Because, I want to know. I'm really frustrated when I'm confronted with
things that I don't know, so I have to dissect them and extract the
particulars, and the stylistic characteristics, framework, make-up. I want to
know. If there's something of value then I probably can extract it and
incorporate it in my own work and thus it will just be a compound. It will
fortify what I'm doing. It's really ignorant to listen to everything as a fan
and say, 'Yes, that's really nice,' when there's something of value there. In
every situation that I'm in, I try to be a fan of it, as well as listening to
it analytically and ingest the material. I discard the excess, but I try to
use something of value.
FJ: What's in the future for Greg Osby?
GO: More variance and more study. I want to do a record with voices and
strings. I probably won't ever be able to perform it live. I don't get those
kinds of gigs, but I'd like to document it. I'd like to document all that I
can. This 'Banned In New York' being released in December, less than six
months after the one that proceeded it, because one recording a year isn't
enough for a jazz artist. Jazz is sold on volume and availability and
accessability, as opposed to some big media build up. People will gravitate
toward your art in their own time. No amount of hype will make them hear it
any better. They can have all these grandiose ads in all these publications
and upon the first listen, people may not get it at all. Many recordings
warrant repeated listening, because it's just too much to comprehend at once.
FJ: At the conclusion of your career, what would you like your musical legacy
GO: I would like people to think that here's a man who didn't repeat himself,
who was always searching, who was always looking for the missing element, or
the next phase, in constant transition, in constant growth and in progression.
That's all that I can offer. If it's touted great or trend setting or
phenomenal, that's a judgement I can't launch. I just hope that it's
recognized as something that's honest or earnest.
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