A Fireside Chat with Greg Osby September 28, 2001

By Fred Jung

I've talked to Greg Osby so many times, if this were the real world, I would like to have called him a friend. But since I doubt Oz would recognize me in a police lineup, it's tough to say I am any more familiar with him than when I first spoke with him years ago. I can say this with fair confidence, Oz is an original. After years of being critically pigeonholed as this or that, Oz has become somewhat of a media darling, but isn't that always the case that the news only covers the news, never makes it. Oz just released his eighth album for Blue Note, Symbols of Light (A Solution), a string recording placed on its head, and has another in the can, Inner Circle with Jason Moran, another bad ass. And we got into the albums, but I wanted to talk about the impending departure of his friend and pianist for years, Jason, whose own name and career have grown in great length through Oz. Oz has never sounded as good as he does with Jason by his side and Jason owes much of his success to Oz. Kind of like Miles and Trane. I am pleased once more to bring to you Mr. Greg Osby, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: With your increasing popularity comes lofty expectations, how much of a factor does that play?

GREG OSBY: No, that doesn't factor into any of my decision making or the creative process at all. I'm only documenting what I'm doing at the moment I'm doing it. It's literally like a snapshot of the moment. And my sentiments change about art, life, and music immediately after something is committed to tape. My utmost concern and hope is that people can accept it for what it represents and can see through their differences. If not, I can't consume myself with it because that would change the way I create and it would change the intentions and purpose of the work. 

FJ: We live in interesting times. When you struggle to reach the mountaintop, it is merely a matter of time before those whom aided in your climb are conniving to tear you down. You've been around the block. Do you find people nipping at your heels?

GREG OSBY: Yeah, a lot of the writers, especially in the New York area. Some are people that I happen to know very well. There's a mutual respect, I guess. We don't agree upon everything, but in no way do I go out or set out to appease them musically or artistically in any sense because once again, my objective is to document a host of means and measures in an organized fashion and have the musicians that I choose to document this work with, to have them to interpret those means through their own artistry in a combined effort. That's what you have, a joint project based upon my initial germs. To have too many opinions and too many concerns, that would be like succumbing to the too many cooks syndrome. Also, you alienate people in any number of ways. They may, through their alienation, turn against you because you may force them to confront something that is outside their rudimentary way of thinking or the way they prepare intellectually for art definition and criticism. A lot of people are offended by it. They would rather keep things compartmentalized so that they can remain in their own descriptive comfort zone. I can't be concerned with that either, Fred. I'm only concerned with people that are progressive, people that are as curious as I am about things, and people that are eager to witnes, accept and enjoy individualized expression.

FJ: Are you still eager?

GREG OSBY: Oh, absolutely, Fred. Absolutely. Sometimes it's frustrating though. I woke up this morning in a mild funk because I'm ready to take that next step with the music and the band. We had a triumphant outing in New Orleans this weekend, but I recognized that there were a lot of holes in the performance and in the assemblage of the material itself. I reach these types of artistic impasses every so often, at least bi-annually.

FJ: What are you weary of?

GREG OSBY: I'm referring to the band. I'm referring to my own playing. I'm referring to the group logic, a bevy of reasons and issues that bring me to this point. As the bandleader, it's up to me to get in the lab and assess what the problem is and incorporate some new fixtures that will catapult the group and myself, inspirationally speaking, to the next level. And that's what keeps me moving. Complacency doesn't exist in my vocabulary. I consider it to be the kiss of death to an artist.

FJ: In the end, you are the ultimate judge. Everyone else is interpreting your work second hand. But people hear that Osby's done a strings record and you might as well let the criticisms fly.

GREG OSBY: Well, I've gotten a bit of that already. I've gotten commentary that precedes the release via the internet and email and these bulliten boards and things like that. People, they associate a strings project with the precedent sound. For example, those big, lush arrangements that are really syrupy and overdone and real sugar coated and sappy. It is just too much and the artist actually gets lost in the wash, gets lost in the soup. It's very Hollywood, for lack of a better term. There is nothing really compelling about it, which is why I chose to do this project with a smaller ensemble, with a string quartet. There is a lot more urgency in a quartet and I really wanted the quartet to be imbedded in the fabric of each composition as opposed to being an afterthought. I wanted the string players to actually feel that they were a part of the ensemble and to feel like they made a contribution and I wanted what they do to be integral, an integral component to the foundation of each composition, as opposed to the "us and them" syndrome.

FJ: So the strings are done in real time, no overdubbing.

GREG OSBY: No, they are done in real time, which is a bit difficult. Now I had to overdub a couple of my sax parts because I had to stop and conduct the strings with a pencil because they are used to seeing a conductor. Some of the passages aren't so deliberate and I had to actually detail where the band was going. It took a bit of doing for them to find their way in the middle of my music. I tried to make it as comfortable and assessable to them as possible.

FJ: Sounds like a pain in the ass.

GREG OSBY: Well, each new recording is difficult on its own terms, just like a birth of a new baby. You nurse it and you embrace and nurture it and you try to see it to fruition and sometimes, with all theattention and  preparation, nothing can save it. It's doomed. As far as this project goes, I'm really proud of it and I just hope people get it. Bottom line is that I don't want to alienate anyone. I want everyone to get it. I hope that they get it. I hope they see where I was going with this and I hope they understand that I was not trying to pattern this after anyone else. It doesn't like anyone else. It sounds unique. It sounds fresh, individualistic. It sounds new. It's based upon some things that I am familiar with, but it doesn't sound like any one of them in particular. Those are the things that I hope people get and I hope that in the end, they respect us as artists who are trying to portray ourselves as ourselves.

FJ: Give some cliff notes so people have a heads up.

GREG OSBY: What I was trying to do, I guess I will give an explanation of the title. The title is Symbols of Light (A Solution). Symbols of Light, to me, are these resources that are untapped and if investigated can propel American improvised music or jazz if you will, into the limelight again. Right now, we are at the bottom rung of the appreciation ladder of the arts in the States and also the world for the most part. There used to be a better situation. It's not so now because a lot of musicians choose to rely and feed on their own devices, like an animal that eats its own offspring, that eats its own young. Some new music doesn't flourish because you have to allow yourself to be influenced and to be affected by other sources. And so, one "symbol of light" to me is this small chamber ensemble that I've integrated into my group. That's why I say a solution. It's not the solution or the only one, but it is a solution. I have experimented with other types of music and there have been other solutions like Japanese music and Chinese music and Indian music and hip-hop. All of these are symbols of light and the light is available to us. We can reach it, but we have to step out of our arena every once in a while. Or else.

FJ: Jazz has lost its meaning.

GREG OSBY: Exactly.

FJ: Jazz used to be cool, a look that Miles, Chet, and Trane personified. Now, jazz is merely a word to gage how old you are.

GREG OSBY: Right, jazz, right now, is tied to so many things that aren't reflective of the real history and lineage of this music. It's tied to something that is more innocuous.

FJ: Where did it lose its way?

GREG OSBY: I think it lost its way in the Eighties or so. A lot of people would like to say in the Seventies with fusion, but after that you had these smooth jazz radio stations and they have people that actually could play, but they choose to play this lighter fare. And they also put that moniker on those who had nothing to do with authentic jazz. Say for instance, smooth jazz stations are supposed to play smooth jazz, but they'll play Sade and Anita Baker and a whole lot of people that aren't jazz musicians. It's not to say Al Jarreau or Joe Sample and George Benson and all these people aren't jazz players or can't even play jazz because I know they can, but that's not what they're doing. So for me to say that I'm a jazz musician and to cast me under the same umbrella as these people, there is no connection really other than there are instruments being played. We don't have the same intentions and we don't have the same demographics that we're trying to appeal to. Our music all have a totally different purpose. Right now, it is almost embarrassing, Fred, to be honest. Of course, I would like to establish myself and to coupled with the people that I hold in dear nobility regarding their place in the pantheon of the history of this music, but right now, I don't even want to be associated with that. Look what's happening. The people they call jazz musicians, they make a whole lot of money and they say that's jazz. These are people that aren't really jazz musicians. They don't even carry their own instruments. They don't ride the train throughout Europe and take three flights to gigs. They don't tour around the United States like I do and don't get paid and don't get money. When I appear in the United States, it's only an appearance I'm making. I'm only able to make the band's salary and pay for their lodging and for transportation. I don't get paid. It's too cheap. That's just the way it is. There is no relationship between me and them.

FJ: The outlook of labels toward jazz has been at an artistic low. Concepts dominate albums to my dismay. How have you been able to avoid such pitfalls for the duration of your journey?

GREG OSBY: Yeah, well, Fred, it's like when I negotiated my contract with Blue Note in 1989, I was insistent that no one at the company would come to me with any of those types of suggestions. I was what twenty-nine, thirty years old already and I had already had history as a recording artist and so I knew the ropes and I wasn't desperate either. So if it wasn't that way, I would rather stay on small, independent labels and have total autonomy to do whatever I wanted to do. I was also witness to what happens to artists who succumb to that, who succumb to the whims of A&R representatives of companies who really don't have an admirable artistic attitude or respect for the music. Most are merely just business people and they want to generate sales and make money and I understand that. It is a business, but I'm about the documentation of the truth as I see it and not somebody's idea of what might be fashionable or marketable. I don't want to be regarded as "product" who will be  kicked to the curb because my record didn't sell, particularly because someone didn't do their job, because the people in marketing didn't market the record properly or somebody didn't properly promote the recording or make the necessary phone calls. They always look at the artists like "Your record sucked or this fad is weak", Many artists and great projects get lost in the mix of company politics. I don't want to be penalized because of people not doing their job. If the record fails, it should be because the music fell short of its mark or it didn't reach the people emotionally. And you know, Fred, I've learned. I've learned what I had to do, what I had to implement, and what I had to eliminate in order to make my point a lot more clearly. I've had to figure out how to edit and how to delete things and figure out how not to bombard people with everything I want to do on one CD and try to make one or two statements, but make them really strong, profound statements, as opposed to everything that I think is hip at that moment. So, a long story short, I'm not into those concept type of records, Greg Osby does Gershwin, Greg Osby does Cole Porter or Jerome Kern.

FJ: Why doesn't Greg Osby do Jerome Kern?

GREG OSBY: Well, Fred, first of all, I think I'm a competent enough composer that I can adequately express myself with my own music. Even though those catalogs of compositions by those composers are great in it of themselves, they are not reflective of where I stand and they are definitely not reflective of the state of the art in a contemporary sense. I may give a lot of those songs a treatment. as I do often, especially live. On a recording I may document one or two of those songs, but I have to rethink it so it fits my theory and so it almost sounds like an original composition. I'd rather not do just a blanketed treatment of those songs because they've been done to death and it  wouldn't do the composers or me or the listener any justice to play them straight, without any modification. What would be the point?

FJ: You're a bandleader now and the cats in your band look to you to get paid. Is there a time when you long for those simpler days when you were with Jack (DeJohnette)?

GREG OSBY: It's rewarding, but sometimes it definitely is a hassle. Being a leader, sometimes you have to argue with promoters. You have to argue with agents. I don't even have a booking agent in the United States. I've been denied a position on the primary agent's rosters for years because they always say that their "plate is full" -  even though a couple of weeks later, I find that they've booked somebody else or they've signed somebody else to their roster just because they didn't know my music or they didn't think that they could sell it to venues. I can't be discouraged by that - by their sometimes limited ability to access what makes my music unique. Most agents don't respond favorably to music that they're not familiar with, so they pass. As a result, just like anyone else,  I've always had to book my own band for the most part. I have to book my own flights. I have to wear all the hats. It's a drag, but you have to do it. You would think as a forty-year-old musician, who's been on the scene for twenty years, that I would have ample representation, that I would have this big infrastructure of people working with me and working for me, but it's not like that at all. It's a total misconception that people have. It's not only me. I'm not exclusive in that sense. It is just about everybody. There are a lot of musicians that are insulated by this big machine. But I feel a responsibility to the band. I try to keep them together and keep them working. I'd rather not get paid or get paid less than they get paid just to keep the band active. Sometimes, bandleaders have to make that sacrifice.

FJ: The musicians that come out of your band are individuals, a lesson learned through osmosis.

GREG OSBY: I find players that reside on the periphery of the scene. They're not necessarily very well known when I meet them. Some of them don't work a lot and people don't hire them because of the differences that they have with the way these musicians think and the way they play. And that exactly usually what appeals to me. It's like the way Miles Davis sought out his sidemen. He hired John Coltrane who  was despised by the musical community and the critical community. Philly Joe Jones, nobody liked the way he played drums. Nobody really liked Red Garland. They said he was a cocktail piano player. However, combined they created one of the most tight and unique groups ever assembled. So, sometimes it takes looking beyond who is popular and simply go with one's instincts.Players like these are the kind of people that I figure if I can assemble them in a controlled situation and pair them with other misfits of the scene, then the combination just may bear some fruit,  Also, I talk to musicians at large about individuality, concepts and approaches and advancing their musicianship and their personality through music. I reinforce composition and study and open-mindedness and the acceptance of things that are initially unfamiliar. It is art, but it is also a science too. A lot of it is exact and a lot of it is accidental. You have to be open to allow yourself to respond to things. Wynton and his musicians or whomever that work with him, I have a great deal of respect for him because he encourages quality. He encourages study. We have a similar value system. But our priorities and our objectives are dissimilar and I think we have a lot more commonalities than differences. He may be in the trade mags because he has this corporation behind him that he has to honor and he has to deliver rhetoric that adheres to the way they see things and to do otherwise would alienate them and it might jeopardize his position. That's just my assumption. That may not actually be the deal. He may truly feel with the utmost conviction that what he says is proper or right. I have respect for it. I had a lot more differences when I was younger, but as I've grown older, I recognize that people will find their own way and he'll be forty this year, so it's not like he's saying things that are a result of youthful intolerance or people not agreeing with him anymore. That's just the way he feels.

FJ: Are you keeping Scott (Colley) around for a while?

GREG OSBY: Scott, I've been using him primarily as a session cat. It's really difficult to get him to tour. I do use him on isolated gigs and stuff, but he is one of the most popular and adept bassists in New York right now, so it is hard to take him on a tour right now. He's always triple booked. He's just one of those kind of guys. But he brings such high musicianship to anything that he's involved in that if I can get first dibs on him, i will. I'm still into the locating and the cultivation of younger, unknown players. This is a lot more gratifying when I see the preverbal diamond in the rough and I take them and polish them. Maybe they might not hang around for very long, but when I send them on their way, they take our value system along with them. That's a great feeling to know that I may be affecting other situations. That's cool.

FJ: Helps you sleep at night.

GREG OSBY: Yeah, not only that but I know that Jason (Moran), his days are numbered with the group too because his profile is steadily advancing and we've had a few scheduling conflicts. It is going to get to a point where it is going to reach an impasse and I don't want him to have to make a decision because I know he feels indebted. I'm here to aid him, not stand in his way. I think it's time for him to leave the nest because I feel that his group is the definitive jazz piano trio going right now. Although he is important to the fabric of my group and has been for five years, he deserves his own forum. He earned it.

FJ: It is how Miles felt about Trane's departure. Have you found another pianist?

GREG OSBY: No and that's frustrating. Before Jason, there was nobody like him and there will be nobody like him afterwards. I'm convinced of that. Not to say that it is impossible, but I endured years of frustration trying to find people, using people that were notable in their own right, they were established jazz pianists. But they didn'y fit what I was trying to do. They were just too set in their ways and they were inflexible and a bit unyielding artistically. They just couldn't see their way through a lot of my approaches. Jason was the answer. We clicked immediately.

FJ: Sounds like you're damned.

GREG OSBY: Yeah. I'm not feeling too many of the pianinst in New York right now for some reason. Either I will just do a trio with sax, bass, and drums or I may do a quartet with a trumpet player. There are a couple of guitar players that I'm interested in so I may just move to guitar.

FJ: An end to an era.

GREG OSBY:  It can go in a few different directions so, but on the piano tip, I don't think Jason can be replaced very easily.

FJ: And the future?

GREG OBSY: Well, I've been dealing with a bit of personal frustration in the past few outings. We just got back from New Orleans yesterday and I realized that I'm going to have to get back in the lab and reassess a couple of measures and figure out what the next step is because I'm a bit, I wouldn't say dissatisfied, but I'm ready to make a change in my playing. I need to do a little studying and lock myself away for a while. Because when you're working a lot, the amount of attention that you can give to your own account is limited with hotel rooms, trains and planes. There are a lot of things that I want to study and take apart and get inside of, new world philosophies and things like that. There are a few elders that I want to talk to and pick their brains and get the information from the source. I'm going to have to have some musicians come to my house and shackle them so they can't leave for a few days and play and bounce ideas off them. I can do the study and analysis on my own, but the true test is to see how it works with others. It may be hip to me, but is may sound really foreign to other people. So I have to see how people accept the stuff, so I have to kidnap some guys.

FJ: Sun Tzu, if your enemy is irritated, continue irritating him. Do you enjoy irritating people, keeping them on their toes?

GREG OSBY: Not in the dark sense. I want to stimulate people into action. I don't want people to listen to the music and not be affected by it in some way. But if they are driven into motivation through something that is an irritant then so be it. I'd rather they respond to some of the more positive efforts and be accepting of what was presented. Then again there are some musicians without being nasty or anything, I think they could stand to be irritated because in their limited amount of years on the scene, they've allowed themselves to become complacent. They've stopped growing and it is harmful to the scene at large when you have legions of guys that don't care about advancing their craft or working on anything that is stimulating or progressive. They keep talking about swinging. Keep swinging and we're deep in the groove. No, you're not. You're pretty much a pantomime of someone who was far greater than you are. You're making no contributions. You're just a mirror of someone. This music needs thinkers and action, not parrots.

FJ: Nobody likes cover bands.

GREG OSBY: No, but some cover bands are actually cool. They're like repertoire bands. I consider some musicians to be repertoire musicians. They play the music of other artists and they do it quite well. They keep that music in circulation. That's OK.  That's their calling. Fine, but don't call these musicians the best the scene has to offer. Why are these musicians the only ones that work the most? These musicians frequent the polls. They're featured prominently in the the jazz mags and get the high paying gigs, where in my opinion, the musicians that are out here actively plowing the proverbial mule in the fields, they're snubbed and swept under the rug and exist on grant funding and jive little gigs. That's the tragedy of the business. There's a huge imbalance in the way arts funding and creative support is appropriated. But then again, Fred, that is nothing new. But that doesn't make it right or accptable. | OzTone Productions | website by Ben Azzara ©2000-2022