Saxophonist John Doheny was born in Seattle Washington in 1953 but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, primarily in Vancouver and Toronto. After early experiences accompanying strippers in bars and cabarets he became a professional R&B sideman in the late 1970s, touring and recording with artists both prominent and obscure. In 1991 he returned to Vancouver and began a program of intense musical study, both in academe (Vancouver Community College, the University of British Columbia) and in the more informal area of performance. He asserts that "all human intercourse is either an opportunity to learn or to teach. Everything that I know about jazz performance (to the extent that I know anything at all) I owe to those players, teachers and students who have suffered to share the bandstand and the teaching studio with me." Since 2003, Mr. Doheny has been a permanent resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, but makes every effort to spend summers in Canada because "it's too damn hot down here then."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Doheny Interviews Doheny, Part 3.

We'd been talking before about technique, and you'd managed to get yourself all balled up in what seemed to me to be some contradictory statements. Would you care to untangle them?

I thought I was being pretty straightforward actually, but I'll try a different approach.  If we use an analogy like, say, language, then obviously if you're trying to get a complex and nuanced point across, it's best if you have the widest vocabulary possible. On the other hand, if you have nothing to say, all the ten dollar words in the world won't make it sound like anything more than what it is...empty bullshit.

Okay, but what about so-called "primitive" folk artists, like blues singers.  Are you saying these musicians, who obviously aren't technicians, are not expressive?

But are these people really "primitive? Just because Robert Johnson didn't play like Julian Bream doesn't mean he wasn't a virtuouso. And even guys who are seemingly just banging on the guitar and hollering are often using a very large vocabulary of expressive techniques, they're just not "classical" techniques.  Check out, say, Son House doing "John the Revelator." All he's doing is kind of chanting the lyrics and clapping his hands, but holy cow is that shit intense! You try doing that sometime. The way that he places the words, punches some of them and pulls back others, where he places them in the time stream. And the intent behind it, he really wants to get that message across, and he's got total mastery of the musical materials he needs to do it. I was on a gig once about ten years ago where this guy, he was a radio announcer, decided he was going to do Tom Waits's "Step Right Up," which is a kind of beatnik-hipster monologue done with bass, drums and tenor sax. This guy figured, hey, I make my living talking on the radio, all Waits is doing is talking over some music, I can do that. The bass player on the gig, my good buddy Jasper Clarke who passed away last year, tried to warn him, "hey man. This shit is harder than it looks." But the guy went ahead anyway, figuring he'd just toss it off, and it was one of the more embarrassing moments I've endured onstage, I mean the guy was just twisting slowly in the wind. Just awful.

Another example. Some friends of mine once accompanied a female "rock" singer who decided she wanted to do Billie Holiday's version of "What A Little Moonlight Can Do." This was a person with, technically, a much better set of pipes than Billie, who had about a three note range. This singer was a real belter, but she had no concept of phrasing, no idea of swing, beyond hearing Billie do it and thinking "hey, that's cool." But you have to learn how to do these things, it takes time and study, even though it sounds easy. But it's not easy. If it was, everyone would do it.

It's disrespectful to approach music, any music, with that kind of casual attitude. That's why I'm so indifferent to the charms of stuff like the early Rolling Stones and Beatles versions of classic blues and R&B stuff. I mean why on earth would I want to listen to the Rolling Stones fuck up "Time is On My Side" when I can listen to Irma Thomas's original? I don't understand how they could even put that crap out, you know? I mean, the guitars aren't even in tune. They obviously just kind of clanked around with it for awhile, thought, "okay, good enough," and put it in their repertoir. Then figured it was cool because if you stand back fifty feet and squint, it sort of sounds okay. That's an insult to all the people who sweat bullets to get their point across, like Irma and Son House.

Okay, this is starting to make a little more sense. You seem to be saying that a musician needs the tools to get his message across. But what is this "message?"

Again, you're going to hate me when I say this, but I don't think these things are necessarily something that can be expressed in words. And I'm talking about "songs" that have lyrics as well. Because when you write down a lot of supposedly "poetic" song lyrics, they actually look pretty dumb on the page. Especially if you stack em up next to real poetry, like Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night," or Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts." But Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," which actually started it's life as a pretty mediocre poem...that's heavy, heavy stuff.

The problem is, we're talking about intangibles here, and also (and here I'm going to say something else that's going to piss you off) we're talking about things that become clearer over time, as you get some age under your belt. Or maybe it's just me, I dunno. But it's like, yeah, I "dug" B.B. King and John Coltrane and Son House and Robert Johnson when I was 16, but I was only "digging" down into the first couple of layers of what those people do. As I got into my 30s and 40s, their work began to have more resonance for me. And just lately man, I've been revisiting some cats I haven't listened to in a while, and wow! It's like the veil has fallen from in front of my eyes, you know? I've been digging on some Ike Quebec recently, a CD I've had for maybe 15 years, but hadn't listened to for quite awhile, and it was like...WHAM! The stuff is just so deep, man, so soulful. It sets me back on my pins.

This has been very interesting, but we probably need to wrap it up, since we both have actual lives to attend to. Any closing thoughts about your own development as a musician?

Wow, you sure know how to snap a shiv, don't you *laughs* And stick it in. I have to be careful how I answer this, because if I confess how badly I  think I suck, nobody'll pay to come hear me.

Seriously, everyone has inner doubts, absolutely everyone. The heaviest players you can name have their bad days, and no way do I put myself on that level. I've always told my students that I speak to them as a fellow sufferer, not as some all-seeing Jedi Master of Jazz who's got it all figured out. No matter how good you think you are, there's always someone better to put you in your place.

One of the great things about New Orleans is the opportunity to be humiliated, on a regular basis, by players who will just mercilessly kick your ass on the bandstand. And it's not always the "big dogs" doing it either; I mean, there's no shame, to me, in being cut by Branford Marsalis or Tim Warfield, I can live with that no problem. But when it's some student less than half your age whacking you all over the stand all night long, that's a humbling experience.

For example last night, I went to sit in on Jesse Mcbride's "Next Generation" gig out at the Steak Knife in Lakeview. Jesse's rhythm section is as good as it gets, Max Moran on bass and Joe Dyson Jr. on drums. These are cats who are starting to get international reputations through touring with guys like Donald Harrison, but a few years ago they were just little weed-hopper students of Jesse's. And now here they are at this nothing gig in a steakhouse, playing with Jesse's new crop of weed-hoppers.

On trumpet is a young guy named John Michael Bradford, who I think is about 16 and just started at NOCCA. Jasmine Butler sat in on drums for a bit, as did Steve Lands on trumpet, who plays in Delfeayo Marsalis's big band.

It's a strange vibe for me, because I feel I am Jesse's student too, even though he's almost 30 years younger than me. But his pedagogical approach is so hip, you feel like you just have to leave all vanity and ego behind and just...address the music. And Jesse's tunes that he plays on that gig always have a purpose, either as some iconic but little known (outside of New Orleans) composition by James Black or Harold Battiste or Ellis Marsalis that he wants to pass on, or as examples of various technical things that all jazz improvisers need to master. Often they include both these aspects.

I'm generally a pretty gregarious guy, I love to socialize`and cut up and such, but lately when I go on Jesse's gig to sit in, I try not to do that much. I feel like I need to shut up and get serious about Jesse's music, because there's so much to learn there, and I see the people who've put themselves in the service of his concepts have become such fine musicians, and I'd like a little of that for myself.

I wasn't feeling so good when I got there last night, and I didn't think I was playing well. I was screwing stuff up in weird ways, like tunes I thought I'd at least got a handle on, like James Black's "Dee Wee" and Ellis Marsalis's "Swingin At The Haven," I was kacking stuff, fluffing lines. Jesse is playing "Dee Wee," which is a super-hard, mixed meter thing, a little faster than I'm used to, so I was a bit forgiving of myself for messing that up. But he played "Swingin" at a slower tempo than usual, and I screwed that up too. It's like you get this comfort-zone kind of rut on some tunes, and if you get pushed out of that, it's harder to deal. At least it is for me.

But I was watching John Michael on trumpet, here's this kid, he's just got so much heart, you know? Even when he's messing up, he just keeps pushing, and he searches and finds his way, and by the end of the solo, he's got something he can sit back down with and feel good, you know?

So I kind of took that to heart and figured there's something for me to learn. And the last few tunes of the evening, which were mostly funk or blues things, I felt like I played some decent stuff. Mostly, I'm trying to listen and learn. From everybody. And practise. There's never enough time to practise.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Doheny Interviews Doheny, Part Two.

We were speaking of the viability of teaching jazz performance in an institutional or university setting.

Yes we were, and I'd like to resume by saying that at this point I'm much too close to the process to gauge the degree of success, or lack of it, that we've had at Tulane. But I do feel I can address some of the problems we encountered, and the advantages we've had.

Please do.

Well, in the beginning we had two very strong elements working in our favor. The first was a combination of support from the chair of the music department (Barbara Jazwinski in the first years, and Michael Howard more recently) coupled with a kind of benign neglect. And by this I mean that since the bulk of the performance program in the music department at Tulane was, when I arrived there in 2003, almost entirely classically oriented, there wasn't really anyone around when we started who knew enough about teaching jazz performance to place any restrictions on us. In the days after Katrina, when the program really started moving ahead, Barbara gave me pretty much carte blanche. I didn't have much of a budget, but she more or less let me develop programs and curriculum how I liked, hire who I liked.I brought in people like Fredrick Sanders, who taught jazz piano for a while, who were really marvelous musicians and educators, and who had solid connections in the community of professional jazz musicians, both locally and nationally. When Fred left, he recommended Jesse Mcbride, and by total coincidence I had a gig with Jesse right after that and afterwards we talked for an hour about jazz education and what we thought it should be, and I could tell right away that we were on the same page. Jesse has proved to be a huge asset to the program.

The other advantage is the city of New Orleans itself. I can't imagine what it must be like to try to teach jazz performance in some little college town in Kansas or something like that, it must feel very abstract. In New Orleans, by contrast, the history of the music is right at your doorstep, as are many, many musicians who are part of that lineage. I remember as a grad student here, having to write a paper on Jelly Roll Morton, and at one point I got up from the computer and went and took a walk past Jelly Roll's house. You can't do that in Keokuk Iowa. And getting the opportunity to play with and learn from musicians you've idolized your whole life is a priceless and matchless experience.

What are some of the disadvantages.

Just the nature of the institution. Universities love numbers and GPAs and grading curves, and those things aren't always conducive to learning a skill like jazz. To many university instructors, "teaching" means standing at the front of a lecture theater three times a week, talking and answering questions, and giving a midterm, and a final, and grading papers. For the classical music folks, it's juries and recitals. But jazz doesn't work like that. So while the structure and evaluation procedures of the university dictate that you do things like require graduating recitals and term end concerts, those things have more value to the school than they do to the overall texture of a jazz student's experience at Tulane. Because they get a lot of demands placed on them that they get no academic credit for. In addition to the term end concerts other music students have, jazz students at Tulane have another half-dozen or so performances in the "Jazz at the Rat" series, where they have to learn a whole bunch of music for each one, to a standard of excellence where they won't embarrass themselves playing with the professionals brought in for these things. If they're in the big band or the "Friday" combo, they've got a jazzfest performance on a major stage before thousands of people. They've got the weekly gig at the Steak Knife out in Lakeview that Jesse curates. Jazz students at Tulane just have a lot  more performance obligations than most other music students, and they don't get academic credit for most of them. Because, as they've heard me say many times, life ain't a rehearsal. It's a gig.

Do you miss  being at Tulane, now that school has started?

Hell yeah! It breaks my heart, man. Working with those students was the best time of my life. And I really feel like the program is going well now, after six years of hard work. There's some very highly motivated, skilled musicians teaching there now, many of whom I brought to Tulane. It makes me very sad to not be there to help take it to the next level.

Can we change the subject?

Sure. Let's talk about your own development as a player. Who did you listen to as a young man?

Ironically, a lot of New Orleans cats. When I was 15, 16 years old, I learned all the tenor solos off of Little Richard's early hits, like Lucille, Good Golly Miss Molly etc. all of them done by the great New Orleans saxophonist Lee Allen. I can still play those solos from memory to this day, along with other New Orleans guys who turned up on a lot of those old R&B records, guys like Herb Hardesty and Nat Perriliat. And of course I listened to other R&B cats like King Curtis and Junior Walker. I didn't get into the more "chops" oriented players like Bird and "Trane until I was into my 20s, and not really seriously until I was in my 30s.

It's funny, because when I finally did get serious about technique, and started really listening and learning stuff from the proverbial "Coltrane Canon," I got kind of snobbish for a while. I stopped listening to guys like Junior Walker and Joe Houston and Hal "Cornbread" Singer, because it wasn't sophisticated and technical and polished. But living in New Orleans these last few years, I've come to understand a few things that, in my arrogance, I kind of overlooked. One is, never jump to conclusions about how much horn somebody can blow.  A guy here in New Orleans like James Rivers, who if you just come to town as a tourist and catch him playing "Wonderful World" or something, you might be tempted to dismiss as a lightweight. But James can tear up on "Giant Steps" man. Go toe-to-toe with him at a session and he'll kill you dead. Same thing with Elliot "Stackman" Callier, who played with Fat's Domino for many years. Don't think just because you see him on some brass band second-line gig blowing "It Ain't My Fault' that he is not able to play some serious saxophone. Stackman is killer.

The other thing is, well...I guess Lester Young said it best after listening to Sonny Stitt blow a million-note solo. He said "that's all very fine Lady Stitt...but can you sing me a song"? I've come to believe that, as instrumentalists, we are at our very best when we are most like singers. And by that I mean that we are expressing a kind of lyricism and beauty that is landing in the listener's heart. So now, when I listen to King Curtis, I hear him not so much as a saxophonist but rather as the heir to all the great, southern-fried soul singers of his day, the Bobby Moore's and the Tommy Tate's and the Clarence Carters's. I once had an opportunity to play next to Junior Walker, back in the 80s. I was too stupid and vain to fully absorb what he was doing at the time, but I do remember being absolutely blown away by the strenghth and virility of his sound. It was like a real, physical presence in the room. And when I think of his sound now, I think not only of great singers, but of great preachers, like Rev. C.L. Franklin, or Jesse Jackson. Because it's almost an oratorical thing as much as it is music to those cats. It's a sermon.

I can't fully describe or understand what that "thing" is, but I can give you an example of what it ain't. If you've seen the movie Standing in the Shadows of Motown, you've seen Tom Scott, a great studio player with yards of technique, play Junior Walker's lines on "Shotgun." Scott could probably blow rings around Walker on "Moments Notice" or some other 'jazz Olympics" tune like that, but he sounds puny and ineffectual playing these simple lines. Then he tries to make up for it by playing a bunch of notes, but it's hopeless. He just doesn't have what Walker has, and whatever that is, it's got squat to do with "technique." Because Albert Ayler had it too. It's a certain soulful "presence" in the music.

I don't understand. Are you saying technique doesn't matter?

Oh god no. I'm saying we, I, need to stop kidding ourselves and focus on whatever we deem to be of primary importance. Jesse Mcbride always tells me "focus on the music," which sounds like an easy thing to do, but it's the hardest thing to do in life, because the human capacity to bullshit ourselves is seemingly limitless. As an example, take the "I only need enough technique to do what I want to do" trope. I've heard this a lot from students over the years, as well as from myself, in some pretty sophisticated iterations. But what you have to ask yourself, whenever this comes up, is, "but is this really what I want to do? Or am I just saying it's what I want to do, because what I really want is too hard?"  You should be making musical choices based on where your heart and soul is taking you, not on whether there's too many sharps in that key. And I'm saying this as much to myself as to anyone else.

So technique is important then?

Technique is everything when you don't have enough of it, because nothing sucks more than attempting to execute a great idea and fluffing it. But in and of itself, technique is just a vanity, and vanity has no place in matters of the soul.

You're making me crazy.

Imagine how I feel. And remember, you're talking to yourself.

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. Let's take a break and continue in a day or two.

Sounds good to me.

Doheny on Doheny, Pt. One.

I suppose I've done my fair share of interviews, both print and electronic media. Some of them have been fun, many have been routine promo flackery, and some have been a Season in Hell. There's nothing worse than doing a "phoner" (nowdays it's often a "Skyper") and realizing the person on the other end neither knows nor cares anything about jazz or your place in it, and that it's up to you to do the heavy lifting in a way that doesn't make it obvious to the audience that's what's happening.

Of the "enjoyable" interviews I'd say the Alpha and the Omega would be something like, say, Margaret Gallagher/Paul Grant on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's jazz radio show "Hot Air," and DJ/alto saxophonist Gavin Walker's "The Jazz Show" on CFMI. "Hot Air" tends to be well researched, and because it's pre-recorded, the editing process can  make me come off as quite a bit more focussed and erudite than I actually am. This however sometimes comes at the expense of a lot of information I consider important, like the names of everyone who played on the track, and more than a few anecdotes I considered amusing and entertaining but that producers Philip Ditchburn/Neil Ritchie apparently considered less so. But, as Paul Grant once put it to me, it's a music show. That's what people tune in to hear.

Gavin's show is done live, and he's at least as much into the detail/anecdote bag as I am. He's a musician himself, as well as being a guy with an extremely broad knowlege of the music and its history, and he has a wide network of social connections within the business; it's hard to bring up a musician he hasn't met at least once, and in many cases it turns out they've been friends for years. Couple this with the fact that Gavin and I have known each other since the early 1970s, and you've got a recipe for some serious insider chatter. I think we're both aware of this and try to keep it from getting too chronic, but sometimes we're having so much fun in that tiny little studio playing records and talking that we forget ourselves and it may sound, briefly, like a couple of tedious old farts nattering on about god knows what. But that's both the beauty and the curse of live radio. WWOZ here in New Orleans also does the live interview format, with the added attraction of a culture that, unlike the generally polite Canadians, doesn't hesitate to call you up on air to either cheer you on or chew you out over something you just said. It can get to where you feel like you're on a call-in show.

Even the best of interviewers don't always ask the questions I'd like to answer, or take the interview everywhere I'd like it to go. I've always thought of this as just one of life's little challenges, but I recently had the opportunity, while bunking at my friends Don and Mary Hardy's place up in Vancouver, to dip into the "Glenn Gould Reader" and discovered a chapter where he interviews himself. Now, I would never presume to put myself on Gould's level musically, but when it comes to the "ego-large-enough-to-have-its-own-weather-system" category I feel I can more han hold my own.  So here, for your edification and amusement, is Doheny interviewed by Doheny.

Good afternoon John. And may I say that you're looking  handsome and debonair as always.

Thank you John, as are you.

Well, you old smoothie. No wonder people in general, and women in particular, are utterly charmed by you.

Watch it Doheny, the soft-soap is getting pretty deep in here. Better ixnay on the andjobhay, before the marks wise up.

Right, let's get down to cases. Since you're just coming off six years in the university jazz education system, I'm going to ask you the standard shit-disturbing question; can jazz be taught?

And since I don't have to worry too much about hurting my own feelings I'll lob it right back at you and say that's a really stupid question. I mean, it's not like we're suffering from a shortage of jazz musicians, in fact, we're up to our asses in them. The music is obviously being passed on and taught some  kind of way, otherwise we wouldn't be well stuck into the second century of jazz music.

Probably what most people mean when they ask a question like that is "can jazz be taught within the confines of an institutional setting, like a college or university?" Again, the answer is obviously yes, if we're to take "classical" music as an example, since the "old" way of passing on that tradition was very much the same hands-on, mentor-student relationship that characterized the first half-century of jazz. If you went to study with Pachelbel or Corretti or somebody like that, man, you moved into his house. He sat next to you at the keyboard and showed you where to put your fingers, in the most hands-on way possible. It's not until the advent of the schola cantorum that we start to see an institutionalization of music instruction, with larger groups sitting in classrooms and such. And yet I think it's telling that, even in the age of "distance learning" and the "internet classroom' and all this other horseshit, learning an instrument is still largely a one-on-one thing. Or should be, anyway.

Okay, let me rephrase the question. Which do you think is best? The old-school, travelling-big-band-cutting-contest-jam-session model, or the institutional setting of the university?

You're going to hate me for saying this, but I don't think it matters. I really don't think it matters much how the student aquires the tools, although to the romantics and culture-pimps among us I guess the idea of the jazz musician as romantic, existential figure holds great appeal. The trouble is, that is and always has been nonsense. Jazz musicians aren't "cool" people, really. They're nerds. I mean, who else but a nerd would spend thousands of hours alone in a room practising boring stuff? Plus, jazz musicians have no money, which in America is the ultimate in uncool.

Once you strip away the cultural-coolness factors of stupid little hats and goatees, and the idea that jazz musicians are dashing, romantic archetypes (for the benefit of my younger, single students I'd just like to say, ladies, that this part is actually all true, as are the rumours you've heard about the "big tone' and "wide sound" of some of the hipper players), the elements of jazz education are really pretty simple. All students of jazz need access to information, both theoretical and practical, about the music. They need access to competent instruction on their instruments, they need mentorship from older, experienced players, and they need places to 'shed and places to perform. This last especially, because jazz music is music that grows and develops though a synergistic interaction with an audience; at its best, it's like a sermon preached in the Holiness church, it needs the energizing hit of the "amen's" and the "yeah-you-rite"s.

But the question remains, can this environment be achieved within the institutional setting of a university?

Well, as old Willy the Shake once famously said, Aye, there's the rub. But I'm afraid I need to go practise the horn now. Do you think we could continue this on the 'morrow? Because I've got lots more to say.


To Be Continued...