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."

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.

Comments on "Doheny Interviews Doheny, Part Two."


post a comment