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 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...

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