Interview with George Colligan: Jazz has to evolve in terms of approach: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz multi-instrumentalist George Colligan. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

George Colligan: – I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, in the United States. It’s a suburb of Baltimore. My parents weren’t musicians, but they liked to sing and listen to different music. They like some classical and some Broadway musicals and some big band jazz and old timey stuff. We had some vinyl, 8 track cassettes, and tapes. I took piano lessons in second grade but I only did it for a month and I never practiced. I started trumpet in 4th grade and I didn’t practice and I almost quit. IN 6th grade, I went to middle school and the band director there was named Lee Stevens; he was the one that really got me serious about practicing and listening to music. Then, a neighbor on my block, Mr. Markley, gave me a stack of jazz records. Then I started signing records out of the library. I really got into listening, especially Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. I think by high school I knew I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t really get serious about piano until I graduated from Peabody Conservatory in 1991 with a degree in Trumpet and Music Education. I also played drums on my own in high school. I’m sort of revisiting the drums recently; the new album is a reflection of my drumming and my composing. I got into piano mostly to be a composer, but I ended up becoming known as a jazz pianist.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

GC: – I think over the course of 30 years, my approach to music has changed in that I want to find a way to make the music natural and organic. I attribute this to playing with many of the older masters of the music, like Gary Bartz, or Buster Williams, or Jack DeJohnette. Some people try to force music to happen. I want to find the balance between effort and effortlessness.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

GC: – Interesting question. I still have a long way to go and I still have a lot of ambitious musical goals. However, I realize that I’m older, I have a teaching job and a family, and I can’t spend 8 hours a day practicing- it’s just not possible. At this time, I try to think more about maintenance rather than making huge improvements. Rhythm has always been the easier thing for me, although there are still things I can improve in terms of rhythm. The most important thing about creative music is the ability to LISTEN while you play. That’s more important than any exercises or chops or skills. So when I play with others, or even myself, I try to LISTEN and play based on what I hear.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

GC: – Being an artist is about choices. There are things you like, and things you don’t like. And it’s not as though I can’t appreciate other artists that do something that perhaps I wouldn’t do. Developing your style can mean weeding out the things you don’t need. Miles didn’t need to sound like Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan and Fats Navarro. He sounded like himself. That’s all you need to do.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

GC: – Ha! I’ve been doing music for so long- it isn’t really a physical stamina, although I have had to play some every day to make sure when there is a gig that I’m not completely rusty. On piano, and drums as well. I have figured out how to play with relaxed technique so that I don’t get tense or tight. That’s really the secret as you get older; make sure your way of playing your instrument will work when you are elderly.

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JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

GC: – I think they can coexist. Sometimes the mind can be overactive. It can play tricks on you. The intellect often is about the past or the future, and worried about what people think and worried about whether anyone will like me or my music or if I’ll be able to make a living and so forth. The soul is eternal, and the soul is a living thing who is just existing and accepting that which is true. The soul lives forever, but understands the insignificance of physical life.

We are significant, and yet we are insignificant, and that’s the balance of the universe. I asked one of my students if he wanted people to listen to his music years after he died, and he said, “Yes, of course!” I said, OK, can you name one person of significance from the year 1000? Surprise, he couldn’t. Your soul lives forever but your music on earth may not. So you better enjoy it!

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

GC: – EH……..I think the best art is made when the artist makes the art they want to make. I think you can present it or maybe even tailor it to be more people friendly. I think it’s easier as an artist to find your niche audience than try to please everyone. If you really think pop music is the best way to express yourself, you should do that. But if you don’t want to do that, you shouldn’t. There are easier ways to make money than the music business, especially these days…..

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

GC: – Right now, because of the pandemic, I will say that I think I took many of the gigs I played over the past few decades for granted. I haven’t really travelled outside of this area to perform in over a year. I don’t miss travelling, but I do miss getting to play music with the best people in the world. I had just played a few gigs with John Scofield and we had a few more planned. I hope that will happen again in some capacity.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

GC: – Good point. I think jazz has to evolve in terms of approach but also in terms of repertoire. I believe that for education, the standards are crucial for developing a real sense of how to play jazz. However, that’s the paradox. A jazz student learns All The Things You Are and Autumn Leaves, but when he or she graduates, no one wants to hear them play All The Things You Are and Autumn Leaves. Jazz education is a starting point; musicians who want to have an audience younger than 75 years old need to play music that speaks to their generation.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

GC: – I don’t know if I do. This last year has been a real education in reality; the pandemic, the decline of America, racial injustice, wildfires, and so forth have really been overwhelming. Americans, myself included, have been too comfortable with the pursuit of material possessions and a false sense of security. We grow up thinking, “Everything’s going to work out!” That’s not the point of life. We learn as much from the disappointments as we do from the successes. It all blends together. Life can be incredibly happy and incredibly sad. That’s just what it is. You take the good where you can get it and you try to roll with the bad. We aren’t entitled to anything.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

GC: – Obviously, I would love it if popular music and art music could coexist equally rather than pop music dominating everything and art music being seen as the pursuit of nerds.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

GC: – I’ve been getting back into Hip Hop. I’m re-listening to Wu Tang “Enter the 36 Chambers” and Method Man’s “Tical:” These were two of my favorites in the early 90’s. I’m basically trying to develop a better perspective on 90’s hip hop.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

GC: – I don’t know if I have a specific message. If I do, I can only explain it through the music. It’s like Tony Williams said, “If I could explain it to you, I wouldn’t have to play the drums!” Music is the language- it’s mor of an emotional feeling. I express my feelings though the instrument. That’s why sometimes talking about music really defeats the purpose.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

GC: – Maybe back to the 1970’s, to really experience fusion jazz rock in its original inception. Or, far enough in the future, when man has evolved past racism, income inequality, oligarchy, oppression and war. When would that be? 3173?

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

George Colligan | Lessonface

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