June 24, 2024

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Interview with Michael Waldrop: Jazz has made a terrible mistake by cultivating an elitist mentality: Video

Jazz interview with jazz drummer Michael Waldrop. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Michael Waldrop: – I initially grew up in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.   My parents divorced in 1970 and I and my mother moved to Ithaca, NY.  I was always interested in music from a young age and have played drums since I was 4 years old.   I particularly enjoyed English rock and American soul music from Memphis (Stax) and Detroit (Motown).  My mother bought me Buddy Rich and Miles Davis albums when I was very young cause she could tell I was serious about the drums.   I was particularly impacted by hearing Buddy Rich when I was 13 and getting to meet him..my mother was the editor of the Ithaca Journal and took the assignment of interviewing Buddy….I got to meet Buddy then and he was super nice, funny and had great advice.   He was also just mind blowing to see live.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the your musical instrument?

MW: – Drums were always the instrument I wanted to play…I had little interest in other instruments until I began to study in college.   In college I became interested in and studied all the percussion instruments (keyboard percussion instruments KPI) and keyboards.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today?

MW: – My first teacher was Richard Lajza in Ithaca who gave me a thorough foundation in classical and rudimental snare drum playing.  I began studying marimba and KPI with Ithaca College professors William Youhass and the renowned marimbist Gordon Stout in the late 70’s.  On drumset I was essentially self taught until I began attending the University of North Texas in 1980.   While at UNT my main teacher was Henry Okstel and I also studied with renowned drumset artist Gregg Bissonette. While studying for my master’s in Memphis I studied jazz piano, composition/theory and improvisation with renowned jazz pianist Gene Rush.   During this time I spent two weeks studying drumset with Keith Copeland.   I went back to UNT to get a Doctorate in Percussion where I studied percussion with Robert Schietroma and jazz vibraphone with Ed Smith. I was fortunate enough to play in the One O Clock Lab Band while there; where I met a lot of lifelong musical colleagues…some of whom are on the Origin CD’s (Will Campbell and Steve Snyder).

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

MW: – My sound has been constantly evolving since I began playing … it is simply a matter of constant assimilation of new influences whilst continuing to refine and process all prior influences. I am a product of all of the music I’ve listened to and studied with all of the many teachers I have had.

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

MW: – I have so many different practice routines that it would take too long to mention them all. One thing I work on a lot is playing rudimental etudes over ostinatos in the feet. I have many ostinatos that I learned from Keith Copeland and many that I have developed myself. These are similar to Alan Dawson’s “Ritual” but they take them much further. I also learned and am still processing many independence concepts from my teacher at UNT Henry Okstel. I emphasize at all times practicing at very slow tempos combined with a physically relaxed approach to playing the drums.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? 

MW: – I don’t use a lot of “patterns” in my playing.  I do try and learn and memorize standards, employing a variety of voicing procedures and harmonic techniques. I am familiar with and employ most of the standard modal jazz theory concepts.  I’m also very familiar with common practice classical harmonic approaches but my harmonic approach to composition is more influenced by my jazz training. While in Memphis I developed a strong appreciation for the many layers involved in the Blues … it is the essential American music and any jazz musician must have an intimate connection with the blues in one way or another. I am also familiar with some 20th century serial techniques and 12-tone music … but I do not directly use these techniques in any of my music. I am comfortable with dissonance because of my appreciation of this music … however I never consciously use any of those mechanical compositional devices.   I also have always loved pop music and there is certainly that influence in my music as well.

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Michael Waldrop Big Band – Origin Suite>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

MW: – I am most proud of the variety of styles and genres in the CD.  We tried very hard to make a connection between the tracks but the diversity in every track is what I am most pleased with. The mixing engineer Tim Reppert  and myself, along with mastering engineer Scott Kinsey worked together to create a playlist and a continuity in the album so that despite the diversity it holds together as a unified artistic statement. I am pleased with everything on the CD … the performers were uniformly superb and captured the emotional and musical intent on every track.

The CD was conceived as a followup to my first Origin CD “Time Within Itself” and was funded by a generous grant from Eastern Washington University where I teach both percussion and jazz. I worked hand in hand with Jack Cooper, Gerald Stockton and Jimi Tunnell in preparing the music for the CD.  In post-production I worked extensively with Tim Reppert in terms of perfecting the sonic quality of the album.

I am currently working on an extensive play along version of both Origin CD’s … Tim and I have created very elaborate and functional play along tracks for drums and vibraphone for all of the tracks on both CD’s.  Everything has a click track on it … each track was tempo mapped by Tim during editing even though everything except for “Doppler Effect” was recorded without a click track. Tim’s use of the tempo maps was vital in terms of the fine editing of the music for the CD … and it has been just as vital to the creation of the play along project.

I am also planning to release a classical percussion CD on Origin Classical in the next few years. This will consist of some of my original compositions for marimba and computer sequence. One highlight is a composition by renowned marimbist Gordon Stout for drumset and marimba; a very complex through composed duet entitled “Incoming”.

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

MW: – I must confess I’ve been pretty wrapped up working on my own CD..but out of what I am aware of, I would say Antonio Sanchez’s “Bad Hombre” is mucho interesante. He is a great drummer of course but also an inventive composer and constructor of soundscapes. I like Josh Nelson’s “The Sky Remains” on Origin; a great example of serious music that crosses genres with a sincere attempt to reach a range of listeners….not just jazz connoisseurs.  I will also mention percussionist Brad Dutz’s 10tet album … just great chamber jazz and phenomenal percussion playing by Brad on that one. Tigran Hamasyan’s solo piano album is great; the perfect contrast to Antonio Sanchez “Bad Hombre” Lastly I’ll mention the rediscovered live Jaco Pastorius Big Band recording “Truth, Liberty and Soul”. Jaco and Weather Report’s music is still a touchstone for me…his death was such a loss for the music, he was visionary, charismatic figure.  His vision of the big band was very influential to what we were trying to do with the Origin Suite. There’s a lot of new music out there but precious little as visceral or compelling as Jaco’s music.

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

MW: – Impossible to answer generally, but for me Soul always trumps intellect, however I’m not sure they are separate entities.  Intellect and soul should always be connected.

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

MW: – The session for the tune “Through the Mist” was interesting…we were recording in Seattle and it became necessary for us to use another bass player for that tune. LA Percussionist Brad Dutz and pianist John Hansen both knew bassist Chris Symer in Seattle and called him on the cell phone while we were in the studio. Symer was fishing at the time in Puget Sound but said he could make it to the studio in an hour or so. He showed up and he sight-read the tune and we used the 2nd take … his solo was perfect. That was a surprise. He played so great on such short notice.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

MW: – I think it’s important to diversify your skill set … a good musician should embrace technology without abandoning their commitment to acoustic music. The technology is  not going away.   However an informed musician can use it in order to improve their work…musicians shouldn’t be threatened by technology.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

MW: – Jazz has made a terrible mistake by cultivating an elitist mentality.   You have to at least try to make people like your music. I’m not a big fan of neo-traditionalism … it’s like a river that all of sudden decided to run backwards … an unnatural phenomenon that really hurt the music. Jazz since the 40’s has essentially been a more intellectual interpretation of popular music. It needs to be linked to popular culture … and pop music needs the interaction with jazz.   The unnatural separation of jazz from popular culture caused by neo-traditionalism really hurt jazz and it really hurt pop music. Pop music in 70’s and early to mid 80’s still benefitted from interactions with jazz artists. Now not so much. Jazz lost relevance by disengaging from popular culture.

With regard to business aspects, musicians need to try and raise musical standards and use professional organizations like AFM (Musicians Union), BMI and ASCAP to find a way to monitor the digital streaming sites. Find a way to encode digital tracks that are licensed so that performances can be accurately counted.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

MW: – My collaborations on the “Origin Suite” with Jack Cooper, Jimi Tunnell and all of the musicians on this CD.

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

We have a lot of work to do to bridge that gap. Most pop music has become so vapid it’s not worth reinterpreting. However I still think jazz as an art form needs to move away from an elitist mentality…you can be sophisticated without being elitist. You can express yourself intelligently without talking or playing down to an audience. Jazz needs to reengage with pop culture … but sadly pop culture has been in such a precipitous decline it’s difficult to find worthy music. That’s why jazz musicians have gone back to standards so much.

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

MW: – I’m no Coltrane but yes I’d hope that in some way the better aspects of my spirit are reflected in my music. I’ll let you know when I discover the meaning of life.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

MW: – Hoping to continue to perform, create and teach music. Hope that people enjoy and what I do and that it makes some positive impact on the people who listen to it. The current political leadership in the USA is a source of concern for me….very unstable.

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

MW: – Reverse the trend toward economic devaluation of music; reverse the increasing public perception/misconception that music is not something you need to pay for.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

MW: – The aforementioned classical percussion CD.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

MW: – Lots of similarities, the merging of Western and Non-Western (African) musical concepts has always been central to what jazz is.   That is why fusion was such a positive direction for jazz; unfortunately that positive direction was prematurely aborted by the neo-traditionalist movement. The unification of cultures is a positive trend in general and particularly in music.

Not saying a healthy respect for tradition is not important..it certainly is … however when adherence to tradition impedes positive progress it is decidedly a negative.

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

MW: – I listen to a wide variety of music…I listen to and work on a lot of contemporary percussion music because of my job as a percussion professor.

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

MW: – I use Yamaha Drums, Vibraphones and Marimbas, Vic Firth Sticks and mix of different cymbals.

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

MW: – I feel like I take a trip on a time machine every time I play music or the drums.   That’s why I do it…music is time travelling.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …

MW: – Assuming that you contacted me because you’re interested in my music … I’m curious whether my answers to your questions were in any way foreshadowed or implied by the music itself? I like to think or hope that my music is self-descriptive; that to listen to my music is to actually know me.

Thanks so much for inviting me to answer your questions … I hope you’ve found something of interest in my answers.

JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers. Of course, we are interested in your music …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

 

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