Jazz interview with percussionist, composer Gerry Hemingway. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Gerry Hemingway: – I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up near there. My family has a long history in this city starting in the early 1600’s. New Haven is about two hours from New York City, and is also the home of an important College, Yale University. My interest in music was born of many things. Primarily, I would say I was growing up during the very vibrant 1960’s with two older brothers as guides to a variety of musical culture of that time. The radio, which I listened to incessantly, was my independent guide to many things. Eventually when I was a teenager I would discover jazz via programs broadcast from New York City. Music was also in my family as my father was gifted as a music composer, particularly in his younger years, and his mother, my grandmother was an accomplished concert pianist in the 1920’s. Via both of them I would experience classical music, particularly orchestral music which would have an influence. However I would say the primary source of interest in playing music when I was younger was 60’s rock music. I saw every band from that time and hearing and seeing these bands had a huge impact on me.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
GH: – One’s sound and conception is a maturation process, and in my point of view is a continually evolving situation, subject to new inputs and for me often self-assigned goals and projects. Along the way there have been significant influences. One was my teacher Alan Dawson, who helped me become articulate via his technical studies. Another was many years submerged in traditional Ewe music from Ghana and South Indian Carnatic music both via Wesleyan University. Another resource for developing my conception was being mentored by Wadada Leo Smith in my early years as a working musician. I started making a living as a drummer on 1972 when I was 17 years old, and that’s when I met Leo Smith, as he was known then, who had recently moved to New Haven after his time in Paris. Over time my interest in and interaction with nature would also have an effect in terms of my perception and application of time, rhythm and texture.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
GH: – I mentioned my technical studies when I was between 19 and 22 years old with Alan Dawson. Those skills I worked on assiduously for many years and continue to use them in my maintenance of technique along with many other skills I acquired over many years as a player and as a teacher. In 1974 I chose to begin a long path that continues to this day performing as a solo artist. This created another path of growth on my instrument. I worked very systematically for years on “extended techniques” to increase the sonic palette I could utilize as a composer and improviser to express varied musical initiatives. I believe the development of a personal way of working with rhythmic material, is coupled with the development of listening skills, and in particular the ability to hear more deeply the larger, longer and deeper elements of what makes pulse and continuum flow and affect our state of being.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
GH: – When we speak of harmony I take it that we can agree that harmony, in the most fundamental sense, speaks to the relation of sonic elements, primarily frequencies and the frame that they can offer for contextualizing the musical elements that are present in time. Harmony often moves, changes or progresses, taking us from one context to another, sometimes in cycles, sometimes not. I have no preferences only curiosity for how remarkable harmony affects our experience of music.
JBN.S: – You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
GH: – Perhaps what suggests sensitivity in your experience is my awareness of my choices as an improviser that are often influenced by the frequencies I find myself within. In other words I often tune my choices of what I play to what frequencies are present, and I do this sometimes very quickly with material that is dense and complicated. Harmony and dissonance are not really related terms, I believe you mean consonance and dissonance. Harmony is the simultaneous presence of three or more frequencies (intervals are 2 frequencies).
As regards consonance and dissonance, in a more open sense, we could look at these terms as conscious agreements (or resonant areas) and disagreements (points of tension or instability), all of which can play a roles in musical construction, and all of which I utilize as a composer and improviser.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
GH: – I dont try to prevent influence, I invite it. I am an omniverous listener, continually curious for what it is I don’t know. But also interested to look deeply into areas of artistic endeavor that catch my attention. If you mean by this question, how do I stay focused in complicated musical environments then I would answer that music creation, particularly in real-time, is a developed skill of listening and not listening, of initiating and not always responding.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
GH: – Hmmmm, well defining soul is a bit beyond the scope of what we can cover in this interview. But to at least give some context, for me soul, as it pertains to music, is perhaps one’s trust in one’s intuition, one’s impulses and one’s general sense of how each of us as a human being intersect with a desire to express what we feel, what we intend, and what we believe. Our intellect is perhaps akin to our accumulated experience and our ability to articulate that experience with what tools we have acquired.
To answer the question of balance – I can only say these parts of our being should ideally live in a state of balance for they both play a role in creating art. We often speak of being in the moment as regards improvising – perhaps its important to mention that when we are in the creative space of the moment – there is little time to think, as a composer might think, but nevertheless we must make decisions, we must consider orchestration, choice of pitch, timing and these are skills we have that partially function from that part of our being we could call the intellect.
But there is also mystery – and some things that can’t be differentiated in this way.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
GH: – I believe there is a two-way relationship with audience, but not in the way you describe. My sense from my perspective on the stage is that the audience, or whom I prefer to call the witness, has an active roll in contributing to the outcome of the music by simply being present and hopefully as in the moment as we are as creators of the musical content. The audience/witness has a roll in hearing the music in a way that we as musicians cannot because of our physical relationship to our instruments and the act of making sound. It is human to make sense of the listening experience and each member of the audience will do it in their unique and personal way. It is this environment of concentration that affects the music in my experience. It affects the way we as players relate to our responsibility to organize our creative efforts. It contributes to our state of being active listeners. We could call this a dynamic agreement.
It is not that I, as a performer, try to give the listener “what they want”. It would be arrogant of me to have any idea what anyone wants. But on the other hand I do feel a sense of responsibility as a performer to give everything I can to what I am offering, and I hope and in my way, I encourage the listener to do the same in their role. That way we both have an opportunity for a positive experience!
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
GH: – To be a musician is to embrace a certain kind of absurdity regarding the whole proposition. We can speak of outstanding moments of creation, which I am fortunate to have experienced numerous times, sometimes in unassuming situations. Often the story is maybe more interesting in the getting to those moments. The former makes the latter bearable, as sometimes its truly insane what we go through to perform, how little compensation is for what we do, and how indifferent the industry we interact with can often be.
I think the Santa Cruz performance of the Anthony Braxton quartet is a remarkable moment. It’s documented on two HatArt CDs. It is the culmination of a week of performing together (following 4 nights in a row at Yoshi’s in Berkeley, CA). Much of the audience traveled down from the Bay area to see this show, after having seen all the other ones in Oakland, making the event have a kind of family feeling. The music was at times so vibrant that I even have a hard time to listen to the CD. I react quite emotionally as a listener to what we created. There you have an example of a collective spirit imbued with a mystery that cannot be so easily defined.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
GH: – Well the first problem with that question is the implication or suggestion that jazz is somehow defined by, or in some way attached to the necessary presence of songs from the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting. Actually these songs are nearing 80 or more years old as an era. A standard such as “Lonely Woman” by Ornette Coleman is by now 60 years old. How wonderful these songs still provide new possibilities for invention!! In these times I am currently exploring the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with the WHO trio (Michel Wintsch – Piano & Bänz Oester – bass, a 21-year old collective trio) from the perspective of our mutually developed language as improvisers.
I believe you refer to jazz education, which is now a way in which younger (potential) musicians might get exposed to the language of jazz. Its true that this area of introduction to jazz often has many inherent misunderstandings, such as you play a certain scale over this chord but not this one. You learn rules and mechanics, but you are rarely introduced to a recording such as Sonny Rollins Live at the Village Vanguard, and guided to appreciate the complexity, fun, spirit, nuance, surprise, trust and pure joy of a shared musical invention. And then to explore through appreciation where it is that this form of human endeavor is in relation to a worthwhile path in life to pursue, and to have tangible proof that it is a journey that can be both personal and rewarding.
Institutional Jazz Pedagogy is a relatively recent way to offer a connection to this 120-year multi-faceted tradition. I do agree with something that your statement implies, which is this form of education might not be very well attuned to where a young person could be given the curiosity to explore this music. I think what is most important in this regard is to expose young people to improvised music through performances at their schools by masters of our time.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
GH: – Perhaps in the simplest way to explain how I might define spirit is that element of being that drives one to get up each day and continue to work on the things one wishes to create and realize. Perhaps the manifestation of music could be thought of as having a spirit personal to it’s creator. For me what is relevant in this discussion is being present as a human being, listening with love and ability to give of yourself that which is truly of the moment, that which can strive to access all that is known (from the past) and unknown (of the future).
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
GH: – Perhaps categories that narrow the listener’s imagination and understanding. I should say that categories can be useful in organizing music, historically referencing it in an era and so on, but in more recent times it seems these arbitrary decisions about what something is or isn’t replaces curiosity with an algorithm.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
GH: – Mostly I am researching music related to what I am teaching (which is always changing). I am at this moment enjoying Paul Oliver’s 2 LP Columbia collection called “The Story of the Blues” with it’s intelligent liner notes and tasteful overview of a very diverse and complex subject. I am teaching a workshop entitled “Everybody has the Blues” which serves as a vehicle for me to introduce my students to a variety of blues traditions that they are likely unaware of, including Piedmont and Delta rural blues, as well as juke joint dance forms, early and more recent.
I am also listening to “Madagascar: Musiques de la côte et des hauts plateaux 1929-1931” from the Frémeaux & Associes label which is a treasure of early documentation from this musical paradise.
I am also teaching a course in Songwriting at the moment so in this case I am revisiting songwriters such as Randy Newman, Carole King, Mary Gautier, Townes van Zandt and many more.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
GH: – I am not inclined to be oriented in this way of thinking of music. Whomever interacts with what I am able to offer will find their own relation to the content. That is the gift of music.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan