Jazz interview with jazz trombonist Willie Applewhite. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Willie Applewhite: – I was born in the South Side of Chicago and raised in the nearby suburb of Harvey, IL. As a young child, I was fascinated with the soundtracks from the classic cartoons, especially Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny. Thinking retrospectively, it probably had to do with the clear and over the top programmatic nature of the scoring, and the amazing studio playing. Although I am the only musician in my family, my grandfather did occasionally sing in the church choir, so it’s possible I got my musical inclination from him. I picked the trombone to play during a demonstration for my elementary school’s band program in the 4th grade, and the rest is history.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
WA: – My sound really developed by listening to the masters of the instrument. I remember getting my first Slide Hampton record in middle school. That was an ear opener, and probably my first sonic influence. J.J Johnson came a little later, and I was completely blown away. I came to my sound fairly organically, through the process of endless transcription and imitation. With that being said, I feel as though I’m always in a state of refinement.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
WA: – I am fairly obsessed with brass technical methodology in general. It’s amazing how many different approaches there are to the trombone, and trumpet for that matter. My daily practice routines are compiled from the teachings of many trombone and trumpet methods (Emory Remington, Arban, Claude Gordon, James Stamp to name a few). I love to experiment with different warm ups and technical studies, and so my daily practice will vary quite a bit.
In terms of rhythm, I love to work with the metronome both on and away from the instrument. One of my favorite exercises is to set the metronome to a very slow tempo (i.e. quarter equals 40bpm) and say that the tic represents a certain beat or off beat of an entire measure (i.e. beat 3 of each measure). From there, I will perform an exercise and see if my timing will line up with that beat from measure to measure.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
WA: – I really don’t have a problem with disparate influences. I try to keep fresh inspiration from listening to recordings and live performances. I tend to be inspired by the environments I am in. Walking the streets of Manhattan tends to open my creative pathways. Also, taking frequent trips to the museum to view art has always been important to my creative process.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
WA: – Aside from the daily technical practice of tone studies, scales, arpeggios, improvisation etc, the most important thing is to make sure that my ears are in a constant state of development. I try to make sure that I spend time at the piano, and vocalize through tunes, or arpeggios. On the day of performances, I will spend time listening to the music I have to perform if I haven’t had as much time to internalize it. If I am familiar with the music I am to perform, I try to listen to something different during the day, maybe an unrelated jazz record or a classical recording. That helps me to be completely open, with a clean sonic palate during the performance.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: <Uptown Jazz Tentet – What’s Next>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
WA: – The Uptown Jazz Tentet is a band that is very important to me. It is co-led by me, fellow trombonist James Burton III and trumpeter Brandon Lee. What’s Next is our second album. What I love most about it is the overall aesthetic of the record, from the writing, playing, and the feeling of joy and comradery that the work emotes.
Today, I am in a period of writing. No complete new compositions yet, but hopefully soon.
JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
WA: – This is one of the most special aspects of the band. The sidemen are the most sought after musicians on the jazz scene. We all studied at overlapping times at Juilliard. More importantly, we all forged a bond playing in the bands of other established bandleaders. We have a foundation of close to 20 years of friendship between us all, and I think that comes through in the music.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
WA: – This is an interesting question! I think it’s easier to dive into this by examining other art forms.
For instance, in cooking, an unbelievably flavorful stew made from a grandmother that never studied at a culinary school would be considered soulful to most. Perhaps this recipe was handed down from generations and didn’t include the most precise ingredient measurements, and the methods of preparation were learned from watching elder family members prepare it. I would say that there would be a strong intellectual component in making this dish also, ranging from the learned abilities of balancing flavors, textures, and cooking temperatures.
Conversely, a deconstructed interpretation of a macaroni and cheese created by a Michelin Star classically trained chef that specializes in molecular gastronomy would be considered intellectual by most. However, this dish can still be soulful if it is truly delicious and is able to impart a sense of comfort, familiarity and joy for the diner.
In music, the result will be most satisfying if the technical aspects are always used as a means to convey some sort of a grounded emotional or programmatic idea. If the intent is to create music that touches the listener in some sort of way, the possibilities are endless.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
WA: – In general, when I program a performance, my first goal is to present music that I am feeling during that period. Within that, I am aware of the audience, and their experience. I believe that if I meet the audience at a point, the audience is willing to embark on a journey with me, and that gives me freedom to take them to places that they may not expect. It’s important to take risks. I always hope that audience will have a good experience with my music.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
WA: – The studio session for What’s Next was very special. Sometimes, recording can be stressful, especially when trying to get an album worth of material down in one day. Playing with this particular group of musicians is stress free and very fun.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
WA: – In my experience, young people will always be interested in the standard repertoire if it is presented to them in a way that’s passionate and positive. If I tell them “Hey, check out this tune, it’s really great!!” in general, they eventually come to believe it is great. I think the youth want to be inspired, so if their first experiences in jazz are positive, they will probably have a positive outlook on it for life.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
WA: – In terms of spirit, I feel that I’m lucky to be a musician. The act of playing with people, interpreting other composer’s music and having others play my music draws me closer. It’s an experience that’s unique to the craft, and I feel lucky to have that type of interaction with others.
In terms of the meaning of life, my goal is to be as much of a positive force as I can be. Whether it’s imparting what knowledge I have, helping someone out, or giving joy in some way, I think that is the most important thing,
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
WA: – With advances in technology, music is so easily accessible. Part of me wishes this wasn’t so. In decades past, there was live music in every hotel, club, bar, and theater in most large cities. Live music was a more normal facet of the social experience. I wish I could recreate that reality.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
WA: – Especially during this time of the pandemic, music that gives me joy. My favorite jazz artists mainly, Ellington, Monk, Rollins, JJ. Johnson, etc..
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
WA: – Overall, it’s about communication and togetherness. I try not to overanalyze the intent of my music. The tunes I write tend to be reflective of things I feel in the moment of writing them, and my hope is that the audience connects to that in some way. I love the interpretative nature of art. With that being said, I like to give the listener the opportunity to feel what they feel from the music, even if the result is different than my intention.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
WA: – It would have to be New York City during the late 1940’s-60’s. I could imagine being able to bounce from club to club to hear Bird, Diz, Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Coltrane, Dolphy, JJ. Johnson etc… We are so accustomed to thinking about jazz in distinct periods. All of these musicians were performing during overlapping years. The creative energy must have been incredible!
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
WA: – When thinking about the state of things with the pandemic, I often wonder how the masters would have handled this situation. Out of everyone, I think Miles Davis would have done best, probably creating something incredible virtually. Do you have a favorite period of Miles’ career?
JBN: – Yes, of course, 1950-60 years!!
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
WA: – Now, my goals are to stay creative and to wish everyone well during these trying times.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan