May 27, 2024

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Interview with Al Henderson։ People need a variety of entry points into the music

Jazz interview with contrabassist Al Henderson. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Al Henderson: – I grew up in Galt, Ontario (60 miles from Toronto). As for music, my mother was a classical violinist in the area and my grandfather played French horn and cornet in military bands. I started on violin, moved to electric bass in high school and then to acoustic bass in university. In the 1960s I became interested in blues, which led to jazz in the early 1970s.

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

AH: – My ‘sound’ is probably best called ‘sounds’. It’s changed over the years. For an acoustic bassist, part of it comes from the actual instrument you’ve managed to get and the way it’s set up (action, etc.). Another part comes from how you approach the bass (especially in the right hand) and a third part has to do with the technology – the amp and pickup used on the bass. Perhaps the biggest change for me is that they’ve changed speakers to use smaller magnets and they can’t handle as wide a dynamic range as the older speakers, so I’ve had to adjust to that.

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

AH: – I tend to go back to basics when I want to make improvements. That means using the metronome to work on my sense of time. There’s always room for improvement in playing the time so it always helps. For specific rhythms, I practice them slowly until they’re second nature and then bring them up to tempo.

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

AH: – I don’t worry about that too much. I try to play things that are right for the music. I think the role of the bass is to help create a firm foundation for the music as a whole. That, to me, is more important than my own personal considerations. I also think of myself as part of a rhythm section (bass and drums) and adjust my playing to work with each drummer.

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

AH: – I never seem to have time to prepare for performances. For me, I try to get to the gig early to set up and mentally begin to focus on the gig itself. I try to give whatever I have on a particular night and not bring the day’s events and frustrations onto the bandstand. Of course, the ideal is to be constantly doing gigs but these days that’s not possible.

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

AH: – That’s an individual thing. Also, in some musical cultures it doesn’t apply at all. I think that if the music is worthwhile the balance was right. If the players are trying to do their best and care about the music it’ll work out.

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

AH: – That’s an extremely difficult question to answer when it comes to jazz. I think the first responsibility of jazz musicians is to play the music as best they can. I think the real jazz audience comes to hear the musicians do what they do. If they like it, great! If they don’t, they go to hear someone else next time. “The audience” is really “audiences” – trying to make everyone like you by guessing what they’d like to hear makes everything sound the same and short-changes the people who came to hear what you had to offer. Great jazz players like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy etc. wouldn’t have had a chance to achieve what they did if they’d tried to please everyone.

Having said that, it’s been my experience that what really alienates an audience is not knowing what’s happening. The group Time Warp, for example, played everything from “two-beat” music to free jazz (this later was termed free-bop by critics) and audiences were terrific. All we did was tell them what to expect. If we were about to play something strange, I’d announce that “this next piece is strange” and that was all that we needed. We’d finish and people could go “whew – he was right about that!” and then we’d play something else. I think if you’re honest and sincere with people about what you’re doing and play hard on stage they can relate. They might not like everything but they can see you’re doing your best for them.

I also think that trying to change what you are and do to please an audience can lead to not valuing your audience. I try to respect the audience enough to let them decide for themselves what they like after they hear the music.

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

AH: – We can’t make people like the music, but I think that if clubs book a greater variety of jazz groups and if radio stations, etc. play a more balanced selection of jazz performances that will help. Reviews online of lots of different stuff helps too. People need a variety of entry points into the music – if they start out with the Coltrane Quartet playing Afro Blue and get interested in jazz because of the energy they might eventually like straight-ahead jazz too. Right now, I’m not hearing that much diversity on the radio and that gives people less of an idea of the sheer breadth of music we call jazz. Also, we shouldn’t expect the audience to be as large as for popular music – not everyone will enjoy it.

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

AH: – Do the best you can and (especially today) try to respect other people and their music.

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

AH: – Have people go out (after Covid) and listen to more music in clubs and not worry about whether they’ll like it until after they hear it.

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

AH: – I teach music at York University and have to do listening based on the courses I’m teaching and what music the graduate students I work with are involved in. This fall I’m listening to (and learning from):

1920s and 1930s jazz – especially Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.

Music of Sonny Rollins and Keith Jarrett because of (sadly) their retirement from playing. Music of the late Chick Corea as well.

Garifuna music. In particular, music by artists like Aurelio Martinez (Garifuna Soul), Andy Palacio (Watina) and the Garifuna Collective.

Webern’s Op.23 for voice and piano.

Various Canadian jazz artists as recordings come out.

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

AH: – To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the “music is the message”.

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

AH: – Burgess Shale, 530,000,000 BC (if I could survive the trip) to see the beginnings of “life as we know it”.

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

AH: – I suppose if I was to ask myself a question, it would be: What do you think is the most important trait of a true jazz musician?

JBN: – You should ask me a question, not yourself. I will answer your question like this։ The rubbish that you and non-talented musicians like you produce. What, there is not much garbage on the planet Earth.

 Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Al Henderson – Jazz Bassist | Composer | Educator

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