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Jeff Schlanger
ONE LONG PAINTING
December 20, 2012 Interview by William Parker
Published in his Conversations II by RogueArt, Paris 2015
together with 28 musicWitness® color pictures of interviewed musicians in performance.

I met Jeff Schlanger in 1981 when I was playing with the
group Commitment. He was sitting up front with ink, pens,
and brushes, using both hands as he painted. When you look
at his work, you begin to experience the music on a different
level and you experience the painting as its own entity; you
see the connection of the musician transferring sound and
silence to the artist transferring color and energy to image.
After getting to know Jeff, one begins to see that he is a
multidimensional artist whose talent crosses many disciplines.
He illuminates through pottery, sculpture, and design and
construction of artifacts both beautiful and practical. Known
as the musicWitness, he is always there as part of the ensemble,
deep inside the music, which is deep inside each piece of art.

 

I was born in 1937 in New York City, in the middle of Manhattan. So I grew
up surrounded by museums, art galleries, concert halls. My father was in the
retail record and camera business on East Eighty-sixth Street, in a German
neighborhood called Yorkville. But he had been a musician and worked his
way through college and law school. As a musician working nights, he knew
something about not sleeping, like you do, William.

What instrument did he play?

He played rhythm guitar, tenor guitar, like Tiny Grimes, and tenor banjo. He
grew up also in the middle of Manhattan on West Eighty-eighth Street. His
parents had a stationery store and they lived in one small room in the back. But
they gave him violin lessons and that led to working in dance bands. My parents
were very aware of all the arts and there were museums down the block.
The Metropolitan Museum was a resource I grew up with, wandering around
when it was free when I was very young, getting lost in Egypt, Persia. There
were few guards, there were no gift shops, you could only buy a few postcards.
It was a completely different atmosphere. The museum was empty except for
many, many, many treasures from all around the world. More of the extended
collection was out, lots and lots of things in cases.

In terms of the music, there was always recorded music being played in my
house. The retail business consumed my father’s time, but Sunday—Sunday
afternoon—we listened to music. We’d walk in the park and come back and
listen to music on 78 rpm records. You would turn them over—I became, as
soon as I was physically able, the one to turn the records over. But they were
incredible records—Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven, Billie Holiday,
Art Tatum, plus a Vladimir Horowitz classical selection was tremendous also.
This was at the beginning of my life. My parents took me to concerts and art
exhibitions; it was part of the Manhattan scene then as it is now.

Let’s just step back briefly to your parents and their parents.
Where did they come from and do you know anything about your
grandparents?

Yes. Both of my grandfathers had passed away around the time of my birth in
1937. My grandfathers and my grandmothers all came from the borderlands
of Poland and the Ukraine. My maternal grandmother, Sarah Blatt, came from
Romania, but it was very close, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. They all came
here to the Lower East Side, where you live and where the Arts for Art office
is, at the very end of the nineteenth century, in response to horrible violence
against the Jewish people and no future there. They came as late teenagers,
all of them.

My grandfathers had met each other on the street in the Lower East Side, in
that teeming community, before my parents met. So when they saw each other,
at the wedding of my parents, they recognized each other and it was—well, the
Tenement Museum on Orchard Street shows something about those times. I
knew my grandmothers very well.

My father, every night, he was listening to Duke Ellington, but I
never asked him how he found out about Duke Ellington, what was
his entrance point into music, because he wasn’t a musician, as far
as I know, and I don’t know my grandfather, I don’t know what he
did. Did anyone give you any kind of inkling of their entrance into
music and art and going to museums and such?

I didn’t mention the Duke Ellington records in my father’s collection. My father
was given violin lessons, the one luxury that they had in that small room in the
back of the store. This later enabled my father to make a living in dance bands.
My grandparents’ immigration to New York gave both of my parents from two
different families a chance to have a higher education, to attend what were then
free city colleges.

My father went to CCNY, my mother to Hunter. She became a public school
teacher, teaching biology in the New York City high school system. A clipping
just came in from my younger son Jordan, who had looked it up on Google, of
a notice in the CCNY paper of Chick Schlanger and his orchestra playing for a
dance in the college gymnasium. Mostly he worked with other people’s orchestras,
including Charlie Barnet, playing in the rhythm section there later on.
But this was all so he could keep his education going. What he loved was that
relaxed beautiful swing for dancing people that was part of the music in the
twenties and thirties. He knew all the changes. When he would get a chance
to relax with the guitar—this is now in the late forties and early fifties—it was
beautiful to watch his hands moving up and down the fretboard because he
just loved those changes. He took me to hear Count Basie, Freddie Green, the
way the guitar fit into the rhythm section so that it was just so together and so
buoyant. It was all social; it was all about people, people moving, a feeling that
was part of the music of that time.

The first concert that I vividly remember must have been in 1946 or possibly
1947, at the Paramount Theater in Midtown. Those theaters—the Paramount
and the Roxy—were like palaces; they were like film palaces. Occasionally
they had live concerts and this one was the Benny Goodman Orchestra, at the
height of their popularity, followed by the Benny Goodman Quartet with Teddy
Wilson and Lionel Hampton. This was still a time when there was a buoyant
feeling in the United States emerging from the end of the Second World War.
The feeling of excitement, of that teamwork and that groove—I mean, people
were leaping out of their seats; they were dancing in the aisles! It was a feeling
of transcending all that horror and just enjoying the possibility of people
being together, everybody together, in what seemed to have been a palace for
everybody.

I will never forget it. Now, my mother and my father, their courting took place
in the Audubon Ballroom and what was the other place?

The Savoy.

The Savoy, and listening to Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb. It was dance
bands my father grew up in, my father worked in. He knew what it took to put
those arrangements together and get them played so that they were just alive
and breathing and getting people moving. My parents also knew many artists,
visual artists and writers. We would go to museums and we would go to galleries.
So that was part of the environment that I grew up with in this city.

When did you begin to get an interest in doing art, participating
in art, either making sound or visual art? I guess your major study
and focus has been on the visual arts. So when did you begin to try
your hand at that or become interested in that field?

It was always there; I was always drawing. There’s a thing about drawing with
intensity, with complete belief in what you’re doing. When I said I lived through
the Second World War, I remember making drawings then, of battles on Pacific
islands in World War II with warplanes, with soldiers, with people killing
each other. The first public events I was aware of—and now I’m at the age of
eight—were the liberation of the death camps in Europe and the two atomic
bombings of Japan.

When I was nine, in Midtown there used to be a Museum of Science and Industry.
It featured all kinds of hands-on devices; you could see and feel how
they worked and play with them. But there were two things that I will never
forget. One was a section of an actual oven with the iron implements in which
bodies were burned in the concentration camps. There was also a complete
American bomber that flew in the Pacific war. You could climb into the gunner’s
positions—be the nose gunner in that tight glass bubble out in the front
of the plane with two huge machine guns mounted between your knees, flying
over water, being attacked by fighter planes.

That experience of making those drawings as a young boy—everyone was doing
that, it was wartime. But then suddenly, shortly afterwards, to see, to feel
a bit of the tactile reality of what those things were has never left me. Drawing
continued on and I started wood carving at a very early age. I can show you a
carving of dog made when I was about eleven. But the big launching pad in the
New York City school system is a public high school called Music & Art. That’s
where I had the good fortune to go.

There are young people from all over the city taking a regular academic program
plus at least three periods a day of either music or art. It became really
clear that everybody has a voice; everybody has a creative voice. All young
people need is some time, some support, and some materials. It’s so exciting,
the atmosphere of young people expressing themselves and being encouraged
in that way. That’s what never left me. In a way, my whole ambition in life has
been to stay in Music & Art high school.

Many of the musicians I’ve spoken to, I spoke to Mark Helias
yesterday, he showed me a bass that he restored himself. He said
the bass was in five pieces and he rebuilt it with his own hands. I
spoke to, in the first book I spoke to Alan Glover—Juice, a tenor
saxophone player—and he had studied celestial navigation. He had
invented many kinds of music theory wheels and devices. Cooper-
Moore had built microphones and built his own instruments. What
I gather is that creative artists are multidimensional.

Yes!

It seems like everyone could have done one of many things. There
seems to be a connection between all of these creative endeavors,
because they involve the same thing. They involve energy, they
involve light, they involve good intent, they involve discovery,
and they involve vision and many other things. So, you seem to be
walking down the same path. Your radar antenna for working with
wood, metal, all these things were just coming out of the whole
creative process for you, meaning that you were interested in many,
many things? Why?

Oh, when I was growing up, my mother and my mother’s family were all high
school science teachers. We took photographs and developed the film—I
learned at a very early age to develop the film, to enlarge it, to print images on
photo paper. There was a school science project and we planted some amaryllis
bulbs in the kitchen and then made a series of photographs of amaryllis
bulbs sprouting and flowering. The photographs and the prints were all made
by hand. But the first major individual project I initiated, a serious project, had
to do with telescopes.

I was always deeply interested in astronomy because right across the park
from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the Museum of Natural History, where
you could get lost again in the natural environment all around the world and
the Planetarium. When I was in the first-year science class in high school, a
young man in front of me said that he had built a telescope. Eddie Montano. I
thought, “If Eddie can build one, I can build one.” I started building a series of
telescopes, eventually grinding and polishing telescope mirrors accurate to—I
could do this in my little bedroom on an airshaft—two or three ten thousandths
of an inch.

I built a camera that fit on the telescope. These things are available now at a
reasonable price but they weren’t in the 1950s. I built my own potter’s wheels
to begin with also, because they weren’t available either. But with this telescope,
I spent hours and hours through high school on top of a six-story building
surrounded by much taller buildings, looking outside of the city. Way out!
Into deep space. It was stunning in terms of awareness and perspective, the
perspective you could get by working with your hands to make an instrument
that can give you access to other dimensions.

Anything else that you were involved in, in high school?

Just before high school I had taken piano lessons for a couple years. I would say
that I’ve never stopped touching the piano. It’s important to say that my science
interest led me to Swarthmore College just outside of Philadelphia where the
academics are rigorous. In the 1950s there was nowhere you could study studio
art and serious science in the same institution. It’s changed now, but that’s the
way it was in the 1950s.

I decided to further my studies in science and so my degree is in chemistry and
biology along with a lot of physics and mathematics. Whatever studio art was
going on in college then was extracurricular. Today you can get a degree there
in studio art but that wasn’t possible when I was a student.

At the same time, going back to this awareness of the Second World War, the
governments of the United States and the Soviet Union were exploding hydrogen
bombs in the atmosphere in competition. Clouds of radioactive gases were
going around the world. Simultaneously, I began to see, with some young students
I was living with—people trying to do nothing but academic work—that
developing just one side of one’s psyche could lead into real trouble.

I saw two people crack up from trying too hard. After two years of college I left
and went to art school at Cranbrook near Detroit in order to get back to what I
had understood in high school. I came back home from the mid-year vacation
in 1956; I was nineteen. I sat down in my parents’ living room and said I was
going to be a conscientious objector and an artist. They could not have known
where that was coming from or what it might lead to in the future. They were
stunned. But they believed in me and they trusted me—that incredible gift of
trust is a huge thing.

Things worked out but that’s where the creative art came from. I was given a
window into how essential it is to develop all sides of ourselves and to deal simultaneously
with all those other dimensions and with the social reality of the
society in which we were growing up and into which our children are growing up.

When you were experiencing art, as either a young person or an
adult, it moved you.

It moved me so much that it became an essential ingredient of staying alive.
I talked about the live music experience at the Paramount Theater. While I
was still in high school I began to go out to my first live performances by
people I really wanted to hear. What amazes me still is that, somehow, as a
junior in high school, I convinced a young lady to accompany me to the Embers,
which was a real slick East Side supper club where everybody wore ties
and jackets.

Erroll Garner was playing at the Embers. Because I seemed so sincere or
something like that, the maître d’ seated us right next to Erroll Garner’s key
board in 1953. Wow! I have never gotten over it. Erroll could transmit pure joy
with such energy! You could experience him being so surprised, as surprised
as we were at what was going on with the sounds. He was just enjoying listening
to what was happening with his beautiful trio.

It went on from there. Conscientious objection to war, to participating in war,
and taking the path of creating art. My antidote to seminars in science was a
short train ride away on the weekends to Philadelphia, to Peps and the Showboat
Lounge, where I was hearing live music for real, right up close and personal.
It was the Sonny Rollins Trio in the “Blue Seven” period.

The musicians were playing on top of bars, there were cash registers going,
glasses clinking—this was about selling liquor—but the music was as great
as it’s ever been in human history. Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt right there.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Bobby Timmons. You open the corner
door to the Showboat and the sound is so strong, you can get blown back out
into the street. You can’t believe the intense conviction with which this music
is being played.

That is something essential; that is what tipped the scales. Miles Davis, John
Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans at Peps when John Coltrane
was working on his “Giant Steps” progression. He never stopped, because
when that great band got through these incredible sets, you could hear Coltrane
in the band room, blowing through those progressions, before his Giant
Steps record was cut and came out.

That urgency, that conviction, that total creativity that keeps on coming like
a river, you want to have that right with you. That’s the joy of my life: confidence
in the river of live creative music that keeps on coming and supporting
us all.

One of the things about the 1960s is that you could walk down the
street and go into a bar and Miles Davis could be there and Louis
Armstrong, and Jackson Pollock, or de Kooning. Art Blakey could
walk in there, Cecil Taylor could walk in there, or Albert Ayler could
walk in there, or Ornette Coleman. They could all be in the same
room at the same time. There was a long period in the sixties, and
Martin Luther King could have walked in there, Malcolm X could
have walked in there. The energy and the forces—the creativity
that was happening in New York must have been astounding.

Yes. Let’s go back a few years to the end of the fifties. I emerged from four years
of science study and one intense year of meeting my teacher Maija Grotell, a
great ceramic artist from Finland. I came back to New York and got together
with a group of ceramic artists. We were exhibiting in a cooperative gallery
called the Nonagon—now we’re in 1958–59—and this was on Second Avenue
between Fifth and Sixth Street, over Rapoport’s Dairy Restaurant.

In Rapoport’s Dairy Restaurant you sit down and before you even order there
are hot rolls, you’ve got pickles, it’s a feast. Then the blintzes start coming.
Above that is this co-op art gallery. We were a section of the co-op gallery and
there was a piano. Cecil Taylor used to come in to practice on the upright piano.
Charles Mingus made a strong recording in there, Nostalgia in Times Square.
It was all in one place. The Five Spot was just a couple of blocks away and the
Jazz Gallery with the Art Farmer–Benny Golson Jazztet with Curtis Fuller too.

There was a cluster of artist-run galleries along Tenth Street where I spent a lot
of time. I was in the final Camino Gallery show before the real estate interests
took over Tenth Street. I caught the tail end of something you described that’s
amazing. Anne and I were at the Five Spot when Ornette Coleman’s Quartet
came in with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. It was intense, and this wasn’t a
big place. Everybody was in there to hear something they never heard before
and argue about it—because they listened and then in between sets they’d
start disputing verbally. I was stunned.

But what was really getting through to me simultaneously was Walt Dickerson
from Philadelphia, who was the interim player, solo vibraphone, spinning out
his unique story. Wow! Walt Dickerson’s sound has been carrying through my
whole life. And Walt Dickerson somehow, with just these little mallets on the
vibraphone he was playing, cut through all this talking. There’s a ringing tone
he was striking in 1959 that I can still hear as we are speaking now, through
all this time.

Everyone was fine with Don Cherry but Ornette’s unique tonality was shaking
some people up a little bit. But it was a thrill. It was a thrill because it was just
continuously fresh. From then to now it’s all one time—that’s why we’re here
together today.

What year did you get out of college and move back to New York?

Nineteen fifty-nine.

Nineteen fifty-nine. During the sixties, where were you?

Well, in the best of all possible worlds, everybody should get a break at least
once. For Anne and me, it was this place, this train station where we’re speak-
ing now. I had been living in Port Chester, which is up the line—you played a
concert there outdoors in 2010 with Roy Campbell at the Clay Art Center. We
started as a co-op ceramic studio, and I was living in a storefront. One of the
people out there had bought this abandoned railroad station: big place, lots of
leaks, lots of drafts, lots of junk everywhere. But it came up for rent through
them just about the time Anne and I got married in March 1960.

That’s a ways back—fifty-four years. It became possible to rent this place for
very little. Instead of moving into some tiny apartment, so I could keep doing
the ceramic studio work, it became possible to move here and think about
larger space and what that might mean. Ever since, we’ve been living and working
here, and we’re only half an hour, three-quarters of an hour from right in
the middle of the music and art scene in downtown New York.

That’s made everything possible. I’ve been married to Anne and I’ve also been
married to this building, working on the building all this time. But along with
that came a chance to make a studio, to do ceramics, to develop painting, to continue
woodcarving all the way through this, and work in bronze and steel. We had
space for both of our sons, who have grown up as professional designers—from
the beginning of their lives they had space to bring in materials and make things.

Raphael, who just called on the phone, would get old bike parts from the dump.
He would bicycle over to the dump as a very young boy and bring back bike
parts and make new bicycles. He has been creating inventions, new wheel patents
that he has written himself, for high-tech advances in bicycle equipment
he believes in.

Today people see you at concerts and they see you with paper and
two hands with pens and brushes sometimes. You’re moving along
with the music, you’re dotting and turning the paper up and down,
blowing on it, spraying water on it. How did the idea of coming to
concerts and painting, capturing, becoming part of the music, start
with you?

It was always there with the drawing practice, just like musicians are practicing
all the time or playing with the possibilities of sound in all kinds of ways.
Drawing is a language, it’s a way to see and to think and feel at the same time,
to skip the whole verbal end of things and just flow with the perceptions that
we’re having. There are all kinds of dialects in drawing that I’ve learned to do.

I guess the first beginnings of the musicWitness project were in Philadelphia.
I would be there alone most of the time in these bars and I used to take a
sketchbook and lay it on the bar and draw. I was a little shy about it because

O N E L O N G P A I N T I N G 􀟃 193

like I said, it’s a liquor establishment. There was nobody else doing anything
like this at all and I’d feel a little, I guess furtive would be the word. There’s a
series of drawings from that time. I was always drawing guitarists, how do you
say, singer/songwriters also, because in early high school I was part of the folk
scene down around Washington Square in the old West Village.

I was a folk dancer. What I remember was enormously thrilling to young people.
There was an American music that anyone could play and dance to that
had a social consciousness to it, too. That was part of it: it was a social movement;
it was handmade; it brought people in from all kinds of backgrounds. It
was like a long party, in many ways, in tough times. That was also going on.

But what really changed things, I was just recalling while driving down into
the East Side of the city yesterday evening. It’s a Thursday and if you turn on
WKCR at 6:00 p.m., Sharif Abdus-Salaam, peace be unto him, is going to give
you your weekly dose of John Coltrane. I turn on the car radio and Sharif has
just dropped the needle on “Transition.” We’re in the traffic jam but John Coltrane
is standing up for us all with Elvin Jones, a force of nature, and McCoy
Tyner is taking a solo, Jimmy Garrison is right there. There is an urgency that
is still coming straight through into 2014.

In that music, it’s not just thrilling and brilliant—it needed to be made. You can
hear it in every sound—it needed to be created. So that’s it; that’s where it started.
I heard John Coltrane live a number of times, including, a few months before
he died, at the Village Theater. Ornette and his trio opened in beautiful, gleaming
suits. They had their trio thing with David Izenson and Charles Moffett down.
They had been touring, traveling to Sweden; it was so beautifully developed.

After that, John Coltrane with Alice and Pharoah Sanders came out. They were
dressed like we are. They had just come downtown to play. They had a few new
people with them who nobody knew about, who were contributing on the percussion
end of it. Wow! The transition to transcendence was total. It was that
other dimension, like looking out through a telescope past the New York social
atmosphere to the way the whole universe really is. Everyone in the audience
was so deeply moved and I’m still so moved to experience that momentum Coltrane
embodied throughout his development, leading into where he was reaching
that night and then, boom, he was gone, a few months later he was gone.
He gave one more concert at the Olatunji Cultural Center that I couldn’t make.
Rashied was part of both of those events—Rashied Ali.

Before Coltrane died I made a clay sculpture that was inspired by that concert.
I had been expecting to really start drawing and to make some major fired clay
statements, ceramic statements of John Coltrane’s art and how it had moved

194 􀟃 J E F F S C H L A N G E R

me, and then he was gone. I was feeling, “I need to have this live connection.”
Now we cut to the early 1970s. I’m in California, in Claremont, invited to give
a lecture on my ceramic art in the Claremont Colleges, and to stay on and work
with the graduate students in a wonderful ceramics program run by Paul Soldner
at Scripps College.

The first morning there, I go to a meeting with my ceramics colleague about
what we’re going to do and sitting there, talking to Dennis Parks, is Stanley
Crouch. Stanley is in his dashiki and he is on fire: the night before he had led
a performance of his band in a Duke Ellington memorial concert. In the band,
it turns out, are David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, Mark Dresser,
and Stanley on drums. He’s telling the ceramics professor, “I’ve got this tape.”
The first thing I say in this meeting is, “We got to hear the tape!”
It happened that right next to the ceramics office is a locked room. In the
locked room is a sound system connected to a big new bell tower in the middle
of the Claremont campuses, going up about fifty feet. On top of the bell tower
are speakers going four ways. So I was part of the instigation to get this tape
surreptitiously onto this bell tower that noon during lunch hour. We’re in April
and it’s beautiful in Southern California. Everybody is relaxing and all of a
sudden Bobby Bradford’s trumpet wail is floating out across the whole valley. It
was absolutely incredible.

After about twenty minutes it was shut down because a neighbor complained.
But you could see how everybody loved it. The students were just thrilled. Then
I started hanging out with Stanley Crouch and his crew. Stanley wasn’t connected
to Lincoln Center, he was writing plays and on the drums. I attended
his class in black music, which was a thrill every time. He had records and
comments on records that were powerful. He was teaching everybody where
this music was coming from. It was all about creative music, creative theater,
and the roots of the creativity.

Then Stanley moved to New York and I will always be grateful for a phone call
he gave me here at the station. This is in the early summer of 1975. He’s living
in a loft with David Murray up over the Tin Palace. “Come down,” he said,
“you got to come down.” So I packed my sketchbook and came on down. It was
called Studio Infinity. In Studio Infinity, the door opens, it’s filled with people
and they’re all musicians, all musicians who are going to play. There was
hardly any audience; it was loft movement time. As soon as I opened the door,
across the whole loft, illuminated in a pool of sunlight, is Julius Hemphill.

I didn’t know at that time but could just realize, “Oh, this is serious.” I turned
around and there’s Arthur Blythe, there’s Henry Threadgill, [Oliver] Lake, and

[Hamiet] Bluiett, and of course David Murray with Wadada Leo Smith, Fred
Hopkins, Steve McCall, Phillip Wilson. Everybody was there together. There
were more. Video cameras hardly existed then. There were no photographers.
There were no audio tapists. There was just me and my sketchbook and background
in pottery, which is two hands. If you want to try and draw Elvin Jones,
Milford Graves, or Hamid Drake, you could use at least six hands or eight. It’s
a dance! It’s so strong, you gotta dance!

To me this is one long painting—One Long Song, as Baikida Carroll’s publishing
company is called. It’s one long ribbon of seismographic paper on contemporary
committed musical energy pouring through the time that I’ve lived.
I knew from Coltrane’s passing that when I had the good fortune to be in a
charged situation like this, it was crucial to do everything I could to throw it all
down by hand and let people know something special is going on.

Then it just grew from there?

Well, there was concert after concert, all run by musicians in those days in
the seventies. Studio Rivbea was nearby. There would be handbills on pieces
of paper—you had to be at one concert to get the handbill for the next concert.
There were no ads. There was a jazz scene going on in fancy clubs that cost real
money, with ads. But this music was word of mouth, the college radio station,
handbills. Studio Rivbea was right there on Bond Street, and Joe Lee Wilson’s
Ladies’ Fort. I was at David Murray’s first recording session in the Ladies’ Fort
with Olu Dara—Flowers for Albert.

It was one unique event after another. Those loft movement days were welcoming
to every creative modality: poets, dancers, everyone was welcome. We were
all on the floor together. Often there were no chairs, just a square of foam if
you were lucky.

Okay. See here: you’re sketching; when did you move to color, or
do things in color, or in larger scale?

Almost immediately. You used the word sketching and I would like to use the
word drawing.

Drawing, okay.

Drawing is like singing or dancing; sketching, the way the word is often used,
indicates once over lightly. No, what we’re talking about is, whatever implement
we’re using, I’m using at least two at the same time, each going down in
a different way. I’m coming out of clay; I’m coming out of carving wood. When
you work with clay by hand, you’re experiencing the touch and the sound of
the clay moving under pressure. The pressure is coming from inside the core
of your body out. Just like when you play the bass—out from the heart and the
gut, out through, as relaxed as possible, the shoulders and arms, out through
the fingertips and flowing through the core of the body. You can actually hear
the clay move.

When I lay it out, I’m working with at least two pens, different colors. You can
feel and almost hear the grooves that these pens are making into the surface.
I like to use Italian paper because of the touch—it loves, loves that interface,
where the impulse of the rhythms of what you’re experiencing is moving into
color and groove. So the scene I described at Studio Infinity was clearly way
too much. I had two pencils and a sketchbook; right away I saw, “We’re going
to have to increase the arsenal.” Then it becomes a question of what can you
bring, lay out, throw down, and pack up before they lock the door. It’s making
a kit.

The bass shape is codified and you can get a bass case. But the kit for music-
Witness didn’t exist. Developing a kit that could let me leave about the time
the drummer is loading out, and they lock the door, that was a major step in
my art. Just like you bring different instruments to different musical situations,
there are variations.

Right, right, right. It just grows from there.

Oh, you want a further elucidation of events, okay. Whenever we’re talking
about what got me into this, you’re going to hear the name Julius Hemphill,
because the creative presence of Julius Hemphill is something that is with me
every day. I’ve known many artists in all kinds of media but he is someone of
my generation who was always about moving ahead creatively. The forward momentum
that was in Coltrane was always present in another form with Julius.

It was always different every time you went out to hear him. You were going to
hear another step forward creatively. To be in the presence of that is such a gift.
It’s not just about being an artist working well, whatever your medium is. It’s
not just about making something creative that is beautifully put together and
offered. It’s about that urgency of birth—that’s what you could hear with Julius,
going out in many directions simultaneously.

There was a series of three concerts Tim Berne and his sister organized in a
loft in Soho called the UTO Center in 1976. It was a quintet—Julius and David
Murray, Phillip Wilson, Abdul Wadud. The bassist on the first night was Dave
Holland and, the next two nights, Fred Hopkins. I’ve never heard greater music
ever. Seven people were in the audience. I brought the forty-inch paper with
two pencils, or four pencils, or six pencils—Ebonys, they’re tough, they take a
lot of beating—and some black ink, on the floor.

I made a final picture and Julius came over. He put my nose in it. He helped
me understand that there really is a direction connected to the music in those
marks on the paper, connected to the music that was being made that night. He
was a leader doing realization for all kinds of artists all the time. He was looking
and listening and he worked with dancers and poets all the time. He saw
all the arts as one—one human community expression. Once there was that,
there was also the possibility of a huge step forward in terms of the scale and
the level of commitment and the possibilities of actually breaking through into
something that was truly connected—visual art in music.

Julius saw it and he made sure that I could digest what he saw. Going on at the
same time is Ali’s Alley on Greene Street. My first time there, Julius was playing
with Tim Berne and J. D. Parran on the front line. The second time, it was
Rashied’s group with Mixashawn, Anthony Davis on piano, who we just heard
in Guelph with Wadada Leo Smith. Wadada was in that first concert at Studio
Infinity also, so it’s been going on all this time.

In Ali’s Alley the colors started going down. It was just conviction all the way
and Rashied was welcoming to everybody. Anthony Davis played two sets and
then the waitress sat down at the piano and she had just as much as Anthony
Davis but in a different direction. Everybody’s got it—it’s just the group
permission to really get into it, that’s what it is. The community permission
and—

Mary Anne Driscoll.

Hey! Hey! Ho!

Great times. We should move on to what’s happening today. I know
you’ve been invited to some festivals in Finland and Canada.
Berlin and Paris.

Berlin, okay. So just tell us about how it moved from the loft
period—kind of up until Vision Festival and then going to festivals
around the world.

William, this is something that you really know as a creative traveler. All I can
say is something about operating as an independent visual artist who is not re

 

198 􀟃 J E F F S C H L A N G E R

ally part of the commercial music scene. First of all, it’s important to say that a
key part of my art is understanding where and when to show up. That’s all done
by instinct. Where might there be a musical event or a dance event or a poetry
event that is going to help me live? I go as a listener. This music is encouraging
me to live fully.

I bring the painting kit because I learned back in those days, in the 1970s and
the sixties and even the fifties, that the dance of art helps me listen. It helps
me pay attention to all the sounds blooming at the same time. I’m interested
in hearing creative music I never heard before. What really helps my life and
sustains a vital approach to art is contact with that urgency of something real
being born in a community setting.

You remember when the Improvisers Collective was formed on Avenue A in
Context Studios? I was invited to be part of that, at the core of all this opportunity
to listen to and paint many, many creative artists in action and branch
off from there. There were Improvisers Collective concerts every week. Then,
after about two years, it developed into this series of twenty Vision Festivals.
All these situations have been open to bringing my painting kit and setting up
where I could see and hear.

My art was encouraged by doing that. So there’s now a continuous hand-painted
record—virtually every set on the main stage of all the Vision Festivals. It’s all
one picture. It’s an architectural scroll and my heart is in the originals. What
mostly gets out there are postcards, record covers, prints. My heart is inside the
original art where you can see and feel the texture of the response to the music
while it is actually alive in the air. So this is one long painting of everybody’s
Vision together––all these great bassists—Fred Hopkins, Mark Helias, Mark
Dresser, Henry Grimes, William Parker—everyone playing together with all
the drummers they have been connected to and this incredible extension of
saxophone players, not to mention those trumpets I’ve gotten really interested
in since I was seventy and the trombones you have to love and the beautiful
courage of dancers.

So it’s all in there together with the poet’s urgent voice, Amiri Baraka in the
first Vision Festival, nailing to the wall where this music comes from: “We were
Slaves.”

 

 


   

jeff@musicWitness.com


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