CAN YOU TALK MORE ABOUT YOUR APPROACH, GIVEN YOUR OWN UNORTHODOX BACKGROUND? It's true that I have a different academic background. But in terms of my background in this music, it's not that unorthodox. A lot of stuff I learned by myself, I had some musical instruction as a child, and then I learned by working on stuff with my peers and by apprenticing with elders. If you talked to someone like Barry Harris, that's exactly what he'd say. It's just that in the last 30 or so years, everyone goes to music school. Branford Marsalis and his generation — they all went to music school. Even though they also got to play with Art Blakey. But everyone after them went to music school. I'm one of the few exceptions of people who didn't go to a jazz education program. There are only a few in my generation who are like that, who are active out here. Craig Taborn is another one.
I find that when I play with elder musicians, often I get a certain kind of affirmation that may seem surprising. I remember when I played out in Oakland, one of them said, "You play like old people." [Laughs] I was in my early 20s. I think it was because part of the legacy of the music I connected with the most was Monk and Duke Ellington and that sphere — no pun intended! — of players and composers.
SO HE MEANT IT AS A COMPLIMENT. . . . | Oh yeah, yeah! It was a 70-year-old African-American man from Oakland saying this to me. And I learned from working with a lot of old guys. And I think it's funny that people see me as someone who's opposed to the jazz tradition. Sometimes I get static like that, "Oh that doesn't swing, probably because he can't." Well, in the 1980s, before the Young Lion thing came along, a lot of people were doing a lot of shit that was pushing the boundaries on every aspect of music, and it wasn't about whether you could swing or not, it was about whether you had something to say and whether you were being true to yourself.
And I found that when I was coming of age and checking out a lot of music, yes, there was the Young Lions thing but there was also a very vibrant creative music scene and it was all connected. Before I worked with Steve Coleman, I was a fan of his music, and I was a fan of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Cecil Taylor, and Ornette, and Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and David Murray, and Muhal [Richard Abrams], and [Anthony] Braxton. All of these people were very visible and part of the same scene. So it wasn't like if you liked Betty Carter then you had to hate Cecil Taylor. It was more like, you'd see them together in the same place. So there was more of a sense of community and everyone was in the same boat.
That whole supposed rift between tradition and innovation, as far as I can tell, only emerged 25 years ago, and it's only deepened since then. So now you see people forcing this rhetoric of, "You don't have to be an innovator." There's room for everybody. People have a narrow idea of what it means to be connected to the tradition. Like I say, I learned in a traditional way, as far as jazz goes. But it's a tradition that predates music schools."