Woody Shaw Interview: "We Are Linked to A Legacy" (Downbeat 1983)
by Linda Reitman
In a recent interview with Leonard Feather, Miles Davis laid to rest all myths about who's really playing the trumpet these days. Asked about Freddie Hubbard, Miles responded, "All technique, but no feeling." On Wynton Marsalis: "All the [young] trumpeters copy off of Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Dizzy...."
How about Woody Shaw? ...Miles Davis replied: "Now there's a great trumpet player. He can play different from all of them."
Dexter Gordon summed up Woody Shaw's trumpet prowess succinctly: "The thing about Woods is he's done his homework. He’s hip to Louis Armstrong, plays intervals and runs backwards so to speak. He breaks it down, plays atonal, and then comes back and plays real trumpet. Woods covers the whole spectrum."
Shaw's conception of music however does not stop with the trumpet, and Shaw is quick to emphasize that he has listened to and learned from many saxophonists and pianists. He credits John Coltrane with leading him into the pentatonic scale and to the use of wider intervals. And with McCoy Tyner, Shaw gained experience and found the music to be “wide open, leaving room for you to express yourself."
A look at Shaw’s musical association serves to illustrate a background which is both varied and colorful. His father was a member of diamond Jubilee Singers, a gospel group which toured extensively across the South and through parts of the East. Woody first picked up the trumpet in the sixth grade in Newark, NJ, and studied with Jerome Ziering, who taught him privately as well. Shaw later made all-city and all-state orchestras, and found himself playing in the school bands during the day and gigging at night with Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Tyrone Washington, and Larry Young, the latter providing him with challenging harmonic concepts.
In the early '60s, Shaw played with Eric Dolphy, and later in Paris, with Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Donald Byrd, and others. He replaced Carmell Jones in Horace Silver's group in 1965; jammed with Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, and Jackie McLean from 1966-67; and played with McCoy Tyner on and off from 1968-70. He performed with Gil Evans in 1972 and Art Blakey in 1973, before joining the Louis Hayes/Junior Cook Quintet where he assumed co-leadership with Hayes after Cook's departure. In 1976 Shaw started leading his own bands.
Although recent years have seen Woody Shaw take on the role of jazz clinician, Shaw is quick to dispel any rumor that he is eager to set aside his trumpet for a textbook. Shaw's image reveals him as a trumpeter and bandleader of considerable stature. He prefers to inspire prospective musicians with the message inherent in his music. thereby "making them aware of what is possible in the creative process."
The current Woody Shaw Quintet represents a culmination of Shaw's growth, and he emerges as a bandleader to be reckoned with. Arguably, this is his finest band and certainly it's one of his more unusual, as evidenced by the all-brass front line. Shaw is heard primarily on trumpet and flugelhorn, occasionally on cornet: with Steve Turre on trombone (and conch shells), the band is rounded out by pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Stafford James, and drummer Tony Reedus. On United, Shaw's fifth (and last) LP for Columbia, their group chemistry was exhibited in full force. Sadly, the record industry's economic woes prevented the album from receiving the support necessary for its success. With Master of the Art the Woody Shaw Quintet has reunited with former CBS Records executive Bruce Lundvall on his new jazz label, Elektra Musician. The album features the quintet augmented by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, recorded in performance at New York's Jazz Forum. Shaw speaks enthusiastically about this live recording of the group. And the fact that it succeeds in capturing the band at the apex of its performance level is yet another source of satisfaction to Woody Shaw.
Woody Shaw: It's been a challenge of mine for the past few years to get the band to such a level on record. After our six-week European tour together, we had worked up our creative capacity and technical ability to a high. It went down so smoothly and was so enjoyable. In fact, that I forgot it was a recording session.
Linda Reitman: By what criteria did you choose your present band members?
WS: I chose each member on the basis that I heard their potential, the fact that they believed in me and respected me as a leader, and the fact that I could learn from them as well. That was the key to the success of musicians like Art Blakey and Horace Silver. As a leader, you acquire and use the knowledge that you've experienced. So I go on the basis that I can teach a musician, if he lets me, but I also have to get something in return and learn from him. That's one of the keys to being a bandleader. You surround yourself with musicians who inspire you. Many people have mentioned that each member of my band is uniquely qualified to distinguish himself. Now that's something that I also demand of my musicians. I have found that the acceptance of my quintet has been overwhelming, and I believe that's partly due to the blend of trumpet and trombone. It's a very unique and innovative sound for today.
LR: Your trombonist, Steve Turre, appeared on several of your past albums before becoming a member of your present quintet. How did you find him?
WS: I met Steve in 1972, when I was residing in San Francisco, and we struck up an immediate rapport. Although he wasn't quite the player he is now, I could see it happening. Steve has been very instrumental and influential in the music that I write and record, and he’s one of the few people whom I will allow to arrange my music. I've watched this band grow during the two years it's been in existence. My pianist Mulgrew Miller is growing into a very brilliant player; Stafford James is one of the major voices of the contrabass; and I've watched Tony Reedus grow to become a phenomenal drummer. One of the characteristics of my band is that we play in many varied styles. We play in the mainstream tradition, the avant garde tradition and we play in the bebop tradition which is the basis of modern jazz. What I'm doing now is a culmination of all the experiences I acquired during my 10 years as a sideman to try to use whatever I feel at the time, as well as what is apropos to the audience before me. The audience plays an important part in a musician's development, and after a while he's able to develop a rapport with them.
Watch video clip of the Woody Shaw Quintet, 1983
LR: Many people are of the opinion that bebop is old-fashioned. Do you think that your association with bebop is preventing you from being accepted by a larger audience?
WS: No, I don't, because bebop is the foundation of modern jazz. Dizzy Gillespie is still here, alive and well, to attest to that. And many of his innovations that went on with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach are still being practiced today, but in a different form. The music still lives. Although I'm not a bebop musician per se, I respect all of the transitions that modern jazz has gone through. And the catalyst for my whole conception was Louis Armstrong, because he was one of the pioneers of jazz — period! I draw my needs and inspiration from the music that has happened before me as well as what's happening now.
LR: How do you manage to keep coming up with fresh musical ideas?
WS: Again, it comes from my respect for tradition. I admire the innovations of today, but at the same time, I'm aware that there were others before us. I consider myself a contemporary musician but many times I find myself running into obstacles, whereby I'm unable to compose and my playing seems stymied to a certain level. I go back and listen to the music that came before me like Clifford Brown and Louis, and I'm able to go forward. The trumpet is the prince of horns, and I have a high esteem for it. It's a very sacred instrument. So I find that at times I have to go back in my history to find new things. A lot of musician’s have forgotten about that. We are all linked to a legacy.
LR: Do you anticipate at some point experimenting with more commercial forms of music?
WS: It's like this; if I stick to my convictions, I can work for the next 20 years. If I change now, I could ruin my career. I've seen it happen to others, some of my contemporaries who are just a little older than me. By sticking to my beliefs, I'm even more strongly convinced I'm going in the right direction. As I see it, the position of jazz in the record industry is a position of longevity. It's not something you can make a quick profit from.
LR: Are you of the opinion that today's younger musicians would learn more from listening to the early innovators than they would by reading the various technical books that have gained popularity recently?
WS: Jazz, to me, is an expression of what the American black man has experienced. In recent years jazz has acquired the academic respect that it lacked some 20 years ago, but it was developed from experience. Jazz is a life style — you have to live jazz. Some of the jazz clinics that I've been involved with, with David Baker and Jamey Aebersold, have helped to introduce jazz to the layman, and it has probably been very helpful to him. But a lot of musicians find that after they've left the various institutions - Berklee or whatever - they’re very frustrated. This music is based on paying dues; there's more to it than just going and acquiring knowledge academically. When young musicians ask me, "Where did you learn to play jazz?" I answer, "I grew up with it." A musician is very fortunate to be able to go to some of these institutions to learn the music from a technical standpoint, but it's not all based on technical and theoretical knowledge. Its value is also very esoteric, and deals with the development of American culture. Jazz is a very highly developed form of classical music.
LR: It's interesting that you use the term "classical music" to connote jazz, because many young people are critical of the intellectualism usually associated with classical music. I've heard some of them; in fact pass jazz off as "chamber music."
WS: When you sit down and listen to a Beethoven symphony, you're listening in an intellectual capacity, yes? And it takes a certain amount of intellect to listen to what I'm talking about, the classic jazz which may be contemporary or traditional. It takes a certain amount of intellect to listen to jazz but at the same time it's highly emotional and expressive of various roods. It draws from the Afro-European experience - and that's what makes it unique - yet it's an American art form. My concern now is with promoting the legacy of the trumpet. I've tried to pass on my experiences to young musicians like Wynton Marsalis and his young man has greatly inspired me by combining the experience of New Orleans with his academic background of Juilliard. I have a need for a young man like that. because there's a certain rivalry that goes with playing the trumpet; somewhere out there, there’s always a challenger. It's a very difficult instrument to play and it takes a certain personality to play the trumpet. I always keep my ear open for new trumpet players.
LR: Would you elaborate on what this "certain personality" is?
WS: Check out the personalities of the better trumpet players. There has to be a certain amount of confidence that goes with playing that instrument. In general, good trumpet players usually have fiery personalities, and they're usually in good physical condition, cause it takes a lot of physical prowess to play the instrument. I've been studying a form of Chinese exercise called Tai Chi for the past two years, and I've found that it helps enhance my physiological power on the instrument, and it also gives me better concentration. You need certain mental characteristics to play the trumpet. It takes a strong constitution, because there are many physical handicaps to playing the trumpet. You have to have both mental and physical prowess to play this instrument.
LR: Do you view the trumpet as more of a physical instrument or a mental instrument? Do your experiences with Tai Chi allow you a greater freedom and flexibility on the trumpet?
WS: It's a very physical instrument. It has only three valves as opposed to 88 keys on the piano and 22 keys on the saxophone. So it takes a great deal of mental concentration to play it, and to play in all of the chromatic keys in the 12-tone theories. After practicing Tai Chi, I have found that I'm able to apply different methods for concentrating mentally and physically. I'm always searching for different venues to express myself. And you have to have a certain amount of discipline to reach that, a certain peace of mind. I haven't found it yet, but I'm looking for it. Each time that I come across it, however briefly, my creative output increases.
LR: How do you view your role as teacher, via your jazz clinics held here and in Australia?
WS: In recent years since I've become a bandleader. I've gotten away from the teacher-clinician role. I'm aware of the fact that I did inspire many young musicians coming up to learn about jazz. But I think most of the musicians who have met me or heard me are inspired by the fact that they see what I'm doing both as a leader and as a trumpeter, through my musical repertoire. My contribution is to be able to inspire and leave a message; I'm not interested in being a teacher. I'm still trying to develop as an artist myself, and all of my energies of late have gone into being a bandleader. When I leave the bandstand, I want the audience to be aware, and not forget me.
LR: Your sound on trumpet is big, with considerable flexibility. Do you still practice various exercises, particularly the more difficult ones, or do you find that your practicing is done when you perform on-stage with your band?
WS: The latter is more suited to me. I've seen some musicians who practice all day, but when they get on the bandstand, they can't play a thing. Practice is essential definitely, in developing any particular craft, but I find that it's best for me to play with my band as much as possible. Even when we're off, I try to rehearse this band at least twice a week, to keep in good shape. If the need arises where I'm unable to execute a phrase on-stage, I'll go home and practice it, but I don't want to practice to the point where I sound mechanical. Playing with my band is like roadwork - it keeps me in shape. My thing is being able to take what I've learned through observing and practicing, and apply it to my role as performer and bandleader.
LR: How would you describe the Woody Shaw sound?
WS: I think I'm a very intelligent, cerebral type player, insofar as the notes I choose or the harmonic daring I use, but I also try to play with a pretty sound. Some of what I've done on trumpet has been associated with the innovations of John Coltrane, because I use more of a saxophone style, as applied to the trumpet. Saxophone players can identify with what I'm doing, because I use intervals of fourths, fifths, and pentatonic scales. I don't have a saxophone in my band now - nothing personal, it's just that I think it's time for the trumpet to be considered the major, innovative instrument. It's the prince of all horns, the most pronounced and most profound-sounding instrument. If anything is to be announced or introduced, it's usually the trumpet that does it. There is a certain royalty associated with the trumpet and a regal quality to its sound.
LR: In an interview with Nat Hentoff conducted at the release of your Blackstone Legacy album, you indicated that you were trying to express what was happening in the world, and that you hoped to reach a stage of spiritual enlightenment, whereby your music would become "a light of hope, a sound of strength." That was 12 years ago. Do you still hold such views?
WS: Yes, I do. I haven't found it yet, but I'm still looking. You must always maintain a certain level of awareness of what is happening in your environment, and in the universe itself. And you must also maintain hope when observing the state of affairs in the world, because, as in all forms of art, it comes out. It comes out in the music. I just want to make my contribution to the art form and express my musical feelings and thoughts through my music. And that comes from my awareness of what is happening around me. Once I get on the bandstand - it's like the altar - it transcends all negative feelings. One-hundred percent of me goes into being a creative musician, because I want to contribute to this beautiful art form called jazz.