Perfect Sound Forever

The Art of Jazz Research

© Arthur Paxton

Lewis Porter interview by Fabio Rojas

Perfect Sound Forever: Where did you study music and how did you get into writing about jazz?

Lewis Porter: I should tell you that I got involved in all this stuff the old fashioned way. What I mean by that is I sometimes describe myself as a street musician with a Ph.D. I'm not literally, not out on the street but I started as a free lance musician. You know, twenty dollar a night gigs like everybody else... I always was very interested in jazz history. I used to collect things and study things for myself. It really is just a fluke that in a certain point of my life when I was twenty six, maybe still twenty five, I got an offer to teach [jazz] history at Tufts University and that got the whole ball rolling. I realized what I had been doing all those years was a kind of jazz research and that I could go further with it. The faculty members at Tufts convinced me that I would be interested in a full time academic job and that I would have to go back and get my Ph.D.

PSF: What kind of preparation did you need in order to do research and study jazz aside from your musical background?

LP: Well, looking back on it now because you can see that it happened by accident, the best thing I did was that I was always meticulous about listening to the complete works of every artist that I was interested in. For example, if I was interested in Louis Armstrong I didn't just listen to, in those days, there were four LP's that were the greatest hits of Louis Armstrong on Columbia. I didn't listen to just those. I went through reference books, got listings of every record he ever made and ordered imports from Italy and from England until I was able to have every track he ever recorded at least from the beginning until about 1950. I did the same thing for Duke, the same thing for Jelly Roll, the same thing for King Oliver. At the time, my friends and I just figured I was crazy. But it turned out to be the greatest thing because what happened is that my knowledge of jazz history is not based on what I've read but what I've heard.

PSF: That is a unique way to get into jazz scholarship. So when you started doing jazz scholarship this was from listening and knowing the music on an intimate and very thorough basis. You didn't have much academic schooling in jazz or musicology.

LP: I always wanted to be a professional musician and I still prefer performing. Performing is my favorite thing. I'm a piano player. At the time, I was just going to do gigs. On top of that, I was a self-taught piano player so I went to college at the University of Rochester and they had a stringent audition process to become a music major. You had to pass all kinds of classical auditions. Being a self-taught jazz player, I couldn't pass those to be a major but I did take enough of these tests so I could take music classes. So I did take piano lessons, the theory classes and a couple of music history classes but I wasn't a music major. I was a psychology major by default. What happened was by the time I got to Tufts University, the faculty there convinced me - in particular one faculty member I call my mentor, T.J. Anderson - he convinced me that I am the kind of person - because I was so meticulous and always researching stuff - that I was the kind of person who should be teaching other people and not just performing. That's when I started to get more schooling. Up to that time, I was mostly self-taught except for a few classes at the University of Rochester and the Eastman School which was part of the University. Starting in 1979, I started to go for my graduate training in music and since that time - I have my Ph.D. - I have a lot of education now. The interesting thing to sum it all up in a sense is that most of music education is not jazz, it's traditional classical music education and that's partly because there hasn't been until quite recently any training in the kind of stuff I like to do.

PSF: How is researching jazz different than researching classical music? How is the approach to researching or performing jazz different than what you learn in studying traditional classical music?

LP: That's a great question because I have right now, I'm directing at Rutgers - I founded just one year ago, September '97 - the world's only master's program in jazz research. There is no program anywhere [else] in jazz research whether it's a bachelor's, master's, whatever. Some people did ask me, "Why did you need a separate program in jazz research? Can't they take a general music research program or musicology like you did and just apply what they've learned?" There are a couple of reasons why I thought it was necessary for us to have our own program. One is quite frankly a social one. When I got my Ph.D. at Brandeis University I've got to tell you that I had a very strong classical background and when I first entered there, they gave us a listening quiz of classical pieces and out of thirty graduate students I got the second highest score. So obviously I knew my classical music but all those other students did was make fun of me all day long because I was a jazz musician. First of all, I don't think we should have to put up with that. Second of all, all the course work I had was applying research techniques to classical music and as much as I love classical music, it's not the same as being able to do it on jazz. Finally, there are some differences in the way we want to approach it. For example, in classical music everything is based around the score - the written score. In jazz, everything is based around the recording which is a whole different thing. It's based on what you hear as opposed to what you see on the page. I also think that the whole aesthetic of jazz, the whole value system of jazz is different because it comes from black America instead of white Europe. It's a very different value system and you need to teach it separately.

PSF: Here is a follow up on the centrality of the score in classical music and the centrality of the recording in jazz. How would you approach the earlier big bands of, say, Duke Ellington or Count Basie who may have had their entire performance - even down to the solos - scored for popular performance?

LP: That's a very good question, too, because you're quite right. Depending on the band, that wasn't so much true in Basie's [band] but in Duke's band, there many pieces for Duke's band that were pretty much totally written out with little flexibility for the solo player - in some cases, not much flexibility for the solo player. You also find a few of those in Jelly Roll Morton, by the way. That's a very good question. The question comes up; there is writing in jazz. It's not only about improvisation. Most jazz performances have a certain amount of writing that goes into it before hand and then you improvise on what you've got. It is a complicated mix and you are quite right to bring that up. But I still think it is a different approach, in other words, even when you have a score the interpretation of the score is so different than when you interpret a classical score. For example, the whole idea of "swinging it". You write something down and you tell the band that you have to "swing this". They have to know what that is. They can't just play it exactly the way it's written. Or the whole idea of getting a certain tone color, a certain sound in the saxophone section, a very certain distinct sound. As opposed to getting a "correct" sound. Or a certain kind of sound everybody gets. I think you are right. There is a lot we can learn from the classical people and I don't avoid that at all in my teaching. I love classical music. I still study that too even though it's not my profession. Kind of a hobby if you will but I study it all the time. There's a lot we can learn from them but I just think that there are differences too.

PSF: Let me ask one last question about teaching jazz and approaches to jazz. How does your research and your experience as a performer translate into how you teach jazz to individual people in the classroom?

LP: I think that is the biggest difference between the way I teach and the way others might teach. First of all, I always teach from the viewpoint of the performer. In other words, most jazz history to this day - the critics write it and it is taught from the viewpoint of the critics or the so-called historians. I say "so-called" because they make a lot of mistakes, I find. So they'll talk about so and so's greatest record or they will say - this is a famous one - "Duke Ellington's band was at its peak in between 1940 and 1942". First of all, as a musician, I don't hear that. His band sounds as good as in some other time periods. I happen to like his band in the 1960's. Second of all, Duke didn't like that. Duke hated that because he was still alive when they were saying that and that is tantamount to saying "you'll never be as good as you used to be". They didn't wait till he passed away till they made these kinds of pronouncements. So I like to teach from a musician's point of view and from the musician's point of view, to continue this particular example, Duke was always developing, was always doing new things, and there is no one phase which is the "great phase" of Duke Ellington. See what I mean?

PSF: I've felt some of the same feelings when I've read histories of Duke Ellington and I feel some of his later stuff, like "Far East Suite," really appeals to me more than his earlier stuff.

LP: That's exactly one of the pieces I would have picked. There is nothing in 1940-1942 that compares with the "Far East Suite" - not that the earlier stuff isn't great but I don't see how you can say "Far East Suite" is not as good. It's a remarkable piece of music. So I think that the difference is because I do my own research and I am a player, all my teaching comes out of that. When I teach my students in my master's program, I don't say "Gunther Schuller says this." I don't say "Martin Williams says that." I don't say "Downbeat magazine says this." I say, I've listened to these records. Now you listen to them and let's talk about them. Let's not worry about what some one else says about them. And I say, let's really think hard about the kinds of things people say about jazz like that one about Duke Ellington not being as good as he was in 1940-1942 and see if we agree with them, let's not accept anything, not even the most basic thing as fact. Let's question everything and see what we agree with.

PSF: Sounds great. Any other comments about teaching or researching jazz that you would like to add?

LP: Just one thing. I like to have a very broad idea about teaching jazz and my feeling is that if you really get into what I'm talking about, it's not really only about jazz - it's a whole way of thinking. A whole way of being independent. It's taking a little longer to come to your conclusions but being more independent. Instead of saying "I read this in the Village Voice so it must be true," you say " I'm going to try to find out for myself". To give you an example, in the graduate program the first class that I teach every September about the Bible. They look at me like I'm crazy. Why are we talking about the Bible? The reason that we are talking about the Bible is that so many of the assumptions about the world that we are exposed to in the Western world are really assumptions that come from the Bible. What I like to do is break that down and give you an example of what we are going to be thinking about this year. And I take things from the Bible and ask "how would you interpret that? What are some various interpretations of that?" So it is broader than music. It is a whole way of thinking.

Also see: Researching John Coltrane & "John Coltrane, His Life and Music"

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