Ken Vandermark : Raw and Refined


Who Do You Play For?

AAJ: I’m going to rip-off a question that Art Taylor used to pose: Do you play for yourself or do you play for the people?

KV: The best response I ever heard to that, to rip-off another musician, was something that Elvin Jones said. He said he tries to play for the music. In my experience and in terms of my perspective, I completely agree with that stance. What I’ve tried to do from the entire time I’ve played music is to focus on what the music is about, what I’m trying to accomplish creatively with the music and think about what I can do to make the music stronger. When I’ve done that, it’s always led me to good decisions, I think, about how to get my music to people, why I would be doing that and how it affects audiences and other musicians. If you’re working hard to make the music sound good and try to meet the needs of what the music is indicating, I think the audience is going to have a good experience.

When I go back and listen to recordings and think about concerts I’ve seen, the memories, the best memories, the most positive memories are of musicians and groups that were playing and working on music on the absolute highest level it could be done. It’s like Ornette Coleman’s quartet, we talk about that group, the group with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, we talk about John Coltrane’s quartet, we talk about Cecil Taylor’s unit, we talk about Schlippenbach Trio, we talk about all these potential groups. These are people that pushed the music they were working on to the furthest points again and again to find something new to do with it, and to challenge themselves. And I think that meets the needs of the audience. It doesn’t need to be; I mean, sometimes I think, am I trying to please the audience? That gets into a set of performance ideas that frankly aren’t as important as making the music good. If I do my job as a band leader, as a composer to make the music interesting for the music’s sake, make it strong for the music’s sake, and providing material for the musicians that hopefully will inspire them it’ll make them play better.

So if the center of gravity is about music, I think the rest of it will take care of itself and that’s why I really agree with what Elvin Jones said. I think that’s the best response I’ve ever heard to that question.

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