Interview with Ken Vandermark, Andrew Morgan and David Ryan

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Conway Hall Thursday 25 October 2007

David Ryan: [to audience] Firstly, it’s a great pleasure to welcome Ken Vandermark and Andrew Morgan to London. As you probably gathered from the programme the concert is in two specific parts; in the first half we will have a free improvisation; in the second, a written composition by Andrew, which is, essentially, a collaboration between Andrew and Ken. In this pre-concert talk what might be interesting is to look at various issues coming out of these two parts of the concert. Firstly, I was thinking about the traditions of improvisation; and one of the things that leap to mind is the question of ‘jazz’ – both as a practice and as a label for music. Miles Davis, most famously, hated the term ‘jazz’, especially later in his career. But it is something that has stuck with certain traditions of improvisation, even those approaches, perhaps, where it is no longer apt. I wondered, Ken, what your feelings were towards this term applied to improvising practices in the 21st century?

Ken Vandermark: Well for me, I am coming at it from a very subjective angle. The term ‘jazz’ is rather too broad, but you’re right it has also kind of stuck, and it’s a label for a series of aesthetics, developed over a century or more now, so it some respects its outgrown its usefulness. It’s not unlike the term ‘classical’ music – a term that’s used all the time to cover all sorts of music from Bach to Elliot Carter, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. But people use it as a beginning to discuss music, or its language. But for me, the way I approach the idea of jazz is that it is not a stylistic concern. There are too many different things that have happened over the last century for a term like jazz to make sense. For me it’s more a method of creating music that deals with the dialectic between composition and improvisation and in that way it takes on a huge range of aesthetics; so to me, the way I listen to music: Albert Ayler, or Louis Armstrong, are not necessarily or exclusively ‘jazz’ musicians. But I see them as intimately bound up with that history. Now that’s why I said earlier that I’m subjective in my attitude, as some people wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. Also the term jazz has a lot of racial implications too; maybe more so in the United States than in Europe, England or Japan. But for many musicians connected to jazz history, so to speak, the term is really abhorrent because it signifies a lot of racial issues and power relations in the United States that really they would rather overcome. As a middle class white American, a lot of those things aren’t as strong for me because I’m coming from a different background, a different community. As a child going to jazz concerts very frequently with my father I always had a lot of reverence for the artists involved, so I never had any negative associations with what the term jazz has meant. Those are the ways that I tend to deal with it.

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