meta-scriptLiving Legends: The Meters' George Porter Jr. Remains A Force Of Funk Six Decades Into The Game |
George Porter Jr.
George Porter Jr.

Photo: JK - Framleiðsla


Living Legends: The Meters' George Porter Jr. Remains A Force Of Funk Six Decades Into The Game

The 2019 passing of Art Neville ended an era for the Meters, but their bassist George Porter Jr. is forging ahead — including with 'Boots in Place,' a wickedly infectious new album recorded in Iceland.

GRAMMYs/Jul 14, 2023 - 01:48 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, spoke with George Porter Jr., the bassist for the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement-award-winning funk legends the Meters. In 2023, he received an honorary doctorate from Loyola University. His latest album, Boots in Place, is available now.

George Porter Jr.'s music is like a sumptuous, well-rounded dish, so it makes a certain amount of sense that he often talks about food.

Regarding a recent trip to Iceland to record with a big slice of the roots community, the Meters bassist hails the "well-designed sandwich" on offer at the hotel. "We got three gourmet meals every day," he glows to "I mean, breakfast was like, Wow, I didn't know you can do this with eggs."

The funky, soulful product of that trip was Flóki Sessions' Boots in Place, which arrived July 7. "Flóki" refers to Flóki Studios, located off the mountainous Troll Valley Peninsula in North Iceland. 

Therein, the GRAMMY winner's core group included, among others, guitarist Eddie Roberts, keyboardist Robert Walter and drummer Nikki Glaspie — who has traveled the world behind the kit for Beyoncé. Big Chief Donald Harrison, Erica Falls, Son Little, Lamar Williams Jr.

Porter admits he hasn't actually heard Boots in Place. ("Bad me, bad me," he says over Zoom.) But he's already on to the next project: He just wrote some "songs about alligators and stuff" on the Bayou with singer/songwriters Tab Benoit and Anders Osborne, and they'll head back next month to write more.

Naturally for this New Orleanian, the meals were as memorable as the tunes. Benoit, a "Cajun boy," cooked up "jambalaya shrimp one night, and then the next night, he brought crabs. It was killing," Porter says. With tunes as well as meals, "There are some things on the table that look good."

Read on for the full interview with George Porter Jr. about the making of Boots in Place, how his current music-making connects to the Meters, and his memories of their classic album Rejuvenation — which will turn 50 next year.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lay the groundwork for our readers regarding how Boots in Place came to be.

I got the call from Eddie Roberts asking me if I wanted to go to Iceland and record a record. Pretty much, that was it. I told him that I had to bring a tech with me and I wanted to bring my girl. He said, "OK, and bring your ideas."

So, that's what we do, man. Everybody came with pretty much an open mind every day. We were there for nine or 10 days. I think we did about five days of recording, and then they did a couple of days of overdubbing and stuff; I wasn't involved. I kind of stayed back at the hotel those days.

But, yeah, it wasn't a whole bunch of legwork, at least on my end. Eddie did a whole lot more legwork getting people together. The music pretty much came natural. Everybody took a turn at throwing something out, and everybody opened their ears and played off what they heard, and songs came about.

I'm not sure if anybody came with a total, prepared song. I think it was all open for interpretation and jamming into a song.

So you had little riffs lying around — pieces that were jogging your imagination.

Yeah, there were things like that. We would start a groove. And if we were on one chord way too long, I might call another chord. And then maybe Robert would call another chord and say, "Oh, yeah, let's go here."

After maybe a 15-minute jam, we'd go in, listen to what we just did, and say, "OK, let's fine-tune that and make this move quicker, and don't stay on this one too long. And it came together.

Is that similar to or different from how the Meters operated?

The Meters operated pretty much in the same way. In the earlier days,it was all pretty much one, maybe two takes of whatever we did. It was never more than that.

In the later years, once the primary songwriter started actually bringing completed songs into the sessions, those took different ways — more overdubs and stuff like that. But in the original days, the first records were all sort of similar to that version of getting a song on tape.

We didn't have as much opportunity to go back and listen to playbacks and stuff like that, because of how it was recorded. It wasn't a multi-track.

Then, as now, you treasured spontaneity.

Yes, exactly. If it felt good, that's the way it was. We weren't going to try and change this. We weren't going to try and make it better. Usually, [when there were] third and fourth takes, we wind up going back to take number one — the one that we use.

Tell me about Iceland. Had you ever been?

Nope, never been there. It was a beautiful studio. The body of water that was right outside — maybe 25, 40 feet from the door of the studio — we were looking at Russia.

The guys would tell us that sometimes, when they stayed out there long enough, they would see whales going by and stuff like that. But I never stayed outside long enough to see a whale.

I know you weren't directly involved with who would appear on Boots in Place, but tell me about them regardless. New friends? Old friends?

[Vocalist] Erica Falls and [saxophonist] Donald Harrison Jr. I knew personally. Some of the other names I heard, but didn't really know personally. 

Donald, I think we go back probably 30, 40 years. We don't have a day-to-day personal relationship, but we've been on many stages together in different formulas and have always had a great deal of respect for each other's musical input.

Any particular tunes that you especially enjoyed playing on?

There were some good ones, but see, at the time, they were grooves and didn't have names. I brought one that was a 6/8 kind of feeling. There was one that [drummer] Nikki [Glaspie] came up with that was a real hip-hop, kind of pocket-funk feel. 

The Meters' Rejuvenation will turn 50 years old next year.

Oh my god. Really? Wow.

Yeah, it came out in 1974. What are your memories of that one?

Oh man. I thought that was of our better recordings of the band, actually. Well, I say the band, because I wasn't part of getting through all the vocals and all that kind of stuff. I didn't do any singing back then.

Once I had my bass parts and stuff together and was happy with the bottom end — the relationship assignment between myself and the drums — I would go away. But [Meters guitarist] Leo [Nocentelli] and [drummer] Zig [Modeliste] pretty much took that record all the way from start to finish.

That was our first recording that the members of the band actually had a relationship with — all the way to the end of it, to the release date.

I thought it was a positive thing for us to be able to do that, because the previous four recordings we had no input on. We'd play the session, and then they'd ship us out on the road, and some A&R man would show up on our gig somewhere in New Jersey and say, "Hey, guys, here's your new record." "Oh, really?"

And then the songs would be named, and we said, "Wow, we've got to learn the names of these songs now." Because when we did them, they would just be "Meter 1," "Meter 2." 

On Rejuvenation, two members of the band actually took it to the ready-to-publish stage. I thought it sounded great because we had input. It may have been different if we had been left out of the circuit, like we had been with the previous four.

All these decades into your career, what's the state of your bass thinking?

I'm thinking that I'm having fun with the new one that I have — the D Lakin that I've been playing on for a while now. I'm still making an effort to learn how to be a good songwriter. I'm working with my Runnin' Pardners guys, [keyboardist] Michael Lemmler, [drummer] Terrence [Houston] and [guitarist] Chris Adkins.

We just released the record — well, it's almost two years old now. But it's the current project for Runnin' Pardners, and it's called Crying for Hope. I think it's, to date, our best effort that has been released.

What are you guys up to these days?

We just finished recording, like, 32 songs, and basically, it's going to be boiled down to two bands. Because one of them is done as a trio, with Michael and Terrence and myself, and that's the Porter Trio.

That band came about when Brent Anderson, the former guitar player, left the band. We had not really taken on a fourth player at that point — until almost a year later, when Chris Atkins came to our front door, and we accepted him with open arms, and he came ready.

As a trio, we started recording our live performances all the time. When we play our Maple Leaf show, we multi-track that gig every night. There's a lot of jamming going on on that gig — just like the Meters did back in the old days, when jams got to be songs. That's pretty much where we are now.

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Vijay Iyer Trio

(L-R) Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh

Photo: Craig Marsden


Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album 'Uneasy,' American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century

On 'Uneasy,' pianist Vijay Iyer bands together with his creative family—bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey—to envisage a more equitable world

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2021 - 12:25 am

Vijay Iyer may be one of the foremost academics in 21st century music, but he's far more absorbed in the body than the brain. He peppers his language with references to the heart, spine and hips; his paramount rhythmic value is the pulse. And when describing how a terrific rhythm section glues together, he clasps together his index fingers and pulls.

"Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now," the GRAMMY-nominated pianist, composer and Harvard Department of Music professor announces with a chuckle over Zoom. "Kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together." Iyer is describing a musical phenomenon called "the hookup," which perfectly describes the concision between him, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in his latest trio.

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Oh and Sorey aren't mere collaborators or accompanists; they're educators and composers in their own rights. Of Sorey's drumming, Iyer cites a "life-sustaining kind of magic." And of Oh's bass playing, "Her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail," he says. Those qualities and more can be found on Uneasy, the trio's first studio record, which drops April 9 on ECM Records. The album is a mix of topical material "Children of Flint" with Iyer originals ("Combat Breathing") and standards ("Night and Day") from deep in their wheelhouse.

Most importantly, Iyer considers the pair to be his musical family; together, they're his stronghold through a racially and sociopolitically turbulent time. And with the tragic Atlanta spa shootings in the rearview, the cover—where the three musicians' names float around an out-of-focus Statue of Liberty—is a side-eyed glance at what it means to be an American. spoke with Vijay Iyer about the architecture of a trio record and his feelings on American identity in the wake of anti-Asian violence. Plus, just in time for Music In Our Schools Month, he explores how educators can teach Black American music more fairly and accurately in the 21st century.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I love trio albums. To me, Bill EvansSunday at the Village Vanguard is the gold standard. Recently, I've connected greatly with Bill Frisell's ValentineUneasy is another excellent one. So, what is it about the power of a trio, in your estimation? To me, it has the integrity of a triangle in architecture.

Oh, so many things. There's both the disparateness of it, in the sense that we're each doing pretty seemingly qualitatively different things. Maybe the piano and drums have more in common, let's say, but still, the materials we're working with are so different.

Then, at the same time, everything is done with the hands and the feet, to a certain extent. In particular, that means that there's no literal breath involved in anything you hear. So there's a certain kind of tactile quality because of that. Every sound you hear is the result of a touch of some kind. 

And, that any lyricism is sort of an illusion, in the sense that when you hear a melody that connects, you are being invited to imagine a voice that's not there, you know? Imagine a sort of breath that is not directly involved in the sounds you're hearing. So, that has a certain kind of suspended quality because of that. It's both a suspension of disbelief and a handmade universe. That's one detail about it that is intriguing.

The other side of it is, at some level, I don't care what the hands are doing as a listener. I care about something more central. Meaning, what do I connect to when I hear musicians in action? What do I, as a listener, as an observer, find myself relating to sonically? What I find myself relating to sonically is a sense of pulse that comes from the center of the body. From the heart, from the spine, from the torso, from the hips, you know? Not from the hands.

So, that's a funny paradox. Why is the trio the rhythm section? Why is it that somehow, by touching and hitting things, we're expressing something central? How do what the hands do reflect where the heart is, or what the center of the body is doing? How do we conjure these qualities of motion that compel a listener to move, to not use the hands, but move the body?

That feels like a paradox to me—or at least a puzzle, or some kind of challenge. How is it that we, through the actions of our hands, can summon the actions of a body—or a multitude of bodies, even? How do we conjure pulse? What that means is that how we play together is by connecting body-to-body in that way—connecting spine to spine. The hands are just kind of—well, they're extremities. So there's sort of the result of deeper connection. The actions of the hands and their apparent coordination amongst all six is the result of something much deeper. And because of that, they can have, like I said, a disparate quality—almost a seeming disunity—on a certain level and still be connected mysteriously from within. 

That allows for a really interesting kind of polyphony—a kind that can have this kind of rough-and-tumble quality. Because it's about things falling. The impulse is previous to it, you know? I guess what I'm saying is that whatever way we're synchronizing internally, sonically, what you hear is merely a reflection of that. The center of the music is somehow not sounded. That's the miraculous, illusory quality of it. I don't if this makes any sense.

Vijay Iyer performing in Berlin in 2016. Photo: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns

It does make sense. Because the way that Bill Evans Trio record fires up—it's a shuffle on the snare here, a piano vamp there, and it's not gelling right off the bat. But then the triangle settles on its base, as it were.

I think my iconic trio music has a different kick to it, maybe. Maybe it has to do with the role of the drummer in particular, as more than an accompanist. I think my iconic trio album is Money Jungle. You know that record?

Duke [Ellington], right?

Yeah. You don't hear them and think, "Wow, these guys have been playing together forever!" or something like that. What you're kind of gripped by is the complex and even contentious relationship among them and how they kind of lurch. The qualities of motion are so intense. There are moments where they're gliding and dancing and there are moments where it feels like combat or something. So, that's one point of reference.

Another point of reference is Ahmad JamalLive at the Pershing. Which is so much about groove at play—play in the sense of playing with form and playing with elements. It's not soloistic, for the most part. It's not like, "I'm going to play, then you're going to play. I'm going to comp for you," or something like that. It's actually that they're creating this totality and it keeps breathing and flexing and changing color, changing energy, changing dynamic. So, it's very much a collective enterprise at all times.

Those are two points of reference, but then I also think about rhythm sections, just in general. James Brown's rhythm section, or The Meters. Not piano trio-specific, even. Just how a deep pulse can be expressed in this composite way.

I saw this trio at Jazz Standard back in 2019. It's obvious you, Linda and Tyshawn have wonderful synergy, but I'm curious as to what that synergy is. What do you enjoy about the chemical reaction generated by this specific combination?

I think what anyone wants out of any rhythm section is a certain quality of pulse—a certain sense of drive, what they call "the hookup" between bass and drums, let's say. Often, that has to do with how each one of them relates to the pulse and how maybe that creates a sustained—[clasps index fingers and pulls]. Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now—kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together.

So there's something about that balance. It's elusive in the sense that it's not merely like, "Oh, so-and-so plays behind the beat and so-and-so plays on top of the beat." Sometimes it's that, but often, it's a little more nuanced than that.

In any case, there's a real attentiveness to that quality from both of them that I hear in every sound they make together. Like, where are you in relation to time and in relation to pulse, specifically? How are you expressing pulse? How is it being expressed through what you do?

Every sound you make is also rhythm, and every rhythm that you make together sets up a rhythmic relation. So, how is that rhythmic relation being expressed? It pops with that. It has this nice drive and intensity and focus, you know?

The other thing is how they listen, both of them. I've played with Tyshawn for 20 years. He's like family to me. We've had this delightful adventure together for half our lives in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of music-making. Teaching and learning and traveling and eating weird food together and losing our bags. Getting pulled over by security together. All kinds of stuff. There's a deep bond there, and that didn't just come out of nowhere, you know. It didn't just come out because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, or something. It's actually because of how he listens, and how I listen to him listening, and how we relate that way.

It's about his musical memory and how I can attend to that. It's about a certain shared aesthetic, I would say. A certain kind of balance of stillness and wildness. I guess by "wild," I mean a taste for intensity and for even extremes of intensity. Not "wild," per se, because it's not like he does anything that's disordered. Actually, everything he does is generating order. That's one thing I eventually realized in playing with him, is that it's all support. It's all structure, every sound he makes. It's all deeply informed by not just everything that's happening, but by many histories of music-making that he's tapped into.

I've said this elsewhere about him and just about drummers in general. I mean, I've talked a lot about Marcus Gilmore, who I've also worked with for many years. I got to know and work with Ralph Peterson, who I can't believe is gone. I've gotten to know folks like Jeff "Tain" Watts and Jack DeJohnette. And there's Marcus's grandfather, Roy Haynes, who just turned 96!

Getting to know all these incredible drummers—Billy Hart, another—[is a matter of] knowing that they are aware of much more than they're usually given credit for, musically. There's a deep compositional awareness. They're incredible listeners. They hear everything. I'm not exaggerating! Andrew Cyrille, another example. I've had great experiences making music with him.

There's kind of a perspicuous vantage on everything—an awareness of everything. Channeling that, there's a deeply informed and informational way of playing. It's not just playing a groove or playing a pattern. It's actually where you work with sound to complement and lift up what's happening. To conduct the energy of the entire ensemble even while not being given credit for doing so. There's a profundity to the art of drumming that is way beyond the way it's usually characterized, you know? Tyshawn is one of the exemplars of that incredible artistry. That incredible awareness and creative, life-sustaining kind of magic.

Tyshawn Sorey performing in Chicago in 2014. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

With Linda, she came to the U.S. in the aughts—sometime in the early 2000s. I remember hearing that she had done a thesis on Dave Holland and did a bunch of transcriptions of him playing with different drummers. I sort of learned more about her; she had really gone in deep on something. I always appreciated that.

I remember talking to Ambrose [Akinmusire] about her because her first album that she released, Entry, was a trio with Ambrose and Obed Calvaire. That was a bold step, first of all, for a bass player to make an album as a leader at that age. She was probably in her early twenties. And to make it an odd format—there aren't that many records that are trumpet, bass and drums. Maybe a Bill Dixon record somewhere? I don't know—not many things.

So, yeah, the transparency of that. I remember Ambrose saying, "Look, she really has that type of ear. She can hear on a really high level." I knew how Ambrose could hear, which is not that different from how Tyshawn hears, in the sense of, again, that deep awareness of everything. When someone plays something, there's no mystery about what it is. There could be a mystery about why it is. [Laughs.]

But her ability to hear on that level, and then her real detail and care with timekeeping and her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail. And then just getting around on the instrument with real ease. I've heard her in all kinds of contexts, you know. She's got a great career as a composer and a bandleader, but I've also heard her play with Kenny Barron, with Pat Metheny, with all kinds of folks. She always keeps things aloft, and I've played with her many times over the years in lots of different ad hoc contexts.

I just found a photo of her and me and Becca Stevens. We did a couple of trio sets, just the three of us. There's a time when she and I and E.J. Strickland played in a quintet with Ravi Coltrane and Dave Douglas. There's an improvised session we did at The Stone with Imani Izuri and DJ Val Jeanty—DJ and Linda and me and this vocalist. And then there's all the stuff we did at Banff together. Somewhere, there's a recording of her and me and Grégoire Maret, the harmonica player. There's all these wild aggregates where she just holds down the center of things with such clarity and ferocity. It was in the course of doing all these ad-hoc, thrown-together things that we realized we already knew how to play together.

I set up a trio set for us at the Standard, probably the first one you came to, in early '19. Then we were at Banff again that summer, August 2019, and it was toward the end of that program that we just wanted to blow off steam. We said, "Hey, let's just play a trio set. It'll just be for the students. It won't be for an audience or anything," just to do it. Just to serve the music and be a community, you know.

It felt so alive. It had this flash of "Yeah, this is a thing." It had its own truth to it. You can't deny it. Right then, I just said, "You guys want to make a record?" and a few months later, we recorded it. I think what that sound is has to do with that excitement. That spark of possibility combined with that level of awareness that the two of them have about all the musical structure and information. And then both of them as composers having a dynamic sense of what can happen.

Linda May Han Oh performing in Monterey, California, in 2017. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images​

In a recent Zoom panel, you talked about the cover—the Statue of Liberty triangulated by the three musicians' names. Given that the three names recall three different racial descents, they serve as commentary on the nature of American identity.  I'm sure the events of this week gave you pause on the otherness that Americans of different colors and backgrounds are feeling.

It isn't just that it happened. It is that, but it's also what that police captian from Cherokee County said, and also the way it was handled by the media. That's when you go, "This is all connected." The idea that some white kid—not kid, a young white man—who's disgruntled about whatever, his own supposed sex addiction, can blame the most vulnerable people and then murder them. And then that can be treated as almost normal. Almost excusable. The discourse around it was "Well, he had a bad day." 

And then we keep seeing pictures of him and his name constantly essentially glorifying and humanizing him. "He went to church." That whole pattern of humanizing the white male killer, and meantime, I had dig around to find even a mention of any of the names of the victims.

You described Tyshawn as "family." What role does communing with this chosen family and making music together play in that healing process and finding a future through the wreckage?

It is the sound of a certain kind of communion. That was Don Cherry's phrase: "complete communion," which means not just with one another, but with something larger and deeper than any of us. And it's been so long since we've been able to do that, really, in any kind of regular way. 

Being able to put this album now is to say, "We can still do this. We can still be among each other in a caring way, in a way that's about listening and co-construction and facing the world together." That's basically what it means to me.

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Because the lead single was "Children of Flint," people might be tempted to think this is all topical material. But from what I understand, some of it is simply material from your wheelhouses. Cole Porter's "Night and Day" comes to mind. What common thread is there between all these tunes, if any?

I wouldn't say it was forced into any kind of common theme. The impulse to make the record was that we felt like as a band. At that level, it's like, "It doesn't matter what we play, actually. Let's just document something so we can remember this sound and share it with people."

That said, then it was a certain kind of curatorial exercise to me to pull together material that I felt like playing with them—that I felt could be given a certain kind of life and context. I wanted to know what it would sound like. I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear us playing this music, you know? I wanted to hear the two of them take on some of this material.

And then some of it was new. "Children of Flint" was written that fall. "Retrofit" was written that summer. There was another new piece I didn't end up including on the album. "Allomothers," is relatively new, I guess. So, it was about just gathering together a set of stimuli for us, a set of impulses: "Hey, let's work with this. Let's bring this into being."

Some of that involved some studying. Geri Allen's "Drummer's Song" is a piece that you have to study to play. And it wasn't just that it was "Night and Day;" it's that it was Joe Henderson's version of "Night and Day" from Inner Urge. There's something different about that version. [Laughs].

He reharmonizes it in a way that's not exactly Coltrane-esque, but something in that family. [John] Coltrane went through a period in the late '50s where everything had what are called "Giant Steps" changes. "Countdown" is actually his version of Miles Davis' "Tune Up," but with a whole bunch of extra chords stuck in there to make it almost fiendishly hard! What does that elicit from you? There's an etude-like quality in the sense of working through some set of challenges to elicit something new from you. I mean you, the musician. You, the music-maker. You, the improviser.

That's basically what Joe Henderson did with "Night and Day," so it was that. It didn't matter that it was "Night and Day," actually. It mattered that it was that impulse, that transformative gesture that Joe Henderson brought to it. And then it mattered that it was that band playing it. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Joe Henderson. That band just sailing through that really wild arrangement.

Then there was, like, "Let's study that," because we study what other musicians have done. We study it hard. We put in the time. That's what both of them do just as a matter of course. What that means is I can just say, "Hey, let's try this," and within a matter of minutes, Linda has learned it. [Laughs.] Beyond that, it's like I'm learning from her about it. 

With my material, it was really curatorial over a span of 20 years' worth of compositions of mine, "Configurations" being the oldest and "Children of Flint" being the newest. 

It's not that any particular album is political, but at almost any moment in my musical life, I'm listening to what's happening outside and that is informing what I do, why I do it and with whom I do it. And for whom I do it. The first two pieces on the album are probably the most "political." But it's more like each of them was serving a specific purpose—serving a specific cause. And by serving, I mean literally serving. Trying to support an existing movement on the ground.

March is Music In Our Schools Month, and I wanted to talk about the intersection between jazz—or, Black American music, whatever language you want to use—and academia. You're in academia, Tyshawn's in academia, I don't remember if Linda is…

Yeah, she teaches at Berklee, actually.

There you go. I don't remember when jazz education began in the U.S., but it wasn't around in the '50s or '60s, as far as I know. Musicians were learning from each other—teacher to student and peer to peer. Now, in many ways, this music lives in universities. Can you talk about that connection and how it can be helpful or problematic in some respect?

[Long silence.] Can I? [Laughs.]

I don't know if I can. I think in both Tyshawn's and my case, neither of us pretends to be a jazz anything in academia. We just show up as ourselves—as the artists that we are. He's a composition professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I started a doctoral program at Harvard called Creative Practices and Critical Inquiry. 

I never use the word "jazz" in any of my courses. That's not to say we don't study this history, but I also appreciate the history of people rejecting the word "jazz." That's a deep history. That's a 100-year-old history of people pushing back against the confining labeling impulse of the music business, which has historically been a white business—a white male-run business.

So when Black musicians have sought to define their work on their own terms, we have to listen to that history. In the '60s, people started using the phrase "creative music." In the '60s! That's more than half a century ago, right? That label's been around for a long time, alongside and pushing back against the label of jazz. 

Also, there's this history of music-makers creating music on their own terms, sometimes in a way that you can't categorize. If you listen to Bud Powell's piece "Glass Enclosure," you can't listen to that and say, "Well, that's a jazz tune," or something like that. You have to crack open all categories to parse it, even—to make sense of it.

Or a moment like "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday. Very intently exploding the category and defying her own audiences to think about the world outside, you know? And to think about their own relationship to it and their own complicity with it. I would call that something like experimental music, because it's doing something that pushes on every dimension of the category and kind of explodes the frame.

There are all kinds of examples. Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Marion Brown. Another example. Or Alice Coltrane's recordings. On at least one of her albums, she recorded an entire section of "Rite of Spring." What's that doing on an Alice Coltrane record? What is her relationship to that history? Why is she evoking a Russian composer, a piece from 1913?

I think these categories keep undoing themselves if you really pay attention to what an artist has been doing all this time.

Bird hated the word "jazz." Dizzy hated it. Yusef Lateef hated it. I'm fine with throwing it in the garbage when necessary.

Right. So, how do we teach that? The fraught history of the category, the forces that shaped it and continue to shape it, and the choices artists have made, often in defiance of categorization and larger systems of oppression? It's about looking at books like Amiri Baraka's Blues People, Angela Davis' Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Gerald Horne's Jazz and Justice, Robin Kelley's book on Thelonious Monk, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones and George Lewis' book on the AACM. Understanding how what it really is is a history of social movements, actually.

If you look at the "creative music movement," as Sarita McCoy Gregory called it, what was it that Black musicians were doing in the '60s and '70s, around the time of the Black Power movement? They were self-organizing and making music on their own terms, often starting their own labels, their own venues, their own presenting organizing, their own artist collectives.

If you go to jazz school, like the Manhattan School of Music or something, you don't learn about any of this because it defies the logic of jazz education. Jazz education as we know it today was an entrepreneurial venture by white men in the '60s and '70s.

So when you look at the "Real Book" that was made at that period, that I had in the '80s when I was in high school, what did it have in it? And what didn't it have in it? It didn't have any music by Mary Lou Williams or Nina Simone or Alice Coltrane or Lil Hardin. It didn't have anything you would associate with the avant-garde or the Black Power movement, like Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler. Certainly no Cecil Taylor. Maybe one or two Ornette Coleman tunes from the '50s. So it basically ignored all these pivotal Black women and pivotal Black activists from the '60s. 

Instead, all the Black music it contains is from the past. Some Coltrane tunes. Some Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter tunes from the '50s and '60s. A lot of Duke Ellington, Mingus. But then all the "modern music" is by white men. Chick CoreaGary BurtonSteve SwallowDave HollandKeith Jarrett. They're all in there, right?

Why are they all in the "Real Book" and why aren't any of these other things? It's stuff like that. We have to historicize what we call "jazz education" and understand it to be this weird phenomenon that emerged in a certain moment and then retold the history of the music in a way that erased more than it retained.

I like that a lot. The idea of telling the story again more accurately and inclusively, rather than locking it in an ivory tower or excluding anybody.

Well, really, hearing it from artists. We had Henry Threadgill in our class. [Saxophonist and composer] Yosvany [Terry] and I co-teach a course this term. We bore witness to his whole life of music-making that starts before any of that happened. 

We also had Cécile McLorin Salvant there. Hearing them back-to-back was like, "Well, they're dealing with similar constraints, and they both have a quirky, defiant streak, and they're both resisting categorization." They're in very different phases in their lives—they're separated by close to 50 years. 

We start to rethink the history from the ground up and try to account for what has been… not forgotten, but sort of left out of the standard narrative. The other side of it is like, "Help people make music together with a detailed understanding of what's happened before and what's possible." But also let people invent, you know? Let people invent together.

I've heard people make some unprecedented stuff, and if you support that process, then you're actually stimulating—or not just stimulating, you're recreating something like what it was like when these artists we know and love came together 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 years ago without the burden of a genre to tell them what to do.

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Tune In Tonight On PBS: "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends"

Special performances and all-star appearances make tonight's broadcast one to watch

GRAMMYs/Oct 6, 2018 - 03:57 am

Each year the Recording Academy's Special Merit Awards honor the music community's finest. Tonight on PBS, "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" presents musical moments and heritage not to be missed.

Lifetime Achievement Award recipients for 2018 honored tonight are the Wrecking Crew's Hal Blaine, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Louis Jordan, the Meters, Queen, and Tina Turner. Master of ceremonies Yolanda Adams and Micky Dolenz will honor Diamond. Trisha Yearwood will perform a duet with Harris. Sheléa will be honoring Turner, Sammy Hagar for Queen, and Herb Alpert honoring Wrecking Crew drummer Blaine. Ledisi is performing a medley in honor of Jordan.

The Trustees Award recognizes those whose leadership may be outside performance and this year's honorees are Bill Graham, Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein, and the 24-time GRAMMY winner, composer and conductor John Williams. Composer Gustavo Dudamel and violinist  Anne Akiko Meyers will honor Williams.

Technical GRAMMY Award recipients this year are Tony Agnello and Richard Factor, whose company Eventide made an enormous contribution to the craft. This year's recipient of the Music Educator Award is Melissa Salguero.

Check your local listings for the PBS station near you, tonight at 9p.m. "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" will later be available at PBS Great Performances online. This is an array of legends honoring legends who represent the finest in music excellence.

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Tina Turner

Photo: Greetsia Tent/WireImage


"GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" To Air On PBS Oct. 5

The tribute concert will honor the Academy's 2018 Special Merit Awards recipients, which include Tina Turner and Neil Diamond. The all-star concert will feature rare performances by honorees and special renditions by the artists they've inspired

GRAMMYs/Sep 13, 2018 - 02:22 am

Watch the third annual "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" in collaboration with PBS' "Great Performances" series on Oct.5. The all-star concert will feature rare performances by honorees and special renditions by the artists they've inspired.

The tribute concert will honor the Academy's 2018 Special Merit Awards that include Tina Turner, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Louis Jordan, The Meters, Queen, Seymour Stein, Tony Agnello and Richard Factor, Hal Blaine, and John Williams.

GRAMMY-winning gospel artist Yolanda Adams will be the master of ceremonies as never-before-seen performances take center stage including a performance by GRAMMY nominee Micky Dolenz alongside Diamond, GRAMMY winner and night honoree. Herb Alpert, eight-time GRAMMY winner, will honor legendary drummer Blaine, GRAMMY winner Sammy Hagar will pay tribute to Graham and Queen, GRAMMY nominee Ledisi will pay tribute to Jordan and three-time GRAMMY winner Trisha Yearwood will perform alongside Harris.

The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement recognizes musical artists that have made significant contributions to the recording field. The Trustees Award honors areas outside of performance. The Technical GRAMMY Award recognizes people and companies who have made outstanding contributions of technical significance to the recording field.

This year's Lifetime Achievement Award honorees are Hal Blaine, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Louis Jordan, the Meters, Queen, and Tina Turner. This year's Trustees Award honorees are Bill Graham, Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein, and Academy Award-winning film composer John Williams. Technical GRAMMY Award recipients are Tony Agnello and Richard Factor. Melissa Salguero is this year's recipient of the Music Educator Award.

The concert will air at 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 5 (check your local listings) and will be available to stream the following day via

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Photo: Richard E. Aaron/Getty Images


Queen, Tina Turner, Neil Diamond Among "GRAMMY Salute ..." TV Special Honorees

Emmylou Harris, the Meters, John Williams, and more will also be honored at the third annual awards and tribute concert to air as part of the "Great Performances" series on PBS

GRAMMYs/Jun 12, 2018 - 06:22 pm

The Recording Academy has unveiled plans to honor its 2018 class of Special Merit Awards recipients with the upcoming "GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" television special. The third annual awards ceremony and tribute concert will take place in Los Angeles at Dolby Theatre on July 14, and is set to be broadcast as part of the "Great Performances" series on PBS.

The Academy's Special Merit Awards include the Lifetime Achievement AwardTrustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award, all of which recognize music's most impactful creators and innovators. This year's Lifetime Achievement Award honorees are Hal Blaine, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Louis Jordan, the Meters, Queen, and Tina Turner. Trustees Award recipients include Bill Graham, Seymour Stein and John Williams.

The Technical GRAMMY Award is being presented to Tony Agnello and Richard Factor while the 2018 Music Educator Award recipient is Melissa Salguero.

"GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends" will feature rare performances by select honorees and never-seen renditions of their discographies performed by those they've inspired. GRAMMY-nominated industry icon Greg Phillinganes will serve as musical director, and scheduled appearances include GRAMMY winner Herb Alpert, who will honor Blaine, and GRAMMY nominee Micky Dolenz, who will be honoring Diamond. GRAMMY winner Sammy Hagar will pay tribute to Graham, while GRAMMY nominee Ledisi who will salute Jordan. GRAMMY winner Trisha Yearwood will pay tribute to Harris.

Presenters for the evening include actress Angela Bassett and GRAMMY winner Henry Rollins.

The special will be produced by the Recording Academy in partnership with Thirteen Productions and is set to air on PBS later this year. In addition to the tribute concert, guests will enjoy never-before-seen video packages celebrating each of the honorees' contributions to the music industry and our cultural heritage.

"We are thrilled to once again partner with Thirteen Productions and PBS to bring our 'GRAMMY Salute To Music Legends' awards show and tribute concert to life at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy. "We look forward to celebrating the tremendous contributions of our Special Merit Awards recipients and honoring their outstanding accomplishments."

Additional performers and presenters will be announced shortly. Tickets for the event will be on sale via Ticketmaster beginning June 12.

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