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Interview with John Goldsby

Meet Mikel Combs –

Since 1994, John Goldsby has been a member of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Big Band (the Cologne Radio Big Band). The son of a Baptist minister, John was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He played piano, guitar, and electric bass before taking up the double bass at age 18. His early musical experiences include work with hometown jazz greats Jimmy Raney, Helen Humes, and Jamey Aebersold. In 1979, John got the gig with the house trio at a jazz club in Louisville that brought in famous jazz soloists to play with the trio. For almost one year, John played with some of the legends of jazz including: Jay McShann, Buddy Tate, Johnny Hartman, Barney Kessel, Tom Harrell, Dave Liebman, Buddy DeFranco, and others. When this gig ended, John knew he had to move to New York. In 1980, he put the bass in the car and made his move…

Get to know more about John Golsby…

MC: Diving right in, what are some of the ways you see jazz being continued and/or expanded throughout Europe, acoustically and electrically?

JG: I think especially in the last ten years or so, jazz has really come into its own as a world music. The internet and overall access to the music has contributed a lot to its expansion. European musicians used to have to wait until the summer festivals to hear what the American players were doing. The Americans probably hardly ever heard what the Europeans were doing, except for maybe some ECM records. With the record business, it used to be that a band recorded a record that was available a year later. Now you can go on the internet and log in live at Smalls and hear exactly what’s going on there in real time. The state-of-the-art in jazz does not seem so remote anymore.

Europeans do not see American-rooted jazz as a bad thing, but a lot of them do not see that as the only thing. There are many more players here in my opinion, which will only play their own music—no standards, no familiar jazz tunes. They might appreciate Coltrane, but they would never practice Giant Steps, because they see that as something that has already been done. The process of “imitation, emulation and innovation” (Clark Terry) is not so ingrained in jazz pedagogy in Europe.

MC: Of those elements, if any, what are the ones that carry the most weight?

JG: A big difference seems to me to be the fact that many European musicians want to do their own thing—they want to play music that comes from their background and upbringing and put their personal voice on it from the time they are students. A lot of them try to do this before they have mastered basic instrumental jazz skills. It is actually a very pure approach, but I feel like many of them spend a lot of time re-inventing the wheel so to say.

I think American students spend a lot more time concentrating on the basics and the tradition of the music. The danger there is that if they learn that in the classroom, they come out all sounding somewhat generic. The good side of that is, there is a certain standard being established with the music. When I learned to play in the US in the mid-’70s, it was still the jam-session, mentoring, and play-in-clubs way of learning. I only went to college for one year and then quit because I wanted to practice more than I had time for with the classes. Plus at that point, I was playing in clubs every night. That was a typical American way of doing it back then—before every college had a jazz program. I think the attitudes have changed somewhat with the development of college programs. A lot of students expect to go to school (Europe & US) and then get out a get a job somewhere—but there are no jobs really. Every jazz musician has to make a living one gig at a time through all of the contacts that they build up from the time they are students to the time they are pros. A lot of students do not realize that when they are in school. The jazz school has replaced a lot of the street learning that I went through. But after someone gets out of school, then the reality sets in: How do you actually play with enough people or play often enough to make a living?

One thing that I notice over here (Germany) is that there seem to be a lot more big bands of all sorts—professional, semi-pro, neighborhood, student bands. Schools or communities often support them, and the level of ensemble playing is very high. There seems to be a lot more of that, but a lot less of players just getting together with no charts and playing a gig in the corner of a restaurant somewhere. Here in Germany, the gigs are either in nice “official” jazz clubs, or in concert halls—but rarely in the corner bar.

MC: Of those elements which would you like to see strengthened and why… if any?

JG: I would like to hear more young American players searching for their own voice while still learning the tradition. I would like to see a basic canon of jazz material taught universally in jazz schools. By that I mean the real traditional jazz of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, on up to the Ornette and Miles and post-Miles, European and fusion music.

Here in Europe, it seems that schools pride themselves on having a “do what you want” curriculum. That is not all bad, because it encourages players on a student level to go out with the attitude that they will start a band and write their music and rehearse and record it and then play big jazz festivals. That is a good goal to have, but I think a lot of them run into a brick wall when they get out of school and find that they are not the great composers and performers that the big festivals demand. I tell my students here that they should go get a gig in the local bar and play for dinner, and they usually just look at me funny. They have a hard time imagining going into a bar, pulling out the bass and playing a tune that they know. I don’t really know why, but there is a need here to rehearse everything to death—maybe because certain fundamentals are missing and you can’t just go on a gig and call Stablemates or East of the Sun and trust that everyone will know it. Because a standard repertoire is missing here, it is harder for players to spontaneously put together a program of music without either reading charts or just playing free—and there is a lot of both here. It is also not a bad thing, because the free playing is on a very high level and the reading thing is also on a very high level.

MC: As a musician here in the States it becomes necessary to play in the “restaurant corners”, with no negative connotations meant, to make a living which supports the fact that we need to know standards from many genres. Overseas, is there a set of standards, so to speak, that people will consistently work with?

JG: Yeah, the thing I find here is that the musicians that go through the Hochschule system are required to learn a basic set of standards. I know at the Cologne Hochschule the students have to present a list of, I think, a hundred standards by the time they’re finished with school, and they’re tested on a few of those. So, all the students have the same, Autumn Leaves, All The Things You Are, Stella, you know, the basic sort of standards that they sort of know a little bit. But it’s not like in the States where they actually play those tunes on gigs very often. So, what I’ve found here is that mostly the jazz musicians don’t even try to get a restaurant job. They really look down on that. I love to do that because I grew up playing in jazz club, but also playing in restaurants, hotels and all that. That’s probably where I learned most of those standards; playing hotel gigs. As far as a core body of standards here, its mostly standards from fake books that they were required to learn at some point. The European Real Book [Sher Publishing] is actually a great fake book and the thing I like about that is a lot of the tunes are all jazz tunes, but they’re constructed in a different way with, maybe, more of a European harmonic sense, that’s a big generalization. But that’s not a book that people would use on gigs. If I see a fake book on a gig here its one of the typical real books like the old ones. And not even the newer, revised copies.

Another interesting thing is that in different countries in Europe, there are some countries that are more that are ‘straight ahead’ than others. Like Holland is very ‘straight ahead’ and has more of a jazz tradition. Also, Italy is more ‘straight ahead’. They have a real swinging tradition in Italy. The French and Germans are more individualistic and they want to do their own thing without totally relying on the American songbook.

MC: What about Spain?

JG: Yeah, also there, there are a lot of people who play standards, I think. I haven’t spent too much time in Spain other than just to go through and play big festivals so I haven’t gotten a lot of contact with the local players there. But I know there are’ straight ahead’ players who go to Spain and pick up rhythm sections and work there playing standard jazz tunes.

MC: Going back to your ‘region’: would restaurants there be open to musicians hustling for gigs?

JG: I’ve had a few gigs at restaurants which I really like, but for the most part the general attitude is if you have a jazz band either it’s a concert and its something that you have to sit and listen to, or they’ll play more German ‘Schlager’, just the folk/pop music that a lot of the common people would listen to here. The feeling I get is musicians here have a very strong idea of what they want to sound like and they don’t want to contain that to play in a restaurant. Where I’d be happy just playing bossa novas and standards at a lower volume with shorter solos just to please a restaurant crowd I think a lot of the musicians here see that as “selling out, and you’re cheapening the music,” you know? And “if you’re gonna play jazz, then you should just blow out and play the stuff that you really want to play.” Like, go into a restaurant and play hard and play original music, which doesn’t really work, as you probably know.

MC: Yeah, people are eating.

JG: Yeah right (laughs all around). When I was in New York I used to go and hear Hank Jones and Ron Carter playing at Knickerbocker so, they would just play their tunes and people would be out there eating and chatting and whatever. In a way you’d think, well it’s a drag, that’s Ron Carter and Hank Jones, everybody should be, you know, silent and digging the music. However, the thing that I really like about playing in bars and restaurants is that people are there and it’s a real live scene. They’re there with their lives and their problems and their girlfriends and friends. They’re having fun or having fights and it’s all part of the scene. It’s just different from a concert scene. But I like that fact that over here, jazz music is presented as concert music. But that is also the bad thing. It’s taken so seriously that you can’t just go out and play a few tunes.

JG: I have a chance to play with a lot of musicians from different backgrounds and countries. I see a big thing with just the rhythmic expansion. Recently I played with musicians from Morocco, but it was with a big band with a Moroccan drummer, four Moroccan singers out front. They all played these karakas, which are like metal castanets. The thing I noticed about their music compared to jazz, where jazz would be a 4/4 pulse with an underlying triplet thing, their music is a triplet thing with an underlying 4/4 pulse. That’s away from the European thing but it’s an example of a different culture using their rhythms while putting a jazz harmony on top of it. Some of these guy have played with Zawinul. You know Zawinul for the last half of his career would go to Africa and find these cats who were really playing something hip and he would bring them into his band and he would basically play the same kind of stuff over the top of it but with these African rhythms. As far as form goes, it seems like musicians here are more comfortable with playing odd meters. All this stuff is a generalization because if I go to New York I know that I can find guys who can play in odd meters too.

MC: New York is the exception to anywhere.

JG: Yeah, maybe so. The thing that I noticed about students here is that they might be able to play in 7/8 just as well as they can walk a bass in 4/4. In the states, mostly everybody’s got a good groove and can swing in 4/4 more or less, but once you get into odd meter, ‘let’s play something in 11, or let’s do this in 9 or 7 or whatever,’ then its completely foreign. Here it seems like people concentrate on that more. Not that they’re better musicians in a way, it’s that they’ve tried to break out of the 4/4 rhythmic thing a lot more than most American musicians who I know.

MC: So it becomes less one bar phrasing?

JG: Yes, bigger groupings. Not to say that there aren’t a lot of exceptions.

MC: What are the opportunities for freelance bassists out there?

JG: If you can play and read and know tunes then that’s pretty much it. Bass players are pretty much in demand anywhere you go. If you’re a good bass player then you’ll work. That’s the great thing about playing bass. You can always find a scene to fit into. The thing I noticed in Germany is that there’s a big, almost Dixieland, you know like the real traditional jazz people. They Dixieland and swing is almost too modern. And then there’s more of the cutting edge, pushing the envelope, playing new music, playing odd meter kind of crowd. But there are not too many bass players that can play ‘straight ahead’, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter in that vein. If you go to Scandinavia, like Denmark or Finland, I think they have more of a 4/4 tradition up there and a lot of great bass players.

MC: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JG: I think the only thing I’d like to add is that in my experience in States I ran into all kinds of musicians so I don’t want to make it seem like the States are only this way and that Europe is only that way. I was thinking of this trumpet player, Randy Sandke, who developed his own harmonic system. He called it ‘metatonal’. We recorded this record with him doing this ‘metatonal’ system of harmony that he worked out. He had different chord symbols with numbers and it was a way, of sorts, of improvising in a 12-tone way, actually closer to a more chromatic way. He was a trumpet player in New York who actually played a lot of ‘straight ahead’, casual gigs, and played with Benny Goodman and all that kind of stuff. But he had this other side where he was really reaching for something new. So, to me, that’s what I would call more of a European approach because he’s trying to break out of the traditional, American style jazz and find the next level of how to improvise. So, a lot of the time I say American style or European style its just based on maybe the foundation of what got established in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s and now everything seems to be growing together. For instance, you got German guys going to New York and guys from California going to Australia. The whole scene is a big mishmash of cultures now. I think in 20 years it’s going to be less easy to discern and say, “OK, that’s a ‘straight ahead’ be-bop band from Chicago. I think the music will keep melding together from all these different cultures.

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