“You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out of the other end and disrupts the universe.” – Roswell Rudd
I met trombonist, composer Roswell Rudd through Verna Gillis, who I interviewed in 2004 and 2008 (see the Soundscape Project on this site). At the time, Roswell had just completed a project with the Puerto Rican cuatro player, Yomo Toro and was embarking on a project with the Cuban tres player, David Oquendo. Also, he was performing sporadically with his quartet and trombone band.
Rudd is a trombonist from the generation of musicians that has forever defined jazz and free-form improvisation but, as you will read, there is much more to the music and the man than meets the eye.
These days, he goes under various monikers including “The Wizard of Roz” and the “”High Priest of Mo’ Honk” but deep down, Roswell is a scholar, a gentleman and cool cat!
TP: Your comment debunks the theory. Also, you skipped the bebop era and went straight from Dixieland to Free jazz.
RR: I grew up in collective improvisation, which I heard with Archie Schepp and Ornette Coleman, so I was at home with that. There was probably a very new theoretical part. Still, I had no problem just being comfortable in an atmosphere of collective improvisation and making up a complementary part of what was happening around me. It was more comfortable than sitting in a big band reading complicated charts. So that was natural. When I heard those guys doing it, I went along with them.
TP: In your first composition, you quoted the American poet, E. E. Cummings.
RR: I could never find that poem. I put a melody to his words. That was during the 1950s.
TP: In 1962, you recorded Into the Hot on the Impulse label with Gil Evans and Cecil Taylor, followed by School Days (1963, Hat Hut) with Steve Lacy, Dennis Charles, and Henry Grimes and For Trane (Impulse). It was the first of many collaborations with Archie Shepp.
RR: I felt an immediate rapport with Archie musically and how we think. We did quite a few things together, but the thing we did most was rehearse. You might be skipping over some time I spent with a great pianist named Herbie Nichols. We spent about two or three years together. He was my teacher, and I created two gigs for us.
TP: What do you recall about the era?
RR: As I mentioned, I grew up around collective improvisation. That’s what the new musicians were doing. With Bebop, one person improvised, and a rhythm section supported them. With Free Jazz, it didn’t matter how many people were playing. We were doing spontaneous calls and responses, and we realized that it was an infinitely rich musical resource.
TP: What about the scene, the atmosphere, the venues?
RR: I remember performing in people’s living rooms, lofts, and cellars and basements; we fixed up ourselves, and there were a few clubs, like Slugs. That whole thing was very grassroots. Occasionally we would perform at the Five Spot. We didn’t play at the Village Gate until the 1960s. So it was time for our generation to get into these other roads, places, and spaces.
TP: What’s the biggest misconception about Free Jazz?
RR: People would come up to us and say, “You guys can’t play the changes, you don’t know your music, you are just bullshitting, you are like children who are learning for the first time and taking it to the public when you should be in school practicing.” I guess the music had a rough edge, and to some, it sounded like we were fooling around as opposed to the serious guys. The biggest criticism was some guy telling me, “You are just playing shit!” To which I replied, “I have been working on this ‘shit’ for thirty years!”
TP: Apparently, free jazz stirs up strong emotions. Ornette Coleman was assaulted on more than one occasion!
RR: I remember going to hear Cecil Taylor one night, and people shouted, “I’m leaving!” Cecil was right in the middle of a number, pushing the envelope, and this guy got up, spun around, and said, “It’s shit,” before running out. The next night, and every night after that, the guy was back and sat right next to Cecil. For some people, it was like a hallucination, possession, or having to go through a religious experience.
TP: That brings us to 1966, 1967, and the album, Live in San Francisco, with Archie Shepp (Impulse), New York Eye and Ear Control with Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, John Tchicai, and Gary Peacock (ESP), Untilwith Robin Kenyatta (Atlantic), Mama Too Tight with Archie Shepp (Impulse) and Live at Donaueschingen(Saba). Those were productive years.
RR: That was the famous year that Thelonious Monk took an orchestra to Europe. Much of the footage from the film, Straight No Chaser, was taken from that tour. So it was great to share the stage with Monk and Miles (Davis). That was when he had the quintet with (drummer) Tony Williams and (pianist) Herbie Hancock.
TP: What did Monk mean to you?
RR: Monk came to my hometown in 1954. When I was just leaving high school, Monk’s 1947 and 1948 recordings on the Blue Note label had just come out. I already told you about Charlie Parker and his effect on me. Monk hit me even harder because he was so precise with his statement. Monk’s logic was irrefutable, and thanks to him, I heard Parker and a lot of other music where velocity was so important, better. Monk had those tempos and made anti-velocity statements with plenty of space, except he would purposely turn things upside down occasionally! But if you stuck with it, you traveled.
I came to New York in 1960 wanting to do more and Steve Lacey, who was crazy about Monk, and I got together and followed him around. In time, we got to know Monk’s songs and realized we could capture his sound with a soprano saxophone, trombone, drummer, and bass player. I have worked with Steve Lacey and Herbie Nichols for three years. I am happy to say I am as immersed now as I was then.
TP: What is Monk’s legacy?
RR: The clarity of his statement, the intelligence, the emotion, and his ability to develop logical improvisations out of these compositions, and by logic, I mean logic in a broad sense. Not just two plus two but maybe three plus four. As I said, Monk’s music was not predictable; it was a lot like life. Something falls off the wall, and you must deal with it! The best illustration was a performance at the Five Spot where he disappeared while the rhythm section was playing, and Charlie Rouse took a solo. They went on for a while, and then I noticed Monk coming from the bar area. He timed it so that just when Charlie Rouse finished his last chorus, Monk dervishes in on the piano at a funny angle and made this cluster sound. So Monk worked that random thing unwound and laid it out for everybody. He took what we thought was an accident and dealt with it like a great composer. That’s where my foundation is.
TP: You taught a course in Ethnomusicology at Bard State College.
RR: That was in 1972. I had been working on and off with Alan Lomax. I was his Field Assistant.
(For additional information on the exploits of Alan Lomax, read: The Man Who Recorded the World – A Biography by John Szwed (Viking Press).
TP: You and I share a mutual friend, the vibraphonist Steve Pouchie, a former student at Bard. He began as a business major and switched to music. He described you as a “bohemian guy” who took his students on field trips and taught them the art of cosmic mutual notation or playing free. Years later, you composed the tune, Pouchie, and the Bird, which appears on El Espiritu Jibaro’s recording.
RR: Bard is an old private college. When the music department consisted of three people teaching classical music, many students wanted to write music, play jazz and study the history of jazz for college credit. My official title was Visiting Lecturer. The routine was that I would take the train to Bard during the week, teach classes from the afternoon into the evening, then get up the next day, teach more and take the train home. I helped the students do whatever they wanted with music and recommended them to other people who could help them. On Steve and some of the other students, I was a conduit. I also offered a course in World Music and conducted an improvisation workshop and jam sessions.
TP: And changed lives.
RR: Well, I have always felt you are your musical boundary. I helped the students explore themselves.
TP: Apparently, you also gained a lot from the experience.
RR: That’s what teaching is all about. Invariably, former students come up to me, no matter where I might be, and thank me. Somehow the music took the students to a deep place inside themselves and opened them up. Music touches you and frees you.
TP: Where else did you teach?
RR: I taught after-school programs in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn (1972-1976) at Powell. I also did a Jazz interaction workshop at a school in New York and taught at the University of Maine (1976-1982).
TP: During the 1970s, you recorded with the New York Art Quartet, Gato Barbieri, Marcelo Melis, Don Moye, Steve Lacy, Beaver Harris, Carla Bley, George Gaslini, Sangeeta Michael Berardi, Rashied Ali, Eddie Gomez, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Barry Harris, and Mal Waldron among others. Then we get into, what I call, the Soundscape era, which is the late 70s and early 80s.
RR: I performed at Soundscape twice. I first played with my wife, son, a drummer, and a bass player. About one year later, I performed with a student band and some musicians from New York.
TP: What do you recall about Soundscape?
RR: I knew little about it until Verna Gillis, and I met ten years ago. She keeps this stuff related to Soundscape at her home in upstate New York. I was living and working in Augusta, Maine, so I was out of touch.
TP: Between 1986 and 1992, you were absent from the New York music scene. One writer described that period in your life as a “rough patch.” How do you describe it?
RR: I lived in Woodstock and Accord (New York) for a time. I was looking to reply to New York, but I didn’t have the wherewithal, so I lived in that part of the world. I didn’t perform for about a year, but I practiced and composed a lot. Later, I worked at the Granit Hotel, backing up stand-up comedians, singers, dancers, and fire-eaters. I had never been involved in that niche before, but I learned a lot from experience, and it put food on the table. It saw me through some hard times.
TP: How and when did you and Verna Gillis connect?
RR: We reconnected in 1998. I would see her because she lived not far from where I lived. She refurbished the Accord train station and made it into a performance space and community center. Also, in 1981, we collaborated on Interpretations of Monk with Barry Harris, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Charlie Rouse, Mal Waldron, and Muhal Richard Abrams.
TP: Looking back on that period in your life.
RR: I would call it a change of direction. When I left New York in 1976, nothing was happening, and I was out of work for several years.
RR: There just wasn’t enough happening. I had a few commissions to write and perform, but there was a lot of space between them. I was driving a cab and working as a part-time clerk for the city. That’s when I moved to Maine, had a job teaching, and developed a life there.
TP: Tell me about your experiences at the Granit Hotel.
RR: I was at the Granit from 1986 to 1992. While that was happening, I was doing delivery work and odd jobs in Ulster County. Periodically, I was invited to participate in the Alan Lomax project.
TP: Did your work with Alan Lomax (Song Style, Cantometrics, Global Juke Box) prepare you to go beyond Western music?
RR: It helped. I worked for Alan in 1964. It was very intense, nine to five, five days per week, and integrating that into what I wanted to do in New York was difficult. Sometimes I would work for a year, and sometimes I would have to lay off and do something else around New York City. On and off, I worked with Alan for thirty years.
TP: Define Cantometrics.
RR: Cantometrics is a way of listening to a recording or performance and analyzing it by ear through thirty-seven parameters. When you code the relative presence or absence of ingredients, you come out with a profile of a song style of a particular culture. So you do this all over the world, at the tribal, urban, and high cultural levels. You get patterns for this stuff and see how traditional music is laid out across the planet.
TP: Tell me about the Global Jukebox.
RR: It extended Cantometrics for people in middle school or high school. It was computerized so that you could sit down at a computer screen and access a map of the planet, press a button and access a particular culture and its music. It was an educational component that Alan was trying to develop. Still, it got stalled, so it never entered the public arena.
TP: How so?
RR: Part of the problem was that Alan micro-managed everything, and there was a lack of communication between the workers. Also, Alan had a stroke and was out of commission. Sadly, he died about twelve years ago. His daughter tried to resurrect the project, but she was unsuccessful. As far as I know, the materials are sitting in a room on Forty-First Street (New York). It’s an incredible archive. I hope I am wrong.
TP: Your time with Alan Lomax was a training ground.
RR: When it comes down to it when you perform and compose music, you are dealing with sound. Also, there is “ear training.” I was so adamant about “ear training” with my students that they called it “ear straining!” (Laughs) When you play music with others, a lot of what is achieved as a good performance concerns how well you listen to the people you are playing with and how deeply you respond. The adjustments you make intuitively to blend in. It makes all the difference between something with the juice and something that doesn’t have the juice. So any ear training, especially the work I did with Alan Lomax, was beneficial. It gave me more chops and more ears.
TP: In 1994, the project came to a close. What happened after that?
RR: I continued to work around Ulster County doing various odd jobs and traveled to Europe again. The gig at the Grant was gone, but David Winograd and I collaborated with some local guys. I also went back to New York to play isolated gigs; I got out again.
TP: That year you recorded Dark Was the Night with Allen Lowe.
RR: Yes, Alan Lowe brought me out. Dark Was the Night was a combination studio session and a live recording from Providence, Rhode Island. Allen is a fascinating person, but that’s a story for another day.
TP: Also, in 1995, you recorded New World with Terry Adams and Wozzek’s Death with Lowe.
RR: Yeah, that was with Terry and his band NRBQ. The group had achieved an organic sound after years of being together on the road. Factoring myself in with them was inspirational. Wozzek’s was an unusual approach to musicalized storytelling. Also, on Allen’s Wozzek’s album are two tracks of my music, Concentration Suite and Bonehead. I was firmly focused on the compositional process, so I recommended these pieces as resources dealing with that. 1996 was a banner year for recordings: Out and About with Steve Swell, Rumors of an Incident with Elton Dean, Black with Keith Tippett, and Terrible NRBQwith NewSense. I like to think that Steve Swell was the person who officially brought me out of retirement, although I wouldn’t call it that. In 1997, I played and recorded with Elton’s band and recorded with NewSense.
TP: You also recorded The Unheard Herbie Nichols as a leader.
RR: After doing the thing with Steve Swell at Cadence, I got the idea to make something I wanted to do for a long time. I worked on it with Herbie Nichols. It was essential to see how I had grown since 1963. I took the idea to some friends in Buffalo, New York. We recorded fifteen songs and the album in one weekend.
TP: With Greg Miller and John Bacon Jr.
RR: That’s right. The recording received a mixed reception.
TP: How so?
RR: For some people, the combination of trombone, guitar, and drums for an hour and ten minutes was tricky, but I thought what it revealed about Herbie was fantastic!
TP: 1998 was another productive year. You recorded Hallucinationswith Glenn Hall and Trio on Four with the Ab Barrs Trio.
RR: That’s a remarkable recording for the great Ab Baars Trio plus, and a track called The Year was 1503, which was the first time I had done any stand-up recording. My experiences at the Granit Hotel and with comedians inspired the scenario. You have to watch out when you play for comedians because they improvise a lot. Anyway, 1503 is like a comedic theater with characters out of the band, people playing, and all that.
TP: In 1998, Verna Gillis’ husband, Brad Graves, passed away. Also, one month later, your wife suffered a stroke and was admitted to a nursing home.
RR: Yes. That’s where your relationship with Verna took root. I had some contact with Verna before that time. I played in her performance space in Accord and, before that, at Soundscape. When I heard about her husband’s passing, I called and wished her well, gave her my condolences, and told her to keep going. We got together after that.
TP: At some point, you got into World Music. It’s worth noting that Verna presented many World Music artists at Soundscape and was one of the first to do so. That must have affected you.
RR: Plus the Cuban musicians who came to New York via the Mariel Boatlift.
RP: In 2001 you and Verna traveled to Mali. The trip is documented in the film Bamako is a Miracle, where you collaborated with Toumani Diabate and created the recording, Malicool. It’s a fascinating film!
RR: During the first trip, we performed with kora player Toumani Diabate at the French Cultural Center. It went so well that we returned the following year and recorded Malicool.
TP: There are defining moments in the film. Perhaps the most telling is the scene where Toumani is wrestling with a Monk tune, and Verna calmly asks you to lay out while the musicians settle their differences and work out the arrangement. There were tense moments.
RR: That’s true. Verna had her finger on the pulse, and we got through that.
TP: The other defining moment is when Toumani and Verna fess up to hearing negative rumors about one another. Despite that, they laugh it off and share a victory hug. Also, I should mention Malicoolwas nominated for a Grammy.
RR: You are right; the film goes into the nitty-gritty of it. African and New York exist in different worlds of time.
TP: In 2002 you recorded Roswell Rudd and Archie Shepp Live in New York andSeize the Time with the Nexus orchestra. In 2003, there was the Sex Mob and the Grind Palace, and in 2004, your wife passed away. You didn’t record again until 2005, with the Mongo Buryat Band. How you became acquainted with Mongolian throat singers is quite a story.
RR: There were two guys, Odserun and Tuvsho. They were performing at public schools and wherever they could create some interest in the throat-singing phenomenon. We invited them to the house when Verna and I heard about them. They sang, and I got out my trombone. I couldn’t believe what was happening. There is something about that singing that goes with the trombone’s sound.
TP: The result was Blue Mongol.
RR: That took two years. The original jam session was two singers and me. The next time Tuvsho came with the Badma Khanda, a great singer, and three instrumentalists. I wrote some pieces for them or us and integrated myself into their work. The year after that, 2004 or 2005, was when we recorded the album. In 2006 we did a U.S. tour. We played on the East Coast, Chicago, and the West Coast.
TP: How was Blue Mongol received?
RR: People were amazed and transfixed, as I was when I first heard Odserun and Tavsho sing in my living room. It’s transfixing. I don’t know if the recording captures the music because it’s such an acoustic thing. It’s all based on harmonics. It has to happen in a natural acoustic space, but it’s so strong it translates to the recording.
TP: Your next collaboration was with the Puerto Rican cuatro (guitarist) player, Yomo Toro.
RR: The collaboration with Yomo goes back to Verna’s earliest days of producing. I have traveled and performed in Europe, Canada, Africa, and beyond that. Still, I have to say the experience with Yomo and drummer Bobby Sanabria was challenging for me in a good way.
TP: How so?
RR: in a word, CLAVE!
RR: If you are brought up in it, it’s one thing. If you have to learn it and reapply it to everything you have experienced in your life, that’s another thing. I call it, The Science of the Clave. I had to work with it as science before I could get it to an art. What an experience! I grew from this. Both of these guys are incredible teachers. Bobby does it one way. He breaks it down and lays it out theoretically and logically. With Yomo, it exudes from his character. He plays it for you, sings, and makes the air move around you, so you pick it up by osmosis. That has been the most challenging thing.
TP: In 2007, you returned to your Roots with, Keep Your Heart Right.
RR: There are very early and more recent songs on that recording. It resulted from discovering a singer named Sunny Kim, who is South Korean. She was a student at the New England Conservatory when Steve Lacy and his wife were on the faculty. Sunny has tremendous vocal resources, and there is nothing she wouldn’t take on. We did a memorial for Steve (Lacy), which was a great thing. It was two hours of Steve Lacy’s sounds, compositions, and songs. It was a tremendous experience for me. That’s where I met Sunny. About a year before that, I worked with a great pianist named Lafayette Harris, so I pulled the rehearsals together with Sunny, Lafayette, and myself. We grew the material and developed a chemistry with one another. Last year we brought bassist Brad Jones into it, and we had ourselves a quartet. We traveled to Italy twice last summer, and we have two things coming up in New York in October. It’s a delightful group. A lot of the material has never been performed.
TP: That’s just one of many projects you are involved with.
RR: This is one configuration that I hope will go on for a long time so we can discover more about ourselves.
TP: You recently completed the recording, Encounters with the Cuban guitarist David Oquendo.
RR: I have to talk about David Oquendo. He’s like Yomo Toro, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. People who come along occasionally are a school onto themselves. So, it was another opportunity to learn and grow from the experience. This is a record of standards from his experience, my experience, and our experience because what happened in the 1940s and 1950s in our art was absorbed and assimilated in the Caribbean, Europe, and all over the place. Even though we come from different backgrounds, we were familiar with many of the same material. One thing that fascinated me about Oquendo was his scat. He does this mouth percussion thing that is just killing. He told me there was a time when drums were not allowed on the street in Cuba; you had to have permission to play the drums, so mouth and body percussion became a substitute for playing percussion. He recounted when they would be standing around doing this on the street, and it sounded so real that people would call the cops. I don’t think he does it publicly. I guess it’s a private thing. There is a lot of street in David.
TP: In an interview, you said: “I consider myself very fortunate to have lived to see the fruition of so much labor. Mc Coy Tyner called it a privilege, and so it is humbling to have gotten to the point to have the privilege of supporting myself this way. “
RR: That’s right, over the last ten years, I have gotten a lot more thanks to Verna, the collaborations she has arranged for me, and the things I have been able to do for myself. The quartet with Sunny Kim is one such thing, and another is the trombone band. We will be coming out with that in November.
TP: Tell me about the trombone band.
RR: It’s brass music, trombone music, three trombones, a tuba, bass, and drums. We just participated in the Lake George Jazz Weekend. There was a group there called Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers. They came on after us and carried the spirit of the festival. The music was fun, entertaining, and accessible. The beauty of my band is that I can go just about anywhere with it. I can play dance music, folk music, some edgy stuff and do whatever I want. Judging from our response, I think we will be fine.
TP: You seemed to have achieved the best of both worlds; an apartment in Manhattan, a house in the country, a resurgence of your career. Who has it better than you?
RR: You got it, Tomas! You got it, man! There are no endings, only beginnings!
After a life well-lived and protracted battle with cancer, Roswell Rudd died December 2017. He was 82 years young! RIP!