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An Interview with Hal Galper

Noted jazz pianist and educator discusses jazz, its audience, and its musicians in an exclusive interview.

by Mark D. Johnson
December 17, 2000

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An Interview with Hal Galper_Mark D. Johnson-Noted jazz pianist and educator discusses jazz, its audience, and its musicians in an exclusive interview. Pianist Hal Galper has shared the bandstand with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Cannonball Adderly, Chet Baker, Phil Woods, Art Blakey, and Michael and Randy Brecker. He has appeared on more than 80 recordings, including 20 sessions as a leader, and is esteemed as one of the premier jazz educators in the nation. He is the author of a new book, The Touring Musician: A Small Business Approach to Booking Your Band on the Road, published by Billboard Books. This interview with The Partial Observer was conducted via e-mail in December 2000.

PO: Mainstream improvisational jazz has been called "musician's music" largely due its complexity, which demands a somewhat sophisticated ear. Is this a myth, or is there some truth to it? Is accessibility a common concern in the jazz world, or are jazz musicians generally content playing to a relatively small market?

HG: It's true that modern jazz is complex and sophisticated, but I've never been one to look down on an audience because they didn't understand those complexities. Jazz doesn't require a knowledge of its inner workings for it to be enjoyed by its listeners. The bottom line is, while improvising, the player truly doesn't "know," in a technical sense, what he or she is doing because it's all going by too fast to "think" about. It becomes instinctual. I have always felt that since we don't know what we're doing, why should we expect an audience to do so? That's not the point of the exercise. What's important is not the goals of the improvisor but the "trip" a player's music takes their audience on.

I can't speak for the jazz community as a whole but it has been my and my fellow cohorts' upbringing that music must fulfill a social function. It must transport the listener to another place, to suspend their sense of self in a safe setting. (See my article "The Social Contract" in the "Articles" section of my web site for a complete discussion of this subject.) Again, it's the trip that's the thing.

A musician's responsibility, jazz or otherwise, is to engage the audience in the experience. One can't expect an audience to come to you. You have to go to them, get their attention and hold it throughout a performance.

I remember, to this day, the moment I realized that, without someone listening, the music had no meaning. I was playing a jam session in my loft in Boston, just playing for the other musicians. It didn't feel right, and it came to me then how important it was having some "ears" out there to play to.

Going back to jazz's historical roots in Africa, you'll find that their music always fulfilled some kind of social function: royal ceremonies, weddings, births, work, announcements, as well as entertainment. Music was an integral part of the social fabric. As a matter of fact, what an African band played was dictated by its audience. The lead drummer would be watching the dancers and their audience to judge when to change a beat or a tune according to what they were doing at the moment. This ethic has carried over into modern jazz as well. Frankly, I don't know what to play if there's no audience there giving me the clues about what their dramatic needs are from one moment to the next. That's why I'm not a big fan of studio jazz recordings. I need the audience there to tell me what to do.

Jazz musicians don't feel the need to have their music analyzed to be appreciated. It's better left un-analyzed. What we do appreciate from a listener is a simple "I liked it" or "I didn't Like it." Nothing more.

No, jazz musicians are not content playing to a relatively "small" market. However, it might be considered small in relation to commercial music but jazz music in itself is a multi-billion dollar business. Except for its students, very few jazz professionals fall into the category of "starving artists."

PO: That's good to hear. One of the great things about modern jazz is that there are seemingly infinite ways to interpret a song, making old standards sound fresh time and time again with new arrangements and inventive solos. Yet one could argue that jazz has not undergone any significant change since the 60's, leading some to wonder if there are any uncharted waters left to discover in jazz, not to mention the arts in general. Is there any new ground left to be broken? Are there artists working today who are pushing the envelope?

HG: It's true, jazz hasn't experienced anything new since John Coltrane. Miles Davis was once quoted as saying "there are no innovators left, only stylists," to which I agree. But that's not such a bad state of affairs considering, as you say, there are infinite ways to interpret a song.

Your question might be better put: "can jazz be viable without innovation?" I can only answer it by responding to it on an personal level and by consensus. "Hey man, I'm may not be innovative, but I've got my own way of playing that people recognize and enjoy, and I ain't gonna stop playing just because my music didn't change the world."

Of course there are the continuing experiments in cross-cultural, mixed-media artistic events that fall under the rubric of style, not pushing the envelope.

Your question also implies the application of artistic ideals to judge the quality of jazz. I'm one of those who feels a slight twinge when the word "art" is applied to jazz. From the whorehouses of New Orleans to the dance bands of the Second World War, jazz music originally functioned as entertainment. It was only after the war that jazz was accepted as a "serious" music and began to have artistic criticism applied to it. The money improved too. It was also at that point in jazz history that undanceable faster tempos became the order of the day, engendering a shrinking of the jazz audience. However, along with many of today's musicians, there were those who still held to the danceable tempo ethic, such as Miles Davis and his mentor Ahmad Jamal.

Of course we all try to present our music with the highest artistic standards and I don't mean to suggest that the word "art" or "innovative" or "new" shouldn't be used in conjunction with the word jazz but, when judging its viability, call me old fashion, but I do think that its entertainment value must given equal billing to its artistic success.

Most musicians are aware of the current lack of innovation on the jazz scene but feel they offer a valuable contribution to society if their music affects their listeners on an emotional level. Jazz doesn't need to be new or innovative to retain it's viability as an art. That's the beauty of jazz.

PO: One of the best tenor sax players around Chicago was quoted some years ago as saying that he wouldn't recommend trying to make a living playing jazz. He may not have been a starving artist, but it is a lot of work to keep the gigs coming, many musicians rely on teaching to maintain a steady income, and there seems to be a certain amount of cynicism, at least at the local level, when it comes to the business side of being a professional jazz musician. What's your perspective in this area? Any encouraging words for young musicians about the realities of the jazz life?

HG: I'm not so sure I agree with your local sax player. The key words in your question are "local" and "cynicism."

One of the problems is that one can only work so much locally. If you want to work more you have to expand your working possibilities by traveling. This usually means having your own band and taking it on the road. When, in the late 70's, I had my quintet with the Brecker Brothers in it, we eventually worked every club in NYC and its environs within the first year. The only way I could keep the band working was to expand it's possibilities for work through touring.

It is hard work getting your own gigs but times have changed and we have to adapt. The old days of being a great player and waiting for the phone to ring are gone. The traditional passive approach toward surviving is outmoded. A musician must now consider themselves as a sole proprietor of their own small business and like anyone who owns a small business, it's hard work with long hours. One must take an activist and aggressive approach toward getting work.

Unfortunately, most musicians are not educated about how to get work and have not learned how to take the reins of their own careers. Every year there are more and more musicians graduating from music schools. It is problematic that these music schools offer no courses on how to survive as a business person in this increasingly competitive market.

The cynicism you refer to is self-defeating and will guarantee failure. Although partially based on their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their situation, the greater cause of this negative attitude among musicians is thier belief in the myth that there isn't enough work out there to make a steady living. This myth has kept musicians competitive with each other. Consequently, information about working possibilities is closely held and not shared among working musicians. This attitude has, to a great degree, been fostered by those who have had the most control over working possibilities. Agents, managers, and record companies have traditionally fostered this myth so as to maintain control over their own venues.

I use the word myth without reservation. It is simply not true that there aren't enough venues to make a living from just playing your music. If you have something to offer of a high musical quality and are willing to work hard, you'll find so much work out there you won't be able to play all the possible venues in a lifetime.

The Touring MusicianFor ten years, applying the techniques I developed in my new book The Touring Musician (Billboard Books), I kept my trio on the road and average 4 - 6 months a year. And I'm not exactly what you might call a household word in the jazz business. I did have to work 8, sometimes 10 hours a day to maintain enough work to keep my band together, but so does anyone who is in business for themselves.

If you are talented and have the ability to learn new things, then musicians have no solid foundation upon which to justify their cynicism.

PO: Of all these young musicians graduating from music school, only a handful will hit the big-time in jazz and land a recording contract. Presumably, to become a big name takes a combination of technical proficiency, natural talent, business acumen, and pure luck, among other factors. What would be the biggest factor? Are the most prominent jazz musicians simply the ones with the most natural talent, or can a musician of average natural talent work extra hard in the other areas and still hit it big?

HG: That's a difficult question to answer. There's no one way of making it. It could be all or none of the factors you mentioned, in any combination. Also, those "other factors" are integral to success in the jazz music business, such as: dedication to the music, the degree of ambition, physical and mental strength, something a little extra special about your music. Additionally, a modicum of stupidity goes a long way.

Being an artist has never been a rational choice. Art is basically anti-social and potentially self-destructive. One doesn't become an artist because he or she wants to but only if one has to. By that I mean true artistic behavior is basically compulsive. One plays because one has to. For an artist, art becomes a healthy outlet for coping with his or her's compulsive and self-destructive behavior. I advise all my students in their first day of class to quit school now because if you have the luxury of choice you will eventually decide on another career path anyway. You'll have to pay quite a bit of dues to become a successful artist. Anyone with any ability to make rational decisions will eventually say "Forget it, this isn't worth the trouble" and re-focus their efforts upon alternate and more easily attainable goals.

Most of those who make this change of focus usually end up in other areas of the music business where they fulfill a valuable function in the support structure that's required to keep a musician working.

The above not withstanding, many young musicians benefit from the financial support that larger record companies who have promotional budgets to spare can afford. The question is whether these musicians can sustain a musical career over the long run through personal and musical growth, eventually becoming the new masters of the genre.

PO: Now that you've written the "definitive tour manual," as Michael Brecker puts it, what's on the horizon for Hal Galper?

HG: After the last ten years of booking and touring with my trio and writing "The Touring Musician," I'm taking a break. Other than my three day a week teaching schedule at the New School Of Jazz and Purchase Conservatory I'm spending as much time as possible doing as little as I can. I forget who made the original quip but, "whenever I get the idea to do some work, I lay down until it goes away."

I'll be taking my quintet to Europe for a short tour next summer and am playing a three day solo piano series at Lincoln Center in April. The same month I'll also be doing my first two day seminar on "How To Book Your Band" at Goddard College in Vermont. There is a strong possibility that the music information management software program I designed, "RoadAgent," may be released on the Internet soon but I'm not pushing very hard to get that finalized. Other than that, I'm not working at all on booking work for myself. However, If someone calls me for a gig I'll take it.

Hal Galper's Website: www.halgalper.com

To purchase Hal's book, The Touring Musician at Amazon.com, click here.

To purchase Hal's latest CD, Let's Call This That at Amazon.com, click here.

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An Interview with Hal Galper
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