Perry Robinson interviewed by Florence Wetzel
August 31, 1988
Thanks to Jim Cramer for suggesting I do this and thanks to Dave Richards for providing the technology.
I went to this jazz school in 1959, Lenox Jazz School in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. It had started a couple years earlier and only went for three or four years more, but it was a great scene. Some wealthy people in Tanglewood, Bill and Stephanie Barber, owned a beautiful estate and they loved jazz and they got the idea for a jazz school. I was around twenty years old, I got a partial scholarship and got to study with amazing people - the faculty included Bill Evans, Max Roach, Bill Russo, Gunther Schuller, Jim Hall, the entire Modern Jazz Quartet. During the day we had great courses - history of jazz, things like that - then we'd go out to one of the tents set up all over and rehearse with a group we were put together with. Each faculty member was in charge of a few musicians and they'd work with us and at the end there was a big concert.
I met Ornette Coleman there, him and Don Cherry came from California where John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet] met them and recognized how great they were. They came as students, that's what was so out, because when they came they turned the place over very quickly, it became apparent that they were revolutionary. Ornette was beautiful, he met Dad, it was a great time to be there.
When I was young we lived in Hollywood. Dad had already written "The House I Live In" then he got called to California. That's where we met so many great people, like Paul Robeson, Bertoldt Brecht, Hans Eisler. Hollywood was out, it was just before the big communist craze, all the great talent was in Hollywood. Everyone - well, not everyone - was communist, it was the thing to do at the time, it was an important feeling. There was a lot of freak outs but at the time it was almost like the hippie movement, it was just after the Russian Revolution, there was the same kind of intensity.
I met Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, all those people. But I grew up hearing all kinds of music, not just folk music because Dad of course was a composer, we had everything in the house. I heard Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Schoenberg - it was wonderful. Hearing Schoenberg so early was very important in some of my free music. My first clarinet teacher played Schoenberg, he recorded it and gave it to my Dad, and I just ate it up.
Dad worked for Warner Brothers, MGM, he did four or five films that are still played on TV today - The Romance of Rosie Ridge with Janet Leigh and Van Johnson, California, The Roosevelt Story, Walk in the Sun. I got to go on the sets, it was great. I remember I went on one set, it wasn't a movie Dad did but it was called Blue Skies. You know that song - "Blue skies, nothing but blue skies" - anyway, the last shot in the movie was a blue sky with a little airplane going through it and all it was was a big backdrop in a Hollywood lot with a painted background of sky with a little miniature plane on a wire going across. When you see it in the movies it's a whole other thing, looks real. I remember seeing that and saying "Wow, that's out."
My mother was an artist, a painter in watercolors. Not as a profession, but she went to Parson's when she was young. Very creative - and she was the one I would definitely say got me into parties, how I like to party. I was brought up with so many parties in the house and she would love to do them. I used to stay up late or I'd get up at night and peek in . There were always jam sessions, too, lots of music.
My mother loved the challenge of a party, you know that's the purpose, to bring different kinds of people together and see them mix and see what happens. Her big thing was matchmaking, she loved to bring people together, in fact she had three or four couples get married who she brought together.
Music is light, sound, all vibration. It's a combination of picking up what vibrations are out there and creating your own. Our channels are opened up to the whole cosmic wavelength of music. That's why it's a common artistic feeling to feel like you're a channel - it's writing me, it's playing me. Which on the highest plane is what's happening, it's a hook-up with the whole cosmic being. It all becomes one, it's magic.
It's the old saying, the rules were made to break. You learn how to play a certain way with a certain technique, classically or whatever, then you begin to take your instrument as whatever it is, you break tradition. That's one of the breakthroughs of the psychedelic revolution, if you had a horn in your hand you were a musician. So it's about the extension of the instrument, instruments are built a certain way and certain sounds are acceptable, but what happens when people make mistakes, they squeak and they squawk and everybody freaks out - but when you listen to the early New Orleans jazz in the 20's and 30's and hear Louis Armstrong and some of the great players, they had great sounds, throat rasps and guttural things on horns and plunger mutes and vocal variety of color. It wasn't just pure sound like classical music where you're supposed to play a certain way.
There's the mythic image of the mythic jazz hero because the concept of jazz always did give a feeling of some kind of new dimension of freedom. Freedom of life, just like the beatnik thing. The whole feeling of that time, the fifties, I came to that in high school. I was doing a lot of jazz and poetry work then. I read On the Road, I was into jazz, it all made sense to me, it was fantastic. I used to go over Archie Shepp's place, he had a loft by Cooper Union in the early 60's. There were certain lofts around town at the time, Dave Amram's was another I went to. I used to go to jam sessions when I was in high school, I'd just show up, you know, I 'd stay there all night. I remember coming out once when it was light out and saying, "Wow, I'm a real jazz musician, this is great."
When I was around 25, I remember I was staying at a place on Shelter Island and I was on a trip and I started playing with a bumblebee, hearing the sound and trying to imitate the sound of the bee and then other insects. Beautiful flowers and bees and I had my horn and was wandering around the garden and just became the vibration. That's when I developed my theme "The Call." It all became music for me - I really got into John Cage's concept of music, that sound is sound, it's all music, music is vibration of sound. And it's true, everything can be music. You could be outdoors, or you could be in some big place where millions of people are speaking like Grand Central Station and there's all kinds of sounds that are happening at the moment, it becomes just a sound.
Basically this is the concept of free, finding out things you don't even have fingerings for, you're over-blowing, you're just doing things you don't even think about, you're just moving your fingers and blowing certain things, no preconceived thought - then you'll make sounds that aren't even in the books but the instrument can make them because each instrument has its own physics and voice.
People are afraid of losing themselves, losing their freedom, losing control. From the time you're born you're told you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that, and the culture is telling you do this, do that, it comes from all sides, yes and no, on and off, our being gets short-circuited. That's why we lock in strongly and get uptight and hold on, actually hold on rigidly with muscles. We fear chaos, we fear the word chaos because it means completely out of control, randomness, but even chaos has its own rules.
Everything is tied into the universe, how can anything be completely apart from any other part? So there's a gigantic structure working no matter what it is and that's all we have to know and that's what all the religions are saying, we're plugged into the structure and we cannot get lost. We are the center, how can we stray from our own center? We're free to roam, that spiritual center is always there and you always come back because you never left. Through music and art you really tune into that, you realize that the function of human beings is to make the universe conscious of itself.
In love we try to get one situation that is infallibly secure to the max degree, which is wanting the womb really and that's again fighting our fears of not knowing, being out of control. Human attachment by its nature causes so much misery, it's built into the structure of the way we use a being to give meaning to our own life so that we can't live without the other. Our concept of love is so bound up in a rigid ego one-to-one heavy grasping owning security thing.
It's heavy, we're all prone to it, but we can give it up. Giving it up is finally realizing the joy of the universe, the joy of existence, sharing, loving, true love. You realize that we're all the complete universe, that there's not one entity of the universe that can ultimately became anything more than everything else. I like Kahil Gibran's concept of love, he says two branches of trees intertwine but they are still separate trees.
The key is, when you're going through all these emotions, don't put them down. That's really the biggest key of all, to say, look, we're human, we're all going to go through these things, don't get uptight when it happens and don't get attached to non-attachment. There's a koan that says "The ten thousand rules become one law - don't follow that one either."
I spend a lot of time alone - I read, I think, I practice. I can sit here for hours reading or thinking or drawing. All these things in my different minds, different ways of thinking about everything. I just sit for hours and go into it, go completely out. There's no action, but things are happening.
Picking up another no-hole flute
Play leisurely the joy of 10,000 years
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