A Conversation with David S. Ware
Mike Ragogna: Today, we're talking with David S. Ware about all things jazz and about his new documentary David S. Ware: A World of Sound. Hello, David.
David S Ware: How are you, Mike?
MR: Doing very well, thanks. I wanted to talk to you about this short-film documentary that was made about you recently in association with DLF.TV and directed by Amine Kouider. In the short, you talk about creativity and how it all comes from this, sort of, creative well. Can you tell us a little bit more about your process?
DSW: Well, when you're playing, things are happening so quickly and spontaneously that you're dealing with something beyond thinking - you're going into a completely different thought process. But your senses and your instincts are prepared for that kind of spontaneity. So you're really not thinking too much. You're dealing with something that's beyond thought and it's just flowing out of you. It is, more or less, an attunement - you have to attune yourself to the process. With me, that state of attunement is a part of the lifestyle.
MR: In the documentary, you speak about Rollins and Coltrane creating from a place of spirituality that runs parallel with playing music. Can you tell us a little bit about what you meant by that?
DSW: Well, I think both of those artists were seeking something in their music and they were seeking it in their own way, you know? They were seeking something that they couldn't put into words. And having listened to the two of them, both on records and live during the '60s, I automatically sensed that. They're searching for something that is even beyond the realm of music and even beyond the realm of emotion, though it evokes emotion. So, for me, music was always about that spirituality running parallel to music. Different musician are into music for different reasons. Some are just in it for the sake of creating music, but for me it's about where music can take you.
MR: You also mention in this documentary that there is a voice inside music. Would you say that voice is linked to that spirituality in your music?
DSW: Very much so. I think when you're hearing that voice inside someone's music it is a literal voice. In order to hear that, though, you have to be listening with your third ear.
MR: Wonderfully put. Can you give us a little insight into how you, as an artist, create your music?
DW: Well, first off, there were many years before I began meditation that I was trying to find my own voice. I was trying to find my way, even though I believe I somehow still felt a firm sense of direction through listening to music by Coltrane and Rollins. And, as the years progressed, I found meditation and my songwriting and creation became more about silence. First off, you can't have music without ordinary silence. So, in my opinion, you can't create music without silence because music is borne out of the silence, you know?
MR: Can you tell us how you and Amine wound up coming together to work on this documentary?
DSW: Well, that actually came through David Lynch. Amine did a lot of work with his people, and he still does. About two years ago, he came to New York and filmed one of my live concerts, and we kind of started from there, and the process took quite a while. It took a while because of my circumstances and the energy around me, I think. When I say, "the energy around me," I mean the challenges that I faced at that time. That kind of energy. You go through certain periods of life where everything is easy, more or less, then you go through other times that things don't flow as easily. I'm in a period right now where things don't flow quite as easily.
MR: Do you feel like music is helping you through this period?
DSW: Oh, definitely. Only because music is what I was born to do, and I'm coming to understand that more and more every day.
MR: Let's venture back to 1959 when you first started to show an interest in music. You wanted to play the drums and your dad suggested you play the saxophone. Do you still remember that conversation?
DSW: Well, there really wasn't a conversation. They had demonstrated all of the instruments at school one day and I came home and told my father that I wanted to play the drums. He suggested that I try the saxophone instead and I said okay because I had heard the saxophone so much growing up - he had so many records that featured the saxophone. I had heard that music so much that it was a part of me, so there really didn't need to be much conversation about it.
MR: You've even said that you think that the saxophone is an extension of your soul, is that right?
DSW: Yeah, I guess that's true. In my opinion, playing an instrument is not really something you can develop. Your soul chooses a way to express itself, whether it be through piano, saxophone, or drums.
MR: Music has been broken down and classified as so many different genres that at times it may be hard to keep it straight. But if one thing can be said, it's that when people think of Jazz and improvisation they think of this boundless sort of musical expression. How do you classify improvisation in the entire landscape of music?
DSW: Well, first, I believe all music is improvisation. I don't think there can be music without improvisation. Whether it was written down for others to play, or whatever. The best music just comes to you - it's not figured out or formulated. You have to just pick up an instrument and let it flow and if what you create resonates with you, then you hold on to it. But all of that flows out of something that is really, very mysterious.
MR: Nice. Bassist, William Parker, describes your music as, "cutting the fat." How do you feel about that?
DSW: Well, I think what he meant is that for many, many years in the old quartet we were playing pieces that were prearranged, and then in the new quartet we're all playing spontaneously. We never know what we're going to play when we walk out on that stage.
MR: Have you ever found yourself completely amazed and caught up in a moment that has happened spontaneously on stage?
DSW: It can happen. But then, after the performance you have a little more time to think about it. I mean, you're feeling everything that is happening in the music while it's going on but you don't have the time to dwell on it. It happens onstage, and then it's gone. You have to stay in the moment with this music because you always have to be prepared to respond. So, what happened 30 seconds ago, needs to stay there.
MR: Do you have any advice for those people who have the ability to improvise and create in their heads, but don't quite have the aptitude to play those sounds on their instruments?
DSW: There's really only one thing to do, and that's practice. I had students like that who were hearing things in their heads that they just couldn't play. I'm not saying that everyone is gonna be great at it, but I know it happens. The way I explained it to my students is that they were "ahead of themselves" musically, because you have to learn the instrument first. When you pick up your instrument every day, you have to do a little bit of technical practice and you need to practice creating. You have to be practicing both. Because it takes a lifetime, and even then you're still not through learning. For example, after the first couple of years of me playing saxophone, everybody saw that I was serious about it, so I started taking private lessons. In those lessons, I was going through loads of classical saxophone books where every week I was getting a new lesson and practicing for an entire week. And right away, he knew whether I had practiced or not. You need to go through that, sort of, meticulous work because that's the way your brain learns how to play. At the same time, you have to take the time each day to practice improvisation - listening to records or reading books. You learn how the music flows through you.
MR: Would that also be the advice that you would give to new artists pursuing this as a career?
DSW: Absolutely. Particularly, now. We now live in a time where there are so many distractions for the younger generation. We have all these iPods and iPhones and everything to distract us, that when young people take up a musical instrument, they need to realize that studying an instrument takes a lot of focus and grounding - they need to know how much work and focus is takes to make real progress. You'll find pretty quickly that the ones who don't want to be full time musicians will lose focus and interest fairly quickly.
MR: Yeah. But what kind of advice would you give to those artists who know that they would like to do this professionally, but find the landscape of the music business to be very confusing right now?
DSW: I can only speak from my experience, but I would say that you have to let music be your focus and guide you. Granted, it was a very different industry when I started in the '60s. Music focused me. It focused me to the point that it was all I could do. I didn't do anything else. That's how much I loved it and wanted to do it.
MR: You've spoken a lot about training and technique, but you have also said that music is something that comes from the soul. Do you think that there are schools out there that are able to teach that sort of connection?
DSW: Not fully, no. A lot of it has to be done on your own. As far as gaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom on improvisation, you have to do that on your own. I'm not saying don't learn from what the school is teaching you, but at the same time, you need to explore that on your own because no one is going to teach that. The thing is, spirituality is related to all subjects and they aren't going to really teach the relationship between that and music at school. They don't relate spirituality to anything in school except spirituality. That's one of the main mistakes that modern society has made, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. In my opinion, that has a lot to do with religion but that's another story. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Yeah. When you were able to see the completed documentary, did you learn anything about yourself that you didn't previously realize?
DSW: Well, as I said, I learned that I'm supposed to be doing music. That may sound weird because I have been doing this for so long, and I've always kind of known that, but my understanding of who I am is constantly becoming deeper and deeper. My perspective of who I am as an artist, a person, and even a member of the human race becomes deeper and deeper as I get older and grow.
MR: That's great. Amine Kouider, the director of the documentary, does a fantastic job of showing us that you truly understand and are able to articulate the art and expression involved in improvisation. Do you feel that makes you a good teacher of that art?
DW: Well, I'm still trying to pay close attention to the things that life is teaching me moment by moment. And, believe me, I'm trying to get a tighter grasp on some of those lessons. I don't really worry about being a teacher - if somebody learns something from me that's fine. But I am trying to understand all of the lessons that are coming my way. We're all students. Some on lesser levels, and some on higher levels of understanding.
MR: If you were to pick up your sax, and improvise a little bit of this conversation, would you be able to translate that into music?
DSW: Well, conversation doesn't necessarily translate well into an improvisation. You know what I'm saying? I mean, it could and it couldn't. There are so many factors involved. I could be wrapped up in the emotion of a conversation, but as soon as I pick up my sax all of that could change. If you said to me, play something sad I could do it and vice versa. You can set up things, or you can just let things be what they are.
MR: Do you feel like improvisation is something that can have a context and be framed?
DSW: Absolutely. For the Planetary Unknown record, I did the first section on the tenor sax with a certain feel, then I told the band that the second half would be tuned to my soprano sax - we had to play something that was in harmony with my instrument, you know? Then I put the soprano down and picked up my alto, and then we did the same thing.
MR: Do you ever feel the urge to approach an artist with all of your insight and understanding of the improvisational nature of music, and suggest to them that they approach some of their songs from a different place musically or spiritually?
DSW: Well, that can get a little hairy because you don't want to impose on other people's creation. For a while, my wife was taking piano lessons, but she was primarily learning to interpret other people's music rather than learning to create. Whereas, the truth is that when those great composers wrote that music, they were improvising. That's the great secret of it all. But that's the way that most people are taught. The thing about the way that I play is that nobody taught me this. And, after I began playing like this, I realized that there was an entire school of people that felt the same way about music that I did and those are the ones that I hooked up with. My present band is the same way. They weren't brought up in a way that taught them the secrets of improvisation; they went to school like so many others. They went to school and got the same training that I did, and probably had the same struggle finding their place.
MR: What would be your advice for someone who was like you and has a grasp on their instrument and feels like they've really found their place, but they don't know where to go next?
DSW: First, I would say don't go to school. (laughs) If they truly know that that is the case for them, I would strongly suggest not going to a school of music because that would be taking them into an environment that is not for them - it's not about improvisation. However, you also have to weigh that against how you plan to make a living. Do you need a degree to be able to support yourself? These are questions you'd need to ask yourself.
MR: That's great. Are there any musicians in the world of improv that you think we should be looking out for?
DSW: There are so many. If you Google "avant jazz" the list just goes on and on. Some of them are dead, some still living. A master in the older generation that is still living would be Sonny Rollins. He is not only a master saxophonist, but he is one of the remaining living fathers of jazz. He's one of the main reasons that I'm playing the saxophone. People need to know him. Unfortunately the thing that happens with jazz artists is that people get to know them, accomplish great things on their instruments and for the jazz tradition, and still so many millions of people don't know who these people are. Even in America, the birthplace of jazz. There is nothing more American than jazz - not baseball, not football, not apple pie, none of it. And people need to know these great musicians' names. Not only that, but they need to know what their music is about, you know? We still have this incredible 80-year-old master of jazz music in Sonny, and people just don't recognize who he is. That's a shame, because he's a part of American history. There are so many other geniuses that people just don't know about. There was another musician by the name of Sun Ra that was a genius three times over, but so many people don't know who he was and now these geniuses are all gone. We just have to do so much better as a culture to recognize those musical geniuses in this genre and learn from them.
MR: Right, I agree. David, thank you so much for being with us, and good luck with your documentary David S. Ware: A World of Sound.
DSW: Thank you so much, Mike.
To watch the August 30th premiere of David S. Ware: A World of Sound visit DLF.TV
For more info on David S. Ware, visit www.davidsware.com
1. Passage Wudang
3. Duality Is One
5. Crystal Palace
6. Divination Unfathomable
7. Ancestry Supramental