Interview with Bob Rusch
© 1988, Cadence Jazz Magazine
BR: What's the best musical advice you ever received?
MKM: I don't know. I would say, like encouragement, you know, "Keep on and keep on," or "Hang on in there." But I can't put a name or a face to it behind that. The greatest encouragement I got was, when I first started playing, a woman that lived downstairs was retired, elderly woman. We lived on the 4th floor, she lived on the third floor, I was living at home with my mother. She came up one day; she used to knock on the pipes, 'cause I was making noise playing the saxophone. "Why don't you stop that noise."? And she knocked on the door and she came in. She said to my mother, "Mrs. McIntyre, I think he's getting better." That took me...ah! This woman heard me, she lived downstairs and listened to me try to do whatever I was trying to do and she had noticed some improvement. That was encouragement for me.
BR: A number of musicians you mentioned, Dick Twardzik, Serge Chaloff and others, got very much involved with the whole drug scene. Was that part of your involvement also?
MKM: No. I smoked pot. That was funny; it took me weeks before I could get high. Guys were getting high all the time. Finally I did it. It was the funniest thing. I laughed and laughed. It was so funny. I said a cigarette has made me high. Then I graduated. 'Cause you smoke a reefer, you go (makes sniffing sound) and all this kinda stuff and your windpipe would get hot, man I'm getting tired. Let me interject something here: I used to sell reefer, which was catnip. We'd roll up catnip and sell it for $50. One night, this guy got killed; we sold this guy two joints. He drank a half a pint of whiskey and he came back and said, "Man, I drank a half a pint of whiskey and smoked those two joints and I'm still not high." So I said to my buddy, "Look, give him back his money." So we gave him back his dollar. I guess I've been kinda lucky 'cause the next week that guy shot somebody. (laughs) So then someone said, "Man, check this out, this is heroin. Try this." I said, "Oh, wow, this is really incredible." Right to the head. It was clean. I said, "Mmm, I think I can handle this." Then it was (snap) gone, like that, I said, "Oh, mmm, when's he supposed to come back again?" One thing I knew I would never get to; I would never become a junkie because I didn't like nurses or anybody to stick needles in my arm. I didn't like anybody to break my skin in any shape or form. So that's the extent. The other thing was the people in the life were not very bright, because I could be here with you, talking like this and somebody would come up and say to me, put his hand over his mouth like this and say, "Hey man, I've got some hip shit, you wanna check it out?" And this has been done. And I'm sayin', wait a minute, I don't need this, and some idiot comes up to me, whispering to me loud enough so the person with whom I'm speaking can hear. This is not good. Meanwhile, several of my friends died from drugs.
About his early days in Boston:
MKM: When I used to sit in, people used to love my flute playing, they'd say, "Man, play the flute." When I played the alto they didn't know what I was playing. They would rather listen to me playing the flute because they felt they could understand. What it is, they had no measuring stick for what flute players were doing, they had a measuring stick for alto saxophonists. So they could accept me on flute. The only thing out there was Herbie Mann. People would say, "Oh man, you sound better than Herbie Mann." And they meant that as a compliment to me.
He later recalled hearing Bud Powell:
MKM: Bud was a master pianist. No one today can touch him. He played with so much joy, passion, and energy. People think John Coltrane started the practice of playing 20minute solos. I saw Bud play in New York City back in 1954. He was playing with a rhythm section and I believe a couple of horns. When Bud took his solo he played for over 30 minutes. The rhythm section actually left the bandstand one by one, but Bud continued to solo by himself. After 45 minutes, the rhythm section returned and proceeded to play the melody to end the tune; at the end of the melody Bud continued to solo. He was 'in the zone'. He was completely caught up in his playing; in another time and space. When one thinks about the extreme creativity, consciousness, innovation and the higher level of abstract communication that artists such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell exhibited, one can understand why they had problems in life.
BR: You talked about the effect of hearing Bird on records. How did it compare to the effect of first hearing Ornette? When did you first hear Ornette?
MKM: On recording, my buddy who invited me to his house and said I want you to hear this cat who sounds real good.
BR: This is about '59?
MKM: Yeah, '59.
BR: How did you react to that?
MKM: I didn't.
BR: You didn't hear it as profound, a difference?
MKM: No. What was shocking to me, or surprising, was that people thought that's the way I sounded. That got to me, because I didn't sound like that at all to me. That was where I was.
BR: In this period were you going outside a little or a lot (in music).
MKM: One of the problems that I've had, I was always considered outside. I'll put it in context so you can get a better sense of what I'm saying. In Boston I was always considered outside, always. I can remember a friend of mine who was a drummer, he was in his 50's; I was riding around in his Volkswagen one day and he said, "You know, Mac, I wouldn't hire you for a gig." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because I don't understand what you're doing." I was, maybe 21. I was puzzled by the discussion. I couldn't figure out what was going on, because he didn't understand what I was playing. I was shocked. I said, "Well, wait a minute, what's that got to do with anything?" That was a question I said to myself. I said, "What does he mean, he doesn't understand what I'm playing?" I'm not very swift, never been, I don't claim to be swift at all. So I really didn't understand the input of that discussion until sometime later. Then I said, well, I guess people don't want to hire you if you're playing something that they're not that familiar with. Because they wanna feel comfortable that they know what you're gonna play and then everything's fine. I never worked in Boston; I may have sat in with guys. One thing that's very, very clear, when I started playing saxophone, I went back to the piano, so all of the tunes that I knew, I knew the chord changes 'cause I could play the piano. So I was very knowledgeable. So one would respect me for that but one would not have respect for my playing because I wasn't playing like Bird. So when I heard Ornette, Ornette was not in the least bit - not to take anything away from him - he had no impact on me, or very little impact. Because I could hear what he was playing, how he was playing, I could hear where he was coming from and I said, that's slick, it was hip, I liked it. I said, "Mmm, yeah," but that wasn't where I was coming from.
About Looking Ahead:
BR: Is there anything about your own date with Eric Dolphy that you'd like to talk about that hasn't already been talked about or said?
MKM: No. I was a novice, you know. I was in some heavy company. I was in shock when I saw Walter Bishop Jr. because I danced to his music when he was with Bird, like 1948 I guess, maybe it was'50. He came to Playmore Ballroom in Boston. There was a Raymore and a Playmore Ballroom on Huntingdon Avenue, just behind Symphony Hall and Joe Gordon played with Bird. I had known Joe Gordon but I didn't know he played trumpet, yet I used to ice skate in front of his house. In winter they'd freeze the ballpark. I would hear a trumpet, but I never hooked it up. Joe got on the bandstand and played and I could not believe it. It was incredible. Playin' with Bird, it was a trip. So when I walked in the studio, 'cause I didn't know who was gonna be on that date, and I saw Walter Bishop...
BR: You didn't know who was going to be on that date?
MKM: I knew Eric was going to be there. He was the only one that I knew.
BR: I didn't know that. Would you do that today?
MKM: I could do it, but I don't think I'd want to do it. Because you can go in and demand something of a musician that the musician may not be able to give. That, unfortunately, happened with that record date. I had a piece I wanted to play but I couldn't play it.... we played it, but it didn't come off the way that I wanted it to be played, because one of the musicians couldn't read. That was very embarrassing and I don't know how much that cost me in turns of brownie points with this particular person. All the members tried to get this person to get this thing together. They each on their own but couldn't get it together.
BR: You talking about A.T.?
MKM: Yeah. It came out not the way I wanted it to come out.
BR: Was that particular tune not released?
MKM: No, it was released.
BR: Oh, which tune was it?
MKM: Lautir. That's not the way it was supposed to go. I had the rhythm written out.
BR: Would you like to have recorded more than you have?
MKM: No, not recorded. I would like to play more. Perform more.
BR: Don't the two get tied up?
MKM: Not necessarily, see, it's a ruse that they run out there.
BR: I've had clubs I've called to book somebody in. The person will ask me, "Well, have you got his records in the store?" Then I call the stores to see if they want to carry the records and they say, "Well, the guy's not down here playing, I can't sell his records." A catch 22.
MKM: (laughs) Let me tell you a little story - are you familiar with the Five Spot?
MKM: Okay. Ornette was working there and I came down to New York.... this is the old Five Spot.... I'm sitting there, checkin' it out. So I ask, "Hey man, how do I work in here?" He says, "You got any records?" I said, "Yeah man," 'cause I had a couple of albums out. I ran and got one, gave it to him. Iggy and Joe (the owners, the Termini brothers), we're talking and everything and then I ask him what's happening with the gig. "Well we need another album." Oh, that's it, I've got another one. I get my other album, plug it in. Time passes; meanwhile cats are working there, doing all kinds of things. So I said, "Hey, guys, what's happenin'?" They said, "We need another album." I said, "Fuck you." So they're tellin' me this, meanwhile there's guys workin' in there who don't have an album first. They'll do this with younger people. They'll say, "Well look, we'd like to put you in here, but you don't have any album, you don't have anything representing you. So they think that just because they go and get an album.... no, the fact of the matter is, if a person has, in my view, the personality to woo these assholes in these clubs they can work, they can get record dates.
About Playing with Cecil Taylor
MKM: ...Cecil wanted a commitment, which is great. Then he came down, wanting us to go to, I think Pennsylvania, Western Pennsylvania. And I didn't make that gig; because I think I had to pay my own way... something happened. He also wanted to go to Europe. That was in 1966, I just couldn't see myself giving up and going to Europe because we had a child that was born in '65. We had one that was born in '60, I just couldn't do that. He said when we got over there, things would work out, you know. So Sam Rivers went, came back a star. It was a great experience. But I didn't go. That was unfortunate for me in that regard. But, on the other hand, had I gone, I don't think that I would have had a family."
BR: You've had the same wife all these years?"
MKM: Yeah. We've got 27 years together. (1987)
BR: So it seems inescapable that certain of the public profile has been lost. You've given it up in order to: one, have a family; two, insist that there were certain social prerequisites before you would work.
MKM: Um huh. We're talking about decisions that people make.
BR: How did Cecil Taylor instruct you?
MKM: He composed the music. He had music in his head. He would sit at the piano and play a line and say, "Jimmy, this is your line." He may say to me, this is your line 'cause I may be playing oboe or bass clarinet sometimes, I don't think I played any flute, and alto. And he would have a piece of music like "Unit Structures." We'd spend maybe 4 or 5 hours rehearsing. He would go through lines, trumpet player, Eddie, here's your line, Jimmy, go through this line. We'd write the lines down, we'd play them. Then he'd say, "Okay, here's the next section." And he'd go through some more lines. Then we'd go back to what we'd played at first and play that and play this. Then the next day we'd sit and Cecil would go through the whole thing. Then he would say, okay, here's a new section, and he'd add on. It was cumulative. He'd go back and we'd lay that and he'd say, well here, and this would be this section. Then he'd say, well here's another piece. That's how he did his music. So that when you left the band, you took your part with you because you wrote the part. Which is very fascinating because he has all of that so that when you play he would play and he would know in the piece at this point, when you listen to him you might be playing and he would lead you into this next section and you'd play... that's why his music sounds so organic. I really enjoyed playing his music. It was reported to me that Jimmy Lyons said that of all the guys who played in Cecil's band that I was the only one that he felt understood Cecil's music. The music is incredible. And Cecil, as a player, is incredible. His strength, his presence is something to behold. He can give you a heart attack. It's fire, fire. The strength, the commitment, he is committed to his music.
BR: Do you have a preference of instruments? Do you find a conflicting embouchure to switch from flute to...
MKM: No. My preference for instruments is the orchestra.
BR: Thank you Mr. Ellington.
MKM: (laughs) That's perfect, then you can do a lot of things.
BR: What percentage of your musical life do you think is never seen by the public?
MKM: What percentage? 90%.
BR: Outside of the musicians themselves, what is the most important force on creative improvised music?
MKM: Well, I'd like to think of an audience as an important force, but, when you say force... I think an entity might be better... but a force. An audience, I think, is vital. I think in many ways it's more vital than musicians. Because musicians don't... there are biases and, like in everything, musicians would rather people not hear what they have to say. Because it can be a little different from what they're saying and they may not be able to say what you're saying and they feel threatened.
BR: So you think response is important?
MKM: Oh yeah.
BR: Do you pay attention to response?
MKM: I listen to it, I'm not saying it's gonna change me one way or another.
MKM: Do you feel you have power in this business?
MKM: Oh yeah.
BR: In what areas?
MKM: I don't know. I really don't know. Because I don't know my own power. Don't know how I affect people. I don't know how people respond. I know that people have been able to do a lot of things with my name. They've been able to do more with my name than I've been able to do with it. (laughs)
BR: Where do tou think most of the power lies?
MKM: With the managers, no, say, club owners, record producers, and writers. They'll play an important part. Not necessarily in that order.
BR: With your own music, in material terms, who do you think benefits most from your music?
MKM: The people who, if they have the albums, I think they benefit.
BR: In material terms?
MKM: I can't put my finger and say material, that's the case. But I can say the people who produce the records, in material terms, that they're going to be very successful.
BR: How about spiritual terms?
MKM: Oh, all people who hear my music; anyone who hears my music.
BR: Can be a problem?
MKM: Yeah. Because some people don't want to be touched on that level. So it can be problematic.
BR: What's the most relevant factor to your music?
MKM: I am Myself.
BR: Are there major non-musical influences in your music?
MKM: No. You see, it's a life-saving factor for me. One of the problems I have as a teacher is that I think that people come to music the way I've come to music. And, therefore, I make demands of my standards and my perception is warped. Because people do not come to music the way that I did for the reason that I did. Many people become musicians because they don't want to work 9 to 5, or it looks hip to walk around the street with a saxophone. And this is something it took me a long time to understand. So, I don't have an audience. I'm highly motivated to practice, I'm highly motivated to try and get people to hear my music, because it's a way of life for me.
BR: What's your biggest musical irritant?
MKM: The thing that annoys me the most about musicians, I'm rephrasing the question, is not being prompt for rehearsal and/or not being early for a performance. Not allowing enough time. Because, you see, music to me is a community and if you have 5 people and you're going to rehearse at a certain time and 3 people are there and you start rehearsing, and one comes in, that messes with the vibes, then another comes in that messes with the vibes, consequently there's a disjoint taking place. In some instances, the people who come in late never fit in to what's going on. Because some of us have been told that we are fine musicians and so our egos tell us we can come in late and fit in and everything can work. Now that may work for some people in some other people's bands, but my music is not that kind. When you come in, and I'm the same way in terms of teaching, when I start lecturing... 'cause I feel sorry for students who come in after I get started because I'll have some gibberish on the board. Sometimes I'll look at the board and I'll say, "What is that?" I wonder if these students learn anything. I look up there, and those who are with me know how all that occurred. But some of them coming afterward have no idea what has transpired and how whatever is on the board got to be on the board. In the classroom situation, it's the same thing in the music.
BR: What motivates you to keep on?
MKM: I want to live (laughs); pure and simple.
BR: Up to now - was there a "best" period for you, when things were most right?
MKM: In terms of my family, yeah, there was a best period because my children have grown up and so that was a best period for me in terms of my family.
BR: You can look back on that very nostalgically.
MKM: Oh yeah. My wife says I haven't been around enough, but I think that's the part of what they're taught to say.
BR: I don't think that while they're growing up you think it's never going to end.
MKM: And they're grown now. Now I think it's ahead of me. In terms of music coming to fruition and my being able to function as an artist, is ahead of me.
BR: Are there people that you look to for inspiration? Who are anchors for you?
MKM: No. I've been inspired by everybody I've ever heard. Because I hear people and I'm immediately drawn to it. What one hears in me is a composite of all that I've ever heard. That's what I represent. It's put in my context so it sounds unique.
BR: In that regard is the sense of the avant-garde relevant to you? Do you concern yourself with being in the so-called avant-garde?
MKM:"No, I did at one point. I was teaching and I said to my students, "You know, I'm waiting for my audience to catch up." And they laughed at me. They said, you better get out and play; they're not gonna catch up. I was like marking time. And people would say, you know, I heard that album you did in 1960, man, those things are fresh; they're right on the money today. I'd say, well, I need to hear that like a hole in the head. Because since 1960 I made some... they may not have been giant steps... but I've made some baby steps, and that's where my head is.
BR: And you feel you've been influential?
MKM: Sure, sure. Where I don't know. I always think of it when I hear guys play high notes on saxophone because that was pointed out to me. Nils Winther said, "Yeah, man, I know that's you on that alto because I hear those high tones.
BR: Well, you still play those.
MKM: Oh yeah.
BR: Of course, there's a precedent before that, too. Illinois Jacquet did that, to some extent.
MKM: Oh yeah, those one note... But in terms of playing, you play one tone, because it's easier to do it on a baritone saxophone. The lower the pitch, the higher you can go because the frequencies are that much greater, you've got more to work with. So a baritone saxophone player can play very, very high 'cause of all that tubing.
BR: Do you have a preferred forum for your music? Concert, records, night clubs?
MKM: Oh, I would love to play concerts but at the same time, some clubs that are nice clubs, because I like the people to hear my music. I wouldn't care - I have played in libraries. I'd play anyplace as long as people wanna hear the music. When you go to Europe you play in night clubs and man, they smoke some cigarettes over there that, whew, are strong, very strong.
BR: You don't smoke at all?
MKM: No. I gave that up in 1961, December 5th. And drinking. I can't afford it. Kills too many brain cells. I don't have that many, I can't gamble with them.
BR: I think it's very distressing and I don't think that it's coincidental that so many musicians die from particular diseases who also do a lot of work in night clubs that are small and so smoke-intense.
BR: Occupational hazard.
MKM: Indeed. No question. And the club owners love it because when you go into the club, if I'm an alcoholic, they love me. They let you run a tab, and so on. They're making 150% markup, they're way ahead and they say, okay, we'll put this on your tab.
BR: And you end up thanking them.
MKM: Oh, thank you. Then people come and say, "Let me buy you a drink, and I say, "I'll take an orange juice." The guy said, "Shit, man I'm not paying for any orange juice." I said, "Oh, okay" and that was that. That hit me, and all the people that were in my band did not drink.
BR: Was that a prerequisite?
MKM: No, it just happened to be that way. I said, "Dig this." So this cat's not gonna buy me a drink 'cause I'm not gonna drink the poison. So, no one in here is drinkin' poison, so we're not gonna be doin' much business for the club owner. He wants you to come up after every set and get yourself a couple of drinks and put it on your tab. So you end up givin' them money. (laughs)
BR: What do you predict for 1997?
MKM: Oh, I'll be very busy.1997, yeah, I'll be very busy. Busy in terms of writing, literary writing, composing and performing.
BR: You thinking of writing a book?
MKM: Oh, I've got a few to write.
MKM: No, I haven't even thought of that. Studies, in terms of, history, history of music. Another, elements in music, theoretical subjects in music. You may say methodologies. Maybe, uh, ways of perceiving, ways of knowing...
BR: How important do you think it is in this business in order to be active, to attach yourself to a group, a movement or a clique?
MKM: I think it's very important because society dictates that you belong to some group. So many people do that because they're drawn to it. I'm not particularly drawn to groups, personally, so I'm a problem in that regard.
BR: Are you exclusively working with your own groups now?
MKM: I am. Not necessarily by choice. I'm with Charlie Haden. When Charlie Haden puts his group together, I work with him.
BR: Does competition play much of a factor in your business?
MKM: Unfortunately I think it does. When you have a supply that is greater than the demand you have to juggle something. 'Cause there are a lot of people here and there's one little tunnel that they can go down. So whoever's the gatekeeper on that tunnel shoves and shunts and gets the one person to go down that tunnel, the rest of us will stand there. And when the gatekeeper says, "We'll take one more," then the gatekeeper will open it and so on and so forth. How can one compete? In many ways this has caused me to say, well, I don't want to apply for gigs in clubs because there are people who don't have the options that I do. So therefore if I go and put pressure on someone to give me a gig, I'm taking away a gig from somebody who may not have the options that I do. In a sense, I shouldn't be thinking this way, I should think about myself as a musician who's very capable - and there's the question in my mind about my capableness, not the least - but, there's something in me that says, let's see if we can go another way, and let them keep that because they don't have the options that I have. In many ways I'm trying to circumvent competitiveness for a gig.
BR: What makes you feel good?
MKM: Oh, I get up and I see the sun every day when it shines.