Alan Silva
Interviews with Dan Warburton
November 8th - 22nd 2002










Alan Silva (middle) at home in Paris, with Catherine Bourgoin and Itaru Oki


How old were you when you moved to New York from Bermuda, and what were your earliest musical memories there?

I was five when my mother returned to New York to claim her US citizenship (I wasn't born American - I was technically a British citizen until I was about 18 or 19), and I grew up at 121st St and Mt Morris Avenue, smack in the middle of Harlem. My mother and my aunt took me to hear some great swing bands, but radio was the most important thing for me: I got my music education primarily from that. Just turn the dial! I had my little quartz radio, listened through headsets. I've been fascinated by electronics since I was a kid - I was one of the first to get a portable record player.
My music education started about 1950, when I became involved with the Mt Morris Presbyterian Church, with a very engaged Minister, Rev. Adair. I studied piano and drums. We had the Ellington band come to our church by the time I was about 12 years old. Harlem was a very progressive place - my generation was a generation of achievers, and the guys I went to school with were all successful - I hate people thinking of Harlem as a ghetto. The great American concept was the melting pot, and I go all the way on the melting pot. My neighbourhood was fundamentally African-American, but as my grandfather probably came from Africa there was no problem for my mother to be accepted, so I studied with Afro-American musicians who were steeped in that tradition of American music: James P. Johnson, Scott Joplin. There were rent parties, events at church and dancing, which was absolutely the fundamental thing in that community: you had to dance. We danced to Latin bands just as well as bebop. I was familiar with bebop through the radio (I was too young to get in to see the gigs); I bought my first Stan Getz / Dizzy Gillespie record "Musicians Only" because it said "for musicians only", a group of people playing music for themselves.

How did you make contact with Donald Byrd?

I used to go to a small record shop on 125th St and 8th Ave. (When I first started going there the jazz records were up front, but as r&b came along the jazz records were pushed to the back of the store.) The first record that knocked me out was "Byrd's Word", [Savoy, 1955] with Donald Byrd, Frank Foster, Hank Jones, Paul Chambers and Kenny Clarke. Donald Byrd was so flashy, so tricky. A lot of great guys were strung out on heroin - I didn't want to deal with that, my brother-in-law died from that - but Donald Byrd was, as my mother would say, "respectable". When I was about 15 he played a jam session in a club on 135th St. I was tall and I could pass for eighteen and so I got in, and I went up to him and said: "Do you give lessons?" He said yes, and gave me his telephone number. Of course, I didn't have a trumpet! (laughs). So what do you do? You go down to the pawnshop. In Harlem pawnshops are good places to look for instruments because musicians are always putting their instruments in hock! I bought a trumpet for about $25.
Donald Byrd was a brilliant teacher, very classically oriented. He could take trumpet exercises and make them swing. He asked us to transcribe solos - we never had the Real Book. This (points to ear) is the Real Book. I sat in on many of his Blue Note recording sessions. I'm very happy he was my mentor. I played trumpet seriously for five years, I could read - being a musician means making a living of what you do: you had to learn how to read. I could play third trumpet parts but I was not a soloist. Technically I was OK, but I didn't express myself very well, it just didn't come out. When I was about 19 Donald told me: "Alan, you're not gonna be a great trumpet player. I don't think you got it." (He had other students like Jimmy Owens [four years Silva's junior] who was about thirteen years old and had sound, attack, and could really improvise..) Donald Byrd said: "The only people who survive in this business are the people who write songs. If you can write music you can make a living. Why don't you go to Columbia and study Music Education?" He told me jazz was a very difficult career to make money with. Jazz musicians in the fifties just about made scale (about $22 an hour). It was all unionised.

When you went to Columbia you met Alan Lomax.

Yeah. Alan Lomax. I sat in on one of his folk music classes, and it just fascinated me. I went to the library for two years and read everything I could on the music of the American Indians. I was fascinated by American music, especially Louis Armstrong. What hit me was the idea of collective improvisation. I read his book on Jelly Roll Morton ["Mister Jelly Roll", 1950]. I liked Lomax's idea that popular music was very important - an American concept, as opposed to a European one. Alan Lomax was one of the first people to say: "Let's listen to our music." For the first time in the history of musicology records were important. I started to see a fault line, a difference between improvisation and composition. I needed to learn what improvisation was, how to handle material within its own context, learn how Louis Armstrong handled his horn and how he was different from Bix Beiderbecke.. When a man plays an instrument, he plays his mind. A composer is something different; Europeans learn to transmit symbols from one generation to the next, but not sounds: nobody today can play like Bach played.

When did the bass come in?

As a trumpet player I couldn't improvise the way I wanted to; it didn't flow. I had to give it up. One night I was at a friend's party in college, and there was a band and the bass player didn't show up. I'd played bass in a few jam sessions and I knew a few positions so I went up there and picked it up and - Jesus Christ, it felt fucking good! I started playing walking lines, I was skating through it, and they knew it ("Damn, Alan, that was a wrong note!"), but it felt good! (laughs) I got off the stage and said to my friend, "Tomorrow I'm gonna buy a bass."
I'd just gotten married, and I was working as a professional jeweller. Music had become secondary. I got myself a bass, and a "Tune for a Day" book, and I went downtown and took lessons from Ali Richardson. We studied Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford and The Modern Jazz Quartet by listening to records. Playing with the record. He'd go make some coffee and say: "You played a wrong note there!" He had an incredible ear. He used to work in a lot of piano bars (he had it pretty locked up with the Union), so I became a kind of piano bar bass player - just bass and piano. That put me on the Greenwich Village scene, Bleecker Street, the Five Spot.. Donald Byrd and I were at the Five Spot that night in 1959 when Ornette Coleman came to town with Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Don Cherry. I remember saying to Donald: "He reminds me of Louis Armstrong. Of Jelly Roll Morton!" I was from New York, and Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk had been icons for me, but after I heard Ornette I began to have major problems with bebop, with a music where soloing was the primary objective. Ornette was really proposing something different to me as a musician of 21 years old. He was moving in another direction outside the system, by proposing a quartet without piano.

Who were your other "icons" at the time?

Many of my ideas as a bass player came from Charles Mingus. I went to a lot of his workshops and saw how he worked with [drummer] Dannie Richmond. I liked his ensemble concept - people don't realise that Mingus made great advances in terms of group improvisation. I suppose the most important figures for me after Ellington and Armstrong were probably John Coltrane and Miles Davis. My education, as I said before, was based primarily on listening to records. I was an avid jazz collector, not just a musician. The timeline from 1955 to 1959 is important. George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept, Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" changed my whole way of thinking about music. They are three major events in establishing modal jazz, which opened up the field of polytonality that bebop had been moving towards. Those albums are the highest level of creativity, a launching pad for any young musician. Let's talk about "Giant Steps".. why's it called "Giant Steps"? It's coded. Very few people have ever recorded "Giant Steps". Can you do "Giant Steps" differently? Very few people have. I never heard John do that tune live. For the saxophonist, for the rhythm section, it's a hard tune.
Miles is a key guy, and contrary to what people think and what journalists write, he wasn't outside the free jazz movement, musicologically speaking. (The failure of jazz journalism is that it only talked about his records - if you bought Miles' records and then went to hear him play, you'd hear two different things. Same with Coltrane.) What interested me on "Kind of Blue" was the way he reduced the number of chords and improvised just over a mode, the economy of his solos, the symmetry (or lack of it) - and how the bass functioned in the band. How do you construct a bass line across a fixed chord? You can pedal - a pedal functions as tension, repetitiveness - but I realised there could be a horizontal approach, improvising along with the chords rather than just playing the roots. His later electric period was a continuation of that: the Moog synthesizer was there, and by 1970 the electric guitar was dominating music education. Most people chose electric guitar instead of trumpet; rock had an enormous impact on music education. The electrification of music goes along with the evolution of the recording medium and Miles and Teo Macero understood that.

You were also familiar with Cecil Taylor's work at the time. Do you think he was as important a free jazz innovator as Ornette?

I don't think Cecil fundamentally established free jazz. He was a continuation of the piano / bass / drums tradition. He had much more legitimacy - he began in 1955, he was a jazz musician, he came from New England Conservatory - he was talented! Don't forget Afro-American people can play European music - Cecil was absolutely classically trained, like Mary Lou Williams - they can play Chopin as well as they play the blues, but where do they go with that talent in New York City? The major problem with the American music scene has always been a problem of race relations, and our ability to integrate and merge different kinds of working conditions. My basic theory of why we have jazz in America is simply because it's a racist country. If it hadn't been racist, we might not have had jazz. Charles Mingus was an American musician who had the right to play anywhere in the country and if he'd been allowed to exercise that right when he was 16 years old - he was a goddamn good cello player - maybe he wouldn't have done what he did. A lot of black bands could read just as well and play just as well but they didn't get the studio jobs that pay good money. To assume that black people can't read music, or that jazz comes out of people who cannot read music, that's another theory I can't accept.
I saw a real difference between what improvisation was and what written music was. We knew that if you could read something you could play it, but we had no scientific basis to prove that people could be creative with instruments. No music educator in 1960 ever proposed that. I wanted to be the first music educator to work with improvisation. I had to be a revolutionary.

"When a man plays an instrument, he plays his mind."

You were disillusioned, then, with what you'd read on the subject.

Yes. I read [Hugues] Panassié when I was about 18 or 19. I thought he was biased, racist, unprofessional, I thought it was a piece of shit. Did he go to New Orleans? Did he go to Africa? No, he sat in his fucking home in Paris and listened to some records. That's WRONG, that's unscientific and that's incorrect. And it's still going on today. How did publishing in America start? It started as a business. Who controlled the publishing business in America? Immigrant Europeans. The whole power structure was European. When Charlie Parker made that statement in 1949 to Downbeat that he didn't have a blues tradition, that everything came from Hindemith, what he was really saying was: "I am an American musician and you have no right to tell me what to play and where I should be playing." You have to realise it's very political. The United States is a racist country, man. Up until 1963 Europeans had built an image of American music based on what they wanted it to be, not what we wanted it to be. That's why I don't support European improvisation as a theoretical concept: it's not correct to teach music about nationalist orientations - music is music. You have an ear, you have to put it together for yourself, no critic can do that for you. You have to listen to the music.

We've spoken of musicology; how does music theory fit in?

Music theory talks about pure tones, but there was no such thing as pure tones until the 1960s when we got electronics to make us pure tones. Until that happened, all we had was sound: and when Louis Armstrong played he sold his sound, and people said: "That's Louis Armstrong." And that happened in America, not in Europe." That is the basis of my aesthetic. You have the idea of "he doesn't play in tune.." - what do you mean by tune? Johnny Hodges, listen to the complexity of the sound, man! You can't say Frank Wright was angry, he wasn't angry, he was just playing music! That became an important field of my work - tonal timbre, people being able to transmit their musical entity into the instrument. It's called vernacular. It happens in gypsy music, in folk music, this is tradition, instrumental technique. I didn't like European musicologists saying music in Africa is primitive. You got to look at shit for what it really is. Lomax said: "Look at it man, record it, listen to it and write it down." Lomax made recorded documents the essential tool for the development of what we have today. The guys who started Blue Note were fascinated by the sound of the records they heard back in Germany, and recognised that the record was a really important document. They were brilliant enough to walk in and record those blues bands and not tell them what to do. I also respect [ESP Disk's] Bernard Stollman for that - he let the artists in America speak for themselves.
In the early 1960s I was in a very intricate community of painters, and creative people. I was starting to see that something was emerging from this soup of Downtown. I felt that Ornette and Cecil were contemporary and I felt I should move with them. I wanted to learn American music. Meeting those guys, working in different scenes - contemporary American music, folk music, American Indian music, I realised that there should be no classification. It was world music, the vernacular. There were folk bands, ukulele bands, Peter Paul and Mary, the whole American folk music scene was all happening in the Village. There was John Cage, Morton Feldman, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Mingus, Edgard Varèse, Cecil Taylor. Donald Byrd and I went to a concert of Ravi Shankar. And one day I ran into Sun Ra. I'd heard his music from "Jazz In Transition" [1957], and I met him when he did his first coffeehouse gig with his band. Fantastic! He had some fantastic players. As a listener I could locate people; they each had their timbre, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, Ronnie Boykins on bass. It changed my way of thinking - Sun Ra replaced Ellington as my idea of what an orchestra should be. I have always been a supporter of orchestral music, and my career reflects that: symphony orchestra is not our tradition - big bands are, and in 1962 Sun Ra was the sum total of what I wanted to be. Collective improvisation was what I wanted to do, and Sun Ra coming to New York was a major event in my life. I had gotten deep into New Orleans music when I was about 18 or 19 - Jelly Roll Morton for me was an absolutely modern composer, the first original American composer - I felt Armstrong's music and Morton's music weren't old at all. And Ra for me was the key, because he had worked with Fletcher Henderson.

You were also active as a painter at the time. How did that interface with your music?

I would go to a painting and actually play it, as graphic notation. I was interested in the relationship between painting and music, from Abstract Expressionism back to Kandinsky's early abstract painting. I looked into everything that had to do with vision and sound. I wanted to integrate painting and music, music and light. I knew LaMonte Young - interesting cat, I liked him too - he was an aspiring improvisor. I played cello on a piece he did, [Silva remembers it being a part of "The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys" but is unsure of the exact date]. He was using oscillators to create stable sinewave drones, and I had to play this one pitch all the way through. I thought it was pretty tedious and I told him he ought to find someone else to do it, not me. Which he did, of course. At the time, I was more into Varèse, I thought he was incredible, and I was studying Lennie Tristano's music, especially his ideas about stream of consciousness, and that led to Huxley and to the doors of perception, mind expansion. In 1962 I was experimenting with recording: with my four-track tape recorder I could speed up records and slow them down - Ornette Coleman slowed down is pure blues!

How did the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble come about?

About this time there was the Civil Rights movement, which was primarily a movement to liberate black people from second-class citizenship. In music that meant we had to integrate, to fight for civil rights in music, television, all the media. The pop music industry never integrated: rock bands never integrated, but Ornette did, Donald Byrd too. If I had a band I wanted it integrated - I support this great tradition. Free jazz was later thrown in with Black Power and I don't agree with that. If you start judging me for my race I'll kick your ass, because I'm an integrationist. I don't go for nationalist bullshit. In 1962 I rented a house in Brooklyn [419 Cumberland] that I wanted to turn into a kind of community, artists living communally together. I always liked the Sun Ra idea that improvisation could be a social organisation, not just a musical one. I was trying to establish improvisation, the improvisor as a unique figure in the history of music, and The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble was my first collective band, from 1962 to 1964. (I wonder in fact if we were the first to use the word "improvisation" in the name of the band.) No leader - I felt that was very important. I had three basses, Eddie Gale on trumpet, and Clarence Walker played drums (he later became an electronics engineer). [Pianist] Burton Greene answered an ad I put in a newspaper [Silva was looking for "anybody into cosmic consciousness through music, art and expression"], and he came, bringing [flutist] Jon Winter and [saxophonist] Gary Friedman, who at the time was also studying composition with Hall Overton and Vladimir Ussachevsky. When Burton came, he tried to get us some gigs. Before then we weren't playing real gigs, apart from some events in some Unitarian churches. There was a New Music Festival at Town Hall organised by Norman Seaman. We knew him and so we got to play one of his series - on stage we had music stands with blank paper on them.

From there you joined the Jazz Composers Guild.

Bill Dixon came to hear the group and he liked it, and he invited us to join the Jazz Composers Guild, and play in a series of concerts in the Cellar Café called October Revolution. I got to play with different bands, and I was impressed to see how many jazz musicians were out there playing this new music. I saw the contrast between the Afro-American tradition and a new tradition that I considered Bill to be part of, and I saw improvisation as the key. We wanted to purify music in America. That's always been my goal, and I saw this as a great opportunity. You see, my concern was for Civil Rights. I didn't define that in a Marxist way - for me it was simply in the Constitution. I had no leftist leanings - others were more political. For better or worse, when he set up the Guild, Bill Dixon integrated. He chose Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Mike Mantler, Roswell Rudd, Burton Greene. He also chose Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra. He chose the FFIE out of a lot of bands. We had a meeting, one man one vote, and voted to join the Guild. That, in a sense, ultimately led to the break-up of the FFIE.
I had a major problem with the name though: I didn't like the word "jazz" - I always felt it was a bad word, like "ghetto" - and I didn't like the word "composers" either. (I never really liked Gunther Schuller's idea of Third Stream: it was too harsh, too contrived, pushing two different kinds of music together. It didn't seem to happen naturally.) I joined the Guild because I thought these musicians were some of the most important improvisors - not composers - I thought Cecil Taylor was a fantastic improvisor. I wanted to establish American improvisation as a unique form of music on its own terms. Anyway, they ended up accepting the name "Jazz Composers Guild", and I became very actively involved. It was a tight group, with tight byelaws created by Bill himself, simply because he believed that way we could act together. We had decided to deal as a group. All your gigs had to come through the Guild. Some people wanted it to be a non-profit organisation, but I wanted to run it as a regular company. We went down to City Hall to register as a business, with a bank account and the right to run it commercially and make records. Bill wanted to sell the entire Guild to a record label for a certain amount of money, but my idea was different: I was into making our own records. My perspective was the same as Sun Ra's with Saturn. We should make our own: why should we go to Riverside, or Prestige?

"I believe a record is a legitimate manifestation of a tune and its evolution, and the copyright doesn't stop with the tune - all the music on the record is the composition."

The Guild didn't last long, of course, and the acrimonious circumstances of its break-up are reasonably well documented. What kept it together?

What kept it together was the concert series we produced in a dance studio above the Village Vanguard. Some nights we did better business than them! We gave a concert in that space every weekend for about six months. I was a fervent supporter of that; the idea that musicians had their own space was fundamental to me. That concert series was what got the record companies interested. I saw that, and I wanted those concerts recorded. I was one of the few cats who believed that the live performances were better - Alan Lomax's axis: catch the music when it's happening live. I put a lot of energy into it, and when we played our concerts at Judson Hall I made sure they were recorded, and everybody owned his or her own tape. We just needed to begin the next step, the mastering and pressing of the records, and that was expensive. I suggested that we do concerts and not pay ourselves any money. Put the money into the record. Now, the FFIE was absolutely co-operative, but Cecil and Archie had sidemen, so we set up some criteria, like Archie Shepp as a member didn't get any money but his sidemen did. Archie agreed to that - those were the byelaws - when he came to the meeting he came as Archie Shepp, not with his sidemen.
The story goes down that the Guild was broken because Impulse! offered a contract to Archie Shepp but to nobody else in the Guild. Now, Archie was bound by the byelaws of the company, and he broke the law. This, for me, who was pro-company, was out. It led to the downfall of the structure we had imposed upon ourselves. If you can't abide by your own laws, you're fucked. Everybody felt that Impulse! was working on Archie to break up the Guild, and this whole psychological warfare began. Bill recorded for Savoy, and Archie signed to Impulse! and Cecil got a contract with Blue Note, and that eventually broke the Guild.
The downfall of the Guild had many facets to it, and my version of the story has never been heard: for me it was all about copyright. The major issue was the right for musicians to record what they want to record, without any A&R. "Artists and Repertoire". What does that mean? Repertoire is owned by a publishing company, owned by a songwriter who makes the money. That's the basis of the recording industry: "You record what we think you ought to record." When you record for a company, the contracts are primarily in favour of that company and what they own, physically. Who is the producer? What is the legal basis of a master tape? It may be your personal property, but what happens if you make a copy of it? Copyright laws are in favour of composers, not players. You get royalties on the sale of your records, not on their content. Charlie Parker's solos were not copyrighted - when he died and I found out what his estate was worth, I saw it wasn't right. Copyright laws have never recognised sound documents as a copyright; a solo is not considered intellectual property. (I found this out when I sent a master tape to Washington DC and they asked to see the score.) Most jazz musicians have no "property"; but if you look at the master tapes and record labels' ability to reissue them for the next hundred years, all they have to do is renew the song. They don't have pay family or kids, nothing. We have still not come to grips with what I have just said. I was the first guy to say I was an improvisor, and all my work is copyrightable. I take it and put it on a record, it's a piece of published work and if I am the producer, I own the master tapes. I'm not working for hire. You see, for me a record is a score; you can learn from it and you can play it. If you can't analyse a piece of music from a record and write it down, you're out of my book. I believe a record is a legitimate manifestation of a tune and its evolution, and the copyright doesn't stop with the tune - all the music on the record is the composition. At the time, I was probably the only guy who understood that.

You continued to work closely with Bill Dixon after the Guild's break-up.

Bill was a painter, like me, and we got together to do some very interesting projects in the New York art and dance scene of the time. We used light shows, I was making my own slides, working with colour and music. At the time I was working light shows with rock bands. We went to Warhol's movies and openings, this was the beginning of the psychedelic scene. We worked with visual information, using projections of oil and light as a graphic score, projected on a dancer - we did several important pieces with [dancer] Judith Dunn. I was working with a lot of harmonics by developing my bow technique, and Bill developed a fantastic way of playing the trumpet, using throat sounds and playing through microphones and tape recorders. For us, the tape recorder was standard equipment: Bill was one of the first guys to figure out that a vinyl record could be a vehicle for improvisation. We sat there and figured we could make records like artists make prints. We conceptualised that the record could actually be an art form, and mixed tapes together into huge multi-track pieces. We made a lot of tapes. Bill Dixon has apparently lost them. That's a drag.

Your next working relationship was with Cecil Taylor, notably on the Blue Note albums "Unit Structures" and "Conquistador!"

I remember hearing Cecil Taylor back in 1957 at Newport - it was really not bebop: he was developing something new, and doing it playing Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately"! I thought "Into The Hot" with Gil Evans was absolutely phenomenal. I thought Cecil was going to be the next Duke Ellington. His soloing was really far-reaching: a lot of space, a lot of poignancy. It blew my mind. And there was Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray - a whole new rhythm section. I want to say here that I really respect Sunny Murray for developing drums. He's a great cat, great sense of humour, kinda crazy, but really talented. He turned me on to Helmholtz's book, "On the Sensations of Tone". The question of vibration. We got into that because Varèse was talking about that, and I love Varèse's music. When I got a chance to work with Sunny on his album [ESP 1032, 1966] he was playing this huge bass drum, and if you listen to the sound of "Angels & Devils", it's a whole new approach, the way he's dealing with time. Acceleration and deceleration of time. Sunny's vibrating cymbal idea eliminated beats and the bass became a drone, a hum. It was the end of swing as we know it - it became so fast it became slow: Sunny Murray is the first drummer who ever played the Theory of Relativity. He taught me a lot, Cecil too.

Such as?

Permutations, how to create structures out of notes. Cecil's playing was extremely complex; he had a unique language - "Unit Structures" [Blue Note 84237, 1966] is one of the greatest realisations of his notational concept. Yes, there's a score. Nobody plays "Unit Structures" in a jam session! That album took us four months of rehearsal. We had to learn the music: me, Eddie Gale, Ken McIntyre, Jimmy [Lyons], Andrew [Cyrille], and Henry [Grimes]. That and "Conquistador" are well-structured pieces of music, not what people would normally think of as "free jazz". To this day people have yet to realise this. People never mention the notes to that album - you should analyse that text, because it tells you a lot about Cecil's sources. It's very dense. There's a great analysis of it on my website written by Matthew Goodheart.

During this time you were also playing off and on with Sun Ra.

My collaboration with Sun Ra started back in 1962. We were in the Jazz Composers Guild together, and as I told you, in the Guild I was in charge of records and music education. Well, Ra was one of the greatest music educators there has ever been: he took musicians and educated them himself from scratch. Goddamn, I could write a book about what I learned from him. I learned that if you want to go into the business, you gotta have a concept, a meaning in your music bigger than the music itself. I learned that there had to be a spiritual involvement in making art. That doesn't necessarily mean believing in God, but it means there has to be an inner emotional drive to create something. Sun Ra developed a whole world. I played with his band on several occasions (I never moved into the house at 48 East 3rd Street with them.. I was married - but my wife and I had a very good relationship, and she let me do my work). I brought him some scores of mine, some arrangements. Improvisation didn't need composers, but I felt it needed arrangement and orchestration. I had studied Schillinger (who had come to the US in 1928 with his huge mathematical system in place - Gershwin studied with him) and George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept, and I was thinking about multiple line structures, how to have ten instruments playing at the same time with different relativity. There's counterpoint in European music - a fugue for example is a three or four line structure, but there's always one harmonic structure underlying it all. I see European counterpoint as basically a vertical / horizontal orchestration of one melody, not ten.

It's fair to assume Sun Ra knew Schillinger's books, I suppose.

Oh yes, he read.. Sun Ra always talked about music as formulas. He'd been in the music business since he was a kid. When I showed him my score he said: "You won't find any musicians to play this score. Nobody's thinking like that, Alan." I said: "What do I do?" He said: "You stay with me - I got the band." Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Danny Davis were great, great players. Multi-instrumentalists too: Sun Ra expected his musicians to play several instruments, and everybody had to play a percussion instrument. My move towards the cello and violin was his idea. I was in and out of that band from 1964 to 1970 and I probably would have stayed with them if I hadn't moved to Paris.

"We played to about 3000 kids sitting there mesmerised. We played for one hour and ten minutes. The Yardbirds were backstage saying: 'What the fuck is that?!' I said: 'This is psychedelic music.'"

How did you meet up with Albert Ayler?

I first met Albert in a club one night when I was working in a trio with a pianist called Valdo Williams and a drummer by the name of Splivvy. Valdo was a cocktail pianist, but he was the most advanced piano player I'd heard outside of Cecil Taylor. We did a lot of work together between 1962 and 1965. Ever hear his "Desert Fox"? One of the most interesting compositions I've ever seen - changing all the time, like "Giant Steps". Man, that was a great piece. We used to play in a strip club on West 4th Street, and across the street was an Irish bar, and behind this bar was a room where we would play cocktail bar music on the weekends. (A good gig that paid good money!) We were playing the last set one night, and Albert Ayler came in and asked if he could sit in, and I said: "Sure, what do you want to play?" and he said he wanted to play "Ornithology"! Man, Albert played that shit down, right on key, fantastic timing. He had a great forward sense, a little bit ahead of the beat. Then his solo - the first chorus was very interesting from the point of view of phrasing; he played a very good hard bop solo, all chords and lines. Then on the second chorus it started to change, and a lot of different sounds came in, but the timing was still good. And the third chorus.. that was it! That was the end of bebop. He made the real jump. I heard that that night. This was not a jazz club, and we hardly ever played even bebop, and here was Albert really stretching out. It started getting really crazy, and the club owner came up and told us to stop. I packed up my bass, and Albert and I walked to the train station and he said: "I'll see you later". Albert and I didn't see each other for several years until he called and asked me to play at the Village Theater. This was February 1967, and I was still with Cecil Taylor at the time and Sun Ra too. My journeyman period. I only played on two tunes, but one of them was "For John Coltrane". I'm so happy I was on that, with that fabulous string section: violin, cello and two basses. It was a stunning piece of music. Albert's work with multiphonics and upper registers led to a whole new school of saxophone playing - he changed the whole way you conceptualised music when you don't have chords. I never knew how to describe what he did on his horn, but it was completely natural and in harmony with the voice. It was spiritual - the goal was not just to play music but to become music.
After that Albert got a contract to record for Impulse! His first recording session was for "Love Cry" [Impulse! 9165, rec.1967/68], with Milford [Graves] on drums, his brother [Donald on trumpet] and Cal Cobbs [on keyboards]. About a week before the session he called and told me he wanted me to play on it, which was fantastic for me because I hadn't recorded for a major label since "Unit Structures". Albert had played with Sunny and Gary Peacock, and now Milford and I established another way of playing with him. Tunes like "Omega" and "Universal Indians" are very interesting. On "Love Cry" we recorded short cuts - I knew Albert was planning to play the Fillmore, which was a rock club. His music came right out of Americana - soul, r&b and gospel, which was one of the key elements that were shaping the transcendental ideas of the 1960s, so I thought we were right in that zone. I saw a new audience emerging out of rock - look at what John Sinclair did with the MC5, a great band, a radical band - and these kids were our next audience: Albert was right to want to play to them. Well, when I walked out of the studio I assumed I was hired as part of this, but then [Impulse!'s] Bob Thiele changed the band. On [Ayler's next album] "New Grass" Bill Folwell played electric bass. I didn't want to shift from acoustic to electric bass - I preferred working on the electrification of the acoustic bass with contact mics. I never heard from Albert again, and not long after that of course he died.

I suppose it's useless to speculate on what he might have done had he lived.

There was a new generation of record buyers, the baby boomers, the people born after World War Two, and by 1970 they had become the basis of the market (they still account for 40 or 50% of it). 250,000 people bought [Coltrane's] "A Love Supreme" - a lot of young white kids had that record. We needed that in America - peace and love, anti-war protests, those were our primary political objectives. The idea of spirituality, cosmic consciousness, the idea that we're in contact with the universe on a conscious level was for me the key point of 1960s music, and it was a message for people the world over. I never believed this music was elitist music. It was spiritual music, and it could be played anywhere in America, thanks to psychedelia and Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Grateful Dead. Jimi was jamming with Sam Rivers. There was John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, orientalism, Zen, religion, The Beatles in India.. it was all bubbling. If you got on LSD it was all music. I knew Timothy Leary, and I was an advocate of LSD - I was absolutely a psychedelic person. We were up there in Woodstock too - we had an artists' colony there called 212 with Sunny [Murray], Archie Shepp, Sonny Simmons, Burton Greene and others. We knew Country Joe and the Fish, I'd played with a lot of those bands from my coffee shop days. I was a journeyman, I knew those guys. I thought Albert's "Love Cry" would get to that market, but Impulse! didn't have the market share. I had thought that "Unit Structures" might have been the key, but Blue Note, which was still identified as a "jazz" label didn't have the muscle either.
In May 1968 I went on tour with Cecil Taylor to the West Coast with Eddie Gale, Jimmy Lyons, Frank Wright and Andrew Cyrille. We had a two-week residency at Stanford, played the Berkeley Jazz Festival, and then we opened for the Yardbirds at the Fillmore West. Cecil never mentions that concert, but it was a very important gig for me, because that was the market I was shooting for, with acts like Aretha and Charles Lloyd on the bill. I'd known Bill Graham for years so I called him up and told him he ought to book Cecil Taylor. Bill said: "I love Cecil Taylor's music, man.. but he's so damn expensive!" (laughs) Plus ça change! I persuaded Cecil to come down on his price, and we did the gig. We played to about 3000 kids sitting there mesmerised. We played for one hour and ten minutes. The Yardbirds were backstage saying: "What the fuck is that?!" I said: "This is psychedelic music."Leonard Feather wrote a review of that gig that syndicated in 26 newspapers and we got a call from Paul Rothschild at Elektra asking us to record a 45 rpm single, one side us, the other side The Doors. Why didn't it happen? Cecil Taylor. I think he wanted to be on a major label, but I saw that these smaller labels were the future. Look at what Elektra eventually became.. We missed the boat. We disagreed on how things went down, and when I was invited later that year by Karl Berger to go to Europe to play at the Free Music Meetings organised by Berendt and MPS, I accepted. Karl was a fantastic guy, a Doctorate in music from Heidelberg, into that whole world music concept. We'd been working together with flutist Becky Friend [recording what eventually was released in 1970 as "Skillfullness", ESP 1091].
In Germany I met Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, Chris MacGregor and his guys, Irene Schweitzer, Pierre Fabre and Buschi Niebergall. There was also Alexander von Schlippenbach and Manfred Schoof, who I'd met in Stuttgart in 1966 when Cecil Taylor's group played there [en route for Paris to make the film "Les Grandes Répétitions", directed by Luc Ferrari]. They all knew our work. We played several pieces before a live audience, including one of mine. I found these players thought like I did, in terms of instant music, free form, and I felt very comfortable with them. Coming from an art tradition I knew a lot about the art scene, Fluxus, happenings - and they seemed to be coming out of that tradition too. That's what impressed me about Brötzmann - his artistic background: he was a painter too, like me.
After that I went to Paris and I stayed for three or four months. That was the first real contact with the Paris scene. Sunny Murray was around, and he'd been recording with Bernard Vitet, François Tusques, Michel Portal, that whole crew. In early 1969 I went back to New York and started the Celestrial Communications Orchestra in a loft on 14th Street. There was Sam Rivers, Marzette Watts, Frank Lowe, Perry Robinson, and on drums we had Barry Altschul, Lawrence Cook.. I was also still playing with Sun Ra, and I also played with Jimmy Giuffre about that time, only in rehearsal. Steve Swallow was leaving the band so Jimmy asked me to rehearse.

What was the theoretical basis behind your large pieces for the Celestrial Communication Orchestra ("Luna Surface", "The Seasons", "My Country")?

In fact I consider my first real orchestra piece to be "Solestrial", on the ESP record [released in 1970 but apparently recorded before Silva's European trip in 1968]. On that record I didn't play bass at all - on "Solestrial" I conducted. I began to do some work on conducting, on how to conduct free jazz, how to conduct improvisation. I worked with Sun Ra on this. He had a conducting technique using signs and gestures, and that band was so well-rehearsed he could call up extraordinary things. My work was based on John Coltrane's "Ascension". The first ten minutes of "Ascension", before the solos start, were revolutionary. I always thought if he'd gone on with just the collective improvisation he'd have got it. So I felt he left that to me to do! (laughs)
I had a chord concept. 1950s music had been vertical, until Ornette liberated it to deal with the horizontal. I didn't think of that as atonality, more as polytonality. (I don't know what atonality means - when I listen to Schoenberg's music, I can figure out the tonic!) I found that most musicians were reading chords in terms of what they imagined the tonic to be, not in terms of the note they were playing. When you're dealing with classically trained musicians, bass players tend to look at the root, piano players look at the chord, saxophone players look at the sum total. So the concept was to begin with a chord - most musicians can play together and create a chord (!) - and add extensions, chromatics. From here we could go: the band had to learn how to think of the next note they would choose to play, and from these chords, the solo would come naturally out of the primordial sound established by the band. The solos were absolutely free but had to stay within a certain range so as not to get in the way of each other - what I call "strata harmony", a range determined by the note you were playing in the chord. I didn't believe in atonality, I believed in timbre. There could be several soloists playing in any number of keys simultaneously, and we all had to listen to what they were playing to move the chord. I needed to capture this word freedom into a musical concept, so I broke down the word "FREE": F could stand for Frequency, R could stand for Rhythm, E for Energy and E for Emotion. Emotions are very important in improvisation. Improvisors connect their intellectual powers with their emotional powers.

Silva recording "Skillfullness" in 1969

There's a density to your orchestral music and a layered effect in the mix that seem to have more in common with contemporary classical music. "Luna Surface" sounds almost like Xenakis! Was that deliberate?

Xenakis is my main man. When it came to recording multiple levels like that, I felt modern written music had really advanced. "Luna Surface" [Silva's first album with the Celestrial Communication Orchestra for BYG Actuel, recorded August 17th 1969] was based on a series of chords like the ones I described above. There's no solo as such; it's all soloing, collective improvisation throughout. I'd just played on Sunny's "Homage to Africa" and "Sunshine" [recorded two days earlier] and Dave Burrell's "Echo" [recorded two days prior to that!], and Dave was on my session. [That same momentous week of recording also featured Silva's bass on Grachan Moncur III's "New Africa" (recorded 11/8/69), Archie Shepp's "Poem for Malcolm" (recorded 14/8/69) and Jimmy Lyons' "Other Afternoons" (recorded 15/8/69)!] I loved the way he played, that rolling effect.. put that together with Braxton, Shepp, Moncur, Vitet, Terroade and my bass team, Beb Guérin and Malachi Favors. Leroy Jenkins on violin, Claude Delcloo on drums. "Luna Surface" is my idea of landing on the moon. There's a second part in the BYG vaults somewhere that was never issued called "When We Landed".

Your most famous work with the Celestrial, and perhaps one of the most ambitious large ensemble projects ever staged in free jazz, was "The Seasons" [recorded on December 29th, 1970]. How did that come about?

It nearly didn't happen at all. "The Seasons" was a substitute concert that was never organised by ORTF. André Francis, who was in charge there, had booked Stan Getz for a Christmas concert! Getz called the office while André was on vacation to say he couldn't make the gig, and Francis' secretary went over his head by calling Jacques Bisceglia who suggested I do something. I said: "Let's do it, man!" I booked all the Art Ensemble, Alan Shorter, Steve Lacy, Michel Portal, Ronnie Beer, three pianists - Dave Burrell, Bobby Few, Joachim Kühn.. It was a once in a lifetime All Star Band. And André Francis came back from holiday and he didn't even know about it! There were only about 600 seats in Studio 104, but Delfeil de Ton, a real cultural radical of '68 who ran Charlie Hebdo magazine, wrote: "You students have got to go to this concert!" So there were 2000 people outside who couldn't get in, it was a real scandal. The CRS [French riot police] showed up, and to calm everybody down they put speakers outside so they could hear the concert. I didn't know about any of this until afterwards.

It's an epic piece - a triple album - was that your intention from the outset?

When I was working with Cecil Taylor, sometimes we'd play for up to two hours without realising it. At some stage in the process, time stops. Whether or not the public can stay with you is what matters. I didn't know how long this piece was going to be, but I knew I had on that stage some of the greatest players in the world, and that if I wrote too much, they wouldn't play. Each musician needed something different. During rehearsals the guys said: "What are we gonna do?" and I said: "Don't worry about it." We talked about various concepts and things I wanted to do but I had very little music prepared, apart from one long theme. It was constructed right there on the stage. The last section is probably the densest piece I've ever done, based on a set of trills, holding trills and building up trills, and I built an electro-acoustical texture beneath to set up the vibrations. All this was broadcast live, so it was well recorded and everyone had a mic. The engineers thought it was a fantastic challenge: unlimited sound density with no breaks, everybody had a cymbal, three pianos, all mixed down live to two channels. When I heard the tapes, I absolutely insisted they release it all, as a triple album.

As a result of the success of "The Seasons", you were commissioned by the Royan Contemporary Music Festival to write "My Country", which you premiered there following year [1971]. Was that piece more "composed"?

It was more structured, in that I wrote out some orchestrations. It opened with a whole Lydian line, which we played only on the first night - we played two nights and recorded both. [The recording of the second night was subsequently released by Leo Records, CD LR 302, released 1989.] I think I must have been the first "jazz" musician to be commissioned for a contemporary music project. While I was there I took part in some forums with these contemporary music cats and the question of improvisation in European music was buzzing around. I always thought there was too much division between written and improvised and pop music, and I felt American music was broad enough to admit both. That's what I meant by calling the piece "My Country". It was a statement of what I believed American music was about, and what it ought to be about.

Your principal working group in the 1970s was the Center of the World collective with Frank Wright, Bobby Few and Muhammad Ali. How did that come together?

It came together when I finally settled in France. I'd left Sun Ra and was living with [jazz photographer] Jacques Bisceglia. I was playing with Bernard "Baba" Vitet, Claude Delcloo, François Tusques and Barney Wilen. Up until about 1974 I did several major concerts with the Celestrial in France, including a piece called "Rituals N° 1 Homage to the American Indian," with Ted Curson, but until Center Of The World, I didn't have a regular band (there was no way I could have kept the "Seasons" line-up together!), since lot of the American guys who were here for that ended up going back to the States. Steve Lacy and his band stayed - Kent Carter, Steve Potts.. Barre Phillips stayed. And Frank [Wright] was here.

You knew Frank from earlier, of course.

Oh, yeah! One of my earliest memories of Frank Wright was in a gig I had lined up in a pizzeria in uptown Manhattan: two basses, piano and drums. I was practising with Henry Grimes, Sunny and Dave Burrell, thinking how the hell we were going to get all our gear uptown when suddenly out the window I see Frank, with a big blue Cadillac Eldorado. He took us all uptown and sat in with the band, and of course we got kicked out! "What is that saxophone player doing? It ain't swinging man!" (laughs) Then we hooked up later in Cecil's 1968 sextet.
In the 1940s a whole bunch of alto players heard Charlie Parker and bebop became the formalised language, in practice. In a similar way, Frank was advancing along a line that we were establishing - he took Albert's sound and went from there. So did Peter Brötzmann. Accepting Albert Ayler's sound for me also meant accepting his spirituality. That's why Frank started calling himself "The Reverend." It was speaking in tongues. As a result, Frank suffered even more than Albert did from the "you can't play the horn" shit, but he was an important saxophone player and he still hasn't got all the credit he deserves. He was on the cutting edge, taking risks.
At this time, he wanted me to play bass with his quartet. I agreed, but I told him I didn't like the name "The Frank Wright Quartet". He said: "Everything's equal in the band, man," but I said: "No - when people review this band they're gonna review it as the Frank Wright Quartet, which makes me a sideman, and if we're all playing free music, we ain't sidemen." I wanted to collectivise the band in terms of name (I always liked the name "Modern Jazz Quartet"): I was absolutely against the star system. So we put Center Of The World together, and I was the business manager. Frank and I went back to the States and registered it as a business. I decided we had to release a record. We had some negotiations with Alan Bates at Freedom, but they didn't come to much, so I researched how much it would cost to press 500 records, simple black cover, one side white. It came to three francs each. I said: "OK guys, we each put $100 in, and if we sell the record at $4 we can make $2000. We're gonna sell them off the bandstand, Sun Ra style." Frank had connections outside France, especially with the BIMhuis in Amsterdam - he lived in Holland for a while - and we played a gig in Rotterdam [March 26th 1972] that we released as the album "Center Of The World". We pressed that record, and sat around smoking reefer one night, painting, autographing and drawing on them! We sold them all. Those albums became real collector's items. The proceeds of each record were invested in the next one. Misha Mengelberg did the same with the ICP in Holland.
We began doing workshops in the American Center in the Boulevard Raspail here in Paris. There were a lot of African-American musicians around, young, revolutionary and militant black people - we're not talking Josephine Baker, man. We were not expatriates: we were American artists living in France - there's a difference. You can choose to live in a foreign country without losing sight of what you are, and that's what I've always tried to do. We were an Afro-American presence in France, and our core programme was to work in the American Center. Ted Joans and Leroy Hart Bibbs were in town, and we staged a lot of multi-media pieces. We all came with a legitimate desire to express ourselves, send a certain message to the Parisian scene and give us some credibility to advance our careers back in the States. But given what was happening there, I think we were better off here! When Richard Nixon won that election by a landslide.. whoa, trouble, man.. I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but democracy for me is a deep thing. I fought for Civil Rights in the 1960s, and in 1972 I felt we needed to extend our cultural revolution to Europe. European musicians didn't have the same mythology, the same sense of optimism as we did. After World War Two their attitude to their work in society had undergone a real change: there was no religion, structures had collapsed, desolation. As I say, that's why Frank became "The Reverend" - he felt he had a mission. We all did.
We produced a number of concerts at the American Center, and we released the second album "Last Polka in Nancy" [October 10th, 1973]. Our third release was "More Or Less Few", which was just the trio with Bobby and Muhammad. That was a great rhythm section: Bobby and I had a real good feeling - he used to play a lot of "cocktail music" too, and he had a great sense of timing, and with Muhammad (who I'd never played with back in the States) we had a good swing feel - but we were playing free! That was exciting about the trio. After that I did "Inner Song", which was a solo record. I was trying to do something different with the bass, cut through several styles that were beginning to formulate at the time. My language was evolving, and I'd learnt many different playing techniques, some from European music, some from sarangi, Chinese violin. I tried to put them together in a piece. It's not a very flashy record, but it's not as complicated as it might seem. Meanwhile, Frank and I taped all our concerts. Lots of them were recorded.

Where are those recordings? The Fractal reissues of "Center Of The World" and "Last Polka.." also include some fabulous material recorded in Detmold in 1978.

All our recordings are in New York City in a vault. I'm negotiating with Bobby [Few] what to do with them. Back then, only a few Center Of The World records found their way back to the States. They were never reviewed in Downbeat, because we didn't send promo copies out. We weren't into distribution. That came later with Sun Records, which was a legitimate company we set up with Sébastien Bernard.

Did the metamorphosis of the Center Of The World label into Sun lead to the dissolution of the collective, or were you already going your own ways by the time Sun became involved?

Well, there were several things. Firstly, we lost control of the American Center to some rich Americans. We were seen as a threat. I didn't like it when we were dislodged from the building. Secondly, I thought we'd done enough roadwork by then, running up and down the Autobahn, sleeping on people's floors, and I felt we needed to play only about 10 or 20 well-paid gigs a year. For example, in 1975 the Antibes Festival devoted a whole evening to free jazz: we played first, Archie Shepp second and Cecil Taylor third - we received a very good fee for that concert. The other cats wanted to carry on a bit, and Frank and I had a little disagreement. Thirdly, and most important for me, I wanted to concentrate my activities on my private teaching and my school, the IACP [Institut Art Culture Perception]. I already had about 75 students and by 1976 the business structure of the school was in place.

Silva directing an improvisation class at IACP in 1977

Backtrack a little and tell us how the IACP started.

I was a psychedelic person. I wanted to write a book about colours and music, I wanted to take some of Schillinger's concepts and explore them by asking people's reactions. I was also reading [phenomenologist] Merleau-Ponty, and I wanted to apply some of his ideas to the area of musical perception. Put you in a room, turn the lights out and play you music. You see, people listen to music but we as musicians and composers never really know how they listen. I devised a special questionnaire to find out what people listened to, what their parents listened to, how often, what TV and radio programmes they took in, and based on this I organised a programme to teach perception of music to non-musicians. A listening programme consisting of timbres, sounds, world music, things that were already available on record. We had thousands of records, world music, folk jazz. I knew from my reading in neurology that the brain records everything - it was just a question of accessing it all afterwards, and my goal was to develop that ability in non-musicians. This became the basis of my Group Analysis course, a 22-hour programme. I was surprised at how successful it was: a lot of people from all walks of life signed up for the course. At the beginning I was dealing mostly with Americans - there were a lot of Americans in Paris in the 1970s - and one of them, a economist friend of mine named Jim Wilkes helped me set up the business structure of IACP. As Americans in Paris we couldn't open a non-profit organisation, so Jim and I thought of it as a business: IACP is a registered company, a private school. (That's eventually what led to the conflict between us and the French government.) We had it up and running by 1976. With Jim and Sandy Dominick we opened IACP at the same time Boulez opened IRCAM. We were at 1 rue Déchargeurs, and across the street my friend Vinko Globokar was in charge of improvisation at IRCAM. Another friend of mine was also working there. We all got on well together, and they liked our projects - the difference was that ours wasn't financed by the State and we were constantly in debt. We were a bunch of crazy Americans, but we had students. I was able to establish my own independent programme: neurology frontiering on Jungian psychiatry, questioning and analysis. I designed a Perceptual Chamber with a quad sound system in room where the people sat in a circle in the middle. This had always been my vision, a unified field theory of music, and I believed strongly in the record as pedagogical tool: I was dedicated to the recording industry, and I saw IACP as a potential research firm helping record companies and manufacturers of audio equipment. These companies could send us records and we could test them on people. One of my students was a radio producer from ORTF, French state radio, until the conservatives took the place over and moved the young guys out.

"Art has nothing to do with politics, art is in the service of nothing. The only reason why the state subsidizes art is because they have a guilt complex: man, if you feel that guilty, go buy the guy's paintings!"

You didn't only teach non-musicians, though.

No, I also taught improvisation privately. I was interested in people who could play their instrument, who had some technique - not necessarily jazz technique. The first French musician who studied with me was [violinist] Bruno Girard, who wasn't into jazz: he was more into Eastern European and Mexican music, folk music techniques. My students had to study certain types of tunes, memorise them and be able to play them in any key. The basics: that's the tradition I had learned. Listen and analyse, and then learn how to write your own solos. After Bruno came [saxophonist] François Cotinaud and [bass clarinettist] Denis Colin. [Cellist] Didier Petit came later. Francois was pretty advanced - his ear was good, so I sent him to Jo Maka to study African music. I felt that learning African music was necessary - these kids had never heard African music. They didn't know Louis Armstrong either, they had a lot of gaps in their education. All music had to be studied: scales, melodic concepts, they're all in my syllabus. It was also about vocalisation: if you can sing it you can play it. Europeans can use their eyes but they can't sing what they read - that's their tradition. In Britain, on the other hand, there's always been an exchange between British and American popular music: as early as the 1920s they were trading a lot of information. British musicians in Britain learned to play swing - the French and Germans didn't. I never wanted IACP to be a "jazz school", and I fought hard for that. I preferred harmolodics, and modality: George Russell's concept. I didn't believe in playing existing repertoire; I didn't teach Charlie Parker's solos. We needed to create a new repertoire.

That would seem to point to a clear philosophical difference between your position and that of Keith Rowe and the British improvising group AMM; Keith told me that the key to their work was the notion of dispensing with repertoire altogether.

When you say to dispense with repertoire as a musician, what the hell do you mean? Half of those cats went to music school - did they suddenly forget how to read Bach and Beethoven? I take issue with all that philosophical crap. Creativity is about organising material, and the concept of repertoire is essential - even if it's just two chords, or three notes. Look at Coltrane's "Ascension", man! The British talk about "free improvisation" - there's not much on free jazz in Derek Bailey's book ["Improvisation: its Nature and Practice in Music", Moorland, 1980], and I have a problem with that, and his notion of non-idiomatic music. I respect Bailey as a musician, but I've never played with him myself. In fact I never played in Britain until I went there with Roger Turner. Derek's concept was always geared to small group improvisation - my concern was with orchestra music. I created IACP to curate orchestra music, not small combos. I didn't like the combo concept - that for me was the failure of bebop. We didn't teach composition either - our teachers could walk into the room and at any given time they might have a violin, a voice, an accordion - all kinds of eclectic ensembles - and from that we created a body of music. We produced four concerts at the Palace (before it became a disco) and we had a full house every night, 650 seats.

The CCO during the Desert Mirage recording sessions, 1980


Who was on your staff at the time?

We had François Cotinaud, Denis Colin, Bruno Girard, Itaru Oki, Arthur Doyle, Bobby Few, Adolf Winkler, and Jo Maka who ran the African music programme until he died. Jo was a key guy. The teachers were all trained in my system. Denis and François both followed my advanced perception classes. I'll tell you now that François Cotinaud was a brilliant saxophone player, even if I don't care for what he's doing these days.

What happened to the school when the Socialists came to power in 1981?

When François Mitterrand was elected, Jack Lang was his first Minister of Culture, running on a ticket of democratisation of music. The left associated itself with jazz, and he felt it deserved state support. They wanted to take over jazz. I remember running a full-page ad for IACP in Le Monde de la Musique and in the same issue, Lang laid out his cultural programme. He was primarily a politician, whereas I'm an artist, and I believe in artists' control. Art has nothing to do with politics, art is in the service of nothing. The only reason why the state subsidizes art is because they have a guilt complex: man, if you feel that guilty, go buy the guy's paintings!I took care of myself. My students paid for my school. I didn't need Jack Lang. When the artist sells his ass to a politician he's sold his freedom. I'm from America, where there is no real political landscape in terms of left or right - we've never really had socialism and we've certainly never had communism - I didn't come to Europe with all that baggage. I based my institute on the Bauhaus: the hippest institution you can imagine, no politics and no nationality involved, a cultural research centre to present clear ideas of design and art to the world. But in France you have "state music": if you're a performing musician, you go to conservatory, come out, get a job and stay in it until you're dead.
I remember we took our charter to the French Ministry of Finance, and the guy there said: "Here in France we already teach music and art. We have conservatories where people don't have to pay." I said: "We have a different programme, that's all. Can't you handle a little competition? I'm bringing in $30,000 of foreign money into your country, I wanna sell something!" He told me nobody would come to my school, and he was wrong: in 1980 we had 355 students. Pretty significant, huh? Meanwhile, IRCAM was pumping in millions and millions and nothing was coming out. Guys were getting $50,000 research grants and nothing was coming out!
1981 and 1982 was a time of great struggle for private schooling in this country. We had a conference of the teachers at that time and we tried to make an association of private schools. Remember there are no private universities in France. I was working in association with American universities, and we had 355 credit students. CIM [the largest independent private jazz school in France] had 600 students, independent of the conservatories. So what did the government do? They created a jazz programme and pop music programme to steal our business. It took them some time, but they eventually moved in on my school, a privately run school with a capital of about $200,000, owned by myself. One of the directors, in cahoots with the government and ASSEDIC took control of the school, to advance their own teachers. These people were imposed on me. They made my life more and more uncomfortable, and they didn't know shit. I tricked these guys once with a CD of Charlie Parker and they said, "Wow, who's that? There's a new cat in town..!" Then I told them who it was. They didn't like that. Deep down I believe that the French have a profound disrespect for foreigners. They have an opinion on everything, and they do not like you coming here and telling them what to do. No French teacher ever studied in the States or played in New York, they know nothing about Charlie Parker, but they believe that when you listen to Charlie Parker that's the way you're supposed to play. No, man, that's precisely the way you're not supposed to play! My pedagogy wasn't geared for that: I wasn't interested in turning out "professional musicians". You can not create an Ayler, a Wright, a Coltrane in a conservatory. Jazz and rock didn't come out of a fucking conservatory, they came from the people.

While all this was going on, you were still playing and recording.

In the early 80s I worked with Andrew Hill, Burton Greene, Bill Dixon, Alex von Schlippenbach, the Globe Unity Orchestra, and I played bass on all these projects. We recorded "Desert Mirage" with the Celestrial for my IACP label, which I started in 1982. I brought Alex to IACP to participate a symposium on Monk, "Thelonious Monk, Root of the Avant-garde", with Steve Lacy. Alex was fantastic - he had a real command of the roots of improvisation, he had his Jelly Roll Morton really down!

You didn't release much in the mid 1980s until "Take Some Risks".

That was recorded in 1986 in a gallery in Paris. Didier Petit, who was working with me at the IACP, played cello on that date, and he set up that band with Misha Lobko on clarinets, my old student Bruno Girard on violin and Roger Turner on percussion. I'd heard Roger with Phil Minton and I thought they were absolutely crazy, absolutely fantastic. "Take Some Risks" was one of the first records Didier released on his In Situ label [In Situ 590011], which, by the way, appropriated the graphics and colour scheme from my own IACP label, which I wasn't too happy about.
Another thing that happened in 1986 was that I started to get interested in synthesizers and computers, with the first classic Mac interfaces, and the arrival of MIDI. I found a guy who could write software, and I started some research with the IRCAM people into permutations. I bought a Roland U20 to study the relationship between written and performed music, because the first writing software for MIDI was on the market. I realised that the scores of jazz that we transcribed were not right. John Coltrane had mastered the saxophone technically like nobody else has ever done, but we didn't have the notation to transcribe adequately what he was doing. I wanted to find out if the computer was better at deciphering what we do.

When did you start using the synth as a performing instrument?

In 1991 they finally pushed me out of the IACP, replaced me as Artistic Director of my own school. I saw that the structures of the European Union were starting to come together, and I saw an opportunity for my system to spread, and I went to Cologne with a view to opening a school in Germany. I went to Cologne to work with A.R. Penck, who had recorded with Frank Wright. For a whole year there I spent every day working with synth and computer. By then sampling had really evolved, and I saw the synth as a fantastic performing instrument. It goes all the way back to my studies of Schillinger when he was working with Theremin: if you read Schillinger's chapter on orchestration, you realise that as far back as 1930 he saw the future was electrical. I started using synth in several projects in Cologne, really working on the keyboard as an instrument to orchestrate improvised music in real time. In 1992 Roger Turner called me up about a gig in Britain (I think he wanted me to play bass, but I said I wanted to try out some stuff on the synthesizer), and at first the group also included [saxophonist] Garry Todd, who was a fantastic player. Roger set up a tour and we added [trombonist] Johannes Bauer, but there was some conflict between the horns and I didn't think it worked, so we scaled it back down to a trio. We recorded "In The Tradition" in 1993 [at the studios of CCAM in Vandoeuvre les Nancy]. We've been playing together for ten years now, four or six times a year.

And yet "Tone" [aII 004, 2002] is only your second album with the trio. Knowing your enthusiasm for recording gigs, I suppose there are many other recordings somewhere.

I have a lot of tapes in cans, yes. I'd like to release them myself as CDRs - as I said, I come more from the do it yourself tradition (I'm not too happy about the deal with FMP for "Tone") - but the other guys don't like the idea.

You must get fed up about people asking you why you play synth these days.

I do, yes! That trio has been rejected by our European colleagues: it seems laptops, amplified toys and guitars and computers are in, but synths are out. The synth is just another instrument. - an instrument is an instrument.. You know, I think a lot of people are stupid: I remember when I bought a Kurzweil for IACP people only wanted to use the piano patch! Right now I have several bands where I play synth, the one with Roger, another with William Parker ["A Hero's Welcome", Eremite MTE 017 ] and Marshall Allen - we also played as a trio at Fire in the Valley, and the "Emancipation Suite" with William and Kidd Jordan [Boxholder, BHX 023]. But I haven't stopped playing bass! I played bass with Oluyemi Thomas on "Transmissions" [Eremite, MTE 027], I play with Sunny, Bobby and Arthur Doyle when he's in town and I also have a group with [tenor saxophonist] Abdelhaï Bennani, Makoto Sato and Itaru Oki. We did a multimedia piece called "The Sacred Mountain Project" last August at the Uncool Festival [Bormio, Italy], using two video cameras, ten boom boxes, ten musicians and Butoh dancers. I'm still absolutely committed to technology: I just bought a mixing table. It's really clean, I can put John Coltrane with Ravi Shankar, I can put Stockhausen with African music. You can have a whole bunch of fun there! I'm a secret DJ! I was a kind of DJ back in 1976 at IACP.
Video and music in performing arts is my next big thing, abstract performed music with video. In Germany I produced a lot of sculptures and multimedia pieces, and I bought a Sony TRV 230 digital camera to record my performances and transform them into video art with Catherine [Bourgoin, Silva's current partner] - not just to document the performances. I really don't know why Sony put all these extra filters on it, solarisation, black and white, but damn, let's use them! We're now dealing with something immediate: we can capture the visual information of the performance and transform it into video art, and the new medium for distribution is the Internet. The Internet is a tool that's been given to us to democratise, and people should be appreciative of that: I don't like people who go on the web and steal music. You buy records in a store, after all. The Internet's not about free access, but it doesn't have to be expensive. I'm not talking about downloading, but live streaming. You pay a modest subscription fee and you can come to my site anytime.

Tell us about the National Treasure Box project.

The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees our freedom of speech and freedom of thought - painters, musicians, composers are all protected by their First Amendment rights to publish, distribute and sell their work, and by implication the government should never interfere and should not be the source of money for the Arts. On March 3rd 1987 Congressman John Conyers Jr. - an Afro-American - tabled Resolution 57 (not a law, you understand; a resolution) that gives us the right to call jazz our National Treasure, and we can now use that concept of National Treasure as a means of getting federal funding.
The National Treasure boxes are hand-made sets each containing all the music - four CDs - that the Celestrial Communication Orchestra played in Switzerland at the Uncool Festival in May 2001. This was an all-US band except for Johannes Bauer, and we played two days - when a festival wants to hire this band, I make it clear to them that we don't come to play for just one hour - two gigs, two hours each night. The music was really fantastic, and I recorded it all. Michael Ehlers and Eremite are going to press the records, and we're trying to have Matthew Goodheart to write the theoretical liner notes, it's an ongoing project. I designed the box and we're now working with artists who will paint and decorate each box, individually. We're going to press 500, all numbered, each different. You'll be able to place an order at the Eremite website and then visit my site and select the box you want. We'll also have several different videos of the performance, some documentary, some abstract.

I never liked the way the CD suffered in those little boxes. I hate the jewel box! It's the most goddamn ridiculous packaging you can imagine. I want it the size of a vinyl simply because you can put art on it! That's why we've created a box which itself is a painting, a painting enclosing a CD. You can hang it on your wall. One day I'm gonna put twelve of these boxes into one big box, because the Resolution is number 57 and five and seven make twelve, the blues. The box will be blue, and we will put the Statue of Liberty on it!


What are your forthcoming projects?

I'm proposing this project to any country who wants to promote it - there are fifty states in the Union, and I'm trying to get every one of them to put on a concert. I'm hoping to have a concert in Paris in 2004 with Europeans and Americans, I want to do a Celestrial concert in Indonesia at a famous Buddhist site, and when they finally reconstruct the statues in Afghanistan that the Taliban blew up, I'd like to play there. Eremite has some projects in the pipeline with Marshall Allen, Hamid Drake and William Parker, and there will be another "Emancipation Suite" with Makoto, Abdu and myself. The Tradition Trio will be touring and we'll be releasing our performance videos. If I can establish the website more broadly the Treasure Boxes will be available for order and the records should be available by February. We're building the catalogue of images.
I'm thinking of transforming IACP into a multimedia institution. In my classes back in 1976 people told me they saw colours, structures, geometrical shapes; I've always been interested in transforming music into light, and light into music - if you look back at what I was doing in the early 1960s you can see that I've come full circle, trying to put all my last 40 years of experience into one thing - twentieth century art, which is highly technological and digital. Now we can evolve music into light: we've never been able to do that before, and I believe that we're finally at a position where we can. If you want to enter into musical education in the 21st century, the computer and the Internet are fantastic tools, and if you don't invest in them, you're stupid. Music is still growing. You have to listen to the music.


Interview copyright 2002 by Dan Warburton, Editor. Paris Transatlantic Magazine. Other links related to the above interview that might interest readers: Dan Warburton's interviews with Sunny Murray, Misha Mengelberg and Keith Rowe