Describing his musical upbringing, Patrick Bartley, Jr. speaks with clarity and wonder. His musical identity is concretely tied to formative memories, concrete interests, and inspiring role-models. His playing style is similarly grounded and confident. He has been featured on profile stages such as the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and an Emmy-nominated HBO special with Wynton Marsalis, and puts on shows with a wide range of ensembles in New York.
Many of his own projects involve approaching composition and improvisation from a visual and narrative perspective, but rather than following the more conventional musical theater or film-scoring paths, Bartley takes his inspiration from video games, anime, and sci-fi adventure. For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Bartley will present “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories, and images from childhood to present.”. Joining Bartley for this performance will be saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, pianist Chris Pattishall, bassist Marty Jaffe, drummer Savannah Harris; Kevin Moeti will do a live narration to accompany the music.
The Jazz Gallery: Before we get to the project you’re bringing to The Gallery, I want to ask about your tribute-style shows, such as “Bix and Tram: A Retrospective” that began at Dizzy’s. How did this interest in “trad jazz” start?
PB: The show is an interesting homage not just to the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, but also to my relationship with the trad jazz scene in New York for the last five and a half years. Alphonso Horne got me into the trad jazz scene by getting me on a gig with Dandy Wellington, a singer and bandleader in the city who was looking for another clarinet player, specifically a black clarinet player, which for some reason is hard to find in New York [laughs]. The gig opened me up to a world of new music and new people, which I loved. There are great gigs in the more standard jazz scene, as we know, but sometimes the logistics are not the most concrete, whether because of the institutions, the bandleaders, or the scene itself. In the trad jazz scene, things are more consistent. The music is great, you learn all these new songs—even though they are technically older. You take one chorus, and you only take two if the bandleader thinks you’re really killing it. Everyone’s having fun, it’s all smiles, it’s always a good time, and I love that. It really makes people happy.
In college, I found a collection of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s music online, which I listened to constantly. When Michael Mwenso was still at Dizzy’s Club, I pitched to him that we should do some of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer’s music. We made it happen, and the event was met with a great response. I didn’t expect that a large portion of the trad jazz scene would show up, which gave me even more of a reason to continue the project. We’ve done various shows since then, including a main stage show with legendary clarinetist Dan Levinson, who has been dealing with this music for almost 40 years now. A number of other people, including Vince Giordano, have encouraged me to continue with it and get deeper. I’ve done most of the transcriptions myself, for our own instrumentation, have listened to the music as much as I could, made my own charts. At the same time, I try to let people know that this is a side project, not the main thing that I’m doing.
TJG: Your passion and interest lead so naturally to other people getting inspired—I wonder if there was a moment where you said “Wait a second, this was supposed to be fun, but now I have to do all of this work, it’s feeling like a bit much.”
PB: You hit the nail on the head with that sentiment, but the work was not the labor, it wasn’t the hard part. I’m the kind of person who loves doing work for fun. I mean, I don’t want people not paying me for gigs, but if it’s work that means something to me, I’ll put my life on the line for it. So it’s less about being work-averse, and more about not wanting to be pigeonholed into one style from people who don’t understand that I do more things.
In the past I’ve discussed how I think there should be more black people playing trad jazz music, that side should be more represented. We bring a different perspective, a different sound. When I’m listening to the music of Bix and Tram, I hear what they were bringing to the music, but in addition, I hear my own experience on top of it. I’ll hear a certain rhythmic thing they do, and it’ll remind me of a Caribbean thing or an R&B sound, and I’ll try to integrate that while still playing in the style. Trad music becomes a vehicle, a landscape to learn and explore those other feelings. But it’s an infatuation right now, not necessarily a lifelong mission.
TJG: By comparison, you’ve put over five years into the J Music Ensemble. The music clearly means a lot to you, and it also comes from a personal infatuation. Could you tell me a little about the J Music ensemble?
PB: Over the last five years, the J Music Ensemble has gone through a plethora of changes, in its mission and intent, in my style as a bandleader, in our repertoire, and in our fanbase. We have a sizable, loyal audience now, and we don’t have to put as much work into getting fans as we used to. We’re still seeking support, sponsorship, and management, and I still pay out of pocket for a lot of our gigs. With the Bix thing, I’m willing to put my time and energy into it, but I need to get paid for it: J Music, on the other hand, came from a personal creative awakening, a realization that I should wear my lifelong influences on my sleeve as my musical identity. Whatever happens with this band, I’m ready for anything. It feels like my child, you know: You don’t have a baby then immediately ask the baby to start paying rent [laughs]. No, you take care of it, you nurture it, no matter what happens. You don’t sleep, you get sick, just for the sake of making sure the child grows, is nurtured, loved, gets the experience they need. That’s how I treat J Music ensemble.
TJG: What are these lifelong influences that come into play with both J Music Ensemble and Open World, the project you’re bringing to The Gallery?
TJG: The tree that J Music and Open World both stem from is that I wanted to be a visual artist before I was ever a musician. I was playing video games since I was four or five years old, when I found a red Game Boy Pocket in my front yard, in the grass. Somebody must have tossed it or lost it. I was living in the projects in South Florida. It had no battery cover, and it had a Donkey Kong Land 2 cartridge in it. I showed it to my friends, and we were all amazed. It wasn’t a relic at that time: It was the popular system. Later, my mom and dad put together their money to get me a PlayStation 1 for my fifth birthday, and my older sister had a Sega Genesis, so I would play Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, Spyro the Dragon. I was a normal kid, playing games, being a brat, but I was already making up my own stories, and I gravitated toward games that encouraged me to make my own characters. I started getting into Dragon Ball Z around the same time, and I would draw all the characters in the show, which was my way of expressing what was going on in my head.
I went to an arts elementary school in my neighborhood, and until the third grade, you could explore all of the different arts programs, before choosing a “major” and “minor.” My major was visual art, and I was excited about the possibilities of everything, from sculpture, clay, film, drawing, 3D modeling, everything. Band was my “minor,” mostly because it was neutral, and I didn’t want to do dance, drama, theater, or strings.
On the first day of band class, they asked what I wanted to play, and I said “Cornet.” I just wanted to show that I knew what a cornet was [laughs]. They said “What third grader wants to play cornet? We don’t have cornet here.” There were a lot of trumpeters already, and in the front row, one of the kids said “Hey, play clarinet!” I was like, “Alright, I’ll pick clarinet then.” My fate for the rest of my life was decided from that moment [laughs]. It was easy for me to express myself through clarinet. I didn’t have to be impatient. I was so used to being able to express myself with a pen or brush on paper, and with clarinet being a woodwind instrument, I was able to make sound pretty quickly.
By the time I got to fourth grade, my band director said “You’re getting good at this, you should switch your major to music.” I kept excelling by his standards—shout out to him, he still teaches at Broward College in South Florida. Later on, my band director in middle school, Melton Mustafa, Jr. said, “If you want to be in the jazz band, you have to play the saxophone.” So he put me on baritone sax [laughs]. I was this sixth grade kid and made this crazy switch, which is what Harry Carney did as well, if I’m not mistaken. Now I had this instrument that was even easier than clarinet, and was learning these cool songs, as well as playing along to my favorite games, like Sonic and so on. My parents wouldn’t have been able to afford a bari saxophone of my own, so I got an alto saxophone, which I started playing at home all the time, all the way through high school.
TJG: So in high school, you got deeper into jazz, did competitions like Essentially Ellington in New York, and you got noticed Wynton Marsalis. Fast forwarding with that in mind, when did you realize you could integrate your love for visual art and your training as a jazz musician?
PB: It happened in college. I was thinking about my identity, while seriously studying jazz, and still playing video games too. There was a Sega Genesis racing game called Super Hang-On, and you had the ability to choose your musical tracks before you started a race. I thought, “This is crazy,” not only because it was a cool idea, but because the music was amazing, and I was listening with all of my new jazz training. There were solos, wild rhythms, crazy stuff. It was everything I wanted to do as a jazz musician and video game nerd put together. I started to transcribe all of that music and play it in my jazz combo at school, and became more interested in the people who were making the music. I came across Sasakure.UK, who I think is one of the greatest composers today, of any sort. He starts from a visual storyboard first, and created music to fit it. He works with a software called Vocaloid, voice synthesis created from real voices, but produced in a way where it has its own voice, and you can program language into it. It’s a crazy technology.
Finding Sasakure.UK represented a culmination of everything I wanted to do in my own music. His music opened me to a new world of what could be possible, composing music from a visual starting point. It’s what I’d wanted to do my whole life, but had never been able to express it. I started to wonder, What if I could do this with a live band, incorporating improvisation into the experience of a dynamic and changing world? My experiment with using a video game music concept was “Race To The Blue Planet,” my own sci-fi story about a human who finds out another planet is in danger of being destroyed by a robot; he suits up to chase the robot, and it’s a race to save the planet. I made music for each “stage” that would take place. Stage one, blast off, go through a worm hole, and so on. I did a few movements on my senior recital.
TJG: How did this experiment lead to Open World, the piece you’re presenting at The Gallery with Dreamweaver Society?
PB: The inspiration for putting this together was wanting to create a musical world that starts from visuals. There are incredible film and stage composers, like Sondheim, Porter, Kern, John Williams. They create sounds that, even without visuals, remind us of what we see on TV, at the theater, or in the movies. When people hear that music, it reminds them of the imagery that might be present. For me, that’s how I experience music all the time. The music I love most transports me outside of my body, stirs my imagination. I experience it in a different way, visually, and when I’m improvising, I want to make sounds and lines evoke the imagination as much as possible. Everyone’s imagination is different. That’s why I wrote “Open World.”
I was approached by Eric Wright from Jazz at Lincoln Center on behalf of Wynton, who commissioned me to write for the MoMA Summergarden series New Music for New York. I figured, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I made a piece if you began in a ‘home world,’ and based on what the band played, you would be transported to a different world? You can go through the different worlds by instrumental cues. The audience has information about what these worlds are, and can follow along. For the personnel, I chose amazing musicians and great friends who could really deliver. One of my best friends, Xavier Del Castillo, who will be playing tenor and flute with us, played the MoMA gig, along with Russell Hall, who we grew up with in Florida, great pianist Chris Pattishall, and Joe Peri on drums.
For The Gallery, I’m taking a different direction, because I want as many people as possible to play this music: I want to get different peoples’ imaginations and perspectives on this material. We have another great bassist, Marty Jaffe, and drummer Savannah Harris. In terms of the concept itself, my game concept ended up being too complex, but I composed an hour of music, with a story about different sequential worlds, along with a map and storyboard, plot points, and info sheets for the audience. There will be a great narrator as well, Kevin Moeti. It’s like a film score with no movie. This whole project represents bringing to life my love for visual arts, a love that’s been somewhat repressed since I began playing music as a kid. I’m excited to be making music this way, to have my music communicate my own visual world.
Patrick Bartley’s Dreamweaver Society presents Open World at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 11, 2018. The group features Mr. Bartley on alto saxophone & clarinet, Xavier Del Castillo on tenor saxophone & flute, Chris Pattishall on piano, Marty Jaffe on bass, Savannah Harris on drums, and Kevin Moeti on narration. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.