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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Posts by Stephanie Jones

Ben Williams

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Late in May, Ben Williams woke up early. He sat in front of a mounted speaker and framed photo of Prince and spoke frankly—rhythmically—from his Harlem bedroom to roughly 16,000 Instagram followers and countless others who might care to listen. “I don’t write that much,” he says. “I’m not really a poet. But these words just kind of came out.”

The DC-native bass player, composer, and casually-reluctant bandleader has accrued associations with such figures as Pat Metheny, Terence Blanchard, Maxwell, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Before the lockdown, he issued his third release as a leader I Am A Man (Rainbow Blonde Records), and first release as a singer. The album features Marcus Strickland, Keyon Harrold, Kris Bowers, Jamire Williams and Justin Brown, as well as special guests Kendra Foster, Niles, Wes Felton and Muhsinah. 

I Am A Man teems with thematic development, both musical and emotional, at once richly layered and expressively direct. Ahead of his livestream performance at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 6, Williams sat down remotely with the Gallery to discuss collective intuition, storytelling and his recent and evolving artistic awakening. 

The Jazz Gallery: So much of your ethos is based in groove. And that presents the concept of repetition. You are a master of using elements of repetition to create story structure inside it and also against it. Can you talk a little bit about how you lean on some of that, conceptually?

Ben Williams: That’s a really dope way of putting it. I never really thought of it in those terms, but I know exactly what you mean. As most people know, the bass’ primary function — in most cases, although it’s a little different in jazz—is to provide a rhythmic support or groove. Most of the time, the groove involves something repetitive, whether it’s something rhythmically repetitive or it’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again—like a version of a theme. You can think of a groove as a theme, an idea. Sort of the heart of playing the bass is to find variations of this theme we’re playing, and to tell a story but inside this thematic idea. That’s kind of how I operate, on a larger scale, with ideas. This last project is very much based on a small idea that I’ve extrapolated to different topics, and these topics become songs. 

The phrase “I am a man” was a mantra of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis which is sort of similar to Black Lives Matter [in terms of] famous models that became the mantra of a protest or a movement. “I am a man” was that [mantra] for that particular movement, and it became popular throughout the whole civil rights era, the Civil Rights Movement. So I took that phrase and unpacked it so that I’m not just addressing this one specific protest and this one specific event; I’m really exploring the idea of the phrase itself. It kind of takes me on a road; it’s like I’m trying to get into the head of the workers—the people who were on strike back then—put myself in their shoes, ask myself, “Why did they have to say, ‘I am a man?’” Obviously, that’s what you are, but because of the society and the circumstances they were in, they had to say this because they weren’t treated as such. 

So I bring that phrase into a modern context. I’m thinking about my experience as a Black man, growing up in this country and today, and of the complexities of my existence — the existence of my culture as a whole. So in that same sense, I’m taking that small idea and really exploring it. I’m talking about different subjects like spirituality, police brutality the idea of perseverance, addiction, love. I guess in that sense, it’s like sort of the theme. The basic idea is the groove, and I’m finding ways to explore that idea. 

TJG: You’ve been working with some brilliant singers of supreme range for years now, and recently you started offering listeners your own vocal concept, including what we hear on I Am A Man. 

BW: Yeah. 

TJG: There’s so much history in your music—Black consciousness, American history, Black culture, Black women’s issues—that’s all there before we even hear any lyrics. But there is the added mode of communication through lyrics in words and phrasing. Some lyrics were written for this record, and some existed long before you were born, but resonate. 

BW: Mmhm. 

TJG: Do you feel artists who engage in social criticism and calls to action, in addition to personal reflection, need these multileveled means of communicating their messaging?

BW: It’s important to tell the truth in the best way you know how. Whatever means you have to get there, that’s just what you need to do. That’s what I’m doing with this project. It wasn’t just, “I’m going to start singing now,” being this singer-songwriter who plays bass. What really motivated me to do this was the message. I just needed to make this message as clear as I possibly could.

At the beginning, this project wasn’t really intended to be this album of me singing. A lot of the songs, they started as tunes, but I kind of kept getting pushed in the direction of writing a song; adding the lyrical content I just found was necessary to make clear what I wanted to talk about. Actually, it was going to be more like a special guest [record], and I was gonna have different singers sing songs. But I was inspired, actually, by José James. We were on the road, he heard some of the demos of the songs I was working on and he was like, “Who’s that singing on the demos?” and I was like, “That’s me,” [laughs]. And he was like, “Have you ever thought of singing these songs yourself? You sound good.” Eventually, I found the nerve. I [figured] I’m just going to sing these songs myself because, you know, it’s personal. I thought I could pull it off. That’s what it ended up being. 

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Gerald Clayton

Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.

In part 2 (check out part 1 here) of Gerald Clayton’s interview with The Jazz Gallery, the pianist-composer takes a hard look at the confines of his development — artistic and professional, and how an East Coast awakening from his days at MSM continues to influence his musical relationships. 

The Jazz Gallery: Since you brought up Los Angeles—sort of—let’s talk about your upbringing. There’s a preconception about familial legacy within the music, that artists have an easier time navigating the scene and creating sustainable careers for themselves as touring leaders if they’re a part of that legacy. 

Gerald Clayton: Mm. 

TJG: And to a degree, I’m sure that’s true. But I suspect certain people might be surprised to learn about all the pick-up gigs and weekly restaurant sets you played in New York and in LA back in the early 2000s, and how the different coasts helped shape your artistic trajectory. 

GC: I have my own honest feelings about the ways in which my playing is lacking. I know all the things I could be doing better. And if somebody hears that in my playing, I don’t deny that any of that is there. I know the ways I’m lazy about x, y, z. And maybe doors continue opening to me for reasons outside the music, and people are saying, “Well he sucks, but he’s a Clayton.” 

TJG: I don’t know that anyone’s actually saying that. 

GC: Well, I’m sure people can poke holes in how I’m playing. I don’t think I’m worthy of any kind of praise, but I have put in time just like everybody else. From my perspective, the benefits of being the son of John Clayton are mostly of exposure, resources. I am really lucky to have been able to shake Ray Brown’s hand and he immediately had love for me because he had love for my dad. There’s that community introduction that’s very welcoming and loving—and that’s amazing.

And if I was ever trying to learn a song, my dad was there to hip me to recordings, or pull my coattail on something I was doing wrong. For all those reasons, I am super lucky, and was probably given a head start—and, in some ways, probably still am. But, when it comes down to playing gigs with people, it is what it is. You can’t be bullshitting on somebody’s music and keep the gig just because you have a loving relationship with the scene. The music has its own very harsh truth. I think that goes for anybody. And there’s a whole bunch of us who have been introduced to the music through our familial relationships. 

So yeah, I had to learn how to play over tunes for crowds of people who weren’t listening. I did restaurant gigs, usually once a week, sometimes twice. I had a restaurant gig where we would play four background music sets; we’d play an hour and then take a 20-minute break and play again. I did that for years in LA. When I was in New York, I dragged a keyboard and an amp from Harlem to midtown to play for another group of people who weren’t listening.

I’ve done brunch gigs. I’ve done wedding gigs. I’ve taken every opportunity to play, just like everybody else. That’s part of the deal. And getting to the “next level”—being able to say “no” to those gigs, and getting called for gigs that are maybe on a different tier—I’d like to think I got there because I was tryna get better as a musician and not because someone associated me with my dad. In some cases, maybe it was.

But even then, there’s a harsh truth. The music is what it is. If you come incorrect or only sound so good, then it only sounds so good. That’s reflected in the music. Everybody’ll be able to hear that. I think that same [litmus] test is there for anybody, regardless of how they’re introduced to the music, or whether they “inherit” the opportunities they receive. But yeah, I’ve definitely “paid some dues” I guess you could say. 

There’s another thing that’s maybe not always obvious. Yes, you receive all kind of benefits from having a connection to your father, to a musician. But there’s also the challenge of being funneled into a preset mold. There’s a certain freedom that some artists have to write a story from scratch—even in terms of the way they dress—is it a comedy or is it a thriller? In some ways I feel like I only have so much control—whether you’re supposed to or not, I don’t know—of what my image or “brand” can be to the world. And in some ways, just being a “jazz musician” on this scene, we’re all funneled into a brand — a perception of what our identity is, artistically. There’s something being a jazz musician looks like when you scroll through the photos of “jazz musician” on Facebook that pop stars aren’t subject to in the same way we are. 

We’re branded a certain way. And maybe, with all the canned assumptions about the purpose of our music—our art—in the first place, it’s a bit preset. To break out of that mold takes real effort. And there are plenty [of artists] who obviously have. There are cats we can point to who really have paved their own way and created their own image and brand. But I think that relates to the familial thing in a way, too. I have a certain brand that’s preset. Maybe it’s that rebellion that anybody goes through in tryna find their own identity like, “Whatever Dad! I’m not you!” 

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Photo by Devin DeHaven, courtesy of the artist.

Air traffic wanes over Gerald Clayton’s breezy one bedroom across from LAX. Surfboards hang unwaxed on the wall. Since California Governor Gavin Newsom closed the beaches in March, the pianist-composer’s been spending different hours at his Yamaha—waking hours, meditative and intimate.

“It’s probably too early to say what I’ve discovered from it,” says Clayton, reflecting on a forced change in routine as a result of the pandemic. “I know I’ve been withholding parts of myself from people.”

The bicoastal artist spent the better part of 10 years in New York, before returning home to Los Angeles in 2017. But he’s out more than he’s not. And though he’s lost dates and money and opportunities, the quarantine has offered the multi-GRAMMY nominee a surreal moment to inhale, exhale, repeat.

As part of The Jazz Gallery’s spring interview series, Clayton sat down (via socially distant satellite) to discuss signing with Blue Note, music school trauma, Roy Hargrove’s legacy and the evolution of his artistry through the sound of the bass.

The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been appointed MD for the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. That’s a new post for you.

Gerald Clayton: Yeah, I’m excited about that. It was a real honor to get that call. Tim Jackson from the Monterey Jazz Festival has been really loving and supportive throughout the years. I kind of started my connection with Monterey as a high schooler when I was competing in what was then the Monterey Jazz Festival high school competition, which is now the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. I think they thought it would be nice to have somebody who came through the program.

The position has me at the head of big band of really talented high school musicians from the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra competition. They sort of take the best out of all the schools and put them together, and they get to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I’ll get the chance to rehearse the band on some material [they’ll] present at the festival, probably do some touring the following summer.

I definitely have a connection and an interest in education—the part of being a musician that, I was always taught, comes along with the territory. You have to pass the torch onward. The generosity that you always see from elder musicians is not just because they’re nice guys but because they understand that part of the deal is, “Somebody gave this to me, and now I have to give it to somebody else.” That’s just the deal. So I’ve always wanted to find a way to be part of that, but I still feel pretty young at heart. I still feel like that college kid who wrote his thesis paper titled “The Crisis in Jazz Education in America Today,” [laughs], very melodramatically. So I don’t know if I’ve felt that excited to jump in to being on a faculty somewhere. That would probably trigger some trauma that I have from being a student [laughs] through those institutions. Or maybe it’s not quite time for me to do that yet.

So I’m excited that this is my chance to get a foothold in the education world and pass the torch to some really great musicians. And also, it gives me a chance and a deadline and an excuse to tackle parts of the music that I’ve probably been avoiding like—you know—arranging for big band. I did an arrangement for Roy Hargrove’s big band on the Emergence record, but really, I’ve just been scared and avoided that because it’s such a daunting task. But I have one of the greatest resources around for that in my dad. He gave me a stack of books—Henry Mancini’s scores. Just from growing up hearing that sound so much, and feeling very connected to that, I feel like it’s time to dig into that and this gives me the opportunity.

TJG: I would like to jump back for a second. You said you’ve been reluctant to enter the field because being on a faculty might trigger some past trauma…

GC: [Laughs]

TJG: …around the framework of those institutions—or maybe it’s just that you haven’t been ready to do that yet.

GC: Right.

TJG: Those are two very different scenarios.

GC: Both of them probably are true.

TJG: So that response would indicate there may come a time in the future when you’d consider joining a faculty department.

GC: You know, with Covid-19, the gigs have dried up [laughs].

TJG: That’s the real reason [laughs].

GC: That’s always the reason. The gigs don’t come anymore. You’re past your prime. It’s time to teach. No.

I’ve always felt that the time commitment makes it tricky to freelance—to have your schedule open to say “yes” to whatever comes gig-wise and tour-wise. Those institutions aren’t really going anywhere. I can be patient about entering that world, and thankful that I’m even considered for it at all. I hope that doesn’t go away. Not that I’m getting a whole bunch of calls from colleges to work there [laughs, but that I would be considered now, maybe—hopefully—means that could be an option later, and I can focus on other things right now.

But yeah, that other side—the trauma. Do you want me to speak on that?

TJG: Maybe you could start with what your thesis claims were.

GC: It was a pretty bad paper. I feel like I got three-fourths of it written and realized, “Okay, this’ll get me the grade I need to pass the class.”

TJG: You didn’t finish it?

GC: Nah, I finished it, but like, poorly. I was going through a whole lot of drama from being in an institution that I was frustrated being in. I look back on my time there, and see I had like a bratty teenager perspective about things. I could have had a different perspective on my situation and maybe taken advantage of that time. It probably would have made me a better person in different ways today. But at the time, it was just frustration.

Part of the thesis was that the concept of a degree in the arts is a false contract. They’re selling us the idea that, if you do four years here and pay all this money, you’ll get a piece of paper that says that you’re qualified to work in the field. And you may be qualified, but that doesn’t guarantee you a job in the field. And even then, the question of whether you’re “qualified,” if we look at it with some nuance, there’s a lot of people who pass their classes who have no business being on bandstands.

Part of it is education methodology. It’s the idea that we have to have a syllabus and tests, and that’s how we show the people who have zero understanding of art and improvised music, that’s how we show them, “Check it out—we took these 20 kids and we made them better at this.” And when you’re dealing with something like aural skills, which is the number-one important [part] of being an improvising musician, the concept that you can teach an entire class how to hear the same thing at the same time? [Shakes his head] “Week one, we’re gonna study an augmented 5th. Okay, you guys passed the test; now we’re ready to hear a dominant 7th.” It’s bogus. That’s just not the way it is.

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Restless in the city that never sleeps, Mary Halvorson spends her waking hours with her music. The guitarist-composer flew back to Brooklyn in the middle of a European tour, after the pandemic reduced her dates from eight to four—and then to none. 

Quarantined with her guitar, she explores new possibilities and reinterprets elements from past projects. This past week, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Halvorson for a virtual discussion on composition ruts and revisions, mysteries of the instrument, and what’s next for Code Girl. 

The Jazz Gallery: In past interviews you’ve spoken about sound density in terms of instrumentation and just sheer number of instrumentalists. What are some of the more recent ways you’ve challenged yourself to maintain this sort of Halvorson agility and intense clarity of sound and intention inside that denseness?

Mary Halvorson: I’m glad you hear it like that [laughs]. It’s always a challenge when writing for a larger group—and even when you’re improvising with people—to ensure it doesn’t have to be everybody all the time. If I’m writing for a group, I’m definitely aware of having different colors pop out, and having moments of density but not having it feel like it’s constant—in other words, being able to leave space, or have different orchestral possibilities pop out.

For me, it’s also based around the specific people I’m writing for and their instruments. I very rarely write a composition that’s an open instrumentation composition that can be transferred to different groups; I pretty much always write very instrumentation-specific compositions. For example, if I’m writing for my octet which has a pedal steel guitar, four horns and guitar, bass and drums, I’ll be thinking about all those colors and trying to have it make sense and have different voices and sub-sections of the band come through in different moments, as a contrast and release from the density of the full band.

TJG: Did it take you some trial and error to maintain that balance of inhaling and exhaling and pacing with specific configurations?

MH: It’s always trial and error. I think it does take some work, particularly when you just get started with a new group. You’re kind of excited about all the colors and all the voices, so it’s probably easy to over-compose. But what I often do with compositions is, write them, then take a step back, then come back to them with a fresh brain [laughs] maybe on a different day. And sometimes, it’s during those moments when you’ll see the big picture more clearly: “Oh this is way too much,” or “Maybe if I get rid of some things in this one section,” or “Maybe this other thing needs to be made longer.” I do a lot of revisions. I write very quickly but then I go back and revise. So I think kind of the best way for me to see the big picture is to take some time away from a piece of music and then come back to it.  

TJG: That must be hard to do when you’re really excited about a project. 

MH: Yeah. But also I think of the time away from actual composing as part of the composing process, too.

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Photo by Una Stade, courtesy of the artist.

Housebound in New York, singer and composer Arta Jēkabsone leans in to solitude. Alone in her apartment, her natural effervescence stills, but not entirely, and only for the moment. 

Like so many emerging artists, Jēkabsone searches for answers at a time when performances have halted, sessions have stopped and creative collaborations, typically a contact sport, have pivoted to socially-distant online exchanges. But her spirit remains buoyant. 

The Latvian-born artist has crafted a sound niche reflective of her journeys, both physical and emotional. Hope, wanderlust, and self-reflection emerge as raw materials for carefully sculpted compositions; her lyrics brim with intimacy.

From the quiet of her kitchen, Jēkabsone spoke with the Gallery about melodic tendencies, violin as a voice and her hope for the future of human connection. 

The Jazz Gallery: I recently spoke with singer and percussionist Melvis Santa about drawing inspiration from the natural world. You’re also known to tap that world for creative inspiration — particularly on your most recent studio release Light. Can you discuss how nature influences your compositional concepts and broader concepts for an album? 

Arta Jēkabsone: That’s a really huge part of me because, as you know, I’m from Latvia and Latvia is more or less a country that is super green—at least 60 percent is the woods. So I grew up in this really small town where I was surrounded by river and trees. I would go out into nature and listen to all the birds that are singing and the water that is doing his own noise—it’s a part of me—listening to what’s happening around me, listening to what’s inside of me and [finding ways to] make all these little sounds into a composition. It’s a very abstract way of how I hear music and how I feel things. And if you listen to my lyrics, there’s a lot of reference to nature, in the Light album and also my recent project that I did with string quartet and jazz quintet that was presented at The Jazz Gallery in May 2019. That concept was more how I feel—life situations happening around me—and also [bringing] the nature aspect into it. There’s a song called “Rain Song.” If I hear the rain pour down, I think about healing—how it washes away all your tough, emotional moments. 

TJG: You mentioned the string quartet. So much of your artistry comes from your identity as a violin player. In what ways does violin influence your choices and this unique sound you’ve cultivated as a vocalist?

AJ: When I was a kid, I played violin. And I always sang, but when I really started to study violin, I had really good teachers who would always ask me to listen to the music first and then try to [play] to kind of see what happens. So I did classical violin for 15 years, and then after, when I started focusing on singing, I understood how the violin has helped me to hear the music. It helped me to train my relative pitch. That has helped me, even with singing, tuning with people and other tiny details. I think that’s one of the biggest things violin has given me.

And also, the teachers always would tell me, “When you’re playing, think as though you’re singing.” So afterwards I started to realize, yeah, I think I’m singing the way I play violin and I’m playing the violin as if I’m singing. And you can see, with my music, I don’t view myself as a vocalist who wants to always do everything with lyric. I actually feel more connected doing stuff with instrumental lines. I would often ask somebody to double lines with me, like a guitar player or a saxophone player. I love that. That’s the approach that I really love. And I think that stems from violin. 

And doing a lot of violin ensembles and orchestras really taught me to understand that if I go out on stage, I wanna be part of the group, not an individual artist who wants to be the lead. I’ve been talking with a lot of musicians about that. Most of them say, “Yeah, when we’re on stage, we feel like we’re a part of what you’re trying to do. It’s not you alone. You’re kind of inviting us to be with you on this journey.” It’s like a conversation. Sometimes, the more people who join, the more interesting it can get, because you have these different opinions. You end up having this beautiful conversation with so many thoughts, but they’re all speaking about this one thing. 

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