This Thursday, November 30th, The Jazz Gallery continues our Mentorship Series with a performance featuring mentor-saxophonist Yosvany Terry and mentee-bassist Daryl Johns on our stage. This is the third show for Terry and Johns—earlier this month they performed at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and The National Jazz Museum in Harlem. We at Jazz Speaks caught up with Terry after the show in Harlem to talk about developing rapport with new musicians on the bandstand and the diverging paths of formal education and musical mentorship.
The Jazz Gallery: Your last show in the series was at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and the atmosphere was jovial. Being someone who travels a lot and also a resident of Harlem, how does it feel to play in the neighborhood?
Yosvany Terry: I think it’s a special feeling, especially because the music that we’re playing came out of the community and we don’t get the opportunity to play there as much as we we would have loved to, and just to see what the warmth and incredible reception was. It stimulates musicians who perform in Harlem. It’s special, also, because I’ve been living in Harlem for sixteen years and if I count the amount of times I’ve played in the neighborhood, two hands would be too much. It’s hard to believe.
I’ve performed a lot through the Jazz Mobile, which brings jazz to the community in their truck. So whenever I work with them, I feel a similar way. You see that people really engage with the music. No matter what you play, they feel the connection of being one with the community and the neighborhood. It’s vibrant. It’s an important feeling for us musicians, and especially me, to perform in Harlem.
TJG: What do you learn from playing with younger musicians about the direction and health of jazz today?
YT: More than anything, I would say a different sensibility and approach to making music. I’m the kind of person that likes to play with older people because that’s how I get to learn from their experiences, and that’s the only way one can learn, so I like to think of it the other way around. This has been a wonderful opportunity for Daryl to perform with musicians who are somewhat older than him and a result to get more experience. So I like to think it flows the other way and works to his advantage. Whenever I’m working with a new member in my band, I’m always open to whatever they bring. And yes, I tell them how I hear the music, but it’s in their hands to bring their own sensibility to it. I’m always to new interpretation of the material, because that’s the only way that it stays fresh and renovates itself.
TJG: Is there a difference between instruction and mentorship? Do you think about pedagogy when you are mentoring someone, or is it a different kind of relationship?
YT: The difference between education and mentorship is that you have completely different relationships with the people in question. Once you’re in the classroom, you’re sharing information with students. The level of the students are different, so it can be challenging to create a one-on-one relationship. But when you’re mentoring someone, you have more opportunities for an intimate relationship where you can be super precise and you can be direct, which is conducive to growing and learning this art form.
TJG: In a lot of traditional art forms, there have always been distinctions between apprenticeship and mentorship, but a lot of those practices solidify hierarchical relationships, and insist that younger practitioners “pay their dues”. Do you think it is the same with jazz music?
YT: Yeah, of course. This is all connected, and it’s coming from the old African ways of teaching—the elders passing information to the younger generation. I’ve never looked at it from a hierarchical form, because the only way you can get experience is to get together with someone that has and has lived through those experiences. It’s something natural, in a way, when we think about how one gets knowledge. The only difference is that now you can go to a college to get a jazz education but, still, once you graduate, you have to learn from elders. So you still have information to acquire. So far, this is the only way that it’s been done and still, today, it’s the way things happen.
TJG: Mentorship has always been a part of jazz culture, and relationships between musicians of different generations have always contributed to a certain continuity of ideas and practices. Does this change as jazz education formalizes in the university and conservatory setting? And more generally, what is the role of academia in jazz’s landscape today?
YT: I think academia’s role is still important because it gives a lot of students tool not only to work with, but also to be able to access and understand [jazz] music. It depends on the students, which is what I tell them all the time: “Here are the tools, now you have to go do the research, the practicing, if you really want to continue this tradition, if you want to comment on it, if you really want to expand it.” I still consider myself a student. I’m still doing that and will be doing it for the rest of my life, but that’s the beauty of music. There’s always so much to learn.
TJG: What is the process involved in the Mentorship Series performances?
YT: For me, the process is simple. It’s the opportunity to be on the bandstand, to learn from the composer and people who have performed the music how it is to be done. Which is no different than the process of all the young musicians, when they had an opportunity to be part of the Duke Ellington orchestra, to be with Count Basie, with Fletcher Henderson, with Art Blakey, with Horace Silver; and that’s how they learned. They learned about ethics, they learned about music tools, they learned about how to be an artist, they learned about the theoretical part when we get together and discuss musical ideas and how to best deepen those sounds and aesthetics. You’re getting so much information that there is no other way than being on a bandstand, and being able to rehearse and relate with musicians on and off of the stage. As I always tell people, it’s the same way as when you’re doing a Master’s or Ph.D. program, when you work with an advisor and that person becomes your mentor for those 5 years, so that’s how you learn. You have an opportunity to sit down with people, and they shape you as as a musician, a composer, and a person – on and off the bandstand.
TJG: What types of professional practical skills does The Jazz Gallery’s mentorship series seek to offer younger performers?
YT: This is the beginning of a long process. When you talk to musicians that were part of Art Blakey [and the Jazz Messengers], they spent with him, like, 7, 8, 10 years. And they learned all of that in the course of ten years. This is just the beginning and depends so much on the person that is learning, reaching out and doing the fieldwork, so to speak.
TJG: Your life’s musical journey has been marked by a deep involvement with Afro-Cuban musical traditions. What is the relationship between jazz and ethnomusicology, and has any of that inflected your mentorship series performances with Daryl?
YT: Well, jazz has a strong musicological aspect to it. Most musicians do this naturally, as a result of the way that they acquire the knowledge. You have to go out into the field and do the work. The same thing happened to me growing up. I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Cuban musical traditions growing up that still prevail in Cuba, in the same manner that I had to really learn classical music by going to the conservatories and studying there since I was 5 years old. For me, the most important thing is that I never looked at differences between all of the things I was learning at the time. Instead, I just learned it all as music. Yes, there are styles, vocabularies and genres that define that specific differences between the cultures [but it is still] music in general. For the most musicological or research side of the music, this comes really slowly. And especially this has to come from the curiosity of the musician. Daryl and I have just started working. I don’t know if he has that researcher side of his personality, but if he does, I can help him with the little I know of that sort of things. Still today, whenever I travel I try to learn as much as I can. But you can do musicology research not only by traveling and doing fieldwork but also by going into the library. You can go into a music library and do the same, and this is still important, because you need to know these things for inspiration to grow. It’s important for me to see how people did it and dig deeper so I, as a musician, can fly higher.
TJG: A recent album of yours, New Throned King, set traditional Arará rhythms and cantos within the forms of contemporary jazz. Your mother’s Haitian heritage makes the spiritual practices of the Arara close to home for you, and your music takes some of this oral and music tradition out of Matanzas for the first time. Does spirituality always suffuse this music for you even when you take it so far out of its traditionally religious context? Or is the spirituality just a part of this music’s DNA?
YT: Actually, this year, I put out two new records. One is named Okonkolo, which is a recording I did with the Bohemian Trio, featuring cello, piano and saxophone. In this context, we’re doing chamber music and the pianist and the cellist have completely classical music educations, and I come from classical and jazz. When you hear that music, you can hear that we are just going into a whole different direction that has nothing to do with what you’ve heard in the past. And in June, I put out a new record with French pianist Baptiste Trotignon, and the name is Ancestral Memories. This is a work that has Baptiste Trotignon on piano, Yunior Terry—my brother—on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. And we set out to research the musical traditions that came out of the French former colonies, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, New Orleans and Cuba. And our purpose was to write music inspired by, and not based on, these musical traditions, unlike New Found King. Which means that, yes, we had to look at a huge body of work. Not only of the more folkloric material that exists, but you have to look into literature, you have to look into film, you have to look into the social and historical context of the music and the art in order to create with that. So I like to hold these two different approaches.
TJG: What is the relationship between Afro-Cuban polyrhythms and dancing and motion in the human body?
YT: This relationship is present in my music, and it’s a fervent belief that this musical tradition has a lot of connection to groove, which is something has been prevalent in jazz since its inception. I believe the music can also be as free as you can, and can be as intellectually paced, but for me, I always like to add the groove to any form or iteration of jazz.
It’s a powerful way to connect and engage with music at a higher level, and also the audience, because no matter what type of music, no matter how intellectual it is, you’re always finding ways to connect with the audience. And it isn’t something that you do consciously—I didn’t just start playing saxophone and wonder, “How do I connect with these people?”—but it happens on more of a sensory and psychological level, and it’s not something that you can consciously work with, but it’s there and it’s reaching into people. And that’s why people go to a concert: they leave sad, they leave happy, they feel uplifted, they feel that they’ve been dealing with very hard material and that material makes them reflect. But I always believe groove is foundational material of the music.
TJG: A lot of these dance traditions are very intimately connected to heightened states, trancing or spiritual possession, and your own focus on Arara tradition connect to your mother’s heritage and home back in Matanzas. Does every performance of this music feel spiritually suffused?
TJG: It’s always interesting to see how in many different times, in different generations, spirituality has been reflected through music. You can go as far back as the Renaissance, where musician would be chapel masters, playing in churches. Bach and Mozart, too, were deeply religious. At the same time, the music had the groove. It didn’t matter what movement of the mass you were representing. You can feel the spirituality of the music coming out of all the jazz, from Duke Ellington to Monk to Randy Weston to Trane to Sonny Rollins to Dizzy Gillespie. There have been different ways to reflect spirituality through music, and for me this is an important element, because it’s a way to convey a whole different experience and information through music.
TJG: Your group with Daryl returns to the Gallery this Thursday, November 30th. Anything you’re looking forward to for that performance?
YT: Well, the shekere I always bring with me. It’s impossible not to play it. I wasn’t feeling too well at our last show at the National Jazz Museum, so perhaps I played it less, but it’s an instrument that goes with me. I can’t leave my house without it anymore. It became an extension of my body and definitely will be there as part of the music that you will hear at the Gallery.
I believe that the pace of a mentorship process needs to an organic, step-by-step. We’ve had very little time to meet, but that doesn’t mean it would be more. For that, that just means it’s beginning. We need to get to know each other more as human beings and eventually become friends in order to share more information between both of us. It’s a slow process that I enjoy the way it is.
While we haven’t had that much opportunity [to work together quite] yet, we don’t live that far from each other. For me that’s the most important part—we’re going to get together more in the neighborhood. This is part of the information sharing that you do outside the bandstand.
The Jazz Gallery Mentorship Series continues with a performance by Yosvany Terry and Daryl Johns at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 30th, 2017. The group features Mr. Terry on saxophone and shekere, Mr. Johns on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($15 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.