Monday, January 11, 2016

Interview of Pianist and Educator Gary Motley : Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University Part 2 of 2

Gary Motley
Gary Motley is the Director of Jazz Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been teaching music and particularly jazz improvisation since 1995, all the while maintaining his position as a world class pianist and regularly performing and recording with his trio. Just last month Mr. Motley was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame as one that state's native sons. He is participating on a trip to the island nation of Cuba in early January with the saxophonist Victor Goines's group as part a cultural exchange program called "Horns for Havana,"  a program originally started by the trumpet player Wynton Marsalis as a way of  bridging the cultural divide between our two nations.

We talked to Mr. Motley at length on December 8, 2015 in Emory Village. Our discussions touched on of the value of the Arts in education, the development of jazz from its roots, the potential of music as an international form of communication, the state of the industry for young jazz musicians, his own personal musical goals and his latest album Departure. Here is Part Two of that interview.
Part One can be accessed by clicking here.

NOJ:  You are now an educator. When did you start teaching music?

GM: Nineteen ninety-five.

NOJ: What brought you to teaching?

GM: I came home and was kind of a little disenchanted with being on the road. I wanted to take a break from it. When I came home, one of the guys at a local University said he needed somebody to teach a class on improvisation, and asked if I would do it? That is how I started teaching a class at Georgia State and that grew to a couple more classes. Eventually I got a call from Emory to teach an improv class here and that  just started to build. In 2002, I had re-married, and my wife and I were thinking about going back to graduate school.  I called my contacts at Georgia State and they offered me a chance to go there tuition free if I would teach for them. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, so I did that and completed my Masters in program administration at Georgia State. When I graduated, I had acquired the skills to build a new program here at Emory where I started the current full blown jazz studies program since 2004.

NOJ: How many students are currently enrolled in your Jazz Studies Program at Emory?

GM: About forty students.

NOJ: Are they all music majors?

GM: No.  Usually double majors and non-majors because we are liberal arts college, so they are usually doing music and business or music and pre-med or music and some other major.

NOJ:   How many of those students are serious musicians, who want to make music their career?

GM: Not many. I have maybe five majors in my current group, but because it’s liberal arts the curriculum, is basically a two year curriculum as prescribed by the National  Association of  Schools and Music. That is the maximum that I can offer a student in the Liberal Arts setting. If they want to pursue music  as a profession, I have to steer them somewhere else, like NYU, Berklee, NEC ,a school of music or a conservatory. So the big thing that  I do here is make sure they have a healthy appreciation for music, because you never know if these students are the ones that may wind up lobbying on Capitol Hill or something like that. I give my students a chance to see what this music world is all abou. I bring in artists so that they can get a chance to talk with them and get some insight into the world of the jazz musician.

NOJ: With my admittedly limited time down here in Atlanta, my perception is that the area is not as embracing an environment for jazz music, which I consider tantamount to African American classical music, as I would have expected. There seems to be a greater interest in neo soul and Hip hop. Why do you think that is?

GM: I think it’s awareness. It also may come from people wanting to distance themselves from this music.

NOJ: Why is that?

GM: I don’t know, but maybe there is a stigma there. Like the people who resented Louie Armstrong and that kind of thing ( Armstrong was famously ostracized for being  viewed as too pandering at one time).  There was the Harlem Renaissance thing that was a game changer. People started to redefine their whole idea of affluence and success. So certain people wanted to distance themselves from it (jazz) and what they thought it represented.

NOJ: But then many people wanted to preserve the tradition.

GM:  Those who know what time it is, yes. The amazing thing about this music is what it was born out of. It is not a pretty history,let’s face it, but we are talking about people who under less than ideal situations had to figure out how to co-exist.  A beautiful thing emerged out of that coming together, because that is what it is. Somebody asked me the question: “Who does jazz belong to? Who owns jazz?”  Well nobody and everybody.

NOJ: That’s interesting because if you go back and see how jazz developed in New Orleans, the place that many people view as the birthplace of jazz, the music came out of a melting pot of Spanish, Caribbean, Creole, African and traditional European influences through classical musical education.  

GM: This is art. It is really valuable art. If you look at all of the things that came out of that; you look at music, dance the whole thing is ingenious to me. Everything that was associated with community was stripped away for these people. They had to learn a different language, learn different customs learn a different way of thinking, a different way of worshipping. They had to assimilate a new culture and these outside influences were being forced on them. People trying to survive had to find creative ways to fit in and communicate.

In the African culture, drums were used as a means of communication, but drums were taken away (from the slaves.) You’re from a different culture and you are used to instruments that you play to communicate your music and all of a sudden somebody shows you a piano. What are you supposed to do with that? There is this twelve fixed pitches from this tuning system developed by some cat named Pythagoras. Well they can’t find the notes they were used to playing because their music was microtonal (between the twelve tone scale) .

NOJ: Yeah microtonal playing is quite the rage in some circles.

GM: When you hear the slurs and bends that you hear being used in the blues on piano, that’s being done because those notes don’t exist on the keyboard. You have to combine them to get to the sounds. So I’m looking for this note and it is not an F and it is not an F# it is somewhere in between. So you have to slur to bend this thing to get to that sound. Now if I am singing I can get to that because my voice is capable of many pitches. So I get into this technique to get to those sounds. Then you get into the pedantic argument is that sloppy technique? Well obviously no it's not.

NOJ: Not if it is purposeful. If you are playing these things because you don’t know how to play that is a whole different thing.

GM:  Exactly, but that was one of the arguments used when they try to evaluate Monk and his technique. He is using a technique that is unique for the message he is trying to communicate. You can’t assess him using a criteria because it doesn’t apply.

NOJ: I believe he heard things differently …

GM: That is precisely why he played differently and it took people a long time to figure out exactly what was happening.

NOJ: Now, you hear his music and you know it is Monk and it doesn’t sound wrong. It sounds natural to me.

GM:  Yeah. Again we have these cultures being intertwined. Each culture is having to learn how the other one thinks and also give validation to (each other's) thought processes and admitting that while they are different these are valid, artistic  musical statements. We have to be able to objectively deal with all that.

If we go back and look at the whole history of (Western) music and how the church was involved,in that rules were being laid out for composing sacred music. The Church said this is how you write sacred music... which was to be nice and pleasing with no room for dissonance. Bach came along and took notes that were not allowed to be played at the same time and played them with counterpoint.  He figured a clever way to use a tri-tone which was previously not permitted.

When jazz comes along, it is born out of the human experience. It is born from African culture which has a lot to do with rhythms that occur in nature and rhythms that naturally occur in how we move and how we flow and interact with each other. If you look at the Tango for instance, based on the art of the dance, the syncopation, the music has people moving and gyrating. A writer once wrote when syncopation got into the music and started making its way from South America through New Orlean’s into the United States, they called it the "Spanish tinge." They said it was going to destroy civilization as we knew it.

NOJ:  Of course, anything different or out of the norm is going to destroy life as we know it for some people!

GM:  Let’s go back and look at the history of how all these things came about and came together and jazz kind of fuses all of that. It becomes a palette from which we can paint.

NOJ: My perception of jazz is that it is the most universally accepted common language. An unparalleled medium  with which people can communicate no matter what language they speak or what culture they are from.

GM: Check this out.  If you look at in this country, jazz is always introduced in port cities. What happens in port cities? That is where the cultures combine. The other thing to check out  is what does jazz represent? It represents freedom of expression, it represents democracy. If you look anywhere in the world where democracy is introduced, jazz shows up every single time. When the Iron Curtain fell in Russia it was the first thing you saw blossom. 

NOJ: Let’s talk about your music program at Emory. I hear that colleges are cutting all kinds of liberal arts programs everywhere that they can. How secure do you think non conservatory music programs are in today’s environment?

GM:  As a global statement I would say there is cause for concern just because our general state of the economy, but I think it is important to recognize that everything in our society cannot  be boiled down to being a function of economics.  We have to look at those things that are going to give us other ways to be a stable society.

NOJ: How do we as advocates, whether  we are  a student, a teacher, a musician or a writer;  how do we convince the bean counters that music has more value to society beyond it potential  as a career path for those who want to make a living as a musician?

GM:  At this point I treat it almost like being an insurance salesman. Imagine what this world be like if we didn’t have it? I have literally said that to some people in my administration, I have told them we are ambassadors; we give a face to the University. Other advocates can go in and be the frontrunners for those things that need to happen. I would  say look at the state of the world right now, then  take away music. If you think it is bad now, this planet would blow up in a week without music.

NOJ: It’s so true. Jazz and music in general is one of the few international links that people can agree on.

GM: And that’s the thing , I teach it from the standpoint that it is a language. It allows us to  communicates in a way that words don’t. If I go into a culture where I don’t speak their language and they don’t speak mine, we still have this language that moves us both. We don’t have to understand it beyond the fact that we both like it and it speaks to us. Sometimes we as a society becomes too intellectual, or we don’t think at all. It’s important for us all to disseminate the important role that the Arts plays. I talk about the idea that for my students it teaches team building skills, leadership; it stimulates the whole creative process in terms how they view things, how they process things and how they deal with challenges. Having that part of the creative experience as part of your intellect is absolutely necessary. We need people to think outside of the box. With all the challenges that we are facing in the world people respond out of fear, and fear is born out of a lack of understanding.  Music and Art in general help us to try to address things in the world around us because it is born from the world around us and helps us understand it better.

NOJ: With all the many music schools and conservatories that are turning out more and more very accomplished players, where are these musicians going to play? The economics seem to be working against having a successful career in music for all but a few elite. Venues are limited and the compensation is sometimes non-existent.

GM: At a point it becomes a matter of survival and it’s going to be survival of the fittest.  There are musicians out there who are not necessarily as good (as others), but who have marketing skills and know how to navigate the system. That is sometimes a business choice. It is not always just purely about the music. There are a lot of guys who make those choices.

NOJ: How do the economics of making it as a professional jazz musician speak to the long term viability of the survival of the art form?

GM: It is a tough one. I have a hard time, as much as I am passionate about the music, it is not easy for me to recommend this path to students. You would have to be incredibly honest with yourself as to why you are doing it. If you don’t have a sense of mission or a calling for it, then you might want to tell yourself this is fun but it is not necessarily a profession I should follow.

NOJ: Where do you think the music is going? So many kids are purely conservatory trained. There are not enough venues for them to get out and play with peers and basically woodshed.  Do you think the music has become too technical and has lost its heart?

GM: I think we are in flux right now and I don’t know where it will land. Technology plays a big role in that, because we don’t  have as much face to face interaction like we used. That is a challenge because kids need to go listen to live music and see other players, but where can they go? You are not going to be able to speak the language if you haven’t heard the language being spoken, which means you have got to get out and converse with other musicians. Training is fine, but is it going to say anything, is it going to move anybody by itself? Quite honestly I don’t think so,

NOJ: How does a musician be true to the history but still free himself to be creative in a way that is not solely derivative?

GM: I think that it is a matter of perspective. In the jazz community we are always told, studying the works of the masters, pay your dues, so to speak, which I think is a bit overstated. The point is in order to know where you are going you have to know where you came from. To me what made them Masters is that they took the information that came before them and they used it as tools to be able to express what it was what they wanted to say. I think that is the final step in the growth process of a jazz musician. Some people elect to go out because they think they have some things on their mind and they want to get out there and show the world. Others simply want to be able to just sound like someone that they respect and then go out and assimilate hoping that they will find their own voice that way.

NOJ: Is that enough of a worthy goal to sound like Stan Getz or John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins?

GM: Only the individual can decide that. I don’t have the right to tell someone to that they should go beyond. If I see a student with a certain ability that maybe be edging toward breaking free, then certainly I am going to encourage them. That becomes  a personal choice.

NOJ:  What about for you as a musician. What is your aim as a pianist?

GM: My goal is to go beyond. My aim is to take those things and get to a place where I can express what I want to express. Ironically, this is why I named my most recent cd Departure, for that particular reason. It contains all my original compositions and a couple of things that my wife wrote. I made a decision that I am not going to record or  publish any more arrangements or performances of jazz standards until further notice. Every trio under the sun have played these things, they are war horses.  I'm not going to bring anything new to the table.

NOJ: It is hard and yet every once in awhile, I hear somebody do something that is a unique and different take.

GM: Well you know what, this is my point of Departure, at this point I am going take those things that I have learned and just go in a new direction and just see what I can accomplish.

NOJ: When you say that you are going in a new direction, how are you accomplishing that? What is the change that you are making?

GM:  The change that I am making is I am writing, composing my own songs based on a concept that I have in my mind.   I mentioned  the inspiration of Bill Evans and a symphony orchestra, so when I am writing I am writing for the trio and  the orchestra  that’s one of the different things that I am working on.

NOJ: The difference being the trio and the orchestra? Could the trio without the orchestra still be making music with a different approach?

GM:  It could, but in this case I am trying to integrate the two so they are kind of co-dependent. So the orchestra becomes this housing and the trio becomes the processor. It sends out the signals to communicate to this other massive thing. Exploring colors and textures to see what I can come up with. I always had a vivid imagination about things. I know the  story went like this, but it could also have gone differently.  It can sometimes be a problem for my class because I improvise cadenzas at the end of pieces and they tell me we know that is not the way it was written, and I have to tell them, yeah but you don’t know he (the composer) might have had something like this in mind. Growing up in the South, there are things that I have seen that I want to create in music, just trying to come up with some different ideas about stuff. 

There are a couple things on Departure, for example there  is a tricky little thing called “Times Up.” The title comes from playing “Hide and Go Seek” as a kid.  In the game when the time is up you go searching for the person who is hiding. So what I did was rather than playing the melody with the right hand I put it in the left hand, it is a bass part, so that is the hidden part. So you have to search for the melody.  The chord progression that I used is from Wayne Shorter’s ESP and then changed it up with a combination of a Brazilian rhythm and a reggae groove. It just kind of came out that way.  So it is taking all these things that I have experienced  and saying ok this is the direction I want to go in and seeing what happens.

So it’s all part of where do we go next; it’s like the bassist John Clayton said “You have to learn to walk in the Master's footsteps.” You imitate and learn the path they have taken and then you after that you get a chance to forge your own path.

NOJ:  Who are your favorite contemporary pianists?

GM: I like Tamir Hendleman who plays with drummer Jeff Hamilton. I like Brad Mehldau as a modern player. I like Kenny Barron a lot. There is an Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi he is still in Italy, but he is one of those guys that I like that a lot of people don’t know about him.

NOJ: You have had some big name jazz players play at  Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
How are you involved in getting these jazz concerts at Emory?

 GM:  I am. I’m kind of a consultant. Bob McKay who is the Director of the Center here at Emory, is the one who actually puts these concerts together but we collaborate. Bob has his ear to the ground and pretty well knows what is happening around the country. He is part of Association of Performing Arts Presenters so he goes to the APAP conference. Between the two of us working together it gets done.

NOJ: How do you think Atlanta shapes up as a jazz destination? I see the concert tours and the artists seem to go to New York, Washington, down to Florida and onto Texas but they seem to bypass Atlanta.  Why do you think that is?

GM: We definitely need more venues. I think the market is here now. I think the radio, the way we are communicating with the public about jazz in Atlanta is suffering right now. Starting with the radio station (WCLK)  from the loss of having independent jazz programming which is now automated, If you want to get your jazz fix you have to go to the Internet and stream from somewhere, but it’s more of a national thing, it syndicated and nice but it is not local. What I would like to see for Atlanta is a citywide adoption of jazz as the art form it deserves to be seen as. That’s why I settled here.

NOJ: Atlanta has some venues for jazz. I have seen some pretty good national acts come to the Velvet Note in Alpharetta and if the act is big enough occasionally at Variety Playhouse in little five points, and then there are local spots like Café 290 and Churchill Grounds.

GM: Yes there are these local venues.Then there is Emory, Spivey Hall at Clayton State University in Jonesboro ,GA and Georgia Tech has a theater .

NOJ: You’re going to be going to Cuba to play in January. Tell us about that.

GM : It is a program called “Horns to Havana.” It was started when Wynton Marsalis went to Cuba and they discovered that the students there didn’t have the instruments they needed to play. The ones that they did have needed repair. So they started to raise money to purchase instruments and send them to the students. They would also send technicians down to Cuba to repair instruments. They organized  concerts and performances and outreach sort of things.

NOJ: Who will you be playing with on this trip?

GM: The leader will be with saxophonist Victor Goines.  He just sent me the lineup for the rest of the band. Justin  Copeland is playing trumpet, Adam Thornberg trombone, Emma Dayhoff bassist and Marion Felder is on drums. 

NOJ: It should be interesting to see the old Cuba before it changes as it will inevitably will.

GM: When I went to Colombia I had the chance to fly in a plane when there was no separation between the pilot and the passenger cabin. It is like living in a time warp. That age of innocence which we no longer have here in the US. I expect Cuba will be the same.

NOJ: What is your take on the Atlanta Jazz Festival? How do you think it can become one of the top jazz festivals in the world?

GM:  I think one of the biggest things it is going to take is for people to recognize what we have here (in Atlanta.) We do have a large audience of enthusiasts that can be nurtured and cultivated. You have to start with acknowledging them, acknowledging the local musician community and then figuring out how to communicate to them. When we have quality shows at Emory people do show up so there is audience to tap into to here. 

NOJ: Any more concerts coming up at Emory?

GM: Anat Cohn ( the jazz clarinetist)  will be coming in February with my trio.

NOJ: I hear you will be getting an award soon?

GM: Yes I am being inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on December 12, 2015. I am very honored. I will join the ranks of Dinah Washington and  WC Handy and Ella Fitzgerald, even though she wasn’t from Alabama.

NOJ: Well congratulations Gary and thank you for sharing some of your thoughts with us.

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