Monday, January 4, 2016

Interview with Pianist and Educator Gary Motley Director of Jazz Studies Program at Emory University Part 1 of 2

Gary Motley
Gary Motley is an Atlanta based jazz pianist, composer and educator. Since 2004 he has been the director of jazz studies at Emory University while still maintaining a foot in the community of working jazz musicians. Before becoming an educator Mr. Motley plied his skills as an accomplished pianist with the likes of Clark Terry, Benny Golson,Terrence Blanchard, Russell Malone and a myriad of other master musicians. In 2008 Mr. Motley was a featured artist of an interview by the late Marion McPartland on her nationally syndicated NPR show piano jazz. 

Receiving his masters from Georgia State and making Atlanta his home for many years, Mr,. Motley is uniquely positioned to speak to the local Atlanta jazz scene, his musical program at Emory. his thoughts on jazz and its direction, his career as both an educator and a working jazz musician and other music related topics. Mr. Motley was recently inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on December 12, 2015.

Notes on Jazz  spoke to Mr. Motley on December 9, 2015 in Emory Village, Atlanta, GA. We discussed his Alabama upbringing, his musical influences, his life as a musician and an educator and a composer. This is PART ONE OF A TWO PART INTERVIEW:

NOJ:   Thanks for taking the time Gary . I read somewhere that you were brought up in Alabama, what part?

GM: A little city called Anniston, near  Birmingham about one hundred miles from here.

NOJ: How was the music scene in Alabama when you were growing up?

GM: It used to be fairly decent depending on where you  were. The Blues was big thing over there in the south country and R&B . The northern part of the state was definitely (into) R&B, a lot in the nineteen sixties, Stax Records,  Muscle Shoals, the Muscle Shoals sound, a horn section called the Muscle Shoals Horns.  A lot of R &B stuff was cut up in that area, so you have a lot of that type of Soul music. But yeah, being in the conservative South, you were in the Bible belt, a lot of Gospel and sacred music and that sort of thing, which is what I grew up with. My mom was a church pianist and that sort of thing so that was what she did and my dad loved his Blues records so you got this interesting mix.

NOJ: So who were your Blues favorites?

GM: I just never really gravitated heavily toward the Blues.

NOJ: Does it influence your playing at all?

GM: A little bit, but I think just being a product of the environment, you know I learned about people like Muddy Waters and folks like that, I think just by being in the region.

NOJ: So what did you like to listen to when you were younger?

GM: I discovered jazz as a teen, listening to my local public radio station, checking stuff out and thought this is cool. Television of all places from Charlie Brown by Vince Guaraldi and the rest was also an influence.

NOJ: Did you like Johnny Costa?( Musical director for Mister Rodgers Neighborhood)

GM: Yeah , John Costa.

NOJ: What a player too, underrated!

GM:  I had no idea he was that bad!

NOJ: I believe they called him the white Art Tatum!

GM: I heard that stuff and then I had to find out who it was. I started talking to guys and then met guys who knew him and that sort of thing. From there I started to investigate a little bit more.

NOJ: It’s interesting , my sister, who is not a jazz fan, was telling me that Guaraldi’s score to a Peanuts Christmas and Costa’s work on Mister Rodgers probably influenced more children to at least listen to jazz then would probably have happened otherwise. It’s sort like coming in from the back door.

GM:  Yeah but we got there! We had a local station in Birmingham, a public radio station that would play jazz one hour a night from twelve midnight to one am.  We were getting it on mom’s little AM radio and I was checking out what these cats were doing and it sounded like jazz.
Growing up in the South, let alone growing up in Alabama, was an interesting thing. My mom was set on exposing us to cultural things so it was through those channels that I started to hear the music and really became fascinated. It set me on the course and I never looked back.

NOJ:  Where did you go to school?

GM: I started out at the University of Alabama. Then there is a fine arts college in Alabama called the University of  Montevallo , I transferred there and decided I was going to major in music and did my undergraduate work there.  After that  I went out on the road ( as a working musician)  for sixteen years  and went back to Georgia State University and did my master’s degree there.

NOJ: Wow sixteen years on the road? Who did you wind up playing with and who did you wind up learning from?

GM: I played with all different people. I did some stuff with Terence Blanchard, some with Russell Malone and then just a lot of pick up gigs playing with pretty much all the cats, Clark Terry, Benny Golson. I hung out with Barry Harris while I was in New York. Back in the eighties…I used to hang out there a lot.

NOJ: Did you reside in New York for any length of time?

GM: I never lived there, but I would be in and out there.

NOJ:  Are you a proponent of the idea that as a jazz musician you have to embed yourself in New York which seems to be the Mecca for jazz and where all the musicians seem to congregate?

GM: I think you have to do it. It can be a love-hate relationship. My thing was that I wanted to digest the information, but I never felt comfortable enough to completely take the plunge and live there.

NOJ: It is a pretty big plunge.

GM:  Yeah, that is a helluva leap of faith. I thought long and hard about it and said I will get in there as much as I can, so that was the way I chose to do it. But, I think at some point (a working musician) has to go there just to understand what the level is and what the expectations are, especially if you are someone who wants to do this for a living, and then you got to do it.

 NOJ: What do you think about the feasibility in today’s market of being a professional jazz musician and being able to make a living at this as a profession?

GM:  You have to be dedicated to it and be willing to go where it takes you.  That’s what I’ve done, that is all I have always done for thirty-six years. It has been jazz in some form or another, but it has been jazz.

NOJ: But you also write orchestral compositions?

GM: Yes, I am writing and arranging. I am actually doing something with the Le Grange Symphony Orchestra in middle of January when I get back from my trip to Cuba. It will be strings with a jazz trio. You have to remember Bill Evans did that trio with symphony orchestra. That is one of my favorite projects. So I get to write for that. We have a string quartet in residence here (at Emory University) and so I get to write for them. So writing and arranging doing my own compositions.

NOJ: As a composer/arranger what do you think of the resurgence of big band music writing and arranging?

GM:  There are different approaches to writing and arranging for big bands. Ellington had his own unique approach and Stan Kenton was the polar opposite. You look at somebody current, like Maria Schneider, she sees it like this tonal canvas and you can hear it, the textures that she writes.  One of my favorite writers and musicians period is Bob Mintzer, who writes big band charts. I actually had him here a few years back.

NOJ: What about Southern Rock? Did that hit Alabama when you were growing up?

GM:  Oh yeah,I had some brief encounters with that, but I wasn’t really into it.

NOJ: Who were your biggest influences on piano?

GM:  Oscar (Robertson), Monk, Bill Evans and I guy a lot of people don’t know about named Dwight Mitchell. Remember  Willie Ruff, he played French horn and bass? The Mitchell-Ruff duo? Dwight was a bit of a recluse outside of his performing he was really a low key kind of guy. He was from; I want to say St. Augustine, Florida.  He died a few years back.  He was on NPR’s Marion 
Mc Partland’s show,  "Piano Jazz," you should look up that link to his interview with her.  

These days, I'm really feeling the Bill Evans thing, but I really don’t want to be put in that pigeonhole. Of the guys that are out there now Kenny Baron is one of my favorites.  George Cables  I like.

NOJ: What about Chick (Corea) , Herbie ( Hancock) and Keith (Jarrett) the triumvirate of the past fifty years?

GM: Yeah, if you are a piano player  you have to check those guys out. We had Chick at Emory here recently.

NOJ: I was there, Chick and Bela Fleck. Great concert.

GM: Chick does Chick very well, flawless. I can respect that, he makes you come to him.

NOJ: I remember seeing Chick back in the seventies when he was into fusion and Return to Forever.

GM: I’d say in terms of my influences, initially it was like the classic jazz trios, like Nat Cole, Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Kelly. The modern thing for me came later, in recent years I’m studying those guys more and trying to get in touch with that style. I have been really checking that out now and trying to understand that whole concept. I think …for me being here teaching,  I didn’t have access to some of the guys who were doing ( the modern thing).  You know I was not able to talk to some of the guys in person and finding out what they were doing, asking them “Hey man what’s the deal?” So I had to get a lot of it from books and records or wherever I could find it.

NOJ:  What besides the obvious quirkiness of his music drew you to Thelonious Monk?

GM: I once had a conversation with Ellis Marsalis.  At the time everyone was on this Monk trip and I told him I didn’t get it. So I told him “what’s the deal with this Monk cat,” I was maybe twenty-one at the time. I said I have listened to him and I don’t get it? He said, the problem is that you are listening to Monk for what you want to hear rather than listening to what he is trying to say. He said you have got to change how you are hearing him and then you will get what is going on. Then I started hearing his effective use of dissonance and that sort of thing, but it was deliberate it was by design. I got the artistry and that was pretty radical for the time.

NOJ: Who plays like Monk? His style is so different and yet he has influenced a lot of people. It’s pretty interesting where the young players are coming from. In my opinion a lot of them have taken to dissonance and in particularly many seem to have been influenced by McCoy Tyner’s percussive and modal style.  Why do you think his style has been so influential to the young players where the styles of his contemporaries like Brubeck or Peterson seem to have been forgotten? Do you feel this is true?

GM:  I do. That’s the thing that hit me with that,…  I am analyzing like the McCoy thing and that sound, using the pentatonic scale  and stuff like that. When I first heard it I didn’t get it. Now it is starting to hit me a little bit more. There is a whole interesting underlying philosophy under that music. I don’t know if it actually started  in New York because I’m not there, so being on the outside I have to formulate my own  conclusions about how it came to be.  When you play inside versus playing outside…

NOJ:  Explain what playing inside versus playing outside means to you?

GM: Consonance versus dissonance.  Outside is that tense thing that is unrelated. What is that about and where does that come from? If you are a classically trained musician you are taught about the concept of right and wrong notes. If you purely stick to that you will never get it, because you have been so ingrained with the Western way of thinking about the twelve tone system.  This is going beyond that and saying we are going to define tonality in a different way. There is a whole bunch of reasons why it’s done, but if you are talking about the music itself that’s kind of the number one principal of this thing.  In order to be able to execute it,  I teach my students to put name to these things, then all of a sudden the concept  becomes tangible. The next thing you want to do is give permission to do this.  You know this is not related to the key but that’s not the point. If you want to sound and do something that is not related to the key that actually gives you dimensional freedom  (then at some point )you need the permission to do this.

NOJ: But you should only employ this dissonance for a specific reason, right?

GM: As a conscientious musician you should do it for a reason.  Then that gets it into a whole different thing. Like when Trane made that choice, was that a conscious deliberate choice? Did he have a reason for doing it? The fact of the matter is that here is this new resource that you have that gives another dimension to the music. I agree I think there should be a reason behind using it. Sometimes it becomes affected, a little like smoke and mirrors. I think the musicians who come in the door and say they want to start, with Herbie( Hancock) and McCoy( Tyner) and Trane. I have to say, you don’t understand, they didn’t start there. If you listen to early McCoy he didn’t sound anything like that. He sounded like cats that were around at the time. He got into his eventual style as an evolutionary thing. When you get right down to it, McCoy is still playing stride piano.

NOJ: I never thought of it that way but your'e right.

GM: He just changes the rhythm. It came out of folks like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. It just was the next step in the evolutionary process. So you have got to go back and deal with that otherwise you’ll never know where that came from.

NOJ: The history is important for any student of the music.

GM: Oh Yeah. That was the thing for me to figure out, because that component  I didn’t get to that right away. I had my own process to see what those thing, where they came from  and then I could see how to put new ideas into practice. 

In Part Two of this interview we will discuss Mr. Motley's assessment of the state of jazz education, the viability of becoming a jazz musician,  the Atlanta jazz scene and Mr. Motley's latest album titled Departure. You can access Part Two by clicking here.

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