by Mike Trouchon, published in Opprobrium magazine, 1996
At six feet five inches, John Tchicai is not only one of the tallest individuals you’d likely see walking around the city of Davis, but he’s also the only saxophone player in town to have ever played alongside the likes of Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. This Afro-Danish musician has been playing jazz for over forty years, and throughout this period, has remained a prime mover in the creation and development of free and improvised music. From his early days in the New York Art Quartet, through his five-year term with Cadentia Nova Danica, to his present tenure as leader of the Archetypes, John Tchicai has always sought to explore the outer boundaries of the human spirit through his music. The fiery bellows that commonly surge from his horn are perfectly tempered by his genial demeanor and friendly smile. Whether he’s shaking the rafters in resolute pursuit of freedom or lifting the soul with a beautiful ballad, Tchicai communicates in a language that uses the lexicon of sound to deliver his message.
Not often does one hear a musician who can so deftly express himself both within the framework of a given theme and outside of it. His contribution to music and society was considered so great by the Danish Ministry of Culture, that he was honored with a lifetime achievement grant in 1990 to further his artistic endeavors. This forefather of European avant garde jazz currently resides in Northern California where he teaches music at the University of California at Davis, in addition to composing, teaching workshops, leading his own ensemble, and touring internationally. The following interview took place over two evenings in September 1996, where the wonders of magnetic tape captured our conversation as the Great Dane told his story.
Oppro: Were you raised in a musical family?
JT: No, not really — not in the sense of my whole family playing instruments — but my mother is pretty musical. She’s always been singing a lot and has always liked music. She knows the whole song treasure of Danish folk music and also knows a good deal of religious music. My younger brother, he’s two years younger than me, eventually learned to play the violin and the valve trombone as he grew up. Also, the oldest of my four half brothers became a rather famous jazz musician in Denmark. His name was Kaj Timmerman. He never took my father’s name because the family of this Swedish woman, Kaj’s mother, didn’t want to let my father marry their daughter. So Kaj ended up with his mother’s surname. Anyway, he started a jazz band that was the first “colored people” band in Denmark. They were called the Harlem Kiddies and were made up of three Afro-Danes. They were one of the first bands in Danish jazz history to become one of the really popular national bands.
Oppro: What years were the Harlem Kiddies together?
JT: They were playing in the 40’s. My half brother was the drummer and the two other guys, Jimmy and Johnny Campbell, played guitar and saxophone, respectively.
Oppro: What are some of your earliest childhood memories of music?
JT: That would be my mother singing. Also, my father was a Catholic, so we went to church at least once a week. Once my brother and I started going to school, we became more established members of the church and then started going even more often. I remember the organ music from the church and the drawn-out singing of Latin texts — litanies, I think they are called. I also have a memory of the popular records that everyone was singing along to during this time period. I remember also, from my early years, different kinds of musical processionals. Aarhus, where we lived and grew up, is a harbor city, and I remember this one processional put together by sailors. They had this yearly celebration where they marched through the streets dragging these big boats and making music.
Oppro: When did you first pick up a musical instrument?
JT: That would have been when I was about 10 years old. My father said , “Okay, you guys, you have to start playing the violin.” So my brother and I started playing violin. We went to a music school in Aarhus that had a classical teacher who lead a group of children playing various instruments. We took lessons and practiced, and once in awhile, took part in concerts featuring easier classical pieces that could be played by children.
Oppro: Did you enjoy playing the violin?
JT: No, I don’t think I did (laughter).
Oppro: At what point did you pick up the alto saxophone?
JT: That was probably when I was 15 or 16.
Oppro: So as a teenager you were interested in playing music, just not on the violin?
JT: Yeah, that’s right. This was also at a time when I started being influenced by jazz music. I heard my half brother playing jazz in the Harlem Kiddies, and then after the war, in 1945, American jazz musicians started coming to Aarhus and playing concerts. Then I started to listen to more jazz records and also attended live concerts by Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Stan Kenton.
Oppro: Was there a particular point while playing saxophone as a teen that you became seriously enamored with jazz?
JT: Yeah, I think that happened right away after hearing the Americans play those concerts. I also had some 78’s by Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Errol Garner that I enjoyed listening to quite a lot. Then I saw this movie about Billie Holiday’s life that impressed me very much. I think I was also listening to Johnny Hodges and some Canadian alto player — Moe Koffman. You know at that time you listened to anything you could get your hands on because there weren’t that many records available. It made for a pretty strange record collection.
Oppro: When did you begin to study the saxophone in a more disciplined fashion?
JT: I think around the age of 16 or 17 I started going to a private teacher. I can remember at least two private teachers in Aarhus that I went to when I first started out. The second teacher was the guy who advised me to go into the conservatory and take clarinet as my main instrument — and to do the saxophone on the side.
Oppro: Were you still able to explore your interests in jazz while attending the conservatory?
JT: Yeah, I could do that in my spare time when I wasn’t practicing classical exercises on the clarinet. I had a friend named Jorn-Erik Jensen who was also very interested in jazz and he and I would sometimes get together and try playing some of the jazz music we were listening to at the time. We had a period where we were very interested in Lennie Tristano and Art Tatum. Jensen was this guy who was playing a lot of classical music — playing a lot of Chopin. So the fluid piano techniques required to play Chopin were very much related to the style in which Tristano and Tatum played.
Oppro: While in the conservatory, did you ever play jazz in a live setting?
JT: Yes, I think there was one concert at some school, or maybe at the conservatory, where I played in a jazz combo that included the first saxophone teacher I had when I began taking lessons. Beyond that, I can’t remember much.
Oppro: At this point in your life, were you pursuing any other type of studies?
JT: Let me see, that’s when my father enrolled me in a cooking school. That was going on concurrently with the music studies. That meant having to attend cooking classes from 10 AM to 2 PM and then cooking in a restaurant from about 6 PM to 10 PM. So I had some free hours in the afternoon each day and one or two days off each week to play music.
Oppro: Did you stay in the culinary academy long enough to earn a certificate?
JT:Yes, but I didn’t finish the four year program at the music conservatory; I just stayed there for about two years. I started out in an introductory class for one year and then followed the standard curriculum for the second year. After that I took a few conservatory courses on the side for about a year, but stopped following the regular masters program. Then in 1959, I got drafted into the Danish Navy; I was in the service for about fourteen months. I had to go to the other part of Denmark to attend training camp for two months. Unfortunately, after I completed my basic training, they put me in the officer’s quarters as a cook in that same camp. I didn’t like that at all. The camp was located way outside of town in a remote area and it took about one and one half hours to get to Copenhagen where jazz and other stuff was happening. Apart from the Navy’s marching band, in which I played drums, there was nothing going on musically there. I was very dissatisfied with things at this point. However, my girlfriend at the time wrote to the King of Denmark and asked if it would be possible for me to be stationed in Copenhagen due to my musical interests. Fortunately, the Danish King was quite music minded. He would sometimes attend the national radio orchestra’s performances and take a conductor’s baton and conduct the orchestra. He wasn’t much of a conductor, but they let him do it anyway.
Oppro: Well, he was The King.
JT: (laughter) Yeah, you’re right. So, he made it possible for me to be transferred to Copenhagen.
Oppro: Did you continue to play in the Navy marching band in Copenhagen?
JT: No, and as a matter of fact, I got stuck with a real shitty job as a kind of cook’s helper or dishwasher. Up at the former camp, I was a cook because that was my education: But down here I was made to pay my dues; I guess probably as payment for getting the transfer. I thought I was going to get a nice job and eat good food, but that wasn’t the case at all. The transfer was okay though — I got to play music much more often and that was important to me.
Oppro: What was going on in Copenhagen’s jazz scene once you arrived?
JT: There was a lot of stuff going on there because they had several jazz clubs and many American musicians were coming over to Denmark. Some of the first people I can remember coming over were the guys from Stan Kenton’s orchestra — Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli and a few others. I also remember seeing Stan Getz in one of those clubs and that was great. They had a fantastic atmosphere going in those clubs at that time.
Oppro: This would have been around 1960?
JT:Yeah, probably around 1960, but I can also remember making trips from Aarhus to Copenhagen before I got drafted. I’d travel to Copenhagen — sometimes by hitch-hiking — to see live concerts and to check out the club scene. So I might have been visiting Copenhagen as early as ’58 or ’59.
Oppro: When did you start to perform publicly on a regular basis?
JT:A short time after I got to Copenhagen, I started playing in a quintet. Once I arrived, I began taking some more lessons at a music school called the Denmark Music High School, and there I joined a big band lead by a guy who was a Kenton fanatic. He tried to have the band play Kenton’s charts, but we weren’t that good, so he had us run through some easier stuff as well. This guy was also conducting a radio big band with a real repertoire. It was in this school big band that I met different young guys who were interested in playing jazz, so I formed a quintet with a trumpet player, piano player, bassist and drummer. So that was the first group in which I really performed in public.
Oppro: Were you able to get gigs in any of the local clubs?
JT: No, we just played at various schools — in the student union areas at dances and parties and things like that. A little bit later, I met another trumpet player, who also played trombone, and we got a group together that played out and traveled around some — we made it to Helsinki.
Oppro: Was this band called the Jorgen Leth Quintet?
JT: No, the Jorgen Leth Quintet was the third group I was a member of; it was the group that included Max Br?el. We were co-leaders of that group, Max and I, and couldn’t decide what to call the band when we recorded our one record at the Warsaw Jazz Festival in 1962, so for that recording we named ourselves the Jorgen Leth Quintet. Jorgen Leth wasn’t a musician in the group at all, he was our travel guide. Prior to that recording, we had switched off calling ourselves the John Tchicai – Max Bruel Quintet or the Max Bruel – John Tchicai Quintet. I had always admired Max Bruel because he generally played along with the Americans when they were in town. I ended up listening to him quite a bit and he became kind of an influence on my playing. He played baritone saxophone, but switched between baritone, tenor and alto; sometimes he even played piano.
Oppro: What was the Helsinki Jazz Festival like that you attended with your second combo?
JT: That was really great. In a way it was like a world music festival because there were so many different musicians in attendance from all over the place. It was arranged by the Communists and musicians from Cuba and other Soviet-disposed countries were invited to play. We were able to listen to styles of music that we had never heard before. The festival included dance performances as well as music. At the same time, the American State Department had organized a music festival of its own as some sort of counter-festival to the Soviets’ and they had invited well-known musicians to play their concert series. I heard Jimmy Giuffre there for the first time. I think this was also the first and only time I heard Herbie Nichols. Of course, the big thing for me was to meet Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon — I believe they were part of the Communists’ festival; some way they had managed to get themselves invited over. Shortly thereafter, Max Bruel and I went to the Warsaw Jazz Festival with the piano player that we usually played with in Copenhagen and two Swedish musicians that Max had played with before. I think that was in October of 1962.
Oppro: Speaking of the Helsinki Festival, where you saw Shepp and Dixon play — had you heard music of that style played before?
JT: Yes, I had heard music like that before and I think also that I was playing in a similar way myself at the time. But to have that kind of immediate response to, and validation of, my own musical vision was very great. The freedom Shepp and Dixon played with was something I fell for immediately. Also, their whole appearance was very hip. Shepp was wearing some kind of black fez and Dixon had his big beard and big hair that were quite impressive; normally you didn’t see black people wearing afros in those days.
Oppro: Was your early 60’s group with Bruel exploring new directions in jazz?
JT: No, we were playing a more standard repertoire; just things that we liked from the Bebop repertoire and a few ballads — songs like “All The Things You Are”, “How High The Moon”, “Stardust”. We also played Monk and a lot of blues — we always had blues in our repertoire.
Oppro: But you personally were starting to break out of the traditional style of playing the saxophone at this time?
JT: Oh yeah. First off, I wasn’t able to play the way the real Bebop players were playing because my technique wasn’t good enough. At the same time, I had the desire to create a kind of music that had more of myself in it, so that I could shape it more the way I was feeling it and hearing it. I must have had some kind of unconscious trust in myself that it was possible to shape sound in a way that better reflected my being. This is really what I have been going after all along — to prove that if you want it, you can create your own style, both inside and outside of music.
Oppro: Were there any musicians prior to or during this period that gave you the notion that you could create a different type of music — a style of jazz that could be extended beyond Bebop?
JT:Yes, both Monk and Herbie Nichols were doing things that weren’t Bebop and were more compositionally advanced than Bebop. Additionally, having listened to Lennie Tristano early on, and later Cecil Taylor, both of their musics were proof that there were other possibilities outside of Bebop.
Oppro: Had you meet and played with Albert Ayler prior to playing the Helsinki and Warsaw Festivals?
JT: Yeah — I don’t remember exactly the first time I met him, but we often hung out together at the Montmartre Jazzhus at some of those heavy evenings with the touring American superstars. We also spent time together at a restaurant called Vingaarden, where he’d come and sit-in with us when we played there every Sunday afternoon.
Oppro: Were you taken aback by his playing style?
JT: No, no — I wasn’t surprised by his style, but I was impressed by the big sound he had and the intensity of his spirit. He was such a quiet guy when he wasn’t at the bandstand, but as soon as he started playing, he let out with this big sound — it was fantastic. And then to have Sonny Murray sit-in with us and Albert was a real treat.
Oppro: Did playing in this setting prompt you to play more freely?
JT: I think so; it’s not that I had to ask anyone to play freer because we definitely had the freedom to play how we wanted in this group. But I do think the setting opened up possibilities for everyone to explore the concept of free playing.
Oppro: Was Ayler generally respected in the jazz scene in Copenhagen?
JT: No, I think they looked at him as a kind of curiosity. They viewed him as a strange guy that dressed in strange cloths and wore a funny-looking black and gray beard. The professional Bebop musicians in town thought of Ayler as a kind of musical heretic.
Oppro: Were there certain shows at the Montmartre that stick out in your mind as influential events in terms of further pushing you down the path of playing free music?
JT: Yeah, listening to Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Sunny Murray was definitely part of my education.
Oppro: Did Jimmy Lyons have a particular influence on your playing style?
JT: No, I think I wasn’t so impressed by him as I was by Taylor and Murray; they were more exciting to me. Of course, Lyons was very different from your standard Bebop player. I also remember seeing Coltrane with Miles at a large concert hall around this time and that was also a great experience.
Oppro: Did you meet Coltrane at that time?
JT: I can’t remember exactly if I met him the first time I saw him with Miles or if I met him when he toured with his own quartet, but I remember meeting him one evening at the Montmartre Club. The big jazz guys would always come down to the club after their own concert because there was always somebody interesting playing there, like maybe Johnny Griffin or Don Byas or someone. I remember a whole bunch of us hanging out and jamming with Coltrane — come to think of it, maybe it was when Coltrane’s quartet was in Copenhagen because I seem to remember Cecil Taylor was at the Montmartre and both groups were in town at the same time in November of 1962. Anyway, Ayler sat-in that night and I remember later hearing that Coltrane commented, after hearing Ayler play, that he had once dreamt that he would someday be playing the same way Albert did. There were definitely some great evenings there — Dexter Gordon could always gather together enormous atmosphere and intensity and Bud Powell could certainly do the same.
Oppro: When did you start making plans to relocate to New York City?
JT:After meeting Shepp and Dixon in Helsinki, I got their addresses and they mentioned I should think about coming to visit them in New York someday. Then seeing as how I didn’t have too much going on for myself musically during the second half of ’62, I said to my girlfriend, “Let’s try to go to New York.” As I mentioned to you before, she had the opportunity to apply to be stationed in various places through her work in the Danish Foreign Ministry, so I asked her to look into getting stationed in New York. She ended up applying for and getting a three year contract at the Danish Consulate in New York City. She went over first and found us an apartment and then I came a little while later. I believe she was in New York while I was playing in Warsaw. I didn’t arrive in New York until November 1962.
Oppro: Once you arrived in the city, did you experience a culture shock?
JT: Yes, I did. It was my first time to the United States. I also remember the first time I went to visit Archie Shepp I was totally surprised because I hadn’t expected the living conditions to be so bad. In Denmark, the social institutions were much better than they were in the States and thus afforded the average person a better standard of living. It was very unusual for me to see the poor neighborhoods that I saw in New York.
Oppro: Did you experience any kind of racism in New York that wasn’t present in Denmark?
JT: Not very much, no. I was treated pretty well.
Oppro: What did you find on a musical level?
JT: I found that there were all these opportunities to hear great music at the clubs that were operating at the time; like The Five Spot, The Half Note, Birdland, The Village Vanguard, and many of the little coffee houses in The Village.
Oppro: Who were the first musicians you played with?
JT: They were the people in Bill Dixon’s Workshop Ensemble. He invited me to come and take part in their rehearsals and that was really nice.
Oppro: Who else was in Dixon’s Ensemble?
JT: Shepp, Roswell Rudd, perhaps Don Moore and Perry Robinson, and maybe Charles Davis sometimes. I can’t remember the others, but that’s at least some of the people involved.
Oppro: Aside from this group, were you jamming with other folks?
JT: Yeah, there was a group of people down near Wall Street lead by some trumpet player that had a weekly jam session that I frequently sat-in on. Also, not long after I came to the city, Don Cherry had a concert downtown that I went to and I brought my saxophone. I asked if I could sit-in with his trio and Don said yes. Leroi Jones was at the concert and wrote a nice article about it afterwards and mentioned that I sat-in with Cherry. I think his article appeared in the Village Voice. So that was my first official press mention in the United States.
Oppro: When did you and Shepp and Cherry get together to form the New York Contemporary Five?
JT: That didn’t happen right away, but it wasn’t too long after I arrived in the city; perhaps in the summer of 1963 The group came about due to me being in contact with the guy who did the booking for the Montmartre Club. He said that if I had a group, we could come over and play the club in the fall for a couple of weeks. So I told this to Shepp and we decided to ask Cherry and Don Moore if they were interested in forming a new group. We also needed to find a drummer, so we tried out Dennis Charles, but that didn’t work. Then we tried out Ed Blackwell, but he got sick due to his diabetes and we ended up with J.C. Moses. I think we played out a few times before we took off for Copenhagen. It was also nice to have an offer to record an album in Copenhagen once we got over there.
Oppro: How was the NYCF received during your tour of Europe?
JT: Quite well; we got good press in Copenhagen and Stockholm. This was probably because we were doing something a little different than most other guys at the time. First off, we didn’t have a piano in the group; we just had the three horns, bass and drums — that was kind of unusual for the time. We might have sounded a little bit like Ornette Coleman’s quartet, but not quite as far out as that. We didn’t have that many original compositions, as opposed to Coleman, who played his own material almost exclusively. We played Monk and some standards, and as our theme song, we had this piece by George Russell. We also played Shepp’s pieces, one or two of Ornette’s, and some of mine. I think our more traditional sound made it easier for people to get into us, as opposed to the difficulty some had with listening to Cecil Taylor’s trio during that same period.
Oppro: How long did the band spend over there?
JT: I think about a month or a month and one half.
Oppro: Did the NYCF stay together once you returned to New York?
JT: No, Shepp stayed behind and took some gigs in Montmartre with a few local guys and Cherry and I flew back to New York. Don and I had a few dates lined up in Brooklyn where Pharaoh Sanders played with us. After that, things sort of fell apart. Although, when Shepp came back to the States, he got a recording contract from Savoy and some of us got back together. We were supposed to cut an album with Don, but he couldn’t make it, so we got Ted Curson to play trumpet instead. Also, J.C. Moses wasn’t available for some reason that I can’t remember now, so Sunny Murray played drums. So this line-up of the NYCF was basically a totally different group. Shortly after that, maybe by the spring of 1964, the NYCF ceased to exist.
Oppro: Was the New York Art Quartet together prior to the recording of the New York Eye And Ear Control album?
JT: Yes, I believe so, because Rudd, Graves, Worrell and I were already practicing in the loft where we recorded the New York Eye And Ear Control record. It was later on that Rudd and I became part of the group that recorded New York Eye And Ear Control.
Oppro: How did you and Roswell Rudd come to form the New York Art Quartet?
JT: We had known each other for awhile and thought it might be nice to try something new together. At first we tried to play with J.C. Moses on drums, but it didn’t work out. We didn’t like it and Moses didn’t like it. Then at rehearsal one day, Worrell said he knew this guy who was living out in the Bronx or Brooklyn that had an interest in playing drums with us. So Milford Graves showed up and that was it.
Oppro: Was Graves real impressive even in his early days?
JT: Very, very impressive. Graves was percussive in the true sense of the word.
Oppro: What were you doing different with the New York Art Quartet that you hadn’t done in any of your earlier groups?
JT: That was the polyphonic part of the music that came into play; the whole collective style of playing that also existed in New Orleans Jazz and classical music. The polyphonic aspect of our music was something quite new compared to what other people were doing in contemporary jazz.
Oppro: You were also trying to do something different appearance-wise, correct?
JT: No, not really; it wasn’t something conscious. Are you thinking of dressing up in costumes? Oppro: Yeah.
JT: No, the other guys weren’t interested in that aspect of the performance. I think I was the only guy who was a little outside and unusual as far as dressing up and face painting was concerned. Of course, Sun Ra did quite a lot with costumes, but I don’t know how much the Arkestra got into body painting.
Oppro: So you were the only guy in the NYAQ who was painting himself?
JT: Yeah, yeah. (laughter)
Oppro: What possessed you to do that?
JT: I don’t know where the idea came from. There was just such a great amount of freedom in the culture at that time that you could just let your ideas come out, you know. Of course, sometimes the ideas were a little too far out for the norm. (laughter)
Oppro: Was the song on which Leroi Jones read his poem, “Black Dada Nihilismus”, the first time you had performed with someone reciting poetry?
JT: No, there were often poetry sessions going on when we played our music. We also played while painters were painting and dancers were dancing. Also, Shepp sometimes recited his own poetry while we played together.
Oppro: How did you and Rudd get hooked up with Ayler and the others to record New York Eye and Ear Control?
JT: Ayler was playing in a quartet with Gary Peacock, Don Cherry and Sunny Murray and they had gone over to Copenhagen to play the Montmartre. Then once they got back, Rudd and I joined them to record the session.
Oppro: Did you record more material during that session than the three songs that appeared on the record?
JT: No, I don’t remember the session being that long. I don’t think we were there in the loft that evening more than just a couple of hours total.
Oppro: Was all the music improvised that evening?
JT: As far as I remember, yes. There might have been some thematic statement supplied by Albert.
Oppro: Had you guys seen Michael Snow’s film, to which you were supplying the soundtrack, prior to recording the music?
JT:No, I think Snow shot the footage for the film around the music we had recorded.
Oppro: What’s the film like?
JT: It’s nice. I think the first time I saw the film was when Paul Haines brought it over to Copenhagen to show. I hadn’t remembered that he had filmed us while we were playing, so it was nice to see shots of Albert, Rudd, Don and the guys; aside from the other images Snow had filmed.
Oppro: Seeing as how both the New York Art Quartet and New York Eye And Ear Control albums were released on the ESP label, do you have any comments to make about Bernard Stollman?
JT: Well, that was a mysterious relationship. Stollman was able to record all these jazz albums with a whole bunch of different people in a short period of time. Since many of these musicians didn’t have any records out, they were quite eager to record for ESP — and I’m sure most of them never got paid anything at all.
Oppro: Did you ever receive any money from ESP?
JT: No, not in royalties, just a fee for the initial recording sessions. And when you try to contact Stollman, he doesn’t respond. I heard from Rudd that he has gone to Stollman and gotten money out of him; basically bugged him, almost forced him, to give Rudd the money that was owed to him. On the other hand, Stollman did a good job promoting the whole avant garde jazz movement. I think without ESP, the music wouldn’t have been known that well. The label helped to create interest in the music and all the musicians in New York making the music.
Oppro: When did you sit-in with Sun Ra?
JT: It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact time, but it must have been around the time of the Jazz Composers Guild — maybe during the summer of 1964. At that point, we were all beginning to intermingle and attend each other’s concerts and play with each other. It must have been during one of our Guild meetings that Sunny asked me to come over to one of the Archestra’s rehearsals. So I went over to his small apartment on the Lower East Side where just a few members of the Archestra were gathered; there were maybe six or seven people in his living room, but it was very crowded. The apartment was decorated with many cosmic things and Sunny was playing his Hammond organ. We went over a few charts and it was interesting, but it never went any further than that.
Oppro: Do you know if it was a regular occurrence for Sunny to invite musicians from the scene over for a rehearsal, but very infrequent that any of these people ever became long-standing members of the Archestra?
JT: I think you had to be a certain type of person to be accepted into that organization. I think Sunny was looking for particular people, perhaps you could call them disciples, that would be able to commit themselves to his music and be able to live in a communal setting. And that idea just didn’t appeal to me at all.
Oppro: What was going on during the early days of the Jazz Composers Guild?
JT: There was a great exchange between all these different people. Most of the people involved where leaders who brought these so-called sidemen into the Guild to promote a lot of interchange among the various members of the more established groups playing in the scene at the time. The Guild was created to increase the opportunities for improvising musicians to get gigs and recording contracts — also to increase their standards of living.
Oppro: Were you considered a leader within the Guild or were you a sideman in other people’s groups?
JT: Well, sometimes I sat-in with other people; I can remember doing something with Paul Bley, in addition to playing in the Composers Orchestra. But Roswell Rudd and I, we were leaders, representing the New York Art Quartet within the Guild.
Oppro: What caused the Guild to fall apart after being together for only a short period of time?
JT: I think what split it up, for the most part, was the fact that some musicians got offered record contracts while others didn’t. I think there was envy among some in the group as well as a dissatisfaction with those who got recording contracts and then started pulling away from the Guild’s original founding ideals. Also, there were certain arguments between persons in the Guild that were big enough that it might have made it very difficult to continue. There were some bad feelings between Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. I can remember hearing some hot arguments between those two guys. It’s a shame the Guild ended the way it did because maybe we could have taken the group further.
Oppro: During your stay in New York, did you aggressively pursue any labels for a recording deal?
JT: I did it mostly with European labels. I was a little lax about contacting American labels; I think I was a little shy also. I didn’t work too hard in this area.
Oppro: When did Shepp ask you to play on Four For Trane?
JT: I guess sometime in the spring of 1964. He also asked Rudd to do some arrangements for the album. And then he invited Charles Moffet and Reggie Workman to play — that was great to have two people like that at the session. Of course, there was Wayne Shorter’s brother — Alan, on flugelhorn.
Oppro: Four For Trane was certainly something that got Shepp’s solo career off to a good start; as a sideman at the session, did you feel like the recording was something particularly special?
JT:Yes, I think it was a high point for me of sorts. But I don’t know how much I liked some of the arrangements — they were maybe a little restrained. What did make me very happy was that piece “Rufus” — the one with just Shepp, me and the rhythm section. That was a song more along the lines of what I was interested in playing and it put a smile on my face to be able to record it. I think “Rufus” came out very nice.
Oppro: How was it that you were asked to play on Coltrane’s Ascension?
JT: John called me up one evening and asked me if I’d be interested, and of course, I said yes.
Oppro: Were you in regular contact with Coltrane?
JT: No, I didn’t speak with him too often. I know he and Ornette were invited to attend the Jazz Composers Guild meetings, but they had some personal reasons for not joining the group. I believe they supported what we were doing on a philosophical level, but they chose not to participate directly. As far as the Ascension recording — I sat-in with him one night at the Half Note right around the same time that he started to play with Rashied Ali. From there on, we started to get to know each other better. I also saw him at the studio during the recording of Four For Trane. He came by the studio later that evening to say “Hello” to all of us. I had heard that Trane had some ideas to work with a bigger improvising group, but I didn’t know he’d be asking me to participate.
Oppro: Do you think that since Ascension was a piece where Coltrane was stepping out himself, that he was looking for like-minded musicians to handle the playing?
JT: Yeah, I think so. He was probably looking for people who were doing something interesting and away from the norm.
Oppro: Were there charts for Ascension?
JT: Well, when Coltrane came into the studio he had with him some sketches of some lines that he had written out for us. He gave us these small pieces of paper and we began to rehearse. As we were rehearsing, he began to explain how the solos were supposed to go, in terms of who follows who, and things like that.
Oppro: What are your memories and thoughts of that session?
JT: It was great. It started out as a wonderful day because I got picked up at my apartment by someone with a car and we then went over to Elvin Jones’ house and then drove across the George Washington bridge. I can remember the sun was shining nicely that day. Rudy Van Gelder’s studio was also very nice.
Oppro: Was the experience of playing the music as transcendent for you as it is for the rest of us when listening to it?
JT: Yeah, I felt like I was in the center of this musical universe — it was a total experience, a very high experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be; for me it was great.
Oppro: Was this the last recording you made before returning to Copenhagen?
JT: No, shortly after we recorded the second New York Art Quartet album, Mohawk.
Oppro: Did you feel like your stint in New York elevated your creative level and made you a better musician?
JT: I think it did. Of course, I played a lot and practiced a lot and was annoying my neighbors with my constant saxophone playing. I had lots of time when I wasn’t cooking at the restaurant to pursue my music. Also, I started to compose more when I came to New York and that was an important element in my development as a musician. Additionally, I went to a lot of classical music concerts and listened to a lot of 20th Century music during this time. I was inspired by Bartok, Sergei Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ives, Stravinsky.
Oppro: Did you know all along that you’d be returning to Denmark when your girlfriend’s appointment had ended?
JT: No — and we got married while in New York, so she became my wife. I think she had the possibility of extending her contract if she wanted to, but we thought we needed a little break from the city. We had originally planned to return to Denmark for just a little while and then come back to New York, but things didn’t go as expected and shortly after we got back home we broke up. So, neither of us returned. I think we still have some furniture sitting somewhere in New York waiting for us to come back. (laughter)
Oppro: Was it a big shock returning to Copenhagen — did your life go from being hectic to being sedate?
JT: Yeah, but that’s what we were asking for. We wanted to give ourselves a rest. Although, things were almost a little too quiet — it was almost too much of a contrast. I became impatient after I returned and thought there weren’t enough opportunities for me, or any body, playing avant garde or experimental music. I publicly complained and they ended up giving me some radio programs. You know, during that time in Denmark, there was only one radio station and it alone decided what the people would listen to. After I made my protest, the station decided to give me a series of monthly recordings and broadcasts with a group. That was kind of the beginning of Cadentia Nova Danica.
Oppro: So your tenure in New York didn’t boost your credibility as far as the Danes were concerned?
JT: No, no, they were not impressed — they’re very hard people to impress. (laughter)
Oppro: How did you get things going for yourself again?
JT: Well, I had to start again working as a cook to earn some money and then, on the side, I started to work with Cadentia Nova Danica — first as an eight piece group and then as a larger ensemble. Fortunately, my reputation around Europe had grown; in places where they supported free-form players and free music.
Oppro: Who were the people extending you offers to play with them?
JT: Peter Brotzmann was one of the first guys to write me and say that he was interested in doing something together. Also, the Dutch guys got in contact early on, like Han Bennink, Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg — the guys from the Instant Composers Pool. Plus, other Germans, FMP-related people — Kowald and Schlippenbach — got in touch with me too.
Oppro: What did you think of Brotzmann’s playing style the first time you heard him?
JT:I knew of course that he was very inspired by Albert Ayler and that he played enormously loud. I’d say he even played louder than Ayler. It was very difficult to play alto saxophone next to this guy.
Oppro: Were you just a guest member of the Instant Composers Pool or a permanent affiliate?
JT: I was just a guest member. I did one film soundtrack project with Willem Breuker; I played on the second album they put out that featured Mengelberg, Bennink and myself; and then the three of us formed a quartet with the addition of Derek Bailey. We toured around Holland first as a trio and then later with Bailey.
Oppro: Did Bailey provide a connection for you to the British improv scene?
JT: No, I had already established that in ’66 or ’67 because John Stevens, and I think Evan Parker, were both living in Copenhagen at the time and we all played together.
Oppro: Did you like the style of improvised music that Bailey, Parker and the other Brits were playing?
JT: Yeah, I could play with those guys; there was a response there. I liked John Stevens very much; he was one of my favorite drummers. Stevens and I once had a quintet going down in Amsterdam with two drummers, a Dutch drummer from Surinam named Glen Van Wint and then John. They had a hard time playing together because having two drummers in one group was very unusual for that time. I think we had a one month engagement at some Dutch cultural center where they gave us money to do some sort of project and play a number of concerts. This was happening during the “Provo” or Provocation time in Holland — a kind of revolutionary time in the country with free hash and lots of artistic experiments going on. A lot of the younger people were trying to provoke Dutch government and society.
Oppro: Speaking of your British music connection, didn’t you also have contact with members of the Blue Notes?
JT: That’s right — Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor, Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Dollar Brand. But the first of those guys that I played with for an extended time was Louis Moholo. This happened before I met up with John Stevens and those other guys. I had tried to bring the New York Art Quartet to Scandinavia in the fall of 1965, but it ended up only Rudd and I getting over there. So we asked Moholo and a Danish bassist named Finn von Eyben to play with us. We played Denmark and Holland and did a Dutch radio performance that eventually got bootlegged on some French record label — I think maybe by the guy who ran the BYG label. Although, the bootleg appeared on a label called America.
Oppro: Did you find your style of improvisation compatible with those of the many different musicians from around Europe that you played with?
JT: Yes, generally, but I might have been more flexible and ready to experiment during that period in my life.
Oppro: Were there some experiments that just didn’t work?
JT: Yeah, there was one example when Guus Janssen, a Dutch pianist, invited me to play in a group consisting of a guy doing electronics, Maarten Altena on bass and Tony Coe playing these tiny percussion instruments; he didn’t have a drum kit. That didn’t work at all for me; it was very frustrating.
Oppro: Have you managed to have a reasonably easy time playing with Derek Bailey?
JT: Generally, yes. The tour we did in the late 60’s with Mengelberg and Bennink was pretty easy because the three of us continued to play in the same collective style as we did in the trio and Bailey just played along. But I can remember other times, later on, where he went against the rhythmic patterns of the group to such an extent that it was hard to play with him. He tends to fight the rhythm of the rest of the group and sometimes clutters things up; I remember that irritating me a couple of times. Aside from that, we didn’t have any problems playing together.
Oppro: Do you think that playing with all these different people tended to expand the type of music you were capable of playing?
JT: Yes. It’s a kind of an education process — it was an education process for everyone involved. I think part of the reason we all tried to play together so much was because each person had something to give to the group; perhaps something that might inspire the others.
Oppro: Was there ever a reversal of the exchange, with let’s say Brotzmann coming to Copenhagen and being a sideman in a group that you lead?
JT:That happened only a couple of times because, unfortunately, after the 60’s, it was difficult to get the Danish people to listen to improvised music. It was difficult to get funding and only a couple of times was it possible to host guys from Germany or Holland.
Oppro: What was your most memorable musical experience of the late 60’s?
JT: In terms of what went on in Denmark, I think that would be my work with Cadentia Nova Danica. We invited up Willem Breuker to participate in the second recording session we did with that group. C.N.D. also had an exchange with several young Danish classical composers who wrote pieces for us to record and play on radio broadcasts. That experience was important to me.
Oppro: Who formed Cadentia Nova Danica?
JT: There were several of us who put it together. Finn von Eyben, the Danish bass player, had the idea of putting almost two of every instrument in the group; sort of a double quartet, but not completely. Over time, the ensemble became very large, eventually including 30 players. Having that many people playing together was sometimes difficult. It took awhile to get that off the ground. We did a lot of improvisation and experimenting and had compositions written specially for that big group. I think when you listen to Afrodisiaca, the record we did with the large group, we had a nice mixture of pieces for the whole ensemble as well as for smaller groupings within the larger group.
Oppro: How long did Cadentia Nova Danica stay together?
JT: I think maybe we started in 1967 and went on until ’72 or ’73.
Oppro: How did you get hooked up with Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe?
JT: The second alto player in Cadentia Nova Danica, Karsten Vogel, started up Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe. At some point he wanted to branch out to play in a group that fused both rock and jazz. B.R.I. got a gig at the Berlin Jazz Festival and I think the organizer of the festival at that time, Joachim Ernst Berendt, asked Karsten if he would include me in the band. So we went to Berlin together and later I played some other dates with them and then eventually played on their M144 album.
Oppro: You also played with Musica Electronica Viva in the 60’s, right?
JT: Yeah, that was during the period when I had that series of radio broadcasts. At some point, MEV came up from Italy to Copenhagen and the people in the radio station’s music department asked if we’d be interested in working with Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran and the other guys. We said, “Yes, sure.” We got together in a Danish studio — I think there might have been an audience too — and made some recordings.
Oppro: Was that a different experience improvising with those guys in terms of your approach to playing?
JT: Yes, because those guys were doing quite a bit with electronics and I didn’t have that much experience playing in that type of setting. I had a good time though.
Oppro: Throughout the 60’s, how much did you participate in the underground culture — did you turn on to Flower Power?
JT: I participated quite a lot because in Denmark during the 60’s there was a movement similar to that Provo movement in Holland. There was a bunch of young people in Denmark that called themselves The New Society and they had various ideas about how Danish culture should be shaped. The city of Copenhagen even gave these people a building in which they could have their happenings and other activities. At that place, many different events happened — some of them quite experimental, like marching through the streets in funny costumes or naked. We also played at these erotic festivals.
Oppro: So did you participate in these festivals by playing your horn in the nude?
JT: Yeah, I’d play music in the nude, but the music wasn’t our standard repertoire. It was more or less marching music because we were handicapped by not being able to have a bassist and drummer march down the streets with us.
Oppro: To what extent did you experiment with drugs?
JT: I experimented to some degree. I think I stopped taking drugs in the early 70’s when I started practicing yoga. But up until then, I did some hashish and marijuana and took LSD several times after I came back from New York.
Oppro: Was there a fair amount of drug use among the musicians you played with in New York?
JT: Yes, unfortunately. There were several people who were strung out and needed a daily fix and had to go out to hunt for money. Some of them had to pawn their instruments and borrow money just to get their drugs. I’ve been fortunate that drug use never went that far with me; I’m happy about that. It was sad to see the problems many of my peers had and the difficulties they went through trying to get straight.
Oppro: When did you meet John Lennon and Yoko Ono?
JT: That was in early ’69 at a concert in Cambridge at a place called the Lady Margaret Hall. I had a friend that was living in Denmark, the British poet Anthony Barnett, who was also a percussionist in one of the larger groupings of Cadentia Nova Danica. When Anthony went back to England, he arranged a few concerts for me there. If I remember right, he was the one who arranged the concert for me in Cambridge. The event featured John and Yoko during the first half and a number of people playing improvised jazz during the second half. While at the concert, John and Yoko asked if we’d be interested in playing along with them toward the end of their set and some of us agreed to do that. I think that the music on the record fades out and our actual performance was quite a bit longer. Later on, they wrote us and asked if we had any objections with them releasing part of the concert on their Unfinished Music No. 2 album.
Oppro: Were you in contact with any people involved in the Fluxus movement, apart from or in addition to Yoko?
JT:I think in New York I attended some Fluxus events. I can also remember doing some stuff with Charlotte Moorman; do you know of her?
JT: She was a cello player who was very active during the 60’s. She was always experimenting in a number of different artistic media besides music. I remember also going to a number of concerts featuring Nam June Paik, but I don’t think I ever performed with him.
Oppro: How did your life and your music change as you moved from the late 60’s into the early 70’s?
JT: The underground culture became kind of quiet and there was a regressive period with more traditional values being embraced. At this time, I withdrew from the Danish scene and didn’t play very much. I participated still as a teacher at some summer music camps, but aside from that, I didn’t do very much. Then I took this job as a regular school teacher, teaching music at a couple of schools outside of Copenhagen. I did that for about 3 years and then I started to feel the urge to go out and play professionally again.
Oppro: When did you begin your studies with Narayanananda?
JT: That was in 1972 I think, when he came to Denmark for the first time.
Oppro: Where was he from and what sort of title did he carry?
JT: He was from Southern India and I think he called himself a swami and the founder of the Universal Religion. He came to Denmark because there were some Danish people interested in his spiritual teachings. These people had gone to India some years before and contacted him and started translating his books into Danish. So there was a small movement going in Copenhagen that studied the teachings of Narayanananda. His trip to Denmark was the first time he had ventured outside of India.
Oppro: Did his visit to Copenhagen happen to coincide with a point in your life that you were looking to become a more spiritual person?
JT: Well, when I was in New York, I got interested in trying to achieve the ecstatic state I had mentioned to you that can be reached when playing music. This same high is something that can be reached by using good dope, but that’s kind of artificial. I was looking for a natural way to achieve this state. This desire made me start to look into yoga. Through Milford Graves, I was introduced to the teachings of an Indian swami that he followed. So when I came back to Denmark, I got in contact with a Danish teacher who knew something about hatha yoga. During this same period, after my first divorce, I moved in with my new partner, a lady who had two children by a previous marriage. Her and I had a nice time together at first, but then we started to argue with each other and it became so traumatic at a certain point that we decided we needed to find some type of solution to our fighting. She had heard about Narayanananda, so we visited him to see if he had any suggestions on how to solve our relationship problems. So that was the way I got to know Narayanananda.
Oppro: Did you ever go on a retreat were you studied with him exclusively?
JT: Yeah, every summer, starting in 1973, he came to this certain spot in Jutland, which is in the main part of Denmark, where some of his disciples had bought an old farm that they fixed up into a center for his teachings. So I would attend these two or three month summer camps that they held there, where I would go to the swami’s lectures and take part in studying his writings. Once the summer camp was over, we’d go back to the city and try to continue leading that sort of lifestyle.
Oppro: By taking a break from music and studying with Narayanananda, once you emerged from that period, had your music and outlook on life changed?
JT: Yes, I think I came out of that period better grounded and with a firmer conviction about what I was doing. Yet in the beginning, I was filled with doubts and worries because I had questions about whether what we were doing was the right thing. It was also difficult to keep up that program and lifestyle in a mundane society and away from the teaching center. This conflict was something that probably didn’t help my musical expression, but little by little I became strong enough to come clear of those worries.
Oppro: So once you integrated back into everyday society and started playing again in public, were you approaching music any differently?
JT: No, I think I had more or less the same approach, it was just that my philosophical views of what I was doing were more clear. Although, there might have been some more tendencies to incorporate Indian musical structures into my music than there were earlier.
Oppro: When did you begin to play with the Strange Brothers?
JT:In the mid 70’s, I went to one of those summer high schools where they had a jazz camp. I went there for about two or three weeks as a teacher. I think the Strange Brothers were invited to the school to give a concert and then they asked me to sit in with them. After that, we started playing together regularly.
Oppro: Was the New Jungle Orchestra the next group you played with?
JT: No, I played with Johnny Dyani’s group before entering the New Jungle Orchestra. Johnny was living in Denmark in the late 70’s where he was married to a Danish woman, so we saw each other quite often. There he started up this group with some Swedish guys, a Turkish drummer named Okay Timiz who lived in Stockholm, and two Danish saxophone players, Jesper Zeuthen and myself. That band traveled quite a bit to several European countries. Unfortunately, Johnny had a drinking problem that sometimes caused problems at our concerts, like starting fights with the engineers and things. At a certain point, I said to Johnny that I didn’t want to play in the group anymore if his behavior was going to continue. So I stopped playing with him, but later he kind of straightened out and then I started playing with him again in the New Jungle Orchestra. This later lead to Johnny and I getting back together in a smaller group that came over to America to tour.
Oppro: Who is Kristian Blak?
JT: He’s a Danish composer and piano player who lives on the Faroe Islands. We have a relationship that goes back a number of years. We recorded a record called “Den Yderste Oe”, which means “the outermost island”, back in 1981. That was the first project we did.
Oppro: I’ve never heard of him, is he a pretty minor player in the Danish scene?
JT: Oh, he’s not a part of the Danish scene at all — those islands are quite a long way from Denmark. I don’t think too many people even know who he is in Denmark, but he is a musical force on those islands. Once in awhile we’ve done tours together in Denmark and Sweden — and we also went to Iceland together. I can’t remember how we first got to know each other. I think maybe he wrote me a letter asking if I’d be interested in doing that first record with him. Since then he’s called me up many times and asked me to do different projects — crazy projects — with him. He has some funny ideas. Not so long ago, maybe a year and one half, I was up there visiting him.
Oppro: When did you get The Six Winds together?
JT:That was in 1984. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I lead quite a few workshops in both Belgium and Holland and at one of those workshops I met the founder of The Six Winds, Ad Peinenburg, who is a baritone player. Through him, I’ve done several workshops in his home town of Eindhoven and there we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. At a certain time he came to me and said he had this idea of putting together a sextet of saxophone players.
Oppro: While talking to you in the past, I’ve noticed that you always get a smile on your face when you speak about The Six Winds. Is this a group that you’re particularly excited about?
JT: Yes. This group is different from others that I’ve been involved in as it only contains horns — no bass and no drums. Of course, the bass and baritone saxophones have a rhythmic function sometimes, but they don’t play the traditional roles of bass and drums. The sextet is very different because the sound is unlike that of any other group I’ve been in. The group is also very experimental, mostly from a compositional standpoint, because all of the members are composers and write for the group. It’s a nice vehicle to have for my compositional experiments.
Oppro: When did you set down your alto saxophone in favor of the tenor and why?
JT: That must have happened sometime in the early 80’s. I had for a long time been dissatisfied with the expressive qualities of the alto saxophone. If you want to play loud, real loud, there are limitations to the horn. You can only play loud to a certain point before the tone spoils. Also, at this time, I had a few students who were playing tenor and one day I dropped by the music shop where I bought my reeds and the guy there said he had a nice tenor, would I be interested in seeing it. I said sure and asked if I could take it home and try it. So I took it home and liked it very much and bought it. That was nice because then I no longer had to transpose for my students; we were all now playing the same instrument. From there I got hooked on the tenor and never really went back.
Oppro: Tell me about your stint with Cecil Taylor in the mid 80’s.
JT: Well, my association with him started in the mid 60’s with the Jazz Composers Guild, and thereafter we would see each other occasionally around Europe and New York. Then we met up again at some concert in Berlin in the early 80’s — I think we were both playing there. Anyway, after the concert, we met outside of the venue and he asked me if I’d be interested in joining this Two Continents Ensemble he was planning to put together — I think it was an eleven piece group. Soon after, Cecil got the group together and we all met in Milano for a concert. At this show, there was a very bad accident after our performance. One of those beams that holds the lighting in the concert hall fell down on this woman singer who was in our group. Her back was injured and she had to fly back home to New York on a stretcher. Her boyfriend, Rashied Bakr, who was one of the two drummers in the group, flew back with her, leaving us with just one drummer. But we had to go on with the tour, of course, and went on to Czechoslovakia, where we rehearsed for a few days before starting the actual tour. Then we came back to Milano at the end of the tour and recorded the Winged Serpent album.
Oppro: Is it any different being in a Cecil Taylor ensemble than working with some other leader — does he have a unique style about him?
JT: Oh yes, he has a very unique style. I mean, he’s a genius — a very original person with his own unique views and philosophy on life. He’s also a musical genius with a special way of notating and explaining his music to other people. And that can be a very demanding and excruciating experience — learning Cecil’s compositions can be a painful creative process to go through. You see, he doesn’t want to notate things in normal musical notation; instead of writing an “A” on the musical stave, he’s writing the letter “A”. Then during a rehearsal with a large number of people he’s just saying, “you have to go up to A and down to C then to G then to F#.” Sometimes he doesn’t mention if it goes F# up or F# down and you’re writing all this stuff down and you don’t know if you’re writing it down correctly. It’s very demanding to keep up with him, but by listening to each other and asking around in the band, you eventually figure things out.
Oppro: Did your membership in that touring group make you rise to a new level in your playing?
JT: I think so because there were some pretty strong players in that group. I mean, Frank Wright and Jimmy Lyons were on saxophone and then there were two great trumpet players, Enrico Rava and Thomas Stanko. You either sink or swim in a group like that. Yet it wasn’t like there was ever any fighting among the members in the group. Rehearsals were always well organized and went quite smoothly. The whole thing was a very good experience for me.
Oppro: How did you end up recording with Charles Gayle?
JT: Well, Keith Knox, this British guy who lives in Stockholm, runs the Silkheart label with this Swedish guy named Olaf Gustavson. They had ideas about teaming me up with some younger players, so that’s where the idea of me recording on Silkheart came from. At first, Charles Gayle’s name wasn’t on anyone’s list. They asked me for some suggestions and I said how about Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. I guess my suggestions didn’t go very far and at some point Gayle’s name came up.
Oppro: Had you even heard of Gayle before?
JT: No, I had never heard of Gayle, so I was pretty interested in meeting him when Knox told me about him. Silkheart paid the plane fair for me to get over to New York and then paid for my hotel accommodations once I was there. They also gave me a nice fee for the recording session.
Oppro: Did Silkheart supply you with any of Gayle’s music to listen to prior to arriving in New York?
JT: No, I don’t think they did, but I had prepared some different pieces of music for the session. Then when it came to meeting Gayle on the first day of recording, he wasn’t interested at all in playing from any of these charts I had brought along. He just told me he wanted to “go through the walls” when he played. In any case, we just started from scratch and improvised our way through the entire session.
Oppro: Had it been some time since you played as aggressively and as freely as you did in that session with Gayle?
JT: Yeah, playing with Gayle was like stepping back into the 60’s again — being totally free of any formal structures. That was pretty unusual because almost no one was playing like that in 1988. I only played like that on very rare occasions at that point in my career.
Oppro: Did that style of playing take a little while to get back into?
JT: It took a little while to get used to, yes. It also took some time to feel each other’s playing out and feel where we wanted to go with things. There was a funny incident that occurred when we were just getting ready to record. Sirone was in a sound booth with his bass and had some earphones on. Reggie Nicholson, Charles and I were in another room and Reggie and I had earphones on. So we all looked at Charles and asked if he was going to put his earphones on and he said, “No, I don’t want to hear anything, I just want to play.” (laughter) That was a pretty funny attitude to have in terms of not wanting to hear his fellow players, so that was a little bump we had to get over before continuing with the session.
Oppro: When I saw you join Gayle’s trio after their set at Old Ironsides in Sacramento in December, 1993, you guys really brought the roof down. What are your memories of that evening?
JT: Well, that was a heavy jam session with the four of us. I remember it as being pretty intense — of course, you lose all track of time when you’re playing like that, so I don’t know how long the whole thing lasted.
Oppro: I think you played for about 30 minutes.
JT: Oh yeah? It became very interesting because of the totally unexpected dynamics and challenges that arose from that particular constellation of musicians. I remember I had a pretty good rapport with the bassist, Michael Bisio. We were listening quite a lot to each other and responding back and forth — we were playing more inside of a melodic structure than Charles was. Also, it was simultaneously challenging to respond to the lines Charles was sending me; I had to try to play things that countered what he was doing. That was a good night; it’s too bad we didn’t record it.
Oppro: How long have you played and recorded with the Polish bassist Vitold Rek?
JT: I think about five or six years now, maybe longer. We’ve done three tours together as well, mostly as a duo. In ’93, I invited him to come to San Francisco to play with me and Jimmy Robinson, the drummer from Sacramento.
Oppro: After listening to Satisfaction, it appears that you two made a real connection as far as your playing goes — your melodic interplay is beautiful.
JT: Oh, thank you. I think what influenced that album most was Rek’s compositions — they have a certain emotional quality to them that really stands out.
Oppro: Is Rek particularly well-know in Poland?
JT: Yes, he is. He’s one of the main, younger Polish composers working these days. He’s now living in Germany.
Oppro: Let’s talk about your contribution to Paul Haines’ Darn It! compilation. Did he send you his poetry and ask you to recite it as well as create music to accompany it?
JT: No, he didn’t send me anything. Through Kip Hanrahan, he invited me to New York and there he gave me a stack of poems and said do anything I wanted to do with them. I had some prior experience with mixing poetry and music together when I was with the Strange Brothers.
Oppro: Well, it seems like after hearing your two tracks on Darn It! and listening to that one new piece that you and Margriet recorded, you have a knack for combining music and spoken word.
JT: Yeah, maybe so. Just now I’m working a bit with trying to combine spoken word with some sort of percussion accompaniment. I’m trying to get at it from a few angles using different types of text.
Oppro: Before I ask you what else you’re currently working on, how did you end up in Davis, California?
JT: My third wife, Kirsten, and I have two daughters together, and even though we’ve been divorced for a number of years now, we still keep in regular contact. In 1991, she was working as a high school biology and music teacher in a town about one half hour from Copenhagen called Roskilde. Around this time, I asked her when she was going to change her job — I asked if she was going to live and work in the same town until she died. She responded by saying, “Well, I don’t know.” Then I remembered that she once mentioned the possibility of getting involved with some sort of teacher’s exchange program and I suggested that she look into that. So she looked into it and found that she had the possibility of coming to California to teach. She then asked if I would come along and give her a hand in getting settled in. So that’s how it all came about.
Oppro: So you were already living in Davis when your current wife, Margriet, came here to live with you?
JT: Yes, that’s right. I was here already staying with my ex-wife and our kids in the house of the teacher she did the exchange with — I had my own room in the house. Then before Kirsten and the kids left, I made arrangements to get an apartment for myself and Margriet.
Oppro: What sort of musical experiences have you had while living in Northern California?
JT: Well, Margriet and I started the Archetypes, which in the beginning was called the Coyote Ensemble. I also got in touch with the bassist Herbie Lewis and did a few things with him — just as a bass and saxophone duo. Then I started getting invitations to do things with other people, like Vijay Iyer. He had a group together with Lee Yen and they invited me to play a concert with them at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Next, I organized a series of concerts in 1993 at a small theater in San Francisco’s North Beach district. We did four weekends there with a different line-up of musicians on each date.
Oppro: I saw one of those afternoon shows when you played with Glenn Spearman and Lisle Ellis — that was really good.
JT: Oh yeah? I liked that one too. I also put on one show at the old Koncepts Kultural Gallery location. We played there as the Coyote Ensemble. Let’s see, what else…?
Oppro: I saw you play with Tony Passarell.
JT: Yeah, Tony called me up and invited me out to his father’s winery to jam together. He also had some sort of weekly thing going at Old Ironsides with the Bub Orchestra and he invited the Archetypes to play there with them. Later I ended up playing with Tony and recording a cassette under his leadership.
Oppro: Do you care to mention the Ascension tribute debacle?
JT: Well, John Raskin from the ROVA Saxophone Quartet got hold of me and told me about the idea for the tribute and mentioned that Glenn Spearman was going to play the part of Coltrane. I said I thought that was a little strange seeing as how Spearman wasn’t part of the original session and was only a kid at the time we did the recording. I guess ROVA thought about that for a bit and figured it might be more appropriate for me to play Coltrane’s part. So we made preparations to play the piece and Raskin sent me some of Coltrane’s charts from the session. He also sent me charts for Coltrane’s “Welcome Tune.” As the date of the tribute came closer, I mentioned that it would be nice to have a couple of rehearsals to see if we could all work the piece out together and they didn’t think that was such a good idea. They thought they didn’t have time or something. So that was one stumbling block, and then the idea of recording the tribute, to be released on CD, came up. This was something that wasn’t mentioned in the beginning, so I asked for some more money — I didn’t ask for much more, just a little bit. Then Raskin said he’d have to ask Black Saint if this would be okay and then he later said it wouldn’t be possible for me to get more money. So I said I couldn’t participate in the tribute and they went ahead and did it without me.
Oppro: At this point in your career, what do you hope to express or convey by playing music?
JT: Well, I think I want to go on expressing the same things I’ve been expressing all along. Basically, I look at my music as a universe in itself — something that you can live in and which is part of life itself. Music also shows us as human beings in the specific activity of making sound. It holds different qualities for different people, yet possesses built-in qualities that can be beneficial for all people to be exposed to. Music is a human activity that is a language in itself and shows us a musical beings. I believe that it can stand by itself as art, sound and expression. In a way, listening to music can be a transcending experience in that it can bring you closer to certain basic energies in life that you don’t necessarily come into contact with through other activities.
Oppro: What are you exploring right now in your playing and composing?
JT: At the moment, I’m working a lot with trying to synchronize my yoga-breathing technique with my playing, but it’s something totally new for me, so it might not work out. As an artist, you get so many different ideas and half of them end up being discarded. It seems to me that this notion of synchronization is worth exploring, so this is what I’m doing at the moment. I’m trying to synchronize the phrasing of whatever instrument I’m playing with my breathing. For me, this isn’t too difficult because I’m playing a wind instrument and it’s natural to do the phrasing together with the breathing. However, this isn’t so easy when you’re a drummer or a piano player because your breathing isn’t so closely connected to your physical playing of the instrument. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also trying to explore the values of ordinary language when fitted into a sound universe having musical patterns.
Oppro: Looking back on your musical career, what are some of the highlights of the past 35 years?
JT: Well, there have been so many highlights. Highlights or high experiences again touch upon this transcendent quality of music that I’ve spoken about because this is really what we are all striving for — to be totally happy and totally free as human beings. And that kind of existence can be experienced in music, other forms of art, love, and nature. I would say some of my high experiences include making my first record — recording that first record in Warsaw. That was fantastic. It wasn’t anything that I had asked for; it just happened. Then there’s the New York Art Quartet, especially the recording of the second album, Mohawk, with Milford Graves and Reggie Workman. Then there’s the Ascension and my opportunity to play with the master creator, John Coltrane. The same goes for recording Winged Serpent with Cecil Taylor. Both of those experiences were great because both of those guys are people that I admire very much and have been following since I started to play the saxophone. I also really like the record Real Tchicai with Pierre Dorge and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. That was a record that continued the polyphonic tradition we had going in the New York Art Quartet. Finally, I wrote a couple of movements for a Danish symphony orchestra and to hear my compositions performed by an orchestra was a great experience. That is something that I’d like to work on more, but being a jazz player and not a classical composer, it’s very difficult to break away from the strict classifications that Western society places on its musicians.
Oppro: Are there any other things you’d still like to accomplish?
JT: I think I’m still trying to find the optimum place to live. I don’t know if I’ve found it yet. I like California very much, but it’s hard to say if I’ll be here indefinitely. I’ve got these grants now and I have to do the work that these grants are funding, so I won’t be thinking about moving elsewhere anytime soon. Also, teaching at the University of California at Davis requires that I live in this area.
Oppro: What don’t we know about you yet — who is the real Tchicai?
JT: Well, maybe he doesn’t even know himself. [laughter]. I suppose he’s just a spirit and a being that moves along the surface of the planet and does the stuff he does while trying to reach the final destination of God-realisation or Nirvikalpa Samadhi.