FIRESIDE CHAT WITH GERRY HEMINGWAY
Gerry Hemingway is one of the finest drummers in this music. His lack
of publicity and his shyness of the spotlight has placed much of his efforts
behind such namers as Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Elvin Jones, and Roy
Haynes (all of whom are incredible in their own right). But there are
not many drummers around these days that are as interesting as Hemingway.
I spoke with Hemingway about his career, his lastest projects, and his
views on the music, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
HEMINGWAY: I became interested in music at a pretty early age. I grew
up in the age of the late '60s and early '70s, when the psychedelic era
and the whole rock and roll thing was going on. It was quite a happy time,
in terms of the fact that many people that I was surrounded with were,
just music was central to their life, central to their culture, central
to their philosophy, central to their politics, central to everything
around them. It was a real connecting point for a lot of people. That's
the point when I was really impressionable and interested in music. I
also had music in the house coming from my father, who was into classical
music and also was a composer himself. My brothers, who had both exposed
me to rock and roll, and my older brother, who exposed me to modern twentieth
century music. He had an interest in it at the time, as a teenager. He
was quite a bit older than I was. All these things were formative, in
terms of getting interested in music. I got interested in drums along
the way as an instrument to play around the age of ten or eleven years
old. I started out and eventually grew into really getting quite serious
about it by the age of fourteen or fifteen. By the age of seventeen, I
had dropped out of school and started working as a professional musician
primarily in the jazz and bebop domain. I was entirely self-taught. I
didn't have any real formal training. I dabbled in formal training, but
I didn't really think much about it. I went to the Berklee College of
Music briefly. The real learning experience was coming from listening
to music, as I had all along, and I picked up lots of different things
and got really committed to playing, at that time, jazz music. Although
prior to that, I had played blues, country music, and all kinds of things.
I am very open-minded about different kinds of music. It was around that
time that I became very focused on becoming a jazz drummer. I wanted to
be something along the lines of a Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. I fell
into a very interesting group of people by serendipity. I met Anthony
Davis and George Lewis and a whole bunch of very interesting musicians,
who happened to be centered in New Haven, Connecticut, where I'm originally
from. They happened to be going to school there and I connected with them.
One thing led to another and I began working with them. Now, I had on
my own accord, found out about the whole creative music scene. The first
day I got interested in jazz was with the newest form of it. I was into
the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, and the late Coltrane recordings.
Those things were the first things that really got me psyched about jazz.
So when I met Anthony Davis, I had quite a collection of Leo Smith and
all kinds of interesting recordings like Braxton and others. He couldn't
believe I knew about all this stuff and was happy to introduce me to Leo
Smith, who also lived in New Haven at the time. Things went quite quickly
at that point and I got connected with the whole musical community there.
That's more or less the roots of my interest in the music. It expanded
out from there, all these connections with people like Anthony Davis,
George, and Leo. Those were pretty formidable influences on me. I got
excited about composition through them. I got excited about all kinds
of ways of playing. All kinds of things came at a more or less pretty
young age. At seventeen or eighteen years old, I was playing all kinds
of wild stuff.
I noticed when you were referring to various artists you were listening
to, you neglected to mention Miles Davis or Art Blakey.
Well, I got into all of that too. The way I started was looking at the
new music and slowly I edged my way backwards. It wasn't if I hadn't listened
to earlier Coltrane. In fact, when I was sixteen years old, I got hip
to WRBR, which had a wonderful show every evening that would play classic
Blue Note. I learned a lot about swing by listening to Jimmy Cobb and
all the great masters. I was also really taken with Roy Haynes and Chick
Corea, when he plays the Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which is definitely
a very influential record of its time. I know it had a big impact on a
lot of people my age. Just listening to that way of playing. That and
the whole fusion scene, which was another entry way into the jazz world,
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and bands like that. Those things
were also interesting to me as well. I was checking out a lot of things
at once. It wasn't just one thing or another. I was looking at multiple
plains all the time and continued in that direction. My listening interests
have only continued to expand outward at this point, like Michael Moore,
perhaps the most omnivorous listener I've ever encountered. I've got that
kind of wide angled perspective.
Let's talk about your time with Anthony Braxton. You were part of his
most prominent quartet- Marilyn Crispell on piano and Mark Dresser on
HEMINGWAY: Anthony, I met via Leo, who as I mentioned before was living
in New Haven, introduced me to Anthony. Anthony was living in Woodstock,
New York at the time. He came down from time to time to participate in
little, small, sort of rehearsal projects, nothing that we performed.
That's how we casually met quite a while ago in the early '70s. A lot
of people whom I knew, particularly who were living in New Haven at the
time including Mark Helias, Anthony Davis, and others, got involved with
playing with Anthony at different times around the late '70s, more or
less '78,'79, around there. Eventually, Ray, who did not live in New Haven,
Ray Anderson, who often connected with Braxton, at around '79, I think,
he also joined the band. All these people whom I had already established
strong relationships with musically were all working with him and they
were all simultaneously recommending me to play with Braxton. As was his
choice at the time, he always waited until there was a moment where whoever
it was that was in the band couldn't make it for a tour and that was his
point of transition. That happened I guess, eventually, with Thurman Barker.
Thurman couldn't make a tour and he called me up. This was around 1983.
He had been thinking about me for quite a while. We also worked on this
orchestra project together, where I had a composition and he had a composition
and there were others as well. It was AACM/CMIF. Now CMIF was an organization
that Leo and I formed called the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum.
We sponsored a number of concerts and one of them included this one. A
month later, I was out on the road with him, George Lewis, and John Lindberg
for the first tour that I did with Braxton. That relationship continued
for twelve, thirteen years or so. The bulk of it was with the quartet
with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, and myself, and Anthony. That became
a real long working band. I think maybe one of the most successful formations
that he had. I guess the other really successful one was with Kenny Wheeler,
Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. The many years we played together, the
book extended to something that resembled a New York telephone book. It
was just a giant, mammoth montage of just about everything Anthony had
ever written. The music became a montage of all of his work, every performance
we gave and it became quite interesting. Each performance was like a musical
adventure for us in playing music that some of us had never even seen
before and somehow managing to pull it off. Sometimes better than others,
but always on the edge and always pushing for something else and Anthony
has that way of doing things. There were long and very exciting periods
where he would be cranking out piece after piece after piece of incredible
stuff. Our most notable tour was the English tour in 1985, which was two
weeks long and documented quite beautifully in Graham Lock's book, Forces
In Motion (Da Capo Press), which is a wonderful document of a very wonderful
tour. There are also three CDs that also come from that tour as well.
The band got only better over time and I think the most stunning example
of what the band was capable of doing can be heard on the Willisau (Quartet),
four-CD set that Hat Art put out or my preference is the Quartet (Santa
Cruz) 1993 concert on Hat Art was well. That CD really captured the complete
spirit of the band at its best. It speaks for itself. I can't put into
words what that is all about. Anthony had quite an impact on me, in terms
of watching how he dealt with all of the difficult concepts, which I think
I had a pretty good understanding of. There were many times where he sat
in my apartment preparing for a recording session or something and we'd
play and discuss. We'd write music. It was interesting spending that kind
of time with him, being out on the road all the years together and seeing
his whole way of dealing with things. Now, he's extremely isolated. I
don't really hear from him anymore. Nobody really hears from him anymore.
He's going through a real period of exile, it would appear, but continuing
to produce remarkable work and on and on it goes. He's quite an extreme
case and I love him for it.
FJ: As much as his personality, many traditionalists have criticized his
HEMINGWAY: We always have this contingent that somehow has a popular edge
one way or another that have lots of buzz words to go with this New York
traditionalists' point of view, which is that if it doesn't have a blues
base or it doesn't have a swing, it doesn't really qualify as the real
deal. This is of course a pathetic interpretation of what the possibilities
of jazz music are. Jazz music is not, from my understanding of it over
the years, is one of inclusiveness. It includes everything. It's like
my listening taste. It's kind of omnivorous. It absorbs influences from
just about everything. That bears out if you watch the history progress
from the New Orleans, to Chicago, to New York, as the urban traditions
developed. Each one in their own way, each geographical hotspot input
its own separate influence from whence it came. The Spanish influence
in the New Orleans tradition. You can speak of all kinds of different
things that were cooking down there. And all different manner of things
were creeping into the other styles as well. That's the tradition, ultimately.
This is how it began and it progressed and it continues to progress and
if it doesn't progress than what's the point? I think its lovely to have
people who can interpret in the strict and wonderful traditions that have
existed in the past and do it in a very authentic and lively kind of way.
But I mean, Fred, that's all it's going to be (laughing). It's not much
fun. I love doing traditional things. I've employed quite a bit of traditional
material into my own writing and I'm a blues guy all the way. I just don't
think that that is the end of the story because there is a lot more to
it than that. Braxton stands outside the mainstream on many different
levels, taking a quite defiant stand in ways that most people would absolutely
wince at. Here's a guy, who in complete abject poverty around 1985, this
guy didn't have, I mean, he was calling me up to borrow ten dollars at
a time to pay an electric bill. He had nothing and what was he talking
about in this period when he had absolutely nothing, the possibility of
producing an opera. That's what he had his mind on. Here's a guy who couldn't
make one end meet and he hadn't lost sight of his dream. He's just thinking
about this opera and that to me is a statement of incredible courage and
strength and diligence and insanity, all combined at once. Most people
just give it up at this point. And here's a guy who just won't. This is
many levels at once and this is what the guy's about. It was so incredibly
inspiring. I would get off the phone and go to my checkbook and send him
twenty or thirty dollars at a time and do what I could to help him out.
It was a crazy, crazy time. I was awed by his beliefs. He lived for the
next moment to be able to do something like that. It is what kept him
going. Other than that, anybody would have checked out.
Is there a stigma attached to the music that you play?
HEMINGWAY: I would never view it as a stigma. I would view it as an unfortunate
situation with the more or less, business, corporate controlled idea of
what markets well. In a way, the age of independent production is better
than ever and in other ways, it is, I guess, you could say stigmatized
to some degree. I wouldn't be so hasty as to align the content of the
recording as being non-traditional. If you look as some of these recordings,
a lot of the stuff I've produced myself, although you mentioned Bass Drum
Bone, there's a pretty hard swinging band. It is blues based in a big
way. It isn't all so clear-cut. It isn't as inaccessible as marketers
would perhaps determine.
You have worked extensively with both Ray Anderson and Mark Helias in
Bass Drum Bone.
In 1977, I had established relationships independently with both Ray and
Mark. Mark Helias was living in New Haven at the time and had come to
New Haven in 1975 to attend the Yale School of Music for his graduate
degree and I think about a day after he got there, Anthony Davis and I
found out about this guy, this bass player who could really groove very
well. I established a relationship with him right away and enjoyed each
other quite a bit from that time on. I met Ray through Mark Dresser, who
also moved to New Haven and under an odd set of circumstances he ended
up two houses down the street from me. He was another fabulous bass player
right around the same time. Actually I think Mark arrived in late '74,
'75 and Mark Dresser arrived in early '75, very close to each other and
Dresser was just hanging out there. He wasn't going to school. He was
looking for gigs and making ends meet in New Haven. Soon after I met Mark,
I met Ray, because Ray and Dresser were put together by David Murray,
who knew Ray out on the West Coast. David knew Dresser as well. David
said to Mark, "When you get east, you have to this guy, Ray." And he was
the first guy that Dresser looked up and they immediately hit it off and
very soon after that, when Mark ended up in New Haven, I walked out to
the back of my apartment and I heard this wild trumpet player. I was like,
"Who the hell is this?" He was wailing. I strolled towards the sound down
the street. It was a summer day and I knew that it was coming from Dresser's
house. I walked up there and there's not a trumpet but a trombone. So
I went right back to my house and grabbed my drums and I took the thing
over and we began playing immediately. That was what New Haven was like
at the time. It was very accessible and very easy to connect with people.
Things happened somehow in a sort of interesting way. There were all these
musicians living on one block. I don't know why it happened that way.
For some reason, which I never understood, it's a very under-documented
event that all these notable players were all together at one time. We
even had our own organization, the CMIF, but somehow it eluded the historians
for some reason that all this was going on in 1975, '76, '77. Tons of
concerts were being produced there. We were even bringing up all kinds
of interesting people from New York, like Arthur Blythe when nobody knew
him. It was a very interesting scene. So I met Ray independently. I had
an opportunity to do a concert at the school that I was teaching at. We
had a little budget and I invited the two of them to come up and we just
put ourselves together. One quick rehearsal and there was an immediate
connection. You could tell that we were going to click and it sure did.
Right on the very first gig, this was just for students, it was a small,
little thing to do, but boy, did it click nicely. And very shortly after
that, I produced a few more concerts and on the very first recording that
I ever made for my own label, Auricle, I brought the group into the studio
and recorded for the first time back in 1978. The group is now going on
twenty-two, twenty-three years old.
That has to be one of the longest running collectives in the music.
HEMINGWAY: Well, I think Art Ensemble made it longer than that. Yeah,
we've hung in there for a pretty long time. There were various periods
of dormancy. For instance, there was a period where Ray and Mark, both
were working with Barry Altschul and that made it impossible for our trio
to do much of anything. That became their focus for a while and then eventually
we got together and we got very active in the mid-eighties. And then we
went dormant again when we were all pushing our solo careers, so we backed
off of the collective thing for a while. Now, we've been back in action
for the last four years or so. We've been very active again with a number
of tours in Europe and we're now touring a bit more in the United States.
You touched on your label, Auricle, what prompted you to go your own way?
I sort of fell into an understanding about the fact that to make this
work in the music business you are obliged to understand many different
aspects of what it is to be in the music business, particularly if you
have an independent mind on what you want to do. So I thought of it as
a step out of necessity because at that point, being a twenty-six-year-old
musician, my point of making a record was to establish myself into the
larger arena. I was, at the time, pretty wrapped up with working with
Anthony Davis. I had been even booking his band. I learned all different
aspects about the business as I went along. I got good at things like
booking and doing business and making brochures and learning how to promote
and how to make a record. I studied graphics and I got into photography.
I wore many hats and I got interested in all this stuff. I have this,
I guess in my blood, this renaissance style of figuring out how to do
all these different things on my own, sort of self-taught point of view.
It went well with figuring out how to start a record business. The hardest
part of it was distribution. It proved to be quite a challenge to figure
out how to make things work in distribution terms. But in the end, I prevailed
and the record did come out in 1978, the second one in 1979, which was
actually the first Bass Drum Bone recording. That first record was a very
nice vinyl production. I'm quite proud of that recording. It's an excellent
recording. It holds up very well. It's a beautiful sounding recoding.
Have you released that on CD?
HEMINGWAY: Oh, no, that's a strictly vinyl item. I still have quite a
few of them left to sell, so I'm not interested in putting out on CD.
That would kill any chance to get rid of this vinyl. I am going to leave
if on vinyl, which it sounds quite good on by the way. It's quite a nice
talk about your latest for GM Recordings, Waltzes, Two-Steps, & Other
Matters Of The Heart.
HEMINGWAY: Waltzes, Two-Steps, & Other Matters Of The Heart is the final
recording of this quintet (Michael Moore, Wolter Wierbos, Ernst Reijseger,
Mark Dresser), which I maintained from 1990 to 1998. The quintet project
as it was began in 1985, so it was a fairly long-standing project. The
instrumentation has stayed more or less the same and evolved all along
the way. Reijseger was in for the whole ride. Dresser was in it for a
good, long piece of it. Michael and Wolter came into the picture around
1990. That band stuck really well. The chemistry was magnificent. I booked
a tour pretty much every year in Europe. It was nothing I could ever work
in the United States because with three members of the band living in
Holland, it just proved too formidable an expense to get all three of
them over at the same time. Every year I came up with a new repertoire
of pieces. We would tour it for a minimum of two weeks, if not more. I
would always end up recording, usually concerts live, somewhere towards
the end of the tour when the music was at its height. We were able to
catch it pretty well on tape, so there are wonderful documents of this
band. The bulk of it is on Hat Art Records and unfortunately the bulk
of it is out of print and now unavailable. They include Special Detail,
Down To The Wire, Demon Chaser, and Marmalade King. Those four recordings
are, if you can find them, that is a lot of the work of the quintet right
there. Preceding it was Outerbridge Crossing on the Sound Aspects label
in Germany. That was the original recording done in 1985. Waltzes, Two-Steps...
is from the 1996 tour, which was our longest and most ambitious tour.
It was four weeks long and it was twenty-seven gigs in twenty-eight days
and we toured all over Europe and hit a lot of major festivals. It was
the largest undertaking that the band ever did. These recordings are culled
from radio performances along the way. It was mostly towards the end of
the tour. I was lucky to capture a very good version. In fact, I had more
repertoire that I couldn't even fit on the CD. There still some that I
wasn't able to fit on there. I think that every CD was different from
the next. Every repertoire that I came up with had a different slant and
a different point of view. A lot of my writing tends to move in the direction
of collective improvising. That's a dicey area for a lot of groups because
there's a tendency for a lot of collision to take place when you have
five people improvising at once. My writing has real formalist tendencies,
which means that I have a pretty rigorous idea of what I want the direction
of things to go. On the other hand, I'm pretty flexible in terms of listening
to what suggestions and comments and things emerge out of performing the
pieces, and so this sort of give and take would take place as the tours
would progress. Some of the initial performances of these pieces were
not so great. It would take a while for the pieces to shape themselves.
A lot of these things evolved naturally. Everybody really was attentive
to detail, in terms of making things work. People would tend to formulize
solos or their improvised statements over time. Michael might choose to,
for instance in the Marmalade King case, he plays this bass clarinet solo
and over time, that solo took on, it would always be different, but it
would also be that much more clear every time or to the point. Wolter
was always full of surprises. There was always this interesting chemistry.
What led to the band's demise?
HEMINGWAY: To be honest, Fred, the reason the band broke up was due to
the fact that some of the chemistry didn't work and there would be problems
between Michael and Ernst. They had a lot of clashes. Part of that rub
was what made things sometimes happen, but it became too difficult for
them to continue. They eventually disbanded, not just the quintet, but
also the Clusone Trio. I couldn't really replace anybody after a while.
It became so much of a distinct band that replacing anybody seemed out
of the question.
You recently teamed up with Michael Moore for a new Thirteen Ways (Moore,
Hemingway, and Fred Hersch) release on Palmetto. With the healthy distribution
that the label has, it will probably be the first time most of the mainstream
public will get to experience any of your music.
HEMINGWAY: I hear you on that point, Fred. I must admit, it's been extremely
frustrating to continually be subjugated to the only listeners that can
find out about the things I'm involved with are listeners who are very
well educated in this music and know their business and know how to find
the CDs. I'm kind of tired of that. So this may be a change to that and
I am always happy for the American recordings because it does make it
possible for people to walk into the record store and actually find one
of them. The most recent recordings that I've produced, Auricle Records
was revived in CD form not long ago. I put out two CDs, one of my own
quartet and one of Bass Drum Bone. Most of the CDs are only, I have a
weird policy of not distributing them at all. I only make them available
through my website and through my performances.
And the website address?
HEMINGWAY: It's-- http://userweb.interactive.net/Egerryhem/quintet.html
and other than that you can type my name spelled correctly into any browser
and you will turn up the web page.
The recordings can be purchased there.
HEMINGWAY: Yup, they can purchase those two and many others that are difficult
to find. I keep stock of just about everything I can, except Hat Art.
Just about everything I'm involved with is available through me directly.
You have got to make that available somehow.
And the future?
HEMINGWAY: The primary project of my current interest is my quartet, which
is now an evolution out of the quintet. It has Mark Dresser and Ray Anderson
and Ellery Eskelin on tenor saxophone.
HEMINGWAY: Yeah, it's a lovely band. The repertoire for it comes to some
degree out of the quintet book and some of it is new and different. A
lot of it is quite, it could reach a lot of people, let's put it that
way. All it really needs is the kind of machinery that can be put behind
any artist and bingo, you can get a lot of interest. So I have a bee in
my bonnet to take, I actually took the quartet into the studio in February
of this year and recorded my whole quartet book, which is not a very big
book. I've kept it quite small. We toured the group a lot in the United
States. I've been starving to work in the States with my own band and
when I finally got the chance, I didn't mess around. I went all over the
country. I was kind of waiting to do this for quite a while, but the quintet
sort of restricted my outfit. I took it around and of course I discovered,
not to my great surprised, I found myself heartened by the fact that there
was quite a large audience out there for this stuff and quite a large
grassroots scene brewing out there. I found a real diversity to who showed
up for these concerts. Many were pretty young. This is a very encouraging
sign and I would think it has the potential to be marketed really successfully.
I'm sort of laying out for you my argument for a company like Blue Note
to take the recording or as a demonstration of what we can do. I think
a company like that should take this project on. We'll see, Fred. It's
my little project to do. I thought I would have done it by now, but I
have other concerns in my life that have taken me out of the business
for a while and that has to do with my family. I'm withdrawn to some degree.
All my efforts are on standby for a while to deal with more important
issues. Once I am back in the business mentality I will try to market
this thing. We'll see where I get. I'm determined to take this point that
you brought up of stigmatization and take the argument out and see where
I can push it. It may not work and I may not find a label big enough to
suit my desire to get the music out to a lot of folks, but I'd like to
at least give it a try. I'm not getting any younger. I would like to do
something that wasn't in the same genre of distribution that I've been
doing for years. I'm happy that you seem to be indicating that this Palmetto
thing is really quite more accessible than other things and I'm happy
to hear that.
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