Wednesday, 4 September 2013


As well as being an excellent drummer (and long-standing treasurer of Leicester Jazz House) John Runcie has another claim to jazz renown. He first traveled to New York in 1962 and spent two years there as a post graduate student at Harvard & Columbia Universities. During this period he got to hear Coltrane, Dolphy, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster, Phil Woods and other giants. Returning to NYC in the mid-70s on sabbatical from his day-job as a lecturer in American Studies at Leicester University John undertook a series of interviews with leading jazz musicians, many of which were published by Melody Maker, Black Music & Jazz Review  and Jazz Journal.
We’ll be posting a series of these; the first is with the notoriously reluctant & difficult interviewee Miles Davis; if you don’t believe me take a look at p42 of Val Wilmer’s autobiography ‘Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This’.
This is the way it happened: ‘I’d interviewed Chick Corea in July 1974 and mentioned I’d like to interview Miles. To my surprise Chick gave me Miles’ address on the Upper West Side and said: use my name. On August 9th I knocked on his door, told him: Chick sent me and was allowed in to his apartment. The ground floor was one big room, hung with African cloth and with African statuettes all around. Miles wore African robes, his hair in corn rows. Spacey organ music  played throughout the hour we spent together. What a day! - not only the last of that trip to the USA but also the day Nixon finally resigned over Watergate.’

Well I mean it’s useless to talk about the 40s- what the fuck was in the 40s.

JR: I know you said just now that you didn’t particularly want to talk about the 1940s just because you can’t remember that much about that period.
MD: Well I mean it’s useless to talk about the 40s- what the fuck was in the 40s.
JR: There might be people who’d be interested to know certain things about that period of your life. For instance when you came to New York how familiar were you with the music of people like Charlie Parker?
MD: Shit. I was writing arrangements when I was fourteen; I knew the records, and besides everybody started playing like that at once.
JR: You came to New York to study at Julliard. Did you have any ideas of becoming an orthodox trumpet player or did you know from the start that you wanted to play jazz?
MD: Orthodox? I was always playing Flight of the Bumblebee.
JR: What was the point of coming to Julliard? Was it to get technical training or just to satisfy your parents?
MD: I don’t satisfy anyone but myself. I went to Julliard to see what was happening, but it wasn’t much and I knew most of it already.
JR: How long did you stay there?
MD: Till I got tired.
JR: So you weren’t there more than a few months?
MD: I didn’t say that. I was there about a couple of years.
JR: How did your relationship with Charlie Parker begin?
MD: Everybody knows that. Why are you asking me shit like that? I don’t want to talk about the 40s; that’s all dead and gone. Talk about today.
JR: You recently had the best part of an edition of Down Beat devoted to you. Is that sort of thing important to you? Were you pleased by it?
MD: I wasn’t pleased by it because they didn’t include what Dizzy had to say about me. Besides, the white man doesn’t know nothing about black music.
JR: Do critics matter at all to you?MD: No! I don’t care what they say. Because they’re all white, they can't understand black music.
JR: Do you think white musicians can play black music?
MD: No!

JR: And yet you’ve used white musicians in the past quite frequently.
MD: I don’t use them to play black music; I use them to do what they can do.
JR: How can you make this kind of distinction? In recent years you’ve used white musicians like John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and Chick Corea, and yet presumably you’d describe the music they produced as black music?
MD: Of course. I’m black. Can’t you see what colour I am? See the way I dress, see the way you dress? See the way I walk? See the way I talk? You see my maid? She’s Brazilian. We’re different man!
JR: Some years ago there was some controversy over your using the white saxophonist Lee Konitz. You said that it didn’t matter what colour a musician was so long as he could play. Do you still feel this way?
MD: Yes. I use them for different things, you understand?
JR: So they can contribute to the music though they can’t necessarily play black music as such?
MD: They contribute to what I want to hear.
JR: Are you satisfied with your latest record, ‘Big Fun’?
MD: No. It’s years old. We made that four years ago.
JR: To what extent is that record the creation of your producer Teo Macero? Do you approve of the control he has in editing and putting the whole thing together?
MD: It's not his creation. It was already together. He didn't do shit. It was together, what the fuck is he going to do about it?It's already there man. When we make the recording, it's there. I tell the guy what to do in the control room. raise the bass, do this, do that. When we get through making the date, it's finished. He has nothing to do with it. The only reason  I use a producer is because he's white. He can talk to white people and white people don't listen to black people. That's the only fucking reason.
JR: When I talked to Chick Corea recently he told me that one of his main concerns was to communicate with people, to reach a bigger audience, to get his music to more people. Does this sort of thing matter to you at all?
MD. It doesn't matter. I don't give a fuck who listens to me. Why should I care who listens to me? Why? Give me one reason. For glory, fame, money? I don't need any money.
JR: Musicians have their different reasons. Chick Corea's seem to be idealistic, even spiritual.
MD: I don't believe in being spiritual. I don't believe in the word.
JR: How do you feel about the view of one critic that your 'Live Evil' album revealed a new spiritual quality in your music?
MD: I didn't say that. I don't use the word spiritual.
JR: He said that. You would disagree?
MD: I don't like the word spiritual because I don't believe in God.
JR: How about the devil? And the influence of voodoo on your music?
MD: I don't believe in the devil either.
JR: So there was nothing involved in that music other than the music itself?
MD: What else would there be in there? Why do you ask me something like that? Why? To get a reaction?
JR: has there ever been any occasion on which your music contained any kind of message other than the purely musical one?
MD: There's no message. It's just music in different forms. I mean did people come up and ask Stravinsky that? Did they fuck with Rachmaninov like that, or Beethoven?
JR: There's been a long tradition of black music as protest music, as social comment.
MD: Protesting what?
JR: Against the situation of black people.
MD: White people are taking care of that for themselves, aren't they?
JR: So there's never been any intention on your part to put over any political or social message?
MD: Don't be ridiculous! How is music going to be political?
JR: A musician like Archie Shepp has tried to use music in this way.
MD: Archie Shepp isn't a musician. Chick Corea's the musician, not Archie Shepp.
JR: You've frequently been extremely critical of many other jazz musicians, especially those involved in the so-called avant-garde movement? What musicians do you enjoy listening to?
MD: I like most of the ones who've worked with me. I like Chick and Herbie, but he's too fucking intellectual you know.  Those white wives.
JR: Do you listen more for your own pleasure to rock music and soul music rather than to jazz?
MD: I don't know what soul music is. White people invent all these terms; all that shit.
JR: What sort of things do you listen to nowadays?
MD: I listen to Stockhausen, James Brown and Marvin Gaye, who I think is a genius. I like the Staples Singers and Aretha. Did you hear Aretha last night?
JR: No.
MD: Why not?
JR: I didn't know she was appearing.
MD: See, that's the difference. You're white, I'm black.
JR: I was listening to Jimmy Heath's band. I try to hear as much as I can.
MD: You're forgiven.
JR: I notice you didn't include any jazz musicians in your list.
MD: I don't know what jazz is. That's a white man's word to give to niggers, and niggers are Uncle Toms.
JR: Just describe it as black music without any categories?
MD: Right.
JR: Over the years you've been criticised for your attitude to audiences.
MD: What am I supposed to do to a fucking audience? Suck their dicks? Dance? They can't play trumpet. I'm playing the trumpet. I'm giving them the music I've written and studied for all those years.
JR: Would it be true to say you need them?
MD: They need me!
JR: But isn't it a sort of mutual relationship?
MD: They need me! I don't need them. Because they beat you up and start wars. A friend of mine just told me that one of his best friends went up to the second tier to hear Aretha Franklin and some white boys shot him in the back of the head. But what the fuck is that? And you ask me if I need audiences.
JR: Do you have any feelings about playing for white audiences?
MD: They can take it or leave it.
JR: You don't seem to be appearing very frequently nowadays in clubs.
MD: because I quit. I'm out of it.
JR: Why is that? Are you disillusioned with the business?
MD: It's terrible. I do what I want to do.
JR: Do you intend to do occasional concerts?
MD: Maybe nothing. Why not?
JR: Are you happy with the prospect of life without music?
MD: It's not going to be without music. I just don't want to be in it. Also my legs are bad; they're just deteriorating. I don't want to be bothered with all that bullshit any more.
JR: Does the music bore you now?
MD: Nothing bores me. It's just the attitude of the general white person. They got the foothold.
JR: You don't think the black situation is improving at all?
MD: No!
JR: If it did would this change your attitude at all to playing in public?
MD: I'm too far gone and i can't stand white people unless they're real people. You can tell when somebody's real.
JR: Have you met many white people that you'd put into that category?
MD: No. About two or three.
JR: Presumably Chick Corea is one of them?
MD: I don't know what Chick is, and that's what I mean. When a guy's real you don't know what he is. You don't notice his colour.
JR: Why do you feel so strongly about racial matters? Is it simply the result of being a black man in America for forty years.
MD: 48 years. It's because you get fucked around man. Why should a white man shoot you in the head for trying to get a better look at Aretha Franklin? You can see when you get in the ring though can't you? You see how many white champions you got?
JR: The music we can hear in the background is something you've just composed for Duke Ellington, right?
MD:Right. I loved and respected Duke. He was one of my idols. He sent me a letter before he died,  to say goodbye.
JR: Do you plan to have this music put out on a record?
MD: I don't care if it's put out or not. I can still listen to it myself. It doesn't mater me whether something's on record. So what?
JR: Do you have any kind of permanent band together at the moment?
MD: Sure I've got a band together.
JR: And are you playing frequently with them?
MD: I'll play when I get ready to play.
JR: Do you intend to play again?
MD: When I get ready.
JR: This is really just a temporary lay off?
MD: It's just that I  can't stand the business. If it seems all right I'll do it. I'm well set up. I need never work again in my life.
JR: have you listened to any of the jazz, for want of a better word, being played by European musicians?
MD: Whatever they do, we've done. We've done all that shit years ago. But it's always the musicians who contribute, whether they're white, black, Chinese or Japanese. It's just that I'm black and I  lean towards Marvin Gaye and that kind of thing.
JR: Is there any sense in which the music has become international?
MD: Black music doesn't sound like Chinese music does it? I wish I could play Chinese music.
JR: Is there no way in which music could become what Albert Ayler called the healing force of the universe? Can't it bring people together?
MD: Albert who?That's bullshit; that's white talk.

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