Great teachers are not only passionate about sharing their knowledge -- they also break down barriers to learning, and master flutist Galen Abdur-Razzaq is a great teacher. Talking with him, my own barriers were broken: words like jazz and African American don’t sound the same anymore.
He is coming to Reston Regional Library on March 3 for a performance and lecture titled “Women in Jazz.”
We had this conversation over the phone on a Saturday morning:
After looking at some of your interviews and reading about you, I was struck by this statement by you. You said that jazz is just a word and it does not define the music, just like the word black does not define you.
Abdur-Razzaq: No. … When you're traveling the world and you run into folk like Haitians or Jamaicans, they're black, but they don't call themselves black, but it defines who they are. Well I mean, not who they are, but exactly their origin. And now that we have all these silly colloquialisms, like don't give me all that jazz, or that's good enough for jazz or some silly thing like that, then it really reduces and denigrates the actual genius of the music. And the genius of the music, the root of the music, comes from the geniuses who created the music. And this is the only music that has the element of improvisation in immediate, immediate spontaneity, immediate. So, in order to transfer information from the heart to the fingers, to an instrument, or even to the heart, to the throat … it's just unbelievable.
And people just don't quite understand the genius that's involved. And they just say, "Well, it's just jazz. don't worry about it;it's just jazz." It's in our culture, it's become a joke almost because it's been created by people of color. So it's, yeah... So, I don't like the words black or white. I don't like the word jazz because actually it should be called ... And I don't even like the words African American either. But I'll go with it because it's the layman's term. So, it's African American classical music. It's classical. Or I could really say American classical music, American. … played by not only people of color, but by everyone.
I like that. I like that you put it under American classical music because it also makes us one as human beings. But this conversation makes me think that this word jazz comes from the history of segregation.
But why don't we say it's American classical music? Why?
Abdur-Razzaq: Because it's like I said, it comes from people of darkish hue. Anytime that... It's just like when you look at the movies of Moses or the Egyptians, they make them all look white and just like when you look at the Sphinx and when you look at other images of the genius of building those pyramids, they chop off the nose. It's just to let the world know that these were very dark skinned people who created these wonderful structures that had no cement, that was so precise that they were even aligned to the star, to the constellation, the genius of people of color. And that's what my point is, the genius. And that's, that's often buried within the European American culture, not the European culture because the European culture readily accepts, and still accepts the darker hue of culture of the world. And that's why you had the exodus of so many musicians who were American, who are of color that went to Europe and away from this foolishness that they were carrying on here.
Interesting. Also, I know that you are focused on the youth. So, what do you want to tell them about this music?
Abdur-Razzaq: Well, I mean, they need to know. They need to know about the music ... they need to know where the music came from. They need to know that Jay-Z and Beyoncé weren't the pioneers of anything. They need to know that LL Cool J and all the rest of those who they're constantly inundated with their music, or if that's what you want to call it. They don't know anything about Clifford Brown. OK. Clifford Brown happened to be one of the greatest trumpeters of all time, and every time he would play an improvisational solo, he would play something different. And that alone is unbelievably genius. And they don't know anything about John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. They don't know anything about Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Any of those great ones that had this unbelievable message in the music: Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
You mention those names, and there's a reason why they're not household names. Because the message was so powerful that there was a ... and I'm not trying to ... if I ... I guess I am, but it's kind of a thing where it's a conspiracy theory where, I'm not trying to be a conspiracy theorist, that there is a certain structure that keeps people away from the truth. And if you really want to find out where the truth lies, it's not in politics; it's not in rhetoric; it's in the music. It's in the music. All you have to do is listen to the music. And that's where your truth lies; it's either your falsehood or your truth. So, it all depends on how sincere the person is when we are putting the music out there. I like to listen to sincerity. If there's no sincerity, then I immediately reject it.
Also, I noticed that most of your performances are on campuses and in libraries. So why not clubs and venues?
Abdur-Razzaq: Because clubs are ... They're earning money. They're earning money. They're still ripping off musicians. You know, dude, you go into a club, you play all night long for $50. Please. No. No, no, no, I passed that a long time ago. You know how, like, they say in Christian theology that Christ died on the cross for our sins?... Well then, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane already did that. They already paid the dues for me to work in venues where I'd earn a hundred and two hundred times more than that. So I don't need to do that. Now, if this was 1957, then I would go hit on in a club, but I don't need to do that, in any way. A lot of musicians are still earning the same money that musicians were paid in 1957 and even lower. So that's why.
Interesting. You are a highly educated musician, you studied at the Berklee College of Music and earned a master’s degree in education from Rutgers University. I would love to know more about who empowered you, who inspired you?
Abdur-Razzaq: Well, I mean I grew up in the time period where my peers were all going to school. It's almost like with Dr. King, I didn't want to go to school. I mean, Dr. King didn't want to be the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1957. He was drafted into the Civil Rights Movement and, as a matter of fact, he fought tooth and nail not to be drafted. He said he didn't want to do it. And so with me, I didn't want to really go to college, but my peers all went for it and see, when I was coming up back in the 60s, education was the order of the day. That's why you had the Black Panther party. Most of them had Ph.D. , but they were still shooting cops behind garbage cans. … They knew, they understood the law and they were well-educated.
So, your environment in your peer group sometimes dictates who you are and shapes, who you are. … Now, nowadays in some places it's totally different, but when I was growing up, education was the only way to go.
After I graduated, most of my education came from my mentors who never went to school, like Jimmy Heath who just passed away a couple of weeks ago. He was the tenor saxophone player who passed away at the age of 93. I learned more from him than at Berklee and Rutgers and all of those schools put together.
Also, your performance is about women in jazz. Is there any specific angle that you will add?
Abdur-Razzaq: Angle? … It's not an angle. It's just that women have been the backbone of the music and have been the backbone of our society period. Without women ... I'm not just saying that because I'm speaking with a woman ... that women have been largely ignored as far as their contributions to any field that you can name. Any, and it's not just relegated to music, but “Women In Jazz” is a lecture that I deliver quite often and it's very informative and it just highlights those women who were musicians, who played the trombone, who played the trumpet, who played drums and all these other instruments that people never heard of. Even jazz harp. One woman played jazz harp, named Dorothy Ashby, one of the greatest musicians on the planet. And I'm highlighting these women just to inspire girls and other women to say, "Wow, I didn't know that we were that involved."
And yes, and sometimes they weren't treated fairly as far as the money is concerned and they weren't paid as much as men, but they still made a very heavy duty and significant contribution to the music. And people never heard of them. There's one big band that rivaled Duke Ellington's big band that was [called] the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. And they played alongside Duke Ellington. They played opposite Duke Ellington, and Count Basie and all the rest of them. So yeah, I mean they were great, you know, and a lot of people never heard of these women.
Wow. In your performance, we will hear music and we will hear stories. Imagine that you are performing now, and after the performance, you will share a story with the audience. What would you say?
Abdur-Razzaq: Well, I mean it all depends. Well, after I perform and after... That's kind of my opening question. I don't know. You know, it would probably have to come from the audience. What I would simply do is just say, open it up for Q&A. It's not that I would just start rattling something off after I get finished playing. I would probably say something like, okay, are there any questions that... I'm opening it up to Q&A, questions and answers, and if someone asks me a question: “Well, why did you start? What inspired you to play the flute?” Why, I would immediately say that my mother told me that I couldn't play the drum. So, drums were my first love. So, she said you're going to have to bring something in my house more quiet than the drums. So that's why she said I want you to play the flute. It wasn't really my choice to play the flute.