Belonging: Rudresh Mahanthappa Speaks
Photo by Ethan Levitas, courtesy of the artist.
A saxophonist of bristling energy and global imagination, Rudresh Mahanthappa has left an indelible mark on improvised music in New York and beyond. Since moving to New York in the late 1990s, Mahanthappa has forged a deep relationship with The Jazz Gallery, developing projects like his album Mother Tongue and his duo with pianist Vijay Iyer on the old Gallery stage.
On the occasion of the Gallery’s 25th Anniversary, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with Mahanthappa to talk about the New York scene when he was just starting out, and how these experiences of community inform his current approach to teaching.
The Jazz Gallery: I’d love to start by going back to 1997—why did you want to relocate to New York from Chicago?
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Well I moved to Chicago from Boston. I was at Berklee College of Music, and everybody was moving to New York. It felt like that was what you were supposed to do. I feel like half of the people that were moving could have waited, or could have gone and done something else. So I went to Chicago, and that something else worked out better for me.
This was all pre-internet, really. I mean, maybe a few people had email or something, but geography was still very important. As a jazz musician, New York was just the gateway to the rest of the world at that time. For me, it all boiled down to something very simple: If I wanted to play with Jack DeJohnnette or Dave Holland, that was never going to happen if I stayed in Chicago.
And I felt like in Chicago, there was this glass ceiling of sorts. I can’t say that I did everything that I absolutely could possibly do there, but at that time, the way the scene was in the ‘90s, I didn’t see much room for expansion, more than what I was already doing. I was playing at local clubs, I was teaching at a couple of universities. But I had a good launching pad in Chicago. There was a local label that put out my first record, and there was a club that was really kind to me, that gave me steady Monday nights. So I was able to develop my own music, and develop some skills as a bandleader.
And then in the meantime, there were all of the bands that were coming through and playing The Jazz Showcase—the Village Vanguard of Chicago. I was meeting a lot of people that way. A lot of these folks come into town for a week and they don’t really have a whole lot to do, so I could go and hang out with them. I was able to look all of those people up when I got to New York. That was really helpful when I arrived.
TJG: Were you friendly with any particular players in New York when you moved? Like, were there people there that you knew you could collaborate with right off the bat? Or was it more calling people you had met and trying to set stuff up from there?
RM: It’s more the latter. I felt a little more connected to Ben Monder. One of the things that I did back in Chicago was invite a guest to come in and play with my band. I had invited Ben to come in for a week and play us, which was really fun. I had gotten to know Dennis Irwin when he came through several times, so we would always make a point of hanging out. So there were a few people that I knew better than others. With a lot of players though, it was more like, “Hey! Remember me?”
And then I was just trying to run around and meet people. I had that CD I had recorded, and I was just passing it out. And probably a lot of those people never listened to the CD. But then I remember one day, Donny McCaslin called me a few days later and said, “Man. This sounds really good. I’m going to try to spread your name around.” There was always a few people like that who went the extra mile. Even if it didn’t result in anything, it made you feel like you belonged.
TJG: Where were the places—the clubs, the hangs—where you met future collaborators?
RM: A lot of people were playing in these little places in the East Village, like the Internet Café on 3rd Street. Like, can you imagine having to go to the café to get the internet? When I tell my students about the Internet Café, it doesn’t even compute! But it was crazy that this little place that held like 30 people had so many great people playing there. You had to cut through the band to go to the bathroom! And then there was The Detour, which was the smokiest place on the planet. Saw a lot of bands there, met a lot of people that way.
There was a trumpet player named Matt Shulman—I think he’s in LA now—who I met at a Dave Holland show at Birdland. He was from Ohio, and he had seen me play in Ohio. He came up and introduced himself. He was playing sessions at someone’s house almost every day, and he invited me to come along. And so I met a lot of people that way.
And there were other little clubs that don’t exist anymore. There was a club across from the Blue Note called the Neon Lounge. There there was Angel on Rivington or Ludlow, or something, and then that became Dharma. Some of them lasted, some of them didn’t.
I remember I was talking to Jesse Davis right before I moved to New York, and he was like, “You’ll go to Smalls every night and you play that shit and people are going to be way into it!” And so I went to Smalls and sat in a couple of times and people looked like they wanted to kill me [laughs]. That wasn’t the hookup.
But I started trying to get gigs at all these places. It was probably about eight months or a year, figuring out who I wanted to play with and what I wanted to do, and make a go of it.
TJG: Do you remember the first time you went to the old Jazz Gallery, or how it got on your radar?
RM: I guess it was that Rio [Sakairi] had been coming to see my band at The Detour occasionally. And I had met James Hurt, like right when I moved to New York. We had both come to see Oliver Lake’s big band at the Knitting Factory, and then we shared a cab to the old Zinc Bar. James would come hear my band at Detour, and one night he was there with Rio. James was like, “Have you met Rio? She comes to hear you all the time.” And I was like, “No…”
At that time, the Gallery wasn’t really a performance space. This is ’98 or ’99 or something. I really only knew it by name only. I didn’t really know what went on there. There might have been one show a month, and I felt it was always something related to James Hurt! So when I first arrived in New York, they weren’t out in full force, but over time, they started doing more. And by 2001, 2002, they were really starting to take off.
Vijay Iyer and I had been playing together since I was in Chicago and he was still in California. After he moved to town, we were able to further our relationship musically. The Gallery ended up being a really great place for us to showcase and workshop stuff. And the Gallery was really good with applying for funding and grants. Back in 2001, 2002, the Gallery got their first big grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported the duo commission that Vijay and I did. So there was this greater synergy happening there. And of course I met my wife at the Gallery—that was June 2002. I still have the postcard—it was one of Vijay’s gigs.
TJG: Once you got the commission with Vijay, how did that commission situation—and the Gallery as a kind of laboratory—impact your process of making the music? I feel it must have been a different vibe from what went down at those East Village clubs.
RM: That’s an interesting question. I came into the project with the idea that working music out on the bandstand was dying out. But I also feel I was a bit of an outlier in that regard. I don’t think I got those opportunities that folks who were older got, or even some people of my generation. I felt like that I had so much to prove just to survive, so everything needed to be polished beforehand.
This situation of needing to present polished work has only increased recently. There are more great players, more competition. And with YouTube and internet media, there’s this whole image issue of how you present yourself. If we’re not careful, I feel the music can get sanitized in a way that’s a bit dangerous.
When Vijay and I started playing together at the Gallery, I felt that it was a workshop kind of environment. We were developing this new musical partnership and it felt like a launching pad. We’d work stuff out there, use the space to rehearse, go and record it later, and finally take it on the road. It was a very nurturing environment that felt like the best of both worlds. Performing there is very encouraging, it’s not about selling drinks, it’s not about selling out the club. There was a high level of trust—everyone was committed, so everyone was going to deliver. It wasn’t a collective in the business sense, but it definitely felt that way in terms of mission and message.
There was so much newness about the Gallery at that time. The notion of commissioning work was new to the Gallery, new to Dale [Fitzgerald]. It was a very different model of creating music in the jazz world. There was this kind of excitement to it at the time, while it’s become old hat to all of us now.
In terms of playing at more commercial clubs, I feel that I was able to play at a higher echelon of club by way of The Jazz Gallery, rather than playing so much at smaller commercial venues. The process of being able to work out new music at the Gallery was my equivalent of going to Smalls every night. I could say that there could have been another space that got behind us, but I don’t know if that’s really true. Assuming that’s not true, I don’t know where we’d be now. We got this support and this crucial time when we really needed it.
TJG: So the commission was 2002, and then you put out a record of the project in 2006. How did the music evolve during that time?
RM: Vijay and I had been playing duo on and off since 1994, so by the time the commission came around, we really knew each other. What changed with the commission is that we sat down and wrote music specifically to the duo. Before that, we would play music from other projects, like scaling down quartet music. In some ways, the duo was born of economics—anyone can afford a duo, right? There’s nothing to carry, there’s no backline! [laughs]
In addition to the duo project, that first group of commissions included a quartet project of mine, and a quartet project of Vijay’s. And those were funded through some different sources, like the New York Council on the Arts. So in terms of that recording, the timing was from just being busy with other stuff. I probably did 2-3 quartet records at that time, and was starting the Kinsmen project with Kadri Gopalnath. I think Vijay did something similar. But we were still playing duo all that time.
The great thing about the duo is that we haven’t played in well over a year, but we could have a gig tomorrow and sound like we played together yesterday. We’ll always have that connection. And maybe there’s a point in the future where we’ll do more stuff.
TJG: I want to ask about something that relates to both getting strong support for your music, and your prolific recording output in the early 2000s. How did you get looped in with Pi Recordings?
RM: Pi had just started, they were pretty small. I could be wrong about this, but I think Seth Rosner started the label really to get this Henry Threadgill recording out. He had worked at the Knitting Factory and for Knitting Factory Records, so he was coming at the music from a particular angle that was conducive to all of this.
I think it was 2003—I ran into Seth at a jazz educators conference or something and said that I’d love to do something with him. I proposed this kooky idea that ended up being the Mother Tongue album. A lot like the Gallery, there was a lot of energy and excitement. Both the Gallery and Pi were taking a lot of risks in getting behind musicians like us. And on the flip side, we really trusted them with music that was very meaningful to us and get it out into the world. It’s exciting to be part of label like Pi where the creativity of the music has never wavered.
TJG: I’d like to move to a more forward-looking, or present-looking question. You’ve talked a lot about the mission-driven community at The Jazz Gallery, the sense of trust and risk-taking. Have these ideas about community informed the way you teach and build a jazz program at a university?
RM: Yeah, I think so. I think I’ve always tried to approach teaching that way. Emphasizing that sense of community and trust is something I always talk about, not only at Princeton, but when I do workshops. When jazz entered academia, I feel it brought in a competitive edge, almost coming from an athletic perspective. It was less about community, and more about doing X, Y, and Z. Like, “I can play ‘Giant Steps’ in five.” And then there was this advent of all of these competitions, which fed into that. But then who cares if you don’t know how to play with other people, or how to make music as a group?
One of the best things about being at Princeton is that the students are smart, socially active, and just aware. I think they’re very concerned about how music fits into the rest of their lives. It’s not just completing a series of tasks. It’s about community and sharing. I definitely try to propel that. I always talk about my experiences in situations that were more nurturing, and talking about the times at the Gallery is very much a part of that.
TJG: Going off that “see what I can do” idea, I feel in my teaching, there’s a big emphasis from administrators on deliverables. Every syllabus needs to have predetermined learning outcomes. It can be tough to thread that needle when teaching an art form. How have you dealt with that need for concrete learning outcomes?
RM: I’m trying to find some middle ground. You have to have these conversations about creativity, community, and individuality at the same time as having conversations about rigor, virtuosity, and the shear ability to play your instrument. I don’t think those things have to be mutually exclusive. I feel that there are programs out there that are trying to rebel against these traditional notions of jazz education—and rightly so. And for me, in some ways, these programs can go a little too far. I just think you should try to be good at everything. You should know all of your theory and keep trying to learn more. You should be able to play your instrument as well as you possibly can. And at the same time, you should have an individual voice and know how to play with people and create a group sound. I think you can do all of those things together.
If someone told me to put together a four-year curriculum that would put all of these things together, it would definitely take a while! There would be experimentation, trial and error. But I don’t think the answer is to say, “Let’s not make any theory classes required.” Some universities are going that way—is this a positive revolution? I think we should try to be both well-rounded and individual. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive, and I think the people we tend to look up to in any art form have been able to do that.
TJG: This is making me think about my undergrad experience, and how much I learned outside the classroom—listening to weird music with friends, playing together in ways that were different than in curricular ensembles. Those experiences were just as vital to me, and I’m wondering if that experience can be captured inside the classroom. Or can the classroom facilitate that kind of self-directed exploration outside of it?
RM: I think you can only encourage. I think it’s teaching people how to teach themselves. It can be more like guided learning than teaching. When a class gets too focused on doing certain things proficiently, that kind of guided learning falls off. I don’t think the institutions are entirely to blame for this. I’ve encountered a lot of students that want the information to be broken down and spoon-fed. They don’t have the motivation, or don’t actually know how to go out there and discover things for themselves. I think that’s problematic too.
I always learned a lot from someone telling me to listen to this album, listen to only this album this week and see what you get out of it. I like setting up a workshop mentality—here’s a concept, think about it for a month, and come back with some stuff. Like, it’s great if you can play “Cherokee” in all twelve keys. But even if you can’t do that, you can do something else that’s really meaningful, and that you own, and that is still tethered to this music, grounded with a wealth of tradition and knowledge.
TJG: I like this idea of introducing possibilities—here are how different people constructed of meaning and mastery in jazz, and how are you going to construct it?
RM: Yeah. It’s always funny to me that so much of jazz education is breaking down what Bird played without really acknowledging how fricking avant-garde Bird was at the time. That shit was totally out! Nobody seems to want to have that conversation in the classroom. How many volumes are there about how to play bebop?
TJG: Yeah. That systemization is an interesting phenomenon. Like when I teach 4-part voice leading, I have to introduce all of these rules at the start. And then when you actually go to Bach’s chorales, he breaks those rules all the time and those weird moments are always really beautiful. I’m thinking about if there’s a better way to get to writing florid counterpoint, or if there’s a better way to get to playing lines that capture Bird’s essence as a whole.
RM: Definitely. I always think it’s good to start with strict rules first. I think Bach is a great example of this thing when teaching music, all of the teaching is based on music that’s already happened. It’s the codification of something that was new and spontaneous. That approach makes sense in some ways, and is totally flawed in others.
TJG: I’m wondering if cookbooks can be a model. Like there are books that have lots of strict, explicit recipes, and then there’s the popular Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, where everything is more improvisational, and I think it’s closer to how professional chefs learn.
RM: Yeah, yeah. This composition professor named Dmitri Tymoczko and I taught this class, I think we called it “Composing and Improvising.” We’ll come up with a better name next time [laughs]. The whole class ended up being mostly composing for improvisers—I think next time I’d like to do more with how to use these compositional tools in the moment as improvisers. But the way the class was set up, we started completely open and got narrower and narrower as the semester went on. It started with setting up templates for free playing—graphic scores, conductions. And then we kept adding restrictions—we could think about a mode, or rhythms, or pitch sets. It was a really interesting way of teaching music. It wasn’t based on history. It felt more based on spatial or dimensional perspectives on music, and how you move these things around in time and space.
TJG: Starting wide-open like that allows students to find their own way in and direct where that narrowing goes.
RM: Right. Exactly. Very cool.