Feature: John Korsrud
RUBBING HARDER FOR 30+2+1
Photo by Diane Smithers
By Dave Lisik
Published October 10, 2023
John Korsrud’s Vancouver-based big band, the outstanding and eclectic Hard Rubber Orchestra, had their plans for a well-earned thirtieth anniversary celebration postponed by COVID-19. That is not a unique story. Far more original is almost everything else about John and his large band, from its repertoire, geographical location, influences, to much of John’s origin story as a trumpeter, composer, and bandleader. Established in 1990, the year Korsrud graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC), the eighteen-musician HRO is one of Canada’s most outstanding large jazz ensembles and certainly one of the most unconventional.
The band earned a Juno nomination for its most recent recording project, Iguana, and boasts a long and exceptional history of commissioning new music for the jazz orchestra/big band, across a diverse spectrum of composers and styles. (Rather than actually use the label, "big band," John would prefer to say that, "We look like a big band.") A few of the names of commissioned artists are Canadian jazz composers with whom I’m most familiar: Kenny Wheeler, Darcy James Argue, Christine Jensen, Brad Turner, Hugh Fraser, Phil Dwyer, and, most recently, drummer and McGill University professor, John Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck’s current Canadian residency or citizenship status is for him to divulge but he did post to social media a hockey rink/Tim Horton's coffee cup selfie; at a lot of crossings, showing that would be enough for him to be waved across the border into Canada.
When Korsrud was a student in high school, he was enamored with the sound of classical music but also had a diverse taste for an array of other styles and bands: Earth Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and late 1960’s Miles Davis. He was inspired and started "dabbling” in composition, with no formal music theory education at that point. Closer to the end of high school, John attended several concerts performed by Hugh Fraser and his sixteen piece “Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation.” [VEJI] He describes the music as, “a mix of all the things I liked. It was punk meets Maynard meets Art Ensemble of Chicago meets John Coltrane.”
Korsrud eventually joined VEJI in 1984, as a twenty-year-old. The group had a three month winter residency in Banff with Korsrud standing in as the ensemble’s lead trumpet player. The visiting faculty for that experience included some incomparable musicians: Dave Holland [bass], Dave Liebman [saxophone], and Julian Priester [trombone]. John also attended the 1984 Banff Summer Jazz Workshop where the teaching faculty included those same musicians in addition to one of Canada’s absolute treasures of jazz music, Kenny Wheeler.“
"While studying at UBC in the late 1980s, I discovered [György] Ligeti, [Krzysztof] Penderecki, [Witold] Lutoslawski, and Steve Reich. Over a period of time I realized that their music was from the same sound world as free-jazz but was coming at it from the 'other side,' Since then I’ve been interested in combining both influences.”
When my Zoom call starts with John, I’m in my small home office in Wellington and, on the split screen, John has a giant, open living area with floor to ceiling windows and the most stunning view of an impressive mountain range. My first thought is that it could actually be Vancouver which has no shortage of spectacular views. But John is actually logged in at Vancouver Community College, where he teaches and, when I ask about his million dollar workspace, he flips through his other available backgrounds.
John: [Demonstrating his available Zoom wallpaper.] This is my New York, East Village apartment. This is my rec room. This is my man cave. [He settles on a giant recording studio control room. It's immediately apparent that John has a true musician's mentality even in the virtual world.]
Dave: That's good. This actually is my room, the tiny third bedroom in my house. And in honor of talking with a Canadian, I’ve got my A&W Root Beer mug here.
John: Cool. I'm a fan of big mugs. These days, because I just have to have water beside my table, I have one of those two liter bottles filled up and am drinking from that all the time.
Dave: That's wise. This is one of four of these A&W mugs my family had when I was a little kid. They used to sell them at the restaurants.
John: I remember.
Dave: Probably for $2.00. You can tell they're old from the vintage logo and, surprisingly, it hasn’t worn off with ten thousand washes. This is hardcore industrial strength printing, whatever they were doing at the time.
John: How old is that? Like twenty years old?
Dave: Ha. Probably forty.
John: Forty? Wow. That's a real collector's item then. That's cool. It was a big deal when I was a kid. When I was six or seven, we'd go to the A&W and they’d give you a full jug of root beer.
You could take that home because you could have it at parties with the frosted mugs and all that.
Dave: Yeah, there are a lot of memories wrapped up in that. There's still a unique taste to the food. The last time I was in Canada was 2017. We brought our six year old, who was six months at the time, to visit her grandparents in Kelowna. Before COVID, obviously. But the last few times I have been in Vancouver Airport on the way back to New Zealand, I stopped at the A&W in the food court just to taste a Mozza or Teen Burger and root beer. There are a lot of emotional things wrapped up in certain experiences, like restaurants from way back, and you can't get that exact thing where I’m at now. You can actually buy the A&W Root Beer here, in cans, in the imported section of the grocery store, and the cream soda. I'm not sure how enough people even know about it here or would buy enough of it to make it worth importing.
Groceries are ridiculously expensive now anyway, but a can of root beer is like $2.00, which doesn't seem that ridiculous for an import. Especially compared to buying a small bottle of Clamato juice. You can’t get that here either unless it’s from a food import place and it's about $14.00 for a liter. My parents live in Kelowna and when we’re there we’ll buy a gallon of Clamato for $8.00. And it’s probably a good thing because it’s probably saved me from drinking a ton of vodka.
John: I've heard Clamato Juice was a British Columbia invention.
Dave: I think the Caesar was invented in Calgary but I’m not sure about the origin of the juice.
John: Ah, okay.
Dave: The Caesar is a very Canadian thing though. I lived in the US for almost fourteen years and you really can't get a Caesar anywhere. You can buy clamato juice in the grocery stores, but you can't order a Caesar at a bar. I remember when I was a kid, we'd do road trips with my parents in the States. My dad would order a Caesar at dinner and they would bring him a salad. Most Americans haven’t heard of it. But it's the number one cocktail in Canada. At least that’s what it says in the Mott’s marketing. I've bought imported Clamato Juice only a couple of times here. It's like $125.00 for a case of these little bottles. And it almost destroys the experience because you're drinking it and you're thinking, “This small glass of juice was $12, and that doesn't include the vodka.”
But enough talk about Canadian beverages. It's a pleasure to talk to you about your band.
John: Likewise. And like I said before, I'm very flattered you want to delve into my music a little bit.
Dave: I love the sound of your band and the music it plays. It's really cool. It reminds me of this Tim Hagans’ quote where he said, “(So and so) writes music the way I’d like to write.” I think, if I ran a big band that plays regular concerts, and could actually function with high level players, what you're doing is basically what I would want to be doing.
There’s a uniquely eclectic thing in your band and before we get into it and I start putting a bunch of words in your mouth, it seems like you’ve got an attitude about it where it doesn’t matter to you what other big bands sound like or what other people's big band music sounds like.
John: People do ask. I don't really consider us a big band. We look like a big band. And that's what I would tell people. We look like a big band, but that's not what we are. And I do employ jazz musicians, generally speaking, because I like their skill set. And I think you had alluded to that question earlier. “What skill set do jazz musicians give you that classical musicians don't?” I came out of school studying contemporary composition and I knew about free jazz before that, so I was somewhat familiar with that sound world.
When I discovered [György] Ligeti and those contemporary composers, I was like, “Oh, it's generally the same sound world. It’s just coming from this direction instead of that direction.” And it made all the sense to me. Then when I discovered [Witold] Lutosławski… are you familiar with him much at all, his notation system?
John: When I got that notation system, I said, well, it makes sense that instead of hiring and asking classical musicians to do this, if I ask jazz musicians who specialize in improvisation, then we're entering some interesting areas. And then I used to joke, “It's like third wave music. Is that what they call it?
Dave: Third stream?
John: It combines the worst of both music. (laughs) Yeah, third stream. The goal is to try to combine the best of both worlds and not the worst of both. I love good drumming and sometimes the energy of jazz and rock, the excitement of unpredictability with these different kinds of sound worlds are exciting to me.
I spent a little bit of time in New York thinking I was going to move and study there, and the world I was introduced to was still pretty straight ahead. I'm not really a straight ahead jazz guy. I like that music, but then I spent the time in Amsterdam, I immediately thought, “This is my world. These are the people who are into what I'm doing.” And I was a big hit in Amsterdam. When I moved there, the musicians were all interest in the kind of stuff I was doing. They wanted to try to combine jazz and rock with new music, and they liked what I was doing. I got a lot of work there.
A couple of musicians in Amsterdam, [trumpeter Hans Leeuw and saxophonist Esmée Olthuis] formed a big band, The Tetzepi Bigtet, that just played my music for their first two years. I was their principal composer before they started commissioning others. That lasted for ten years. The band eventually folded in 2008 but they kept playing some of my music until the end even when I eventually moved back to Vancouver. After that they still commissioned a few things from me. It was just a perfect mix for me, living there. And then life forced me to come back to Vancouver. And, you know, Vancouver is not the ideal place for me, but here I live.
Dave: That's interesting. Why do you say that? Is that from a cultural standpoint?
John: It's still a pretty conservative city. I don't think there are enough people doing what I'm doing to really understand. When [drummer/bandleader] John Hollenbeck came here to work with us last month, suddenly I was thinking, “He's my spirit animal.” Are you familiar with him?
Dave: Definitely. I’m sure I knew him originally because he played in Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra and his drumming was fantastic in that. And then, of course, he came out with his music, with his large ensemble which is really different and interesting. Just before COVID, we had John lined up to come to New Zealand and do a jazz orchestra recording project for one of my former doctoral students. I think it was June of 2020 but, of course, by March, the COVID hammer had come down and that was the end of that. And we ended up doing the same project a year later.
John: I only knew him a little bit, but once I really delved into his music, I went, “Oh, yeah. We're the same person.” I'm digging a little deeper into his music these days and every time I hear an interview with him, I'm thinking, “You're smart and I really dig what you're doing.”
My experience with him is similar. He was supposed to do a premiere with us, and then that spring, the spring of COVID, we had to cancel it. We kept trying to put on the show and imagined a sort of outdoor installation kind of thing. Then that seemed too complicated. Then he was supposed to come for the jazz festival last year and we couldn't line that up. Finally, he came here a couple of months ago and it was fantastic. He worked so hard. He wrote us the piece that we commissioned and also adapted one of his Claudia Quintet pieces. Then he reconfigured about five other pieces for our instrumentation. He went way above what was asked of him for us. He was just so easy to work with and such a nice guy. No attitude at all. Just really easy to work with. It was a great experience.
Dave: And now he lives in Montreal, which is interesting.
John: Yeah. And that's how we were able to get him, because he's now Canadian. So it allows us to apply for a little bit of money here. I'm glad that he's amongst us.
Dave: Now when I hear about his “Claudia” group, I think that was the earlier version of “Karen.” You know, the story behind that? They were basically making fun of this woman who came to one of their gigs and was obnoxious. She was all enthusiastic about coming back to see them but, of course, she never came back. It’s not the same thing but it’s funny to me that they tried to do to the name “Claudia,” what people have now done to the name “Karen.” And I'm like, “That's a little unfair. I actually know some people named Karen who are nice people.”
Dave: Hollenbeck is actually an interesting character to talk about with students. I'm teaching composition lessons and classes at university but I teach all the theory as well.
John: You're talking jazz theory?
Dave: Right. I have to have a way to find some balance in composition classes. I teach theory and composition, and between learning about vocabulary, two-five-ones, tonal/functional harmony, superimposition, and arranging standards with a pretty conservative template at first, it seems like I need to do some things to build confidence in writing a composition that is further away from any of those things. Sometimes they’re afraid to deviate too much in case I’ll somehow object to something further away from a Basie chart. “I'm going to get a bad grade if I don't do something that sounds like “All The Things You Are” as a Dave Wolpe chart.
In almost all of the early classes there’s an arrangement that is building some typical traditional skills. But there’s another composition that’s deliberately doesn’t include the standard elements of a swing chart. And John Hollenbeck is always one of the perfect guys to put things in perspective. His charts are so different and courageous sounding that most students will spend two minutes with any of them and feel freer themselves to try something else. Not copying something John did but just anything else. I hope it's a good way to give them some permission to branch out.
John Zorn is also one of my go to people for that. I love a lot of his music, and I probably listened to Naked City more than any other album in high school, but he’s also the perfect guy to point to when a student is wondering where their own concepts of music might fit it. He’s so prolific, you’ll find a hundred different musical environments in his music just “dropping the needle” on tracks for a few minutes.
John: School can create the illusion that there are rules. And there are some rules, of course, if you want things to sound a certain way. But it is possible to actually do the opposite. You can think, “Okay, what am I not supposed to do?” And then do that. And with repeated exposure to that, it starts to become normal. No matter what it is, you just do that thing. That's what I like about composition. We make our own language every time.
Dave: Right. So that's sort of the secret to your band. You come from a different background than a lot of the people we would look at who are running really good jazz bands.
John: Totally. And I grew up listening to punk rock and all that sort of stuff. When I discovered Penderecki and Lutosławski, that just seemed like punk rock to me. It’s rebellious. “We're going to be as extreme as possible.” And at that time of my life, I loved that. I also like late Coltrane and all that kind of music. I love maximalism.
I think with my early music, I had caught on to that aesthetic. I was thinking about that today. I was a bit of a one trick pony, perhaps. I was really good at this one one thing, and I just kind of did that a bunch. And I did that for jazz ensembles and for classical ensembles. I'm kind of like your third line or fourth line winger. I just jump over the boards and just hit everything. It's a kind of high energy thing. And then I jump back onto the bench again.
Dave: I have to acknowledge the apt hockey reference. Well done. You were born in ‘63, correct?
Dave: And you said you graduated from UBC [University of British Columbia] in 1990?
John: That's right.
Dave: What was school like then for you before university? You’ve talked about being in high school and being interested in some of the musical things you just mentioned. But what was the structure of your music experience in high school? Did you have a typical band kind of a situation?
Yeah, and the band director’s approach was really great. He was really into Kenton. And we had another band and that guy was really into Maynard Ferguson. So I love that kind of brassy, high energy sound. The other bands I really liked were like Earth, Wind and Fire, and Tower of Power. And then I started getting into arranging for some reason. I don't really know why. I was just fascinated by it but I had no idea what I was doing.
The very first thing I did a chart on was “Chameleon.” (This is before I found out Maynard had done a Chameleon chart.) I thought, “Oh, it's only two chords. Maybe I can handle that.” I’m just writing it out and thinking, “Holy shit, this is a lot of work. This is a really slow process.” It blew my mind how time consuming it was. But I finished it and I did a bunch of other arrangements. I also did some music for the concert band.
Dave: What was his name?
John: George Wardrop. He was a clarinet player, into Woody Herman. He was a very good player. We would play big band dances, but he also got the concert band playing Mozart and Rossini. And he exposed us to Kenton and Maynard and other bands like that. And the bands were always really high level.
And then at lunchtime, we'd be sitting in a car, listening to jazz and smoking pot and really into it. My best friend was into classical music so he turned me onto Prokofiev and Stravinsky, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Prog Rock. And I discovered French CBC. That was a big deal. Access to a lot of classical music and I remember really enjoying it.
My dad was a jazz musician. He couldn't understand classical music and when I'd play something classical he would say, “It doesn't swing.” “Well, it’s not supposed to swing.”
Dave: Did you have any gap years before you went to university?
John: No, I started right away. My parents were divorced and I lived with my mom. I convinced her I wanted to go to music school. It was a 50/50 thing. My mom was a waitress and many of her customers were stock brokers. I actually worked in a summer job for them. I actually really liked it, so I almost went in that direction.
Dave: Oh yeah? How much do you regret not doing that?
John: Well, I don't know. Sometimes I think about it. It was really a 50/50 thing and I wonder who I'd be today had I made that decision. I'd probably have a nice house.
Dave: That was similar for me. I was sure I was going to be a lawyer until I was seventeen. It just became obvious that I was going to spend my free time doing music things. I guess I naively thought as a lawyer I might actually have free time. But, “I'm going to be doing this music stuff in the evenings and the weekends anyway so I’d might as well do it for real.” Actually, in hindsight, stockbroker, or mutual fund manager, that would have had financial advantages.
John: Something like that. I was doing that job and it seemed exciting. It was high paced with a lot of money. My first job was a runner. I had a briefcase. I’d run across town. And it was a fun job. It started at six or seven in the morning because, in Vancouver, your day had to start when the New York Stock Exchange opens.
Dave: Three hours difference? New York opens at ten.
John: Something like that. Yeah. I wonder who I'd be today. It makes no sense that I'd still be alive. I made a bit of a living doing what I did, but I got lucky.
Dave: And you could have gone in a more classical composition route, but still it would have been similar. Stockbroker is pretty different.
John: Yeah, that's right. So I did a couple of years at college at Capilano College and at VCC. One year, I’m eighteen years old and I went on the road with an Elvis impersonator, mostly doing small towns. It was the worst experience of my life. I was like, “Screw this becoming a professional musician. This sucks.” All the guys were like thirty, which seemed really old to me. And I'm thinking, “I’m going to go back to school, I'm going to get my degree, I'm going to become a band teacher.” That's what I thought. I think that's what goes through a lot of people's minds.
So I went to UBC, did a composition minor because I was interested in composing. But all my friends who had gone to education, they hated it. I’m talking about high school education. They would drop out after a couple of years. My thinking was that if I really love music, the last thing I want to be doing is to be listening to out of tune music for seven hours a day. It would drive me crazy. And so I abandoned that idea pretty early, got more into composing, and enjoyed it.
"[John Hollenbeck] is my spirit animal. I only knew him a little bit, but once I really delved into his music, I went, 'Oh, yeah. We're the same person.' I'm digging a little deeper into his music these days and every time I hear an interview with him, I'm thinking, 'You're smart and I really dig what you're doing.'"
John: I had some really good composers at school my age, Paul Steenhuisen and Howard Bashaw. Both eventually taught at the University of Alberta. They were very good. When I graduated from UBC that summer, I said, “I'm going to start my own big band and write for it.” And I said, “Every time we do a concert, I'm going to write at least one more piece.” As a freelancer, I was already kind of tapped into the really good musicians in Vancouver. They were already my friends, so I was able to put a really good band together that had some drawing power.
Dave: So I'm assuming the vast majority of your friends weren’t thinking the same thing: “I'm going to start a big band.” I’m sure even before you got going you had some idea of the amount of work it was going to be. That was 1990. So you were about twenty-seven? That's not a particularly typical mentality for the average working jazz trumpet player. To what do you attribute that mentality in yourself?
John: That's a good question. I think I have a natural affinity for it. I like organizing stuff. I like making things. As I get older, I realize that this is the thing I enjoy the most. I like organizing concerts. It's problem solving. It's frustrating as hell sometimes, as you know, but over the years, you realize, “Okay, everything's going to be fine. When things go wrong, it's going to be fine." Everything works out, and once the concert is over, it's a very satisfying experience.
When you're deep in the middle of it, it's often like, “Why am I doing this? This is way too much work and a pain in the ass.” Then it’s over you immediately want to go and do another one.
John: And for me, at that age, it was really good for my self confidence. I was making things. It made me feel like I could accomplish something. I would do three concerts a year, try to write some things, and it just took on a life of its own.
I think I mentioned when I was at UBC I started composing for theater. One nice thing about studying history is that, after a while, you start thinking, “Okay, what's the next step? How can I contribute to the lineage of new music? What can I do that's different? And combining jazz and new music and theater was the answer. “This is something that I like that will help push it to the next level.”
“Okay, I'm going to do a big theater project, and I'm going to put together this band. I'm going to write the music for it and record the concert. That recording will be the support material that I use to apply for the grant.” So that's how the Hard Rubber Orchestra started. This was actually support material for this theater project that I wanted to do. And we did the theater project, we got the grant, and then it just kind of started a life of its own. And you just keep doing another one and another one and another one.
It took a while for the reputation of the band to grow. In the first days, I was in VEJI so I could ask those players to play the gigs. I had an advantage that I was a working musician. My best friends were saxophone, trombone players, guitarists etc., etc. It was easy to put together a band. I eventually formed the core ensemble around 2000: Dave Robbins, Andre Lachance on bass, Ron on guitar. Then I call all the first call “show” players. Good readers. Lots of good soloists here. Lots of virtuoso players. Brad Turner perhaps being a key figure here.
And a lot of people hated it. A lot of people did not like what I was doing. It's true. Because they grew up listening to conservative big band music and they go, “What's going on with John?” Because most of my friends did not know Ligeti and Penderecki and all that kind of music. And they just thought it was like this really weird stuff. But I had a different background and kind of knew what I was doing. And I don't think, globally, there are many ensembles like us.
And then I got invited to the Banff Center a handful of times, at first with Hugh Fraser. Once I started going there and meeting musicians from around the world, I found people who really loved my music. And that gave me some confidence. “Okay, maybe I do know what I'm doing.” And then in 1995, I got accepted to be Louis Andriessen’s student in the Netherlands and a Canada Council “B” grant to fund that. And I started winning some big awards. Several from the Canada council over some years. Things kind of got rolling for me a little bit. You slowly pick up a little bit of legitimacy. When I got Amsterdam I was like, “Oh, yeah, I'm totally at home here. These are my people. This is my thing.”
Dave: Andriessen is fantastic. What was it like studying with him?
John: Yeah, he was great. But the real education was just being in Amsterdam. I used to call it “New Music Disneyland,” because there'd be fourteen chamber ensembles, orchestras, and great pockets of improvising players. There was music all the time because the arts were so well funded. They're a very tiny country, half the size of Vancouver Island, but like fourteen million people.
They had a lot of money and it was just a part of their mandate, very early on, that they were going to fund the arts. That's just who they were. And it wasn't until 2008 when there was a big economic crash. The government came in and said, “Enough of that.” And they just gave the ax to something like half, or even more, of arts funding, with zero warning. Nobody knew. Everyone woke up one day and found out, “We don't have a job now.” It was very sad. And that hasn't recovered as far as I know. Not really.
Dave: We’re dealing with some similar things here post-COVID where the universities are tens of millions in deficit and any recovery of that is going to take a long time.
But I've got a former jazz trumpet student, I’d been teaching for six years through to the end of high school. He went right to Manhattan School of Music and is about to finish his undergrad there. But he also did an exchange in Amsterdam and really thought it was great.
John: I was actually at the Hague Royal Conservatory. That's where [Louis] Andriessen officially taught. If you wanted to study with him, you had to be enrolled there. But he told all the students to live in Amsterdam because that's where all the music was happening. So I was active there from 1995 until 2008, in a way. I lived there full time for like ‘95 to ‘97 and then I'd go back to every year.
Dave: Yeah. I haven't spent much time there. We played at North Sea [Jazz Festival] in ‘98 with a college band [University of Northern Iowa]. We were in the Netherlands for a week and also did Montreux.
John: Amsterdam was just a dreamy city to be in because it was one of the few cities that wasn't totally destroyed during the war. And it was small, it was romantic.
Dave: Have you watched that Ted Lasso TV show?
Dave: It's with Jason Sudeikis from Saturday Night Live. He's an American college football coach who becomes the coach of a Premiere League “soccer” team in London. But there's one episode in the third season that all takes place in Amsterdam. One of the guys who works for the football club, he’s a jazz bass player. He and another guy go on this pilgrimage to find the Chet Baker plaque by the hotel where he fell out of the window. They end up in a jazz club. So it's a little homage to Amsterdam and jazz in this one episode. It's worth seeking out.
Dave: So you've released five CDs with the Hard Rubber Orchestra? And was this recent [John] Hollenbeck project a recording project or just a concert?
John: It was just a concert. And I’d like to do a recording with him, but I haven't pitched it to him yet. Our last CD got nominated for Juno Award and that gets a little bit addictive. “Every time I do a CD, I want it to be nominated for a Juno.” (laughs) It's the greatest free publicity you can get, right? But the Kenny Wheeler CD, that didn't get nominated. That was really disappointing. I thought for sure I thought it would win. I also thought my “Crush” CD would win. That didn't get nominated.
Dave: Yeah, it's tough to understand the philosophy and process behind some of those awards.
John: Well, it's always a different jury. You have no idea who's on the panel. And it's always a crapshoot. That's the way it is with juries. But the next one I might pitch it to John Hollenbeck. I told him I'd do anything with him again. I really loved working with him. He's right up our alley as far as my philosophy of what the ensemble is.
Dave: I'd imagine that would be very true. He can play anything. The level of diversity in his music is substantial and would suit almost anything your band would do. And I’d think he’d also actually be into the music.
John: It would be his music, either a new commission or we might record some of the material he did for us. There's a wonderful pianist from Montreal named Marianne Trudel. She and John have already worked together, and we've worked with Marianne. Maybe the three of us can do something like a new concerto for her and our band. And I mentioned that, just before our concert, his face kind of lit up, so I thought I might pitch some ideas to him again. But we'll see how he feels.
These days I'm liking the idea, instead of commissioning music just for a live show, commissioning specifically for recording projects. There's so much stuff you can do when you’re writing specifically for a recording rather than trying to adapt the live thing to a recording.
Dave: A recording certainly lasts longer. That’s where my interests are too. And if you're in a place where you don't think the audience is big enough or receptive enough to push the album as far as it might in some other location, then the recording can be sent anywhere to anyone. It can be heard by everyone.
John: Yeah, it's true. But the other side of the coin is there are so many albums coming all the time. How do you get above the fray? It's tough. In the old days, meaning fifteen to twenty years ago, if a label signed you, there were some resources available. Victoriaville Jazz Festival [Quebec] had a really good record label and our first CD was on that one. Just being on that label was already a bit of a stamp of approval. Labels don't really exist anymore in the way they used to unless you're like a really big name. Darcy [James Argue] is putting his new album out on Nonesuch. That's a big label. Before that he was with New Amsterdam. I tried sending our stuff to New Amsterdam and I never heard back from them. It’s just tough getting people’s attention. And then I put the Kenny Wheeler album on Just In Time Records. In the old days, that was a really reputable record label in Canada.
And commercially, that album just kind of died on the vine. Hardly any reviews or sales. And I thought that's a historically significant recording. That was his last large work. And then he died a year later.
Dave: Yeah, I understand that. I've got a record label myself that we're trying to move forward. The expectation of financial reward is right at zero.
John: But you feel like you have to do it, right? And then you do it and you try to get reviews. Meanwhile, we hardly get any reviews from last album. And we had a publicist but they said, “The problem is during COVID, everyone was making CDs. Everyone was doing recording projects. So when COVID was over, suddenly there's this glut of albums coming. And it's tough, especially being a Canadian ensemble.
Dave: That was part of what led me to want to talk about all this. I heard your Iguana CD and thought it was very cool. So I’m thinking, “I’m going to do a review of this.” So when you start listening and writing, you know you can write a page about any album but it’s far more interesting for me and presumably everyone else to have the creative perspective of the person who made the thing. The most classic example for me is in the Ray Wright book, Inside the Score, where Raymond is doing these short interviews with Thad [Jones] and [Bob] Brookmeyer and he's saying things like, “So in this chart, it seems like you're doing such and such," and their responses are, “Well, if you say so. If you found that, I guess it's true.” But that's clearly not what they were intending or thinking. So that's why I thought, instead of just doing a page review of your CD, I'd like to hear you tell me about the Iguana CD and get your perspective and history of the band.
Iguana, like a lot of music made during COVID, was more of a remote recording situation compared to your previous projects?
John: That's right. [Haralabos] "Harry" Stafylakis, “Source Code,” Peggy Lee, James O'Callahan, these were all commissions we had lined up for Hard Rubber Orchestra. Peggy's was supposed to be at our thirtieth anniversary show. We had already played “Source Code,” and I loved it because it was big band, but it was heavy metal and no one had done that before. So that was right up our alley. It was like a fresh take. And he's a new music composer. He's Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's Composer-In-Residence, Co-Curator of the WSO's Winnipeg New Music Festival, and teaches at City University of New York. So he comes from that world.
James O'Callaghan is a young and brilliant Canadian composer now living in Germany. And then the last piece on the album, my piece called “Force Majeure,” was written during COVID. And then I happened to come across my old piece, “Iguana,” from 1992. I had kind of forgotten about it but heard a recording recently. “Oh, that's kind of a fun piece. Maybe we should kind of resurrect that for our anniversary.” At that point I was already thinking of it as an anniversary album. For four of the tracks, we commissioned video art and they're on YouTube and Vimeo. That's a direction that I want to keep exploring further.
And I said, “Every piece on here is just like this huge, fast, and loud thing. I need one quiet, sensitive piece.” So the third piece is a quiet thing with Marianne Trudel. So that's why that piano piece got on. That was just a little piece I wrote for her a couple of years ago. And it's kind of reminiscent of Purcell, something like that.
Dave: By the way, the Winnipeg New Music Festival was a huge deal for a lot of aspiring composers. It started when I was in my last year or two of high school and I think I was even able to go during my first year of university in the US because the holiday calendar lined up with the festival.
John: Where were you living then?
Dave: Winnipeg. I’m from there and left for college at eighteen.
John: Oh, okay. Well there you go. So when Branwell [Tovey] was there.
Dave: Yes, Bramwell was the WSO conductor when it started and he was a big deal to a lot of people too. It happened late in January and you can at least imagine what it's like in Winnipeg at that time of year. The weather generally sucks.
John: (laughs pretty hard, not inappropriately, as you’d expect from a Vancouverite)
Dave: The Centennial Concert Hall had ample parking in lots next to the facility but outdoors and you'd be like, “I’ve got to leave my car outside for more than two hours.” And it might be -35 celsius. “I hope it starts.” But the festival was great. It was a full week of full concerts every night. I can’t remember the exact cost but a pass to all the concerts during the week was pretty affordable.
The orchestra [WSO] would probably do half the shows of full orchestra pieces. There would be a good mix of works by an international distinguished guest composer, some high level Canadian composers and then some more local people. John Corigliano was there, maybe in the second year. Christopher Rouse one year, Giya Kancheli, although if memory serves, he was too sick to attend in person. I think when you're like sixteen or seventeen years old, unless you have exceptional experiences, so many things are brand new to you. The modern sonic world is new to you. You don't have a sense of which pieces are actually really good and which aren't as good. It just all sounds great.
Concerts on the other nights could be chamber groups like Kronos Quartet or Penderecki String Quartet, a solo piano concert (Christina Petrowska, one year). One night was a concert for eight pianos, so they had eight, nine-foot Steinways in a circle with the lids removed and all these different combinations of players. And to create a more intimate experience, they set up these wooden bleachers on the concert hall stage so you’d be closer to the musicians.
John: So that's kind of unusual. So you could actually be really close. That’s a great idea. I love that.
Dave: Yeah, it was cool. And because you were on the stage, at intermission you could walk around the players music stands and look at the printed music. One night they would do what they called a “collage” concert where they would have all these different stations of mini chamber ensembles. There'd be no applause until the very end of the night, even at the intermission. But a spotlight would come down in this little chamber ensemble and they'd play a piece and then it would go to this other one and they'd play a piece. There was no setup changes. And people were sitting on the stage or in the regular seats. One of the concerts had the Arvo Pärt brass piece, “Arbos,” and the different players were spread out in the balconies and loge seats.
But for a kid, it was transformative. I believe it was the second year, John Corigliano, who's still my favorite living composer, was there. And this is only about a year or so after his symphony premiered, the AIDS Symphony. And I remember this was unusual. He came on stage with the orchestra. That piece is like fifty-five minutes long or whatever. And I'm sure he talked for thirty minutes before they played the piece. He's explaining the entirety of his experience and the AIDS Quilt and the intricacies of the symphony, about its semi programmatic parts like the offstage piano and the Tarantella movement, which is representing the dementia that full blown AIDS patients would get. And it was fascinating. He's talking for more than a half an hour and that should be a horrible concert killer. But if they just played the piece and you didn't know anything about it, it still would have been cool. But it was miraculous because you knew so much more detail.
Eventually they had a thing where high school groups could play a set in the lobby of the concert hall before the shows. So when I was teaching high school for a while in Winnipeg, I created a new music ensemble made up of the instruments of whoever the best players in the school band were. I wrote some weird music and we did a few of those slots. Hopefully it was a great experience for the kids.
Dave: And it wasn’t many years after that Bramwell moved to Vancouver to do the VSO.
John: My partner, Jocelyn [Morlock], she was from Winnipeg, and she was a longtime participant in the festival. She'd go back pretty much every year.
Dave: Yes, I was very sorry to hear that she's not with us anymore. I hope you're handling that as best you can.
John: That's probably the best way to put it. I'm handling as best I can. I've kind of got into a new phase of just being sad all the time because we kind of lived together. I had my apartment downtown, my studio, so I'm slowly getting rid of that studio bit by bit and then moving a few things to her place and trying to figure out what to do with all my I got boxes and boxes of Hard Rubber Orchestra, music and music books and media, things like that. Sound equipment.
Dave: I've listened to more of her music this year because I was only familiar with a couple of pieces previously. She was an exceptional composer.
John: Yeah. And she just had an incredible work ethic. She took it so seriously and was really hard on herself. It was not a fun process for her. “I'm a terrible composer. I have no ideas. I hate composing. I don't want to compose anymore." This would goes on like ten weeks or so. But then one day I'd come home from the office and she'd come up to me really excited and go, “I think it's pretty good. Can I play it for you?” We’s sit down and she would play it for me, we'd talk about it and she would have another two weeks before it was due. Then she would send off all the parts and score, and then she had to start on a new choir piece. “I hate composing, I have no ideas.” And thus the cycle would start again. It was like this whatever was coming up. That's just how it was all the entire time we were together.
Dave: And that's such a common story for composers.
Dave: The payoff has to be so big because nobody would voluntarily put themselves through that if it wasn't.
John: But I also think it was the only thing she knew how to do as well. That's just what she did. That's how she got and she was afraid to turn down anything. And that's the thing. As a freelancer, all of us are just barely getting by. We're all just in survival mode and you say yes to everything and you get it done.
What she was doing didn't seem that exceptional to me because that's what we are all doing. We're all just trying to live month to month and try to get by. And she was very shy and very reclusive, so she didn't want to teach classes at all.
She would have some private students, and she'd loved her private students. She would put so much energy into their lessons. They would have to send them the score the day before, so she'd go over them and make notes. So when they had the lesson, she would have all these things to say. And she loved teaching.
Dave: But there must have been a point, just like you said about yourself, and you might not have even been able to identify it. There had to be a spark that connects musicians to the music in a way that lasts.
John: Ah, I have to move to another room.
[John relocates, with his laptop, to another room down the hall. Miraculously, after a short walk, he’s still in the same fancy recording studio.]
Dave: And somehow you're still in the same studio.
John: I know. I don't know how that happened? My cover is blown. It's just magic. Anyway, I think my spark was that I was fascinated by how difficult it was. “Why is this so difficult?” It just seems impossible. And even to this day, we never get it right. You know what I mean? It's just always a little bit out of reach. We're always trying to write that perfect piece.
Dave: Well, do you think that's a trumpet player thing too? I mean, it's difficult to start. Certain instruments are not difficult to start. They're all difficult to master. If you became a successful trumpet player, then you ahd to be made for it a little bit. You had to have a natural affinity for it because there were certain people who just couldn't get it right, right off the bat.
John: I was teaching a lot of beginning trumpet players before I moved to Amsterdam. That was how I made ends meet. Some of them could just pick it up and get a big sound and range. With others you knew it was always going to be tough and they’d struggle.
Dave: You really have to do some sort of testing before the kids choose instruments. I worked for years with St. John’s Music in Winnipeg doing instrument testing and recruiting. By the time the evening parent appointments happened, we spent at least ten minutes with every kid. Some breezed through everything but others needed to have some alternate options because trumpet or flute probably weren’t going to work for them.
John: Right. George Wardrop at my high school did the same thing. Often he wouldn't give an instrument. He’d look at you and go, “Yeah, trombone, flute.” He could just figure out just by looking at your embouchure.
Dave: An interesting thing I remember was about Bramwell and related what you said about Vancouver to his perception. Winnipeg has a bit of an inferiority complex, deserved or not. There are a lot of good artistic things going on in Winnipeg for its size, but man, it's cold as shit in the winter and there are usually a lot of mosquitoes. Bramwell's thing, and none of the conductors and musical directors before him and after him really got it, was that he knew it was his job to sell the orchestra. If we're going to survive, man, we’ve got to sell this and we ‘ve got to tell people how good it is. I remember a quote from him in the paper, after he moved to Vancouver. He kept doing similar things with outreach and talking up the city. “You guys have a really good place to live here and this is a really good orchestra.” And, unlike Winnipeg, the people in Vancouver were just like, “Yeah, we know. You don't need to sell us on that.”
John: Bramwell really changed the [Vancouver] culture in a couple of ways. From the audience point of view: he would talk to the audience and make jokes. He wasn't pretentious. He was funny and would tell stories and the audience would laugh. But it was also his vibe with the orchestra. Two or so of the conductors before him were not very warm guys. They weren't very well liked.
When Bramwell came in, he was joking around and he'd go for beers with the guys afterwards. The vibe was so much different. He made the orchestra very different. And he was involved in the community. He wasn't typical. The conductor they have now, he lives in Amsterdam and he comes to Vancouver every once in a while. But Bramwell lived here, and he was part of the scene, advocating for this, and that. He was hands on and a very big part of the city, a brilliant, brilliant guy.
Dave: And as a band leader and a conductor in the jazz world, it's just expected that that is part of the expectation.
Dave: With orchestral conductors, there are all kinds of personalities but you don't necessarily expect them to connect in that way or know anything about them personally. “They'll come out, conduct the pieces, and they'll leave. Yeah, okay, that was good.” That's about all you expect.
John: Yeah. So when Bramwell left, I knew that filling his shoes would be really difficult because there's no one else quite like him. He's very fine conductor. But his personality – you can't find many people to do their job as a conductor, a musical director, and still be funny and personable and do that for the crowd, too.
Dave: Right. But in your position, you know that that would be the end of your orchestra, probably, if you were incapable of connecting.
John: Most big band conductors have to have that connection with the audience. You can't just show up and play and lead. You have to talk, introduce the pieces, all that. My mentor, Hugh Fraser had a big stage presence and loved leading the orchestra at the front of the stage. Not everyone is good at that. Darcy is a really smart guy but I think he has to work at that side of it. I think he’s shy.
He's actually been to New Zealand since I’ve been here. I met him in Toronto at what was the last IAJE [International Association for Jazz Education] conference. It was Toronto and it was the one that basically helped bankrupt the organization. And he had a Canadian version of his band at that.
John: IAJE still exists though, right?
Dave: Now it’s JEN, the Jazz Education Network. It's similar. But IAJE went bankrupt, I think after 2008. I was thinking, “Oh, this is going to suck, man. It's going to be the Canadian IAJE conference that sinks the whole thing.” That last Toronto one was poorly attended but it wasn’t the only issue with the organization. First of all, who wants to go to Toronto in January? Winter in New York is bad enough most of the time. If you’re from Winnipeg you’re not worried about it but I can imagine jazz people in the southern US not being into that at all. The LA ones were well attended but it was more expensive to get a lot of really top East Coast people there. But at least the weather is nice.
Yeah, Darcy is an interesting guy. I like his music and I supported a few of his early crowdfunded CDs. It's been ten years now but he was here as a guest conductor with this band in Australia, the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra. They were the top big band in Sydney. Probably similar in structure to what you’re doing in Vancouver: not full time, but a project-based orchestra. More conservative or traditionally jazz, at least even in a modern context. They played a lot of the big name jazz orchestra music: [Bob] Brookmeyer, [Jim] McNeely, and Maria Schneider, Chris Potter, Darcy and these people.
I did a commissioned album with them in 2011. A couple of years later, for their 10th anniversary, they did an Australia/New Zealand tour and they brought Darcy and Maria over. But I think Darcy's personality, he's used that to create the personality of his band, the “Secret Society” thing where the music is about politics and conspiracy theories. I was actually in New York for the premiere of his Real Enemies project in Brooklyn. They had the whole band set up in a horseshoe shape and they had these screens on the top projecting images during the show.
But that’s what I was going to say before about a classical conductor versus a jazz conductor: nobody necessarily cares whether the players in the orchestra like the conductor. “This is your full time job, we're paying you to do this.” You hope it’s not like that, but it might be, more often than not. Even at the New Music Festival in Winnipeg, where I’m guessing most of them liked Bramwell Tovey, a good number of the orchestra members hated that music.
Dave: Some of them called it the “No Music Festival.” There was this attitude. (I also remember Ryan Kisor calling Wynton’s long piece Blood on the Fields, “blood on the chops.”)
John: In the early days, a lot of the players didn't understand my music. And I got a lot of derision.
Dave: But you were able to connect with people. Like when you went to Amsterdam, you found people to play who were into the music.
John: Yeah, it was different there, and when I went to Banff. I met musicians from around the world.
As [saxophonist] Campbell Ryga once said to me, “We're all bums in our backyard.” We're just local people. But once I got to Amsterdam and I went to Banff. People loved my music once I went away. That was like a big stamp on my forehead, that realizing, “Okay, you have to go away.” And people go, “Maybe he's not full of shit.” But we're all just local people in our local place.
Dave: But the success of your band relies in the long term on a lot of goodwill. Even in Maria Schneider’s band, there seems to be tremendous goodwill that's created because she respects the players and they like her music. And so it's not just a gig. They're there voluntarily.
I think Darcy’s band is similar. You hear his musician describe how much they like playing the music. And I’m sure he treats them with the respect they deserve. They’re likely not getting rich off of his gigs but the other rewards seem obvious.
John: But there’s something different in New York, too. In order for you to make it there, you have to say ‘yes’ to everything. And so people are doing his music for little money and a bunch of rehearsals. But you say ‘yes’ to everything, and you don't turn anything down. It's actually an incredible place to have a big band because you can get these really good musicians for an affordable price.
I couldn't do it exactly like that here because we’re a society now. What was happening at one point early on is that people would sub out last minute to do better-paying gigs. And I was getting frustrated with that. So I formed a society around the band, got some government funding. I just figured it was part of my job as a band leader is to help take care of and pay the musicians. That's my job.
But, absolutely, you have to work hard. If the musicians see that the leader is working hard, either creating projects, they're willing to give their time. So it's a little bit of that.
And of course I'm working hard with the society and getting money. The musicians are not always going to like everything I program. Some of the stuff is really hardcore music kind of stuff, but they'll do it. And the people that don't want to do it, if they have attitude, you just don't hire them.
One thing I discovered in the early days, because it's cool to just not like something. You know what I mean? Especially when you're young. “Oh, man, what the fuck is this? This is fucking bullshit, man.”
Dave: That's might be more true now than it’s ever been.
John: I would see that as I was conducting the ensemble. I could see that going around the bandstand, people with that grumpy attitude. Eventually you have to get rid of those people. And then some of the other attitudes change for the better.
Dave: Who are some of the musicians who are your closest collaborators, or players in your band that you respect the most because of what they bring to the situation?
John: There are only a few original members of the band. But a lot of the core members have been in the band since roughly 1998 to 2000 or so.
Dave Robbins was the greatest, really perfect drummer for us because he could do everything. He could play like Elvin, but also funk and he could read and he could do all the things. So he was perfect. And he comes from a punk background too, so when I really need that thing he has it. And I love good drumming. Drumming is everything for me. Composing is a way of featuring the drummer. Often, I think from the drums, out.
Ron Samworth, he’s a guitarist, but he's open to more experimental stuff. But he's a good reader. It's versatility. I think that's what I'm looking for, versatility. Guys that can read and play different styles. Cam Wilson has been the violinist since the beginning. He can play anything. I try to make it so it's not always the same band. I like a little bit of mixing all the time so it doesn't feel like a club, it feels like it's more of a Vancouver band. So I want a lot of people coming in and out. Of course there are first calls. Lately I've been trying to include a lot more women in the band. My trumpet section usually depends on the show. They usually have one lead player, one classical player, one jazz player. It depends on the material.
My lead alto player, Bill Runge has always been there. The baritone player, Chad Makela is my favorite saxophone player in Vancouver. He sounds like an amazing post Coltrane. Kind of like…who's the guy? The Lighthouse guy? Elvin Jones…
Dave: Steve Grossman.
John: Steve Grossman. It's like Steve Grossman but like baritone sax, kind of kills it. Vancouver is a funny city though because once your first calls are gone, and if there's a show in town, your ranks can be depleted very quickly. It's not like New York. Especially when there are doubles involved and you need some good people on flute and clarinet. My first calls are always good, but if my first and second calls are gone, it can mean a lot of scrambling.
But as far as the goodwill, I’ve played with all local the big bands. I'm a decent trumpet player. I just love playing trumpet. I'll do anything. I don't like playing for money. I mean I'll always take the money, but that's not why I do it. You know what I mean?
Dave: Of course.
John: Any gig I would actually do, I would do for free. The days of me doing things just for money are long gone. But of course I want money because I have to pay my rent.
Dave: Well, there are certain people, and I think this because I did all my university in the US, so I have a pretty big group of friends who are musicians in the military because it's a pretty good gig. And some people genuinely just want to be playing. If they've got an oboe or a clarinet in their hand for eight hours a day, or whatever it is, they're happy. And it doesn't matter what the music is. And I admire that because I think I could be equally miserable sitting holding a trumpet, playing music that I don't care about, as I could be sitting in a cubicle typing numbers into a computer. Just having the trumpet doesn't necessarily ensure happiness, but for some people it does.
John: Yeah, in a lot of cases I like the challenge. I like playing trumpet. I like making music with people. I'm a good session type player or whatever you want to call it. But it's been a long time. But I'll play in my other friends’ big bands. I love playing in the trumpet section. I love playing third and fourth trumpet because there's no pressure. It's like the best thing. But I’ve played lead trumpet too, and I love doing that. I can play jazz, but I'm not a great jazz player. My brain works too slowly. That's why I moved to composition because I can slow everything down to this chord. Quarter note equals one hour, right?
Dave: Yes, I say that to my students all the time. Becoming a great improviser takes time and you can’t just suddenly be at that level. But we could write some tunes that are years ahead development-wise because we can work our way through the process and at least 50% of it is editing. “Get everything finished. Now let's spend a couple of months trying to figure out what we've got here,” editing things, moving things around, tweaking. “We can make this into something really good.” But it could be five years ahead of where your improvisation study is.
John: Yeah, great. You spend enough time on anything, hopefully you get better. As we all know. Sometimes you spend too much time on it actually gets worse. You know what I mean?
John: I want to try this. Try this. Like adding too many toppings on a pizza.
Dave: You have to have the wherewithal to know when it's time to just call the piece finished. It’s good to set a comfortable amount of time aside for editing but if you add too many extra layers of edits, it can go past the ideal finish line.
John: Sometimes it works and sometimes you overwrite and it doesn't work. I like to say the joke, “I never finish a piece. You just run out of time.”
Dave: There's so much truth in those cliches. How often have you ever been in the position where you had the exact amount of time and it was so comfortable getting something done? The third year of my doctorate was really the only time. I was still on scholarship, getting a stipend from the school, and I had the entire year to do almost nothing but write music and play some gigs. I had two night a week to direct the university's second big band. So four hours a week. The freedom of that year was great.
John: Yeah, I hate being stressed out composing. I don't like that feeling at all. When you're behind schedule and you don't think you have a good piece yet, and the clock is ticking. I hate that feeling. So, like you, I like doing a little bit every day over a long period of time and just watching it happen. Jocelyn worked the same way. She would work all day, but an hour or two here, an hour or two there and do things in between. She was very ADD, always doing a whole bunch of stuff. But over the course of the day she'd probably get like six or eight hours done. But it would take from eight am to midnight.
Dave: It's a lot like practicing the trumpet five plus hours a day. Most people can't practice five hours a day in five hours. You can practice five hours in eleven hours. Some of these people I've known who play piano or saxophone, they could sit there forever. They'd eat a sandwich for ten minutes, but they'd be sitting there for eight hours. I'm like, You've been playing for eight goddamn hours.
John: Piano players can do that. I remember the people who really excelled in their careers would practice at UBC until like four in the morning. Then they’d sleep in the practice room, get up at eight o’clock and keep practicing.
Dave: I read that one of the first experiences you had at Banff was playing lead trumpet in a big band. So that was just something you were hired to do that led to a lot of other great things?
John: It was Hugh Fraser's band called “VEJI” [pronounced like “veggie”], the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation. That was a band that I really looked up to at the time. Maynard meets Art Ensemble of Chicago, meets late Coltrane.
Dave: And that was a residency of some sort at Banff? And separate from the Banff jazz thing?
John: That's right. The VEJI did a residency. They did it once before in 1980 and then again in ‘84. They needed a lead trumpet player and I could play high notes. I was a big fan of the band. I think the long list of people they wanted to ask couldn't do it. Most people they wanted couldn’t give up three months. They asked me to do it. I went there and it changed my life. I got to work with Dave Liebman. Dave Holland was there, Julian Priester. I was twenty years old. It really changed my life. I'm in a band, I'm in the most beautiful place in the world. And I’m rehearsing every day with this great music. And that was all a big deal for me.
Hugh Fraser ended up being the coordinator for the jazz program many years later. He had a long history with the Banff Centre. There were different guest artists every year. Kenny Wheeler and Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Dave Holland. They were all there, and it's four weeks long. The whole thing was free because they were really well funded. The Banff Centre had so much money coming from the Alberta oil fund. All you had to do was be accepted to the program and everything was free. All the food, tuition was free. And I got to meet these famous Canadian jazz musicians.
And Kenny, he was very quiet, very meek, and self effacing. “Oh, I'm not very good. Maybe you don't want to play my music. It's not really very good.” “Hey, Kenny, do you want to take a solo here?” “Oh, I don't know.” This very quiet little tiny guy. But when he played he was like the mouse who roared. He played the shit out of the trumpet. Kenny is hugely influential in Canada.
Dave: What schools are you at right now?
John: Vancouver Community College. I teach part of the time.
Dave: You teach at Capilano [University], too?
John: A little bit. They always have a couple of students they send my way. I just give them zoom lessons, but I've been with them for about thirty years.
Dave: Do you have any good stories about logistical challenges or big dramatic scenes putting shows on with your big band?
John: Oh, sure. Stuff has definitely gone wrong. We did this show called the “Elvis Cantata.” That was the first big show that I did that made us a little famous. Then we tried to do another version two years later. During the sound check, the day before the show, we got a three page cease and desist order, by fax from the Elvis Presley estate. And that was a terrible night.
I tried to put up this show a couple of years ago called “Riot.” I put all my resources and all my energy into this thing for years. And it just kind of blew up in my face because there were three parties involved, and I found out that the two other parties hated each other. They’d had a long history together. I found that out too late. It was very depressing because I had put so much energy into that and then to have it go nowhere. It was a very big punch to the gut.
Dave: So what happened with that Elvis thing? How did that get resolved? I lived in Memphis for seven years, so I have a bit of an idea of the legal position of Elvis’ company when it comes to his IP. In fact, I don’t know if I have a copy of it here but when I taught at a Historically Black College in Memphis, one of the art majors created this painting with Elvis’ face on it that I wanted to use for the cover of a CD. So we made this CD but the college was concerned about getting some backlash over using it.
John: Well, that's what the lawyers are paid to do, right? And they're very litigious down there, for sure. It took me a year to put our show together. And the day before the performances we were presented with three choices: We could cancel the concert, we could call their bluff and go ahead and just do it as we wanted, or the third option was that we do the concert, but remove all references to the word “Elvis.” We could play his music because you can play anyone’s music and Elvis didn’t write or own the songs anyway. But the word “Elvis” is a trademark, “Graceland” is a trademark, “King of Rock and Roll”copywritten. So they could sue us for any of that. And they could have gone ahead and sued me or the society that runs the band. We have no money. They could take my trumpet. But because we're taking part of this big church to do the show, there were concerns that they could sue our board members and the church, and we didn't want to go through that. So we ended up going through with a concert. We just had to take down all images of Elvis. It was awful.
I've kind of learned over the years that when things don't go right, they eventually will go right. What seems like a problem, isn't always. Everything works out but I kind of like it when things don't at first because I like the problem solving part of it.
Dave: Right. It's like playing a solo. If it goes exactly the way that you think, then it's probably not that interesting for you, right?
John: Yeah, I think so. I think that's probably right. I like the adventure of it. I just find, organizing a show, it gets my full attention. I just like it. I've been very lucky that we've kept ourselves afloat. I have a very good general manager, Diane [Kadota]. We always have far too little money to do what I want to do, but we just do it. You get to be good at doing stuff on a low budget. We did a Mahavishnu tribute concert and a King Crimson concert a couple of years ago. That was a very popular concert.
Dave: I bet.
John: Meeting Diane Kadota in 1992 was very good timing. She was just starting an art management company and was willing to work for free for a few years in order to get the company up and running. We became darlings of the Canada Council which helped. We were different, the musicianship was high, a bit outrageous, drawing crowds. We got near every grant we applied for. Diane is fantastic. And we have an easy working relationship. Though we are a small company, two or three concerts a year, she makes sure we never go over budget, which can happen easily. We did 4-5 national tours getting invited to the festivals. We did a three-day festival in the Netherlands around 2000, bring over 22 musicians from Vancouver. Our ideal composer, one that aligns with how I envision the band, has that blend of new music, jazz or pop. Can't be too jazzy or traditional new music, though we have commissioned those types of composers. But definitely, over the years, I think we have gotten better and better.
I think the John Hollenbeck might be our last big “outside of Vancouver” composer for awhile. I think I just want to focus on local composers now, especially younger ones. Kind of feed the scene. But I might change my mind four or five years from now. I'm sixty now. I don't know how much longer I'm going to do this for. I have to start thinking about a contingency plan. What do you call that?
John: Succession plan. So my goal is to do this until I'm seventy. I've been very lucky. We came around at a good time. All the new music ensembles in Canada were “new music.” Pretty typical. We were doing new music for the masses. I used to make a joke that we were Vancouver's number one dodecaphonic party band. We're doing avant-garde stuff, but it was more fun and more energetic. But adding all these contemporary composition things, and no one was doing that.
Even globally, no one was really doing that. Not a whole lot of orchestras commissions our style of music. But I feel good that the work we've done over the years kept the quality high. And it's my pet project. I don't make much money from it. I make a little bit of money, but I’m also luckily I teach here. That kept my head afloat. Just being a freelancer, I'm not regularized here or anything. So my contract is very small. But I do the stuff I like to do and I’m quite lucky that way.
Dave: That's great. And your big thirtieth anniversary was supposed to be in 2020?
John: That's right. We did our anniversary concert last year. We call it the “Thirty Plus Two Anniversary.” Really the thirty-second anniversary. And then the concert after that was the John Hollenbeck concert. Everything just got pushed to the side a little bit.
Dave: So maybe thirty five years will be a more attractive number for a bigger, uninterrupted celebration.
John: Well, I don't know. Do people do thirty-five? I don't know.
Dave: Thirty five sounds pretty good and you can do whatever you want, right? That’s the character of the band.
John: Yeah, that's right. I always let the audience know how many years it’s been anyway at our concerts. We’ve managed to last and keep our heads above water and do good quality work. I think our artistic status has always been high. I think we've done something inventive. I'm just trying to keep the artistic direction steered straight ahead.
Otherwise, I'm always trying to think of things to do in the future, trying to keep things fresh. You try to not be too predictable. I always wish we had more money, of course. Who doesn't? But I want to do another CD with Hollenbeck and maybe some of the other recent things we've done, King Crimson, perhaps. That would be a popular album.
Dave: That would be really cool.
John: The arrangements are fantastic. The show is fantastic. Like I said, I'm super flattered that you like our album and our band.
Dave: It all really sounds great and is original. Those things doesn't always happen together. Some people have some really good ideas and the band doesn't sound that good or the soloists aren't matching the level of the band. There are bands that are doing interestings things conceptually and want to be good but they don't really have the horses to make the recordings that they think they want to make.
John: The horses, you mean like the level of music?
Dave: Yeah. The players’ level of musicianship. We’ve had some very enthusiastic musicians and composers start big band projects. And the effort is to be applauded. But there are a lot of different skills that need to go into that kind of project, in addition to having the level of players available and sufficient rehearsal time. Otherwise it can be a perpetually disappointing experience for the composers. And how many negative experiences can you realistically have? It’s good to be able to fail and learn but you have to do some things to ensure a positive experience enough of the time to keep at it.
John: Every composer goes through that. You have to learn these things the hard way sometimes. It's the worst feeling in the world to put all this blood and sweat into these pieces and it doesn't work out. Then you have to figure out you have to hire the best musicians you can. Because if you hire a couple of good musicians and the other musicians go, “Oh, he's in the band. Okay, I'll do it too.” You know what I mean? Musicians like playing with other good musicians. And they'll make your job easier. Of course good musicians are also busier. But, now that we're older, I can raise more money so I can pay people more.
You also have to make programs shorter and shorter because the audience would rather hear a really good forty-five minute concert than a sloppy ninety minutes. They just want to hear good music. I think you have to learn from that.
Dave: But we see every day that it is possible to not learn, right? It's possible to beat your head against a brick wall over and over again for decades and just never improve the process.
John: It's like being a sports coach. You have to put people in the position where they're going to succeed the most.
John: If I have any success, it's because I just kept at it. I was just very kind of persistent, and I just kept going forward partly because I don't know what else to do. I have no other skills. I'm hopeless with every other facet of being a human. (laughs)
Hard Rubber Orchestra with Ingrid and Christine Jensen (2015)
Dave: It is interesting, the older I get, the more I think that personality determines so much more than I thought when I was really young. “If I'm a good teacher, I'll be able to turn twenty interested kids into twenty good jazz musicians.” And only in theory is that true.
John: I can see that. There are also students who think they're better than they are.
Dave: I think about other disciplines like math or medicine or law. Hopefully, very few people who graduate from medical school are going out there and starting to kill people right away. And it doesn’t really matter where or from what school. Their attitude has to be to make sure they're above a certain level.
Dave: But if you graduate from music school, there’s not the same level of gatekeeping.
John: But also doing what we do, and especially what I do, and people like me, we take risks. And you risk sucking sometimes. And sometimes, earlier on, I sucked a lot. But our particular audience is paying us to take risks. And hopefully you don't suck, but they want to hear music they’ve never heard before.
John: I didn't want to sound like that New York jazz school, big band. That's just not my thing. And once I had a good concept of music history, I was thinking, “Okay, what can I contribute to this art form?” I thought I had found a way, combining these styles into my musical personality.
Dave: We're the amalgamation of all the music that we grew up with, and we're trying to find all the pieces to put together to make your own special music. That's just who you are.
John: We don't want to be writing for someone else. We want to be writing for ourselves, unless you're being paid to write for someone else.
Dave: I think it’s a unique entity. It's not like, “Well, this chart sounds like contemporary classical music exclusively, and this sounds like jazz, and this sounds like a Count Basie chart. It's not like that. Within the five albums of yours that I've listened to, there's a cohesiveness. Clearly not everything's the same, but there's a cohesiveness of concept that is interesting, unique and surprising.
John: I'm trying to keep it all different from each other. I'm trying to not repeat so much.
Dave: The instrumental execution of it is also on a level that's way above any acceptable line. That's pretty unusual. I'm very impressed with what you've been able to put together, which is what makes it interesting.
John: Thank you. I appreciate that. And I'll be a little bit pretentious here. When I was first doing it, I really wanted to be the best composer in the country, and I wanted to be a historically good composer. And I thought my music in the beginning was more interesting than almost anyone’s and all that sort of thinking. Nobody was doing what I was doing. That was back then.
My life took a bit of a detour around 2006, and I stopped composing for a long time. I'm just kind of getting back into it now and then. Hanging out with Jocelyn, certainly, was a big, life changing thing for me, too. Seeing how she worked and getting me back into thinking about music and composers. And now, since her death, I'm thinking of just really kind of downsizing my life and starting to think more about composing again. Doing that and doing less teaching, so I'm definitely going through another shift now. And it's funny because, when you get to a certain age, like you're almost 50 now…when you get to a certain age, you think, “Oh, yeah. I don't have that many years left.”
I’d like to keep running the band until maybe seventy. So I have ten good years left of that.
So you start to think about these things. You start to think about mortality because we all go. Now you're almost fifty. Theoretically you're at the five-eight part of your life.
Dave: Right. My three year old isn’t going to be an adult until I'm about sixty-five.
John: Right. The realization of that is actually pretty profound.
Dave: Very true. It's been great talking with you.
John: It's wonderful to meet you face to face, so to speak.
Dave: Face to face on the other side of the world, but yeah.
John:That's amazing we can do this.
Dave: Oh, for sure.
John: If COVID was good for one thing, it was this.
Dave: Yeah, I agree.
John: I fucking love zoom. I hate not having to get in my car to go downtown, do meetings and stuff like that.
Dave: Exactly. It has drawbacks for performance lessons but I think, for composition, it has real advantages: geography and the way you can share and edit things with a student in real time.
John: I can stay in my man cave here.
[Back to John’s fancy Zoom backgrounds, a recording control room with a huge mixing console.]
Dave: Yeah, that's pretty beautiful behind you, that 164 channel board you just conjured up there.
John: Yeah, I just put in the lighting last night. And thank you very much, Dave.
Dave: Yeah. Thanks so much for taking the time and for talking with me.
John: Stay in touch.
Dave: You bet.
COMPOSERS COMMISSIONED BY HARD RUBBER ORCHESTRA
John Hollenbeck, Kenny Wheeler, Darcy James Argue, Brad Turner, Peggy Lee, Christine Jensen, Haralabos "Harry" Stafylakis, Scott Good, James O’Callaghan, Marianne Trudel, Hugh Fraser, Fred Stride, Phil Dwyer, Rene Lussier and Linda Bouchard. Bob Pritchard, Paul Dolden, Michael Blake, Jean Derome, Keith Hamel, Cameron Wilson, Bradshaw Pack, Paul Steenhuisen, Ron Samworth, Bill Clark, Sandy Fiddes, Sook-Yin Lee, Rob McKenzie, Ian McDougal, Giorgio Magnanensi, Eric Wettstein, Bill Runge, Ford Pier, Chris Gestrin, Alvin Cornista, Gabriella Yorke, David Dramm, Howard Bashaw, Tony Wilson, Peter Hannan
Shadows and Light
Matt Wilson Quartet