Sharron McLeod Interview with Greg Tate
Saturday, August 30, 2003
SM: I am here with Greg Tate at the Urban Music Summit and I’d like to ask you how does Greg Tate do what he does?
GT: With great perseverance and perspiration, you know. I mean, I began even thinking about music critically after I read Amiri Baraka, Leroi Jones’ book Black Music. I was maybe like 13 or 14 years old, that was also, I think writers can sometimes talk about a book that changed their life, and I think that one was it for me, because that was the book that made me go out and buy Miles Davis and Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane records, cause I wanted to hear these people that had inspired this man to this incredibly, like ingenious, eloquent prose but it also made me realize that there was a way of writing about music that took into account, you know your physical responses to it, your deeply emotional responses to it, that you could talk about it from here from the head but your could also kind of bring your own viscera into it as well. And I wouldn’t say I was ever thinking about being a music journalist as a career you know that happened in a way by you know it’s fortuitous. I had a friend that was working at the Village Voice, the writer Thulani Davis. It was about 1980 and she told me to send the music editor at the Voice some of my work. Which I did and he gave me an assignment and for the next year from Washington, D.C. I was writing for the Village Voice, a paper I had been reading maybe for about 5 years at that point, you know never ever thinking I was good enough to be a Village Voice writer. And the editor I had Robert Kriscow he gave me a lot licence to really write in this voice that deployed vernacular deployed theory deployed some of the conventions of music criticism. And he told me the more that he got into his music section the better he would like it so I was quite emboldened to just try be as experimental as I could because I mean that writers really need good editors to really develop their own voice and to trust their own voice and definitely writing for the Village Voice in those years gave me a lot of confidence in my own journalistic voice.
SM: So who are you speaking to in your writing? Newspapers like the New York Times or Village Voice have a particular kind of reader that reads them, but who are you speaking to in your writing?
GT: I think in a lot of ways I feel I’m speaking through my own experience with the artists that inspire me. I think early on the highest praise I’ve ever received was when people would tell told me that they felt like they could hear the music I was writing about while they were reading it. And for me that’s doing the job. Toni Morrison said that a thing about how she felt that she had achieved the degree of very similar to authenticity in her writing when she felt that the people she was writing about would recognize themselves in the work and I kind of felt the same way about the music. I really I had such a passion for this whole continuum of black music that I became exposed to in the 70s so I really just wanted to just honour that passion through the writing and never really thought about the question of audience per se. Actually that first year that I was writing for the Voice was really I was kind of in a state of grace or state of innocence in terms of audience because I only knew 3 or 4 people in Washington that actually read the Voice except for my buddies at Howard University so I didn’t even have a sense that anybody was even reading this other than my editor, maybe one of my classmates and my younger brother. So it wasn’t until I moved to New York a year later I realized oh wow. People were telling me they had read this or that piece. It had moved them They had put it in a file of articles they had saved. And that kind of thing so and over time you have a sense of who the audience is it’s just from people recognizing your name or initiating conversation with you because they’ve read something or yours that they liked. The thing about the Voice is that it has always had a very sizable black readership in New York. One of the things they found out in the 80s was that whenever they put, they made a black subject the cover story they sold 3 or 4000 more copies than normal. I was living in Harlem, living in Brooklyn so I really never felt like I was functioning outside of a black cultural matrix.
SM: So what do you think your writing offers? I think I know for myself what I hear in your writing or what I feel in your writing. But to compare yourself to someone like Leonard Feather or someone like Stanley Crouch. What, who do you think…Compare yourself to those two. (Both of us laughing)
GT: Well it’s interesting. I mean Stanley definitely is somebody that I’ve been reading since the 70s. I think he was originally in I used to read Stanley in the magazine Players which was like the first black Playboy-esque type magazine. And then when he was writing for The Voice, I was definitely checking everything he was on. Because he was the one of the only people who was writing about what was going on in the vanguard of jazz in New York like as it was happening. He was writing about the David Murrays, and the Julius Hemphils and Henry Threadgills right after they had all just gotten to New York.
SM: He doesn’t really write about them much anymore.
GT: No he kind of abandoned them for his new prodigal son.
SM: Except for David. (Murray)
GT: Wynton Marsalis. Yeah you know what I mean. Stanley was definitely like an influence, Amiri Baraka was an influence and Ishmael Reed definatley. I think stylistically maybe the biggest influence was this guy named Pedro Belle who used to do the album covers and the liner notes for Funkadelic. Cuz he just had this way of just using alliteration and puns that really were taken straight from slang, from black slang, from colloquialisms. He really made me respect the poetry of that and how you could insinuate that into prose, into journalism.
SM: Into criticism.
GT: Into criticism. I think if I thought about what distinguishes me from some of the people I’ve read it’s just there’s a lot of generational perspectives that are unique. Jimi Hendrix is an iconic figure to me in a way you know that he’s never going to be for Amiri or Stanley. Funkadelic meant something to me. I mean any music I think that you are digesting and kind of living in your adolescence, it’s just always in your blood. So I come from that, a place of understanding in having a connection to that, the music of my generation emotionally and that’s a whole breath of things from Motown through Hip Hop. Yeah the older cats definitely have they have a more visceral relationship to bop and the avant garde, you know the jazz heroes and I kind of came through, I kind of I found jazz through not from being in the culture of jazz but from reading about it. I kind of sought out the culture of jazz from what I read. It’s kind of an interesting progression but the music that I, you know hooked, or that hooked me emotionally was definitely the Sly Stones and psychedelic Temptations stuff then the Earth Wind and Fires and the Funkadelics and all those bands that emerged in the 70s.
SM: What about Sun Ra and Philip Cohran…
GT: Oh yeah and the whole. ..It’s just a continuation you know and an extension and a revision of all the these things that came before it. And that’s what each generation does.
SM: So in your own guitar work, who influences your work?
GT: I think what’s interesting about what I’m doing with Burn Sugar is that I kind of went out and just brought in the three baddest guitar players that I knew in New York, and I really just put down
the guitar and picked up the baton. I’ve adopted this system of conduction that was developed by Lawrence ‘Butch’ Morris and kind of brought it into this funk framework. It’s Butch’s system it’s the hand gestures, the baton gestures that he developed for conducting improvisers. So he’s bringing the same kind of precision to conducting large ensembles of improvisers that a European concert conductor brings to working with that ensemble and that range of instruments.
SM: There’s a lot of that kind of music being made right now. I don’t know if you’ve heard Wayne Shorter’s latest album Allegria that’s kind of, you know that Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration that has that kind of sound. Who are the guitar players in your band again?
GT: OK! A guy named Rene Akan, a guy named Kirk Douglas, a guy Morgan Craft. These are all young masters of the instrument. And they all have a very distinct sound, they are all rooted in tradition. You know, R&B, blues rock and roll tradition but they are all great experimenters as well. They are really trying to extend the language of the guitar particularly in improvised music.
SM: When Burnt Sugar is like a large ensemble that’s a chamber ensemble kind of setting?
GT: I think in a lot of ways it’s a..
SM: Do people dance to your music? Do you it play in clubs?
GT: Yeah that’s the thing. It’s like…We got a grant actually from some people who want us to facilitate us doing do more work in Europe kind of in that concert setting but we’re really a club band. We played the Kennedy Centre, we played the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts, we play Royal Festival Hall in the UK. But at the end of the day we’ll go back and do a gig at CBGB’s Lounge in a heartbeat. And yeah there’s moments when it’s danceable and there’s moments when it’s real abstract you know what I mean. It’s totally like in the moment in that way, it’s kind of set up so if we want to shift gears, if we want to deal with swing, we can do that, if we want to move all the electronics off the stage for a minute and just deal with the horns and the upright bass and the ride cymbal we can do that, if we want at the same time we want to create a tension between those things or blend those things together, like we’re set up do that as well. It’s definitely about being, kind of use the way in which we are conversant with all this musical history like in a real spontaneous way so it’s not theoretical or academic it’s not kind of pushing the agenda of it’s all one black music. It’s representing that idea that…
SM: What idea?
GT: The idea of a black music continuum. You know what I mean. That from one seed many trees branches flowers orchids or what have you. It’s really reflective of how the everybody listens to everything.The people in this band, you go through their record collections and your going to hear the history of jazz, you’re going to see a Nirvana CD, you’re going to see you’re going to see a Muddy Waters CD you’re going to hear traditional Indian music or music from the Ituri forest and all of those things become channelled in the course of a Burnt Sugar performance.
SM: Sounds great! And one last question. How does Greg Tate balance being a musician and a music critic?
GT: I think for a long time I just stopped being a music critic and just became more of a literature critic or more of a film critic. It definitely became difficult to think about myself as a critic in quite the same way. I think that one of the things that you know when you move into in active performing you gain a new found respect for anybody who makes the walk from backstage to the stage and has
to basically strip naked in front of an audience, you know present themselves to an audience, sustain their attention in a performance for an hour you know. I lost some of that killer instinct (laughs) I think that makes critics you know kind of biting and incisive I made a decision that this year I was going to return to the fold, so we’ll see.
SM: Thank you!
GT: Yeah, thank you.