by Phillip Griffin
You might think jazz is just for old boring rich white people, but Julia Louis thinks it’s actually punk af.
Along with the many punk & rock acts on board, this year Dreyfest is super lucky to be hosting an accomplished jazz bassist from Kansas City, who now lives in West Yellowstone: Bob Bowman. Bowman brings fantastic sounds from a bygone era, having played with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabakin Big Band, Freddie Hubbard, and many more. To see Bowman play is to see what it means to play an instrument for almost 50 years, and what it means to have done it in a time and culture that placed a high value on the practice.
Though jazz has been firmly replaced by rock or hip-hop as a popular genre, it enjoyed many decades as a mainstream or “pop” genre in its own right—indeed, with its influence bringing black musicians into the fold (tho of course without proper credit), jazz seems to be a chief phenomenon that made rock or hip-hop possible in the first place.
Nowadays you can find a few films on Netflix that highlight the importance of jazz in its time, and the extent to which jazz really was the hip-hop of its day. I Called Him Morgan is a documentary about the life of hard bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, whose wife shot and killed him on stage at a gig - a situation with characters and stakes that ring with Shakespearean drama and heft, and at same time the darkness of a Nas lyric. Another documentary, Grass Is Greener, explores the importance of marijuana to the development of American music, which arguably started with jazz. (Notably, marijuana prohibition also started around this time, but that is beyond the scope of this here write-up.)
In this film we find out that Louis Armstrong smoked hella weed—with some sources saying Louis smoked joints like they were cigarettes, much like a Lil Wayne or Snoop today. In fact, it sounds an almost preposterous question to ask which jazz musicians were into what we still call “jazz lettuce” - a much better question would be who didn’t smoke weed and play jazz.
And of course jazz cats weren’t just known for their pot smoking habit—any jazz fan worth their weight knows that heroin & cocaine were the favorite for many a giant, from Bill Evans to Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Billie Holiday, and many more—far too many to name. Not to mention booze. Between their music, drugs, money, and sex, these figures laid the groundwork for contemporary rap superstars that all still sing about all the same shit.
Anyhow, Bob Bowman represents a sort of holdover from that era—when jazz was still important to pop culture, when jazz doods could still sell out arenas, when jazz was still, well, pretty gangster. He came up when there were still plenty of big cats around who themselves had played with others from the past, preserving the ember that started in the 20s. We’re lucky to have him at this year’s Dreyfest!
You can check out Bob this week if you happen to be in Billings—he’s got a whole string of mostly free shows booked, including one at Thirsty Street Brewing on Friday from 8-10 pm. Check out his website and entire schedule here. He’s got his friend, Portland guitarist, John Stowell with him!
First off, let's talk a bit a about your long history playing jazz. I understand you grew up in rural Kansas and somehow eventually started playing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard in NYC with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and eventually the likes of Freddie Hubbard and other heavies. How the hell did that happen? What was it like for a country boy to find himself playing real-ass jazz in the city?
My audition was playing the Monday night gig [with Mel Lewis and Thad Jones] with no rehearsal! I was 23. I had it made playing at the Village Vanguard every Monday and sometimes a whole week and other places as well, but I hated the city. Heavy, famous players coming into the Vanguard and checking me out. That built some confidence that I wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't done that.
It was rough back then. Dirty, crime, and just plain mean. Now Manhattan is like Disneyland compared to when I was there. Musicians can't afford to live there. So they live in Brooklyn and now the Bronx. People murdered on the street regularly half a block from where I lived when I was there. Gang related suppose. I'll take Montana over that. However I'm glad I tested the waters.
What can you tell us about Matt Villinger?
Matt Villinger is all about love of music and everything and everyone for that matter. From St. Louis, but lives in Kansas City now. He puts his all into whatever he's playing and can hear around corners. His melodic lines seem to be endless and it swings! I love everything about Vill, as he's known. He's also housemates with Peter Schlamb, the amazing vibraphonist, also from St. Louis and now in KC btw. Vill was at our place in MT last year and caught the biggest trout I've ever seen. Got several meals that fed four people for several days. Delicious!
This fest has usually been rock-and-roll based, with some emphasis on a "punk" value set and aesthetic--which is much different than jazz in a lot of ways but maybe just as similar in some. What do you think of rock music? Punk rock in particular?
As far as "Punk and Jazz" similarities.
There's a rawness in both. There's validity in both. Jazz at its best takes more of a commitment for the listener and player. By that I mean concentration and getting outside of oneself. Not to say that punk doesn't demand that. Punk is just more in your face. However sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised at some of musicality of Punk.
I think when folks say they don't like jazz it's because they haven't experienced being up close to this very personal music and there's nothing worse than jazz being played poorly! My best experiences as a performer and listener have all been in small venues where you can hear the grunts, groans and banter among the musicians.
But let's just stop for a moment and not place all these barriers between all the genres of music.
I basically think that great music of all kinds needs to put on a pedestal and not be categorized. Study indicates that music affects the emotional spirit more than anything we homo sapien sapiens do.
As the great Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music. Good and Bad. Couldn't agree more.
The Duke was in Topeka, KS when I was a junior in high school. His band played a dumb gig in the municipal auditorium where the Ringling and Ringling Bros Circus had just been. Cavernous and I don't think that all of elephant poop was properly removed.
Anyway I asked if I could meet the Duke and he graciously invited me into his cubicle of a dressing room. Just the Duke and me. He took great interest that I had interest in his music. I remember that like it was yesterday.
Music is music.
What are your top most influential composers/artists/albums/jazz musicians? Non-jazz musicians? Non-musical influences?
Starting with non-musical influences. There are many, but when you asked the question my mind went straight to Albert Schweitzer. Also my amazing parents, sisters and my wife, Yae, who is so supportive and selfless. There are too many to mention.
Albums? I'd have to say Bill Evans earlier recoridings with Scott LaFaro. Scotty's story, legacy and impact in his 6-7 yrs as a pioneering bassist and his life being cut short at age 25 is a story in itself. His sister wrote a biography entitled "Jade Visions". Oscar Peterson's "the Way I Really Play" with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham. Saw that trio when I was 14 at the University of Kansas. Wow! I signed up then. John Coltrane's "Crescent", "Miles Smiles." "In a Silent Way" both by Miles. Probably the most influential would be Pablo Casals playing Bach's cello suites and Glenn Gould's recordings of the "Goldberg Variations". Again too many too many to name.
Composers. Bach, Brahms, Dvorak, Copeland, Stravinsky, Debussy, Satie, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and too many to name
Are there any practice techniques and/or big musical ideas that you've found to profoundly affect the way you think of or play music?
Scales, scales and more scales. All of them. Major, minor, diminished, altered. Starting on different steps. For example key of C. Start on D in the key signature of C or whatever key you're in. When I was in elementary school in rural Kansas I had a music teacher, Miss Gish, who taught ALL the students. Not just the kids in band or choir. She was tough. Everyone had to learn key signatures and sing a solo. I am so grateful to this day. The school bullies were quavering. Hilarious! Then do fragments of scales. Thirds, 1 2 3 . 1 4 3 1 then up a step up a step and so on throughout the the key your in. Then mess around in that key and try to make musical melodies and make sure it grooves. Very important. Otherwise you'll just be playing scales when performing. It's fun too. Do different feels, time signatures, tempos, etc.
Then just play songs inside and out till you drop. Also fun. If it starts to feel stagnant STOP! Then mow the yard, hike, read, or cook.
The most important thing I think is to be very thorough yet joyous and/or sad depending on what needs to be expressed. The more at one you are on your instrument the better for expressing yourself and will touch the listener more deeply. My main objective btw.
That's what I do.
Catch Bob and Matt at Thirsty Street on August 9th from 7-9 pm for this year’s Dreyfest!