A conversation with John Mars, drummer and artist
(Conducted and edited by Bob Gluck, with JM in Toronto, Ontario; BG in Albany, NY; via Skype; and November 19, 2014 by Skype and by email)
Segments of this interview were included in Bob Gluck, “The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Appreciating drummers and discovering Barry Altschul
In the 1960’s, from a very young age, I was studying Bebop drummers, mostly all those that had been with Monk, plus Joe Morello with Brubeck and trying to learn how they managed to sometimes actually play melodically and do such amazing turnarounds. Then, I discovered Milford Graves and I learned how to be completely free floating and, how to leave time signatures completely out of the picture. I also learned some new things about timbre from Milford’s recordings with Albert Ayler. Then there was Sonny Murray who was really propulsive. I also liked Beaver Harris who followed Milford and Sunny in Albert Ayler’s group. (1)
Next, I heard Tony Oxley on John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation LP, which came out in 1969. I liked the precision of Oxley and the crisp sound and, all the complex things that he did on his ride cymbal. He wasn’t playing as free as those guys did with Ayler, because the music was completely different, but still, there was this sense of freedom there. Some people think of Albert’s music as completely ‘free form’, but it’s not really. I don’t like the term free form at all, when I am talking about serious music that involves extended improvisations. For example, I prefer to think of Albert’s ‘time’ as like floating on your back in fast moving water. It’s not like all the players in this stream with him are never in ‘time’ with each other? It’s just that it all changes so fast and, that Albert miraculously invented a new music where he and, all his exceptional colleagues could forget about trying to find ‘the one’ or any kind of a ‘beat’ or whatever. Time signatures, amongst many other things, completely disappeared at times. The music just floated in terms of the rhythms and, it was very spiritual.
Barry Altschul came next for me. I certainly knew the stuff he did with Paul Bley in the 60’s, but, I really got into Barry with Circle and the Dave Holland record Conference of the Birds, with Braxton, Sam Rivers and Barry. These groups just blew me away and, right away, I knew that this is how I wanted to sound as a drummer.
Barry’s right hand work on the ride cymbal was so intricate and, really interesting to me. In terms of the stuff he was doing with his left hand and his foot; well, I probably already knew how to do that stuff, all the off beats and bomb drops. But then there was a dance-y, skippy right hand that Barry had, displaying a bop sort of influence yet entirely new. It just flew with those other ‘Birds’ [as in Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds] in the band. Listen to Barry’s quick responses to the twisting and turning of the other players, how they could all turn around on a dime and head in another direction.
When you listen to those bands (plus the trio things he did with Sam Rivers and Dave), at times, as the band fractures, so does Barry’s right hand. But then in a way, it stays in that bop sound, too. Barry made up all kinds of new and interesting right hand bop-influenced patterns. Rather than try to learn his exceedingly complex patterns, I was just inspired to invent my own. I got a flat ride cymbal so that my patterns could be heard very clearly. With no bell on the cymbal there is a lot of definition to your sound due to a minimal drone that the bell part of a cymbal causes, and this became my sound. I used nylon tipped, long Jazz sticks. Also I worked quick little crashes into my patterns on the flat ride where I would drop/flat smack it with about the first 8 inches of the stick.
With a free form drummer like Milford Graves, you don’t hear bebop in there anymore. His drumming just floated. I certainly learned my own sense of freedom from his astonishing example, which I was able to apply in the duo I played in with the great Canadian pianist Stuart Broomer. Milford also got me into playing with mallets. With Sonny Murray, time certainly completely disappeared as well. Plus Sonny is crazy aggressive and that was an inspiration to people like Barry and Andrew Cyrille.
In Barry’s playing, we hear bebop but we can also hear the influence of John Coltrane’s music and that of his drummers. The most incredible Rashied Ali, who I think was influenced by Milford’s freedom and Sonny’s aggressive approach, must have influenced Barry, too. That period of Albert Ayler’s music, on which Milford played, influenced Coltrane very much at the end of his life. Ayler was a revolution to Trane and he regarded him so highly that someone (Alice Coltrane maybe?) asked Albert to play at Coltrane’s funeral. During the whole hippie L.S.D. 1960’s period, when Albert and John were letting the rhythms get to this free floating thing that I tried to describe earlier, there was also the sound effect things that came from Pharoah Sanders and Roland Kirk. They played these when they weren’t blowing their horns. This aspect came into what Barry did a little bit later in the 70’s: rattling bells on chains and blowing whistles and so on. Maybe a bit of this was a Varese influence, too.
When Dave Holland and Barry played together, you also heard some of those supersonic, fractured Bebop patterns that were invented by Ornette’s groups. I’m sure that Dave must have been especially listening to Scott LaFaro on the Ornette records. Although he was deep in a pocket with Dave, Barry was definitely also listening intensely to the notes that were flying from Anthony’s agile mind, mouth, and fingers. His cymbal work was always responding to Anthony’s genius for twisting and turning.
Meeting Barry Altschul, Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland, 1974
The first time that I was privileged to be in the company of these musicians was on Bill and Chloe (Onari) Smith’s enclosed back porch in Toronto, Sunday, December 8th, 1974. The three musicians were in town to play a concert at Trinity Church in Yorkville, Toronto. The Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry concert was supposed to be the Sam Rivers Trio. Rivers couldn’t make it so they brought in Braxton.
During that visit, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul, and Dave Holland were all staying in the home of the Smith family, my friends, the promoters. Anthony, David and Barry seemed very much at home with all of us other hippies or whatever the heck we all were. In addition to the young Smith daughters Natasha and Carla, my most elegant hippie friend Shelley Gaffe was also there. She is an incredible artist in her own right (a designer of jewelry). We were all such a group of very different personalities and ethnic backgrounds there. Smith and I were quite comedic together and we were also seriously attempting to play music with each other. I’m as white as a sheet of paper towel and, of Scottish/English heritage. My friend Bill Smith is a lily-white Englishman and a Jazz history expert/publisher/producer and artist. His ex-wife Chloe is a very strong, very dark black, woman artist who is to this day a relentless promoter of the music.
Bells on long, rattling chains sang out at you as you opened and walked through the front door of chez Smith in those days. The walls were covered in framed pictures of musicians and art. There were shelves with a couple of thousand new and rare epic Jazz LPs. There was a lot to talk about and conversations around the lunch or dinner table were always lively, to say the least. Smith, Stuart Broomer (piano) and I used to rehearse in the Smith living room on Wednesday evenings, with a six-pack of imported beer between us. The brand of beer kept changing from week to week and so did the sounds. The three of us had just begun to play concerts together. Stu and I went on to perform together for fourteen years straight, much of that time as a piano/drums duo.
Bill and Chloe (Onari) Smith promoted a lot of new music concerts in Toronto. Cloe made it possible to hear Roscoe Mitchell and Cecil Taylor concerts in Toronto back then. Anthony was avidly promoted by Bill. Bill, himself a reed player, was greatly influenced by Braxton and Mitchell. Since the famous local “Jazz” couple was such relentless promoters, there was always an audience that was quite into all of this. A lot of concerts in the city were presented at small places downtown like A Space and The Music Gallery, where I often played with Stuart Broomer. Some concerts, at The Burton Auditorium of York University (way up at the northernmost limit of the city proper) reached larger audiences. The Smith connection with Coda Magazine and Onari Records always gave Anthony a great venue in which to promote his new music. The way that those concerts were set up gave the music of people like Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Cecil Taylor a first footing in this major North American city, one that was outside of NYC. In Toronto you’d better be good, because audiences there have a bit of that attitude “we’ve seen it all.” It’s like New York City in that way. These guys were crazy good, so no worries there.
I photographed the 1974 trio concert. I had just gotten my first serious SLR camera for Christmas, shortly before the concert. Because I was a musician/artist myself, I knew better than to annoy fellow musicians with a flash at a serious concert like that. I didn’t even want to hear my own camera click too many times. I just took a very few pics using only available light, employing Kodak Recording film at 2000 ASA. I always compose my photographic art by framing it through the lens; no cropping afterwards. The winning shot was one of Barry. I was really glued to what he was doing and I was feeling the music spiritually while I was at the concert. The music and especially Barry’s playing was making me feel similar to the way Albert Ayler’s music always makes me feel, like my own special version of going to church. That was a hippie period and Barry was sort of a hippie. We all were. I had a big beard in those days, too. Check out the shirt Barry is wearing in the photograph I took at the Toronto concert in 1974. We all wore those Indian shirts like that with the flowery embroidery on them.
For the Braxton photo from his March 1975 duet concert with Dave Holland at A Space in Toronto, the gallery director, poet Vic d’Or, asked me to point the lighting for the stage area. This was because I am also a visual artist. I made it very harsh and all white light, and so, I was able to get away with using Kodak Tri-X at 400 ASA, again with no flash. As a result, Anthony is seen just slightly in motion, blowing very furious ‘sheets of sound.’ That photo somehow exhibits some of the off kilter aesthetics that I use in my oil paintings.
On that day and on subsequent occasions, Anthony would hold court in that back porch at the Smith’s. Dave Holland would be sitting there too. I was lucky enough to sit through some really lengthy before/after lunch and dinner conversations. These things went on all day, before and after the concerts.
I’d been into Anthony’s own records for a while by then, starting with his courageous For Alto. Bill Smith ran The Jazz And Blues Centre record and book store with John Norris (CODA Magazine founder/publisher). They got all these incredible import LPs into the hands of a music hungry boy (me), the young Martian, who had recently moved into Toronto from Brantford. The double LP set The Complete Braxton astonished me at that particular time. It reminds me of all the variety in The Beatles ‘Double White’ LP; it goes from “Bebop” with Barry and Dave, to “Five Tubas,” and onwards from there. It is truly a groundbreaking set. Anthony had already mastered so many different musics.
With Anthony, I knew I was in the presence of somebody who was going to be regarded as really important in the history of music, after all of us are long dead and gone (so to say). I remember, while listening to Anthony extrapolate on the work of some musical hero of his, appreciating that the talk was not all-technical musician-type talk and that Anthony was not all full of himself. Anthony was so astute whenever he spoke about any topic. I was quite young but I’d met a lot of famous people by then, and this man really impressed me with his whole demeanor. He was a genuine fan of so many musicians from so many disparate styles, and he just wanted you to know that some special person was ‘the most incredible _____ on the planet.’ It was the first time that I’d heard this ‘on the planet’ vibe. Anthony used that expression a lot. Although he could go on and on about something that he was excited about, he wasn’t a complete ‘microphone hog.’ He had a humble way of carrying himself and that, too, stuck with me. That, in itself was a lesson of sorts.
I was playing drums with my great friend, the pianist Stuart Broomer who did some prepared piano things. Anthony told me that if I was interested in unusual, percussive type piano playing, I should listen to Henry Cowell. As I was still a kid, I hadn’t discovered him yet as he was kind of obscure. I told Anthony that I was listening to Stravinsky, Schoenberg and, Bartok so, Anthony said that I must get into ‘Father’ Charles Ives, as he so affectionately called him. So, Anthony was very generous in that way, not just telling stories and holding court but, at about age 30, in those days already trying to be a great teacher, something that he is now certainly recognized as, working at Wesleyan, the same school that published all those wonderful John Cage books.
The direction Anthony was trying to move into with his own music was composed music. I picked up that Anthony definitely didn’t like to put music in pigeonholes. He didn’t want to call it “Classical”, just like he didn’t want to call his other, small group stuff with all the improvisation, “Jazz”. If you take one of his records where Anthony does some American songbook standards and, well-known things from the great Jazz composers, you might think of it as a fractured Jazz record when you are listening, but that’s not what is intended by him at all. Everything comes into it really, the whole history of American music is coming at you, a sometimes furious barrage of who knows what. There’s a little bit of ‘Father’ Charles Ives edginess in any of Anthony’s takes on a standard tunes from “The American Songbook” isn’t there? I love it.
I remember thinking to myself that I was surprised to find that many of Braxton’s heroes were white guys: ‘Father’ Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Paul Desmond for example, were all stressed to me on that first day and during Anthony’s other visits to Toronto. I learned quickly that this man was colorblind. Braxton told me what a fan he was of Paul Desmond… It was now safe to get that Joe Morello drum instruction book back out again without worrying that some of my young, peer group, white musician friends would testily say that the horned rimmed, very white Joe guy wasn’t black and, therefore a “square” or something. To Anthony, this very white, horn-rimmed guy Desmond was very hip and, had, like, the best tone on alto saxophone. I guess I sort of already thought that myself and, now I am hearing Anthony Braxton praise Paul Desmond. Cool. Anthony definitely was not a square: he was from the group “Circle” for freaks sake! He was also colour blind.
At the same time I was getting that this very articulate man was coming out of what was currently deemed to be the Jazz world but, that he also knew a lot about the history of all musics. When I mentioned what I was getting interested in the ‘classical’ music world, Anthony listened to my young thoughts regarding Stravinsky, Schoenberg and, Bartok. I remember Anthony puffing on his pipe and, saying to me “ now, you have to listen to ‘Father Charles Ives’ “. So, right away I went looking for some Ives music for myself and, the first one that I found was a discounted copy of that Roberto Szidon record of Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860 and, I listened to that over and, over again and, I still do. Anthony truly gave me a new inspiration there with the Ives connection and, I later got that big Columbia box set as a Xmas gift (bless my ex-wife) and, went further into the man Anthony called a ‘father’. I’m still listening to Ives avidly. A few years ago, Hilary Hahn did a record of sonatas with Valentina Lisitsa that was quite inspirational to me.
Speaking with Barry Altschul, a shared appreciation of drummers
At one point during the 1974 visit at the Smith’s house, I was in the living room with Natasha Smith, who was then five years of age. She wanted to play tiddlywinks with me and Barry joined us on the floor, in this game. While we were playing we had a whole conversation about the drums. So, I got to ask Barry questions about his influences. Pharoah Sanders came up in a conversation about the sound effects. When it came to my wondering about the flood of detail coming from that right hand of his, I asked Barry where do all these detailed ideas of his came from? We had the same favourite drummers, but, especially, it was Frankie Dunlop, who had played with Thelonious Monk. When I mentioned Frankie as a favourite of mine, Barry looked at me with a surprised “really?!” type vibe. Barry and I talked about the melodic solos of Monk’s other drummers like Ben Riley and, we talked for a while about Shadow Wilson, but, mostly we talked about Frankie, who we determined was our absolute, mutual favourite amongst all of Monk’s drummers. I didn’t gush to Barry about himself that day, but I should now say that no one influenced me as a drummer more than Barry Altschul, who to me is quite simply the greatest ever.
Circle was a cohesive group very much trying to work together. There was a real unified feel. The same was true of The Cecil Taylor Unit, with Jimmy Lyons and, Andrew Cyrille, To a lot of people Cecil and his group were all over the map and,completely overwhelming ~ Some people thought that they were all about only energy and, anarchy, but , it truly was a unified thrust that was coming over to me, with that line-up of Cecil’s group. That Unit was full of astonishing energy and, a weird sense of theatre that apparently blew audiences in Japan away during that particular time. The music would go way up into the stratosphere and then come crashing back down to earth and, end up sounding all delicate, all of a sudden. Those dynamic thrusts that the Unit had going on must have influenced the guys in Circle. I think of Circle as like a round table with the four of them all around it. You put each guy at his place around the circumference of this table…all facing each other, having a conference of the birds, I guess. Decisions were made in a conference, in a hair trigger of a second with that group and with Cecil’s group. When you play like that, there’s a little wire hooked up between your heads and, the Cecil Taylor Unit and, Circle had that little live wire well connected.
With Circle, David Holland is bringing that freedom he learned with Miles’ electric group. where you can just start at any place on the page. I always heard some great loping/looping Scott LaFaro thing in Dave’s playing at that time. It is certainly a different way of walking the bass.
In Circle what Braxton does is bring Chick Corea into the right place. To me, some of the A.R.C. LP with Dave and, Barry from around the same time as Circle is excellent, but some of Chick’s playing is like somebody just doing an impression of an avant-garde piano player. Some of the piano playing is top drawer but some of it just sounds like noodling to me. When Braxton comes into the picture and, sits at that very round table, he gives things a different focus that seems to come from classical music. In Circle, Chick became very involved with Anthony’s genius. With his solo For Alto LP, Anthony, in my opinion, had made a very brave statement at a very young age. He had really defined who he was. Anthony kind of reigned in Chick Corea in that Circle band and made him respond to his signals. The other guys in Circle did that too and, so, Chick’s playing with these guys to me is more interesting than it was when he was with Miles. Dave Holland got the freedom from playing with Miles and so he knew how to respond to each twist and turn, and by the time of Circle and, Conference Of The Birds, he had become a great composer.
When I was in their presence, when David and Anthony spoke about Chick Corea , they did so in as nice a way as they could. Although they joked about him a little, calling him “Chickie” Baby and, although they obviously thought that the Scientology thing was flaky, they were not mean at all when they talked about him. It did seem like they thought that he thought that Circle was his band and, he was the star in his own mind, while they viewed it as a collective and, I am sure that that bugged them. Barry didn’t say a word about any of this.
In the 80s I was fortunate enough to have one of my paintings grace a Barry Altschul album cover, Brahma. Bill Smith hooked that up. What a treat for me. It made me feel like the world’s number one Barry Altschul fan! Brahma has similar energy to that 1970s record called The Trio with John Surman, Barre Philips, and Stu Martin. You don’t have a piano player on either of those records, just this gutbucket shit coming down at you, with one horn, bass, and fantastic drumming. Any record under Barry’s leadership since then or any record with him on it, I want to hear! Putting together two recordings on which Stu Martin plays drums, The Trio and Where Fortune Smiles (with John Surman, John McLaughlin, Karl Berger and Dave Holland), I think that Barry and Stu must have listened to each other.
Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland return to Toronto, 1975; talking with Holland about Miles Davis
It was March 1975 when Braxton and Holland played [in Toronto as a duo]. At another gathering at the Smith home, I asked Dave about the Miles band. Dave said he was discovered by Miles at Ronnie Scott’s club in London and, was called to work/record with no audition or rehearsal. All that Miles would do is just whisper something like “play C” or some such root note idea and, those were the total instructions. Miles just ambled up onto the stage and started blowing and, everyone was supposed to just file in behind him and, learn the heads of the tunes/follow his improvisations as all this flew at you. I guess that Dave and all of them must have felt like it was a baptism by fire. With absolutely no rehearsal, how are these pieces going to come together? If you watch Miles in the movie from the Isle of Wight festival, a half million or so people are out there. He just walks up there with that ultra cool persona that only Miles can pull off and he starts blowing and, everyone just files in. He hired guys like Dave, Tony Williams, McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Jack deJohnette and Chick and, I guess he just knew how good they all were so he was not worried about how things were going to go? Apparently Miles just gave some minimal root note suggestion, if that, and that’s all you got. And, he let YOU contribute your own directions into the fiery brew he was concocting. It sounded to me like Miles was not just throwing curve balls at his band. He was throwing a lot of knuckleballs and spitballs, too. Miles had this attitude of personal freedom and, a complete respect for each player that he invited to be in his group and I am sure Dave took that vibe into the concept that was Circle.
At first, I only liked bits of Miles’ new electric period schtuff. In A Silent Way came out in 1969 or something and, I liked it OK. Now, I think that it’s the perfect record to drive around to, in a big city at night. Bitches Brew took me a few years to get into. For some reason Live/Evil and Jack Johnson were the ones that first captured my imagination. Now, I love ALL of that Miles electric schtuff! I’ve probably got all of it and, listen to it in my painting studio for inspiration.
Most of that 1975 Toronto duo concert that Braxton did with Dave Holland at A Space was mainly Anthony’s music. This was a mind-blowing concert. With Anthony playing seemingly every reed instrument known to man and, I was amazed. To date, Anthony maybe hadn’t had as much of a chance to put over his own music in concerts or on recordings like Dave had because he didn’t have that name connection like Dave did with a big famous figure like Miles Davis. Interestingly, Dave had gone from playing for 500,000 with Miles at the Isle Of Wight to playing for probably fifty or so people with Anthony at A Space.
VISIT MARS at johnmars.com
(1) Beaver later got to play with Monk in 1970 and, my dad took me to the local famous club, The Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto to see this grouping. It was my birthday. As I was a very much underage person, dad and I had to sit in the balcony. Although I had no idea that he was going to be the bass player that night, much to my surprise, I met Wilbur Ware during the day in the Jazz department at Sam The Record Man, just up the block from The Colonial. My dad had given me some dough for my birthday to spend at Sam’s and, I wanted a couple of Thelonious Monk albums. So this little skinny Beatle looking kid (me) is going through the bins in the Jazz department of Sam’s in the afternoon and, Wilbur Ware walks in! He asks John Norris (then a clerk there) if Sam’s has a copy of the Riverside LP that he did with Johnny Griffin called, “The Chicago Sound”. The record of his own that he needed a copy of was out of print then. Next, Wilbur sees me looking in the Monk bin and, he immediately comes over and, strikes up a conversation with the kid (me), saying “Young fella like you knows all about Monk ?!”. He was full of excitement! When Wilbur found out that my dad was going to take me to the gig that night he said “When you get to the club, ask for me”. I mentioned his name to our waiter and, Wilbur came up to our table that night and, after shaking my hand again and, my dad’s hand, he took one of my Monk LPs into the dressing room for me ~ I didn’t meet Monk, but, Wilbur got me a signature, something that I of course treasure to this day! “Good luck John always, Thelonious Monk”.