About two weeks ago, I interviewed trumpeter and composer Arthur Brooks for a profile that ran in today’s issue of Seven Days. Brooks studied music at Antioch College in the late 1960s and later worked with two pioneers of what was called the New Music, or free jazz, movement: pianist Cecil Taylor and trumpeter Bill Dixon. It was Dixon who brought Brooks to Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for nearly 25 years before retiring in 1997.
Our conversation spread out over decades - from the October Revolution in late-’60s New York to Dixon’s death earlier this year.
As these things often go, I couldn’t include everything in my profile of Brooks. Luckily, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can include a few of my favorite excerpts below. Enjoy.
On music as an art form:
“There are basic questions that I feel have to be addressed if you’re trying to do music as an art - as an art form. And that is basically, what is music? Where does it come from? And that’s personal. For me, that’s a personal pursuit. There are spiritual and philosophical aspects of it, and that to me is what the finest music manifests - those deeper areas. It doesn’t matter what form. It can be classical, it can be country, it can be folk. If the person doing it has a certain amount of integrity and you can hear that soul element, that’s what does it for me. I’ll listen to heavy metal if those people are tapping onto that basic core….”
Explaining why he describes his music as “country” music:
“Go down to the lake. Look at the water. And listen to it. Listen to what you see. God, up here in Vermont you’ve got these mountains that have their own shapes and rhythms, and along with the rest of everything else going on…. One of the exercises I used to give my students was for five minutes a day, no matter where you are, stop, focus all of your attention here [points to ears] in what you hear, and let it extend your hearing as far as you can. And let it absorb it, be aware of it. Go to the woods, go to the lake. “
On his mentor Bill Dixon’s involvement in the October Revolution, a protest of clubs by free jazz or “New Musicians”:
“Bill was also the architect of what was called The October Revolution…. Its design was to boycott all the clubs and festivals to get a better deal for the New Musicians. [John Coltrane] was a part of it, Cecil [Taylor] was a part of it…. Again, the model had already been set by the post-Modernist painters in New York. When they - Rothko, Kenneth Noland, [Robert] Rauschenberg - couldn’t get their work into regular galleries. They said, “Okay, we’ll pull our stuff out and we’ll make our own galleries.” And they kicked ass. [Laughs] They made it happen. Of course, they had some very wealthy patrons, too. We never really got that.
On playing with Cecil Taylor:
“I was kind of intimidated with playing with Cecil’s Unit, because the music is so high, so technically demanding in a certain kind of way, at least the rehearsals were, but when we got on the gig, it was [makes a “takeoff” sound and motion with his hand] pew! Cecil’s sets last for an hour, two hours, and I said, “I don’t know if I have the chops for this.” And it would be this whole universe of sound open up, and you’d be there watching yourself play and the horn is playing itself, and Cecil’s just in front of you, behind you, on your side, above you [makes more sound effects, like Cecil is zipping around him while he’s playing], just urging you on…. And we’d finish and you’d think, wow, you’ve been playing maybe 10, 15 minutes - maybe 30 - [but it was] two hours. And you finish and you can’t say anything because you’re so high. It’s amazing. And every single time I’ve played with Cecil, it’s been that way. … And that’s what I aim for. That’s what I want, is to reach that state where the music is just revealing itself. To me, at its best, that’s what you do: You become the instrument. You put yourself in position where you become the instrument.”
On where he believes the music comes from:
“I probably come from a Sufi concept of what sound is: That sound is one of the elements of the soul, that it’s the connection between heartbeat and the soul; that music is a very other-dimensional manifestation of being. I think that’s why it moves us so much, because it transcends us. If one can believe that - even if one doesn’t believe that the heart is propelled by something other than massive chemical reactions - that the heart is connected to this stream of energy that exists, that stream of energy, to me, is music. That’s why I love nature so much, because that’s a more authentic stream of energy, a less man-made stream of energy.”