Ran Blake

September 1, 2015

JAZZed_AUGSEPT2015_Bluelines-DONE-25Ran Blake is an acclaimed educator, pianist, recording artist, and composer – that much can generally be agreed upon. Finding a ready-made “box” for exactly what (and how) he teaches, writes, and performs is somewhat more challenging. Blake’s singular musical style draws from jazz, sure, but owes as much to gospel, classical, blues, and film noir influences as it does to, say, be-bop. “I have too much respect for jazz to call myself a jazz musician,” he says in this very interview before you.

And yet, Ran Blake has studied and taught jazz for much of his life: he was one of the first ever to graduate Bard College with a Bachelor of Arts in Jazz; he studied at the School of Jazz with John Lewis, Oscar Peterson, and – most significantly for Blake’s development and professional career – Gunther Schuller; and Blake has been a faculty member at the New England Conservatory since 1967, serving as chair of the Third Stream Department from 1973 until 2005.

“Third Stream” and “the primacy of the ear” (read on if you’re unfamiliar; The man is far more reliable a source for explanation than I) are two terms perhaps most associated with Blake, describing the man’s distinct sub-genre of music (somewhat. perhaps) and his approach to teaching, respectively.

On the eve of Ran Blake’s 80th birthday (not literally – he celebrates that milestone on November 13th at NEC’s Jordan Hall), JAZZed had the chance to sit down and learn from one of the most singularly pioneering minds in contemporary music.

Can you discuss your early exposure to music and music education? Were there any artists or educators who had a significant impact on you at a young age?
Ran Blake: As a child my earliest teachers were Janet Wallace and Lloyd Stoneman, but perhaps my real education came in the form of ghost stories from Ireland and spirituals from a nearby church. I would get up in the middle of the night after dreaming and very quietly caress the piano that our family had in a heated veranda.

With Janet I studied easy Chopin, scales, arpeggiations, and sight-reading. I didn’t care for the latter very much. Lloyd Stoneman maybe didn’t have Janet’s energy, but I think he was a deeper musician in other ways. Once a month I would perform a piano concert and he would write a review. These would include improvisations. How I wish I had kept these reviews to read 70 years later! Marjorie Goodhines was the supervisor of music education for Classical High School, 1947-1949. She had heard me fail in group settings and knew I would never win sight-reading awards or be the flexible pianist she wanted, but she felt that I had a type of genius and wanted me to play for a lot of Western Massachusetts’ educators. Mrs. Goodhines became ill and this never happened. She was a powerful influence and supporter of my performance style.

A name strongly associated with your teenage musical education is Ray Cassarino…
He lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut and I had a slow Ford Squirer at the time and could drive there. I must have started with him in ’53. When I went to school in ’56-’57 I would see him during summer vacations. He had a very specific jazz course. A few of the elements I got his permission to teach again and I taught these by ear. He was full of encouragement, but he could be very tough. I owe him for a lot for grounding me in so-called “jazz theory.”

Talk a little about your exposure to film noir and how it impacted your approach to music.
I remember seeing Murder, My Sweet with my grandparents, which I feel now is lousy. In 1946, I saw Spiral Staircase and flipped. I had a penny and nickel bank and would try to take all my coins out to see this again and again.

I thought Dorothy McGuire’s performance as a mute assistant to the nurse was fabulous, and Ethyl Barrymore resembled my grandmother with her dark brown eyes. Her descriptions about seeing somebody in a well, her other poetic lines – “You’re not safe” – are terrific.

I wrote sketches to each character, played them in the piano, and I wrote letters to the whole cast. The only one that wrote me back was Carlton [the dog] and I got a paw print autograph. I think what appealed to me was though there were supernatural trimmings it was all based on reality.

Can you talk about your decision to attend Bard, your experiences there, and what it was like to be one of the first to graduate with a B.A. in Jazz?
My aunt, Frances Powers, had gone to Wellesley and was on the alum staff of Smith College in Northampton; she thought Bard would be an ideal match for me. I loved the faculty, particularly Mrs. Kate Wolff and Mr. Clair Leonard. I met a very important mentor there, Buz Gummere.

I loved taking the Bill Humphrey literature classes and studying organ and composition with Mr. Leonard. Kate Wolff from the Berlin Philharmonic was my private teacher. She worked a lot on my touch and gave me lemon Coca Cola when I got tired with the sight-reading. She was very, very patient.

What about jazz appealed to you at that age?
At that age I loved the Stan Kenton “Innovation orchestra,” Chris Connor, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus. I certainly loved the rhythmical vitality of jazz, the dissonance, the expression of revolt, and the whole atmosphere surrounding the music. I also occasionally indulged in the West Coast jazz style, but with the exception of Chet Baker and Russ Freeman, I grew out of this almost immediately.

With respect to your studies with Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, and Oscar Peterson, what were the most effective – for you – elements of their approaches to teaching?
I would say that work with John Lewis was perhaps the least effective. I think he wanted me to be very exact and painfully communicative, particularly with other musicians. Some 50 years later, I feel that some of his discipline was right on target, but he did often lack follow-through with some promises.

He was very effective in teaching me how to organize a blues solo. He would suggest that I think four choruses ahead and really plan out what I would do during the third and fourth chorus.
Oscar Peterson encouraged me to use the extremes of the piano. He could on occasion be rather tough, but what I remember was his endorsement of my style and his enthusiasm. I told him, “I wish I could play like you” and he replied, “There are some things you do, which I wish I could play like you.” Please note that I may have exaggerated this a little bit. I expected Stan Kenton and John Lewis to really admire my piano playing, but they really didn’t. Kenton said, “You’re trying to say something, young man, but you ain’t.”

A very important teacher was Mal Waldron, with whom I studied for a year, who wrote “Left Alone” and “Straight Ahead.” I met Mal in the autumn of 1960 at the Jazz Gallery in New York.

The greatest teacher I had was Gunther Schuller. I met him when I was sweeping the floor at Atlantic Records, which was how I spent my junior year field period while attending Bard College. We spoke a few times and Tom Dowd said, “Gunther, I hope you hear Ran play” and Neshui Erdigung, who produced Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and was vice president of Atlantic Records at the time said, “You can hear him, but not on work time.”

I have a few words to say about Bill Russo, whom I met in 1957 in Lenox, Massachusetts at the Lenox School of Jazz, which was run by Philip and Stephanie Barber, where I worked for three summers. I had loved Bill’s work for many years. He wrote incredible arrangements of standards for the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

At first I was disappointed in Bill’s lessons because I wanted him to coach me on his incredible harmonic ideas, but I went through 150 skillful arranging lessons and later got his permission to pick 20 of the lessons using his thoughts, but teaching it by ear to students. We also spent a lot of time doing Mozart piano duets over and over again. Later I realized this was extremely helpful, but at times it could be painful, because reading the musical page was not like reading Agatha Christie or Ralph Ellison.

While at Bard you met Jeanne Lee and the two of you went on to perform and record together for many years. What was the mutual compatibility and musical attraction between you both?
It is very hard to diagnose the musical compatibility between Jeanne and myself. I think she walked into Bard Hall, which in 1956 had the best piano on campus, and said, “You sound like Art Tatum.” I replied, “I think you’re mistaken.” We talked for a while, and she told me she was a psychology major. We met a few days later and one of our first songs was “Jeepers Creepers,” a ditty we soon dropped.

I found that she had an intuitive, remarkable ear, and she was only slightly phased when I modulated, which I tend to do naturally, getting bored if I stay in one key for too long. At this junction in my life, I had never met a musician that was so instinctive and with whom I could be so free.

One of the big tragedies of my life was losing the friendship and voice of Jeanne Lee in 2001. Even though we lived in different cities, we were thinking of growing old together a few blocks away from each other.

Can you talk about your experiences with Mary Lou Williams? How did the two of you meet, what role did she play in your development, and so on?
I heard Mary Lou Williams in the mid ‘50s at a small piano club called The Composer. I would often congratulate Mary Lou and I think I once shook her hand.
A couple of years later while still at Bard College at the Bel Canto Foundation, I asked if I could have a lesson with her and she agreed.

Mary Lou could be a tough teacher. The first part of the lesson concerned prayer with Rosary beads. We would pray for 30 or 40 minutes, and only then would I play some blues for her.
She would practically seize my left wrist and say, “Stay on time.” She told me to take a little break while she went out of the room and returned with a plate of fried chicken for both of us. This very early supper was followed by a little more work on the blues and an extremely short prayer.

I must say that Mary Lou and Mal Waldron never watched the clock. I really wish that I could give students the time that both of them gave me.

You arrived at NEC in the late ‘60s. Can you talk about your initial role at the school and how it’s evolved?
Initially, I worked from 9-5pm in the mailroom. On occasion, I ran the elevator near Brown Hall, above a gigantic room called “The Cave.” I did not win awards with the elevator.
The best part of the job was being given a key to the building and Gunther’s office, where I could play the piano from midnight to the early morning. I was a workaholic and took that time to master things that I should have already mastered. I also took a lesson once a month with Gunther.

In 1968, NEC established the first community outreach program that I’m aware of in any conservatory in the nation. I would go to the low-income neighborhoods near the conservatory to try to be a missionary and get people to study at the conservatory either for free or for very low cost. If you can imagine, people were permitted to enroll at the conservatory for $25 a semester.

I guess you could say my time at NEC has changed dramatically over time, from delivering mail to being elected chair of the first Third Stream department.

What are your thoughts on “third stream” as a descriptor? Do you feel the bulk of your music could be considered to fall under that category?
I have many thoughts on Third Stream, some of which are borrowed, others my own. Gunther Schuller coined the term in 1961, explaining it as “a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music.” You have to understand that this was a controversial thing to say at the time. A large percentage of “high culture” classical patrons did not want “low culture” musicians infiltrating their empire with this new thing called “jazz.” There were dozens of reasons why, but racism and ignorance were at the top of that list. In many ways, we have Gunther to thank for being the ambassador to help bring these two worlds together and gain acceptance in both communities.

Now, you could say – and I’m sure Gunther would agree – that Third Stream is the combination of any two musical genres or arts, or even three, four, or more. In many ways there are infinite streams in that sense as long as there is thoughtful preparation, a strong work ethic, and meaning behind what you are trying to accomplish.

Academically, I have broadened the definition by letting students decide what influences determine their musical style. I want them to bring their own personalities, interests, and backgrounds to their music to truly make it their own – i.e. tango and Charles Ives, Sam Cooke and Alexander Scriabin, Ray Charles and classical Chinese guzheng, et cetera.
As for my performance style, it is up to you and other listeners to define if my music is Third Stream or not. I have too much respect for jazz to call myself a jazz musician, but I think today’s generation might say I’m jazz because of my roots and repertoire. I consider myself a Noir musician.

Can you discuss “the primacy of the ear?” What are the main concepts behind that teaching philosophy?
Many music books are designed to help better understand written music, but Primacy of the Ear focuses on the development of the ear, rather than the eye. There are exercises for instrumental practice, but most of the technical and practical exercises in the book are concentrated on how to take an aural language and apply it to your own music. Putting the ear, rather than the eye or fingers, at the center of your musical learning is the key to forming a truly personal style.

One’s single most crucial ally in the exploration of music is the ear. When you listen, the ear reacts before the brain has time to process; it is an honest broker. When you play, the ear pulls you to a sound faster and more confidently than your brain. It is the part of you most in clutches of the muse. More than any other learning tool, the ear offers a straight line to your musical DNA and allows you to access and communicate your most honest, most original music.

Your new album, Ghost Tones, is devoted to the great pioneering theorist and composter George Russell. Tell me about your relationship with him and its impact on you.
For many years I have followed the music of George Russell. His music is very nuanced rhythmically, with cross-rhythms and metric modulations. For example, instead of a triad he might use a major second on the bottom or as the two top notes.

George Russell is a very important guy in my life, and his music is one of my top dozen influences. I remember when John Lewis introduced him on a late July night in 1957 at Wheatleigh, which was part of the Lenox School of Jazz. By then I had heard his first RCA Victor Workshop record, and flipped when he came to the lobby. He became a devoted friend and mentor for almost fifty years. His widow, Alice, is still a very important friend.

Can you talk some about working with your students at NEC? You’ve recorded with several.
When students request to study with me I like to have some information about them, their interests – musical and non-musical – and what their goals are short-term and long term. What are they listening to? What do they have in their repertoire that could be requested without having to reference a lead sheet, and performed both on their primary instrument melodically and on the piano or guitar harmonically? How do they want to spend lesson time? How do they spend practice time? Do they log their practice time (if so, I request the log)? What do they feel they have a grip on or not? Are they familiar with my book, teaching methods, and music before taking me as a teacher? What are their career goals? Are they a solo performer, group performer, or composer? Would they like to be a 300 day a year gigging musician, an educator, a band leader, an ethnomusicologist, a music therapist, et cetera, or a combination?

You’re right; I have recorded with many students. In fact, most of my non-solo albums were recorded with NEC alums. And, of course, even if they weren’t studio students of mine, a lot of talented musicians were at NEC and may have taken a course or two with me – students with whom I then formed a friendship or professional relationship.

What are your preferred methods of teaching – one on one, master classes, traditional classroom format?
I prefer one to one, but I enjoy teaching in many formats. It’s fascinating to hear what talented musicians will come up with when you offer them a challenge worthy of their skills.

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching? The most frustrating?
The most frustrating thing about teaching is not being able to inspire a student or a class. The most rewarding is having NEC alum come up ten years after they’ve studied and very sincerely saying, “Why didn’t I spend more time with you when I had the chance? I’m listening to Driftwoods and it’s fantastic!”

Any advice you’d like to share with your fellow jazz educators?
First of all, comes my ego: get a hold of Primacy of the Ear. Get to know Gunther’s volumes, Charles Ives’ bio.

Learn simple classical pieces by ear, particularly for rhythmic things, and distribute the written music in the lesson afterwards. Teachers through junior high, high school, and college should really develop a flexible repertoire where students learn pieces with the ear, primarily. There might be a couple of exceptions where written music can be offered when there is a harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic problem that the ear cannot pick up.

Spend class and lesson time listening to musical literature. Encourage individual style and expression. Allow a little conceptual experimentation, but don’t indulge the student. Give some unoriginal ear work, but then try to engage in the student’s personality when seen privately.

Lastly, what’s your take on the state of jazz music and the culture of jazz in the present day?
I certainly don’t claim to know everything about the state of jazz today, although it seems to me that many young musicians take pride in virtuosity and electronics. Listeners are excited by lightning-fast playing and avant-garde ways to manipulate soundscapes, but I think they are missing out if that’s all they care about.

If anything, musicians have too many gigs and don’t put in enough listening time. They mostly want to hear themselves, regardless of how it sounds. This is the biggest problem with the state of jazz today. People are far too concerned with reading fake books and learning licks that don’t contain their own personality or originality. Many don’t truly hear themselves, their friends, or the past to know what the future should sound like.

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