FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 113

Joseph Chonto


A conversation with Charles Gayle

The letter from FMP requested a "feature type of article" for the liner notes; hence this "conversation", which we had in Charles' apartment, located in Manhattan's east village "alphabet city", just around the corner from where Charlie Parker lived. Gayle's apartment was sparsely furnished: one table and chair, a small bed doubling as a couch, a television, a radio/cassette player and a chest of drawers. The only reading material evident was the Daily News, opened to the sports section, and a Bible that lay on the dresser.

JC: In 1992 the Touchin' On Trane CD was released. At the time it was your first recording to be released in 4 years. How have things changed since then?

CG: Well, things have changed. I've got a place to live - that's nice - warm, anyway. And I've been doing a little teaching and playing ... but on a musical level, I'm getting more gigs... a few more gigs. I'm working a little more... not considerably more than before... not a whole lot.

JC: You've certainly had a lot more recordings released. Do you think people are coming around to understand and appreciate your music more?

CG: Well I hope so and I think so. I think so. Because most of the venues that have pure improvisation music, so to speak ... I've been able to work them. So in truth, those doors have opened up. My saying about my not working enough, well, we can go into that forever. But I do work, so I'm appreciative of that.

JC: When you were in Germany, in '92 doing the duo tour with Sirone, you once told me a little about how your father was such a big influence on what you do.

CG: Well, I generally don't talk too much about my family for some strange reason. But my father ... I mean, my mother too, of course ... but my father was the biggest influence on my life. Just the fact that he was ... clear, you know! (laughs') He had his priorities and that was it. He's gone now, but he still lives in my heart, of course. He was a hard working man all of his life ... a labourer, so to speak. He loved the Lord, he loved Christ, it wasn't like a big exhibition or anything like that, but you knew where he was. He was a nice man to get along with.

JC: When you first began showing an interest in music, how supportive was your family?

CG: Well they insisted I start playing piano when I was eight years old and I took about three years of lessons. That was something you had to do, so I didn't have much of a choice about that. But they were supportive all the time. So it got started there and then I started going into clubs, mostly as a piano player, playing bop, boogie-woogie, blues ... I played that for years. Bird, Monk, Lester Young, Louis, all of them - all that was a part of my life. I knew the charts, knew the tunes they were making from the 40's on.

JC: How old were you when you started playing in the clubs (in Buffalo, New York)?

CG: It wasn't really cool for me to play as a teenager, but when I was 16 or 17 I'd go in anyway to listen to the music. I guess I was 19 or 20 when I started playing clubs.

JC: Duke Ellington's hundredth birthday was celebrated this year. Did that have any special meaning for you?

CG: No, not really. Duke Ellington has a special meaning to me.
He was such a prolific writer and the way he wrote certainly influenced everybody, whether anybody wants to recognize it or not. He just transformed the way people wrote in bands - the harmony, and the beauty, all that beauty. And I'd seen his band play and they had everything - even in terms of being modern, I've never heard a band sound as modern as Duke Ellington's, and I mean Mingus or Sun Ra or whoever. Ellington's music sounds as if it could have been recorded today or even tomorrow. Great isn't even a good enough word - just a wonderful beautiful musician and as a human being - just a beautiful heart and he is certainly in my heart in terms of what he put out here. I don't know how much of what I do is from him, but it's there - some of it sunk in whether you wanted it to or not.

JC: Do you listen to other contemporary musicians?

CG: No, not really. I know there some wonderful, great musicians out there now, but I don't know any of the younger ones or their music and it's nothing against them or that older is better or nothing like that. It's just that I dropped off the listening scene a long time ago. I gave away all my books and records years ago just to free up on that and stop being so completely addicted to all this music and everything. The influences were heavy and you be absorbing stuff a lot and I'm trying to get my own voice ... I could probably do some listening now and feel more comfortable now, but I don't. I probably wouldn't listen to avant-garde music. I love it and try to play it, but I like that music that's cookin' a lot, that finger-snapping thing - I really love that, I love it, I love it - as a matter of fact I'm starting to play a little more like that on my records - not to play like those tunes all over again, but I try to get it to be happenin'! (laughs')

JC: But your music has always been happening.

CG: Yeah, yeah, but a lot of people play that avant-garde music they call it ... well, of course everybody has to play it the way they feel it - I just like to play that [ finger-snappin' thing ] too sometimes, just for my personal, you know.

JC: If you had unlimited financial resources, what musical projects would you undertake?

CG: I don't know who the musicians would be, but there are two things I'd do: the first thing I would do is put out some music that I feel really good about in terms of the church with my little slant on it and get some harmony going like with the singers.

JC: You mean like a chorus of voices?

CG: No, I would want to put it in a small group with a trumpet and a trombone, maybe, and bass, drums - keep it in a quintet or something like that. But it would take a little time to do that and then to carry a group around like that, I can't afford to do that. But it would be good, very oriented, with a very good foundation - heavy, too - nice, cookin' in the real small gospel thing. The other thing would be I would get a trumpet player that could really play that cookin' post-bop type of playing, so some tunes could be tight, but it would free up, and I'd have a cookin' bass player and drummer - I would want it to step past what Miles was doing with Wayne and Herbie. People that really had control of their horn, that could dig in and out and take it out as far as they wanted and still have that jazz-feeling to it. I would want to do that. And then I would be happy.

JC: Those sound like some fantastic ideas - I hope somehow they can happen.

CG: Yes, and it would have to be happenin'. Not just maybe makeshift or assumed…

JC: A lot of rehearsals, some touring ...

CG:…until it gets rid of all that stiffness and it's just relaxed and you can do it. And it's really swinging, cookin' - I want it -

JC: Burnin'..!

CG: But it's hard to find, for me in New York, the trumpet players that can play like that unless you're talkin' about somebody like Wynton or who's that guy that was Miles' protégé?

JC: Wallace Roney?

CG: Or somebody like that, but someone that has that fingering, that they can do what they want, I want somebody with those kind of chops and fingering. With that kind of control. There is something else - my character Streets [the pantomime character Charles Gayle portrays in performances] is doing pretty good, I can't forget him. That's the other major project I would do. I want to have him as a permanent part of my thing, hopefully. And that it works good, that it makes sense and that I could work in the theatres ... I want to write a play. He's important to me. So I would even prefer, in a way, not to just stand up and play all the time, but have that whole thing happening in a way that I can express some other things - in the right setting, of course. But that's when I'm really most comfortable.

JC: Really?

CG: Yes. That's really me. To play music is fine, but there's some other stuff that, if I'm standing on the stage playing just straight, I feel I should be doing. And I've watched bands so long and for such a long time I've wanted to do something else, and he came out.

JC: How did Streets emerge?

CG: He came about because I was getting bored with just playing. Maybe not bored, but I just had something else in me to do. And when I was growing up I'd watch - in the films and circuses and clubs - clowns - and I'm not trying to be a clown per se - but the sad ones and the happy ones - that stuck in my mind somehow, that when these characters look sad, they look sadder than life somehow. Having grown up with this, I felt it was time to do something with this. And then of course, playing in the streets made it a little different, made it a little informal rather than just playing on stage. And I played so many years on the streets that playing in clubs - on the streets you'll be hanging out talking, laughing, doing things, you see sad situations in front of you while you're playing and stuff and I try to put that all together. It's a combination of my youth, which I haven't lost, some of it, of course, and expressing things with theatre and trying to bring a combination of arts together. And taking a chance doing that, because some people said don't do it. All of it is just for me to express what's in my heart about things. It's just something I need to do, to function here. It is part of my art, part of me. I know people they want you to play and be serious, look serious, keep a frown on your face or even laugh a couple of times and I have nothing against that because it's a wonderful thing what all these musicians are doing, but I'm just not that way. But he's very close to me. Hopefully a very loving person, about issues, important things that make you cry, make him cry, and still be up on the music.

JC: Earlier you mentioned how at one point you decided to give away all your books and records and things - what prompted that?

CG: I think that at that time somehow I got to the point of - you know how people talk of "I'm not happy", or "I'm not this", or "I'm looking for this", - I got to the point where I said, "Okay, hold on". I'm not trying to be a super heavy dude in the head or nothing, it's just okay, I'm listening to music and music is a wonderful thing, I've heard a lot of good people, seen a lot of people in person, and I'm holding on to these records and I don't know if I want to do this anymore because right now I know I'm addicted to these records and this music and all these books and all ... and that's not really what I'm after. Those are fine things, but they come and go, so, it just got to the point that I felt I had to give that stuff up. I can still go out again and buy most of them. But they became my security - and life is like that - but I said no, that's enough of that, so I opened the house one day and told everybody to come get the stuff. And they did. And I decided at that point if I'm going to be a musician. I'll just pick it up as I go. I'm not going to go looking for it. Political science, math, spiritual books - I was into all that, and I just knew it was time to cool that out. I was young, but I wasn't getting no peace - I was a basically peaceful person, I was aggressive too, but what I was looking for wasn't in these books. I don't think God was in my heart or in my soul as much - it was there, but I was young, and I'm not going to make any excuses about I was young, but I was paying attention to a lot of different things - but I had used the stuff up. It was just a period where it was time for me to change. And I did.

JC: You seem very centered.

CG: Well I'm at peace with what I think life is about. Hopefully I'm right about that! (laughs') Life, death, the hereafter - I feel right about all that. I'm eating and my family's eating ... not everybody in the world is eating and that's a problem ... I don't know what's next except to go from thing to thing and I think I've checked it just about all out! (laughs') I think I probably checked a lot out to early too and that probably got me into maybe I need to change up, because I was running pretty fast when I was young! I mean, I have problems in life like anybody else, but I try not to make them too big. I feel very centered, without chasing after it or making a big deal out of it. And I've done some things that I wish I hadn't done in my life, because they hurt people - and it hurts me too. Other than that - it's all right ... And I've been able to play. And I wanted to be a jazz musician since I was a kid. Jazz - I love it, I always wanted to be a jazz musician, I am a jazz musician and I dedicate my work to God. And in that way, to have realized some of the ambitions you've had since you were a child, plus your family and other things - how much better can it get than that?

JC: Charles, in my mind's ear I think I hear Jost telling us we're running out of space. Anything else you'd like to add?

CG: Not really. I whish everybody could eat! (laughs') I mean, I wish the world was different, but I can't do much about that.

JC: Your music certainly makes it a more beautiful place to be.

CG: Well, I hope so.

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