Category Archives: Greg Osby

Quiet Fire


I played a week at Birdland with Jim Hall recently and on some nights, as a result of Jim’s direction, a large part of our sets was played very softly – almost to a whisper. It was an effective choice for many reasons. Not only did the audience find it to be captivating and were naturally drawn in by the dramatically reduced volume in order to hear every minute and subtle nuance, but as a musician, I found myself confronted with an entirely new set of challenges, given the volume impositions. Some of my most treasured and reliable ideas and approaches were simply not effective when played at hush tones and I had to adjust and compensate on the spot, in the moment. In short, it wasn’t as simple as I would have thought, even at this point in my career and development. 

Interestingly enough, I used to have tremendous issues with saxophonists in particular and all musicians in general that played with what some of us called a “no-balls” approach, which was our description of anyone without a huge (loud) sound. Many a player’s effectiveness was (erroneously) determined by the sheer brawniness or bravura in their sound, and we were misled into believing that volume and power were the ultimate definitions of “a big sound”.  I’ve since realized just how much content during a jazz set is fatalistically obscured by the sheer lack of dynamics. And as a player, it has become tiresome for me to continue to try to put my best musical foot forward within a perpetual wall of relentless sound. I have lost interest in musicians who are obsessed with the utilization of loudness as a beaconing of strength or as a measure of superiority – I’ll leave that to musicians whose egos require constant reinforcement, gained when drowning out other members of their ensembles or when creating such a dynamic imbalance that all but guarantees that all ears are on them at all times – by default.

I feel that it is imperative that we should consider a broader range of dynamics in our music (now more than ever before) as a measure that will more accurately represent our truest intentions as artists. Our music is far more rich and complex than the very erroneus placement of triple fortissimo/lack of dynamics approach on every single performance or the stigma that has been attached to us by those who think that playing recklessly and loud is all that we’re capable of. Playing softly appropriately and effectively is just as difficult as playing fast tempos or negotiating alternative meters (notice that i didn’t write “odd”, which perhaps suggests that there’s something wrong with it). It is entirely possible to maintain intensity and passion in a performance without a sustained, wild, raging and oftentimes, immature failure to communicate, musically speaking, happening throughout. 

This subject reminds me of many fond memories that I have from listening to Billy Higgins play in New York in the early 1980’s at Bradley’s and other Greenwich Village clubs. Never inordinately loud or inappropriate, his touch was impecceble and he played with refined grace, finesses and power, yet he never fought the natural dynamics of the groups and there was never any question that he knew that his role was to elevate the music as a whole and to make everyone sound and play better. I was in my early 20’s then and I would watch and listen in awe at how he could drive the band so effectively without drowning anyone out. My friend, author and journalist, Stanley Crouch and I used to call  it “Quiet Fire” and we would often have lengthy, and sometimes heated, discussions concerning who was or wasn’t adhering to volume and accompaniment principles. I miss those wonderful musical moments and also, the arguments. Good times.

And so it all has come around full circle, this subject, which again raises the question of what defines great playing and ensemble interaction. is it all simply a matter of taste, interpretation, good decision making and musical judgement? Maybe one remedy is to simply play a little softer, please.


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Just a small observation: I find that many saxophone players have very little or no punctuation process in their playing. For some, there isn’t a well enough defined attack at the beginning of phrases and sustained tones – at least to my ears. Sometimes complete lines are slurred throughout, which does little to detail the separation between statements. Listening to this kind of playing is similar to reading text written by people who construct sentences without commas, periods, question marks, exclamation points, or any other important punctuation elements. Everything tends to run together.

Many of my current students come to me directly from other teachers who actually discourage any type of tongue articulation whatsoever. I won’t criticize this approach, but my opinion differs entirely and I feel that it can be debilitating in some cases. Many of these very students have a great deal of difficulty in playing certain passages which require more defined attacks. So I feel that instructing them to eliminate ANY approach is wrong and limits their ability to execute specific articulation requirements. Long story short, I feel that it’s a teacher’s job to present a variety of materials to students and then allow them to process the information and make good use of the material while in development of their individual voice. I don’t consider it to be my job to force them to comply with my ideas of what’s right and wrong – and by that I mean telling them NOT to address things which may be necessary for them to master in order to be a contender in this competitive world of music performance. 

So, to any student that has articulation problems, please make a point to inquire to your teacher about specialized tonguing and finger coordination exercises which will help your timing, attacks, breath control, evenness and phrase definition. Every teacher has their methods and if you feel that your progress is slow or if you don’t find their direction and instruction to be very helpful, don’t hesitate to go elsewhere for other opinions from players that you respect. No one knows everything and if your teacher were a doctor and you weren’t satisfied with their diagnosis, you’d probably want a second opinion as well. 

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Freedom of Choice


To my surprise, the original Jazz Bums blog entry set off a mini-firestorm online as it obviously touched the nerves of a few who are offended by the very idea of looking decent while performing, as well as others who are offended by the sound of my playing and/or music. At this point in my career, I am entirely aware of the fact that some or most of my work will not be considered favorable by many, and as that is a reality of the life of an artist, I accept it as a part of the journey. I will continue to create and offer what I think is quality work-borne of sincerity and integrity. I know that I simply can not please everyone. I also know that my views or solutions to the many problems that face the music are not the most popularly accepted ones either. Again, I will attempt to encourage discussion and welcome any that are interested into traveling the road towards resolve in the best way that I can. There will be many detractors and opponents who will also take advantage of (or even abuse) various internet capabilities to espouse their opinions and ideas. This is also an unavoidable part of the reality. 


Trumpeter Sean Jones and I had a dialog running concurrently about the dress and style issue. It was but one of many problems that face the music and by no means, the most important one. There were many welcomed responses to our position – most of them favorable, some not. It’s reasonable to assume that there will be opponents to just about every opinion and ideology that exists. However, there were a number of posts from some cat who used his 15 minutes as an opportunity to bring up a truly dead issue -  an old and unimportant blindfold test that I did over 20 years ago (!) where some unfavorable and erroneous comments about Eric Dolphy that I allegedly said were printed. For some reason he took those comments, (which I did not, and never would say) as some sort of misguided affront to HIS playing or life or something I can’t be entirely sure of since he, like myself, has surely never even met Eric Dolphy. It amazes me when people take personal issue with statements that don’t wholeheartedly support their favorite musicians. Some get downright hostile and unnecessarily offensive. Frankly speaking, I could care less what someone thinks about another artist, or about me, for that matter. Everyone has preferences and opinions. 


Since I have this opportunity, courtesy of Indaba Music, to publicly correct those misstatements, let me state for the record that the Dolphy comments were recklessly printed without any of the support statements that I generously offered nor did it include any nods toward my actual set of influences on my instrument (Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Louis Jordan, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Konitz) It was actually printed in order to incite, and it succeeded, because to this day, people still never fail to bring it up. I have never felt that I should be obligated as a musician to respond favorably or to blindly accept everything that my predecessors have done, merely because it may be expected of me as a musician to do so. Simply stated, there are a great many artists that frankly do not have the same impact to me as others and I don’t feel compelled to worship them as many  have chosen to do  – just because they played with or were favorably endorsed by “so and so”. They were human beings, and I don’t worship anyone – especially to the point where if someone doesn’t “like” them as much as I do, I should find their inability to acknowledge that artist’s greatness to be personally disturbing. Nothing could be more ridiculous. People should be able to make their own decisions.


Could it be possible that I just dont “hear” Dolphy? That very well could be the case. I recall how Steve Coleman repeatedly used to try to get me to check out Von Freeman, Henry Threadgill,  Sam Rivers and several others. I didn’t have a positive reaction to them initially and actually was very resistant to their approaches to playing and composing music until I finally “heard” what they were doing in my own time, without being “forced” into liking them. After living with their music for a while and investigating it on my own, I was then able to comprehend the genius that lay within. I just didn’t need someone telling me I “had” to dig them because it was my duty as a jazz saxophonist to do so. That’s a sure-fire formula which will almost guarantee that the target will hate what they’re being force-fed entirely. Ask any child who was forced into music lessons.


Some of my friends absolutely love the music of Eric Dolphy and have also been offended, dumbfounded, even mortified, by my failure to wholheartedly embrace/worship his playing.  Countless numbers of players have questioned me repeatedly about why I couldn’t get into it. I have always tried to be respectful, yet detailed about my position. I have carefully transcribed and analyzed many of his improvisations from various points in his career (I actually happen to have a running fascination with his compositions, however. I do appreciate them very much. It’s the nature of his saxophone playing that doesn’t make it for me. Again, I have the deepest respect for anyone who choses to expand upon their idea of what they believe to be right. My opinions are most certainly not criticisms by any measure). My conclusions have always been the same and I have also unsuccessfully attempted to convert many, MANY musicians into appreciating some artists that have served as sources of great enjoyment for myself.  I know how frustrating it can be when others don’t “get it”.  However, I would also contend that the option of being able to choose one’s artistic influences and the ability of being able to coral those favorable elements into a systemized style which reflects their influence, is exactly what makes music great, because I feel that no artist should develop from the exact same pool of influences as anyone else. As an educator, I see this to be a tremendous problem. (Most young saxophonists today copy every nuance of Kenny Garrett; guitarists, Kurt Rosenwinkel – pianists, Brad Meldau, etc….)


I have performed with a great many musicians who have, in one fashion or another,  revealed their disdain for another artist’s sound, compositions or purpose entirely. There have been those who have proclaimed outright that perhaps they didn’t care for someone who I personally thought may have been an outright genius ( I try not to use that term very often). Unlike the scathing comments left online by a few angry souls who are in no position to criticize me OR my choices, I prefer to allow those who disagree with me the courtesy of having a different opinion. I wouldn’t even expect anyone to be in full accord with my tastes in art and literature, which can be broad and entirely eclectic. I thought this was considered normal.


So, if anyone knows the location of the official mandate which declares that a musician must like and without resistance, accept everything that preceeded him, I’d like to be made aware of it.  I was very specific why I didnt care for what was played for me. It wasnt an outright dismissal, nor was it done out of disrespect for the man’s artistry. But I am well within my right to acccept or reject whatever I choose, especially when I have done the work in transcribing and analyzing the components of that work for myself – in an effort to figure out exactly why it doesn’t work for me or why so many others like it. I have the same feeling for several other great players who simply don’t ring my bell – and I’m referring to certain masters of the craft.  I was taught that it was acceptable to have a firm opinion and to make strong decisions. I know far too well that many don’t dig my work either and I totally understand and can deal with their choice. It’s just the way things are. But with this in mind, how does someone who can’t even play at all nor has any personal relationship with Eric Dolphy benefit  by writing garbage about me on their blog, just because I asked an interviewer to move on to the next example?  All I can honestly say is that I hope that the guy found satisfaction from what he wrote. No good will come from it and since I know there’s a lot of work to be done, I’ll focus my energies in those directions. There’s a lot of great music that hasn’t been written yet.


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Jazz Bums 2


I’d like to offer a few last points here in order to clarify my position, then I’ll be done with this subject. Please bear in mind that my opinions and offerings here are based on my own experiences and observations, and that I’m well aware that many will disagree with them. That said, to those who aren’t receptive to my position, it isn’t necessary for you to post mean spirited jabs in an attempt to make your point. Opposing opinions are fine, personal barbs won’t be tolerated. If you have issues with my music, that’s fine as well, but reasonable people know that it’s impossible to have personal issues with someone that you’ve never met.  Childish cyber-jousting with someone that you don’t know personally or that you have no REAL beef with is crossing the line. I’d prefer that you address your issues to me in person, where I can deal with them accordingly, as a man would. Or, if you prefer, you can send me a personal email and we can handle it one on one that way. But to cower online with no real potential of contact or resolution is plain cowardice. Again, I can handle anyone not liking my music. It’s the inane posting of insults that my students and supporters are forced to read  – THAT is a serious problem for me. 


That said, please allow me to clear a few things up before I find myself caught at a performance, sans suit, by a reader of this blog who might be looking for justified reasons to call me a hypocrite. First of all, of course the clothes that a musician wears don’t affect the quality of the work. We know this. That wasn’t my point. My point was to address the problems concerning the visual aspects of performance preparation and presentation. If you wish to close your eyes at live performances, it may suit you better to stay home and listen to CDs. I never thought I’d actually live to experience people defending musicians-as-slobs in such a supportive fashion, as if it should be the objective of  any performer to deliberately look that way. It’s far beyond reason to me to know that some folks believe that the ideal of musicians dictating what’s hip is representative of “old folks music”, a statement so recklessly offered by a previous post. Tell that to any orchestra member. Their music is WAY older and yet, they show up for work CRISP, and ready to deal. Why anyone would go so far to suggest that Jazz musicians should look like hillbillies on stage is beyond ludicrous.


And just to make myself clear, It’s not just about the suits, per se. It’s about the attitude and attention to detail by the musicians, who are unnerved when audiences don’t provide them with full attention or the level of respect that they feel their sacrifices to present good music should yield. I personally don’t feel respect is warranted when the stage is inhabited by a group of sloppily dressed bums who should do better than to present themselves in such a disrespectful manner. Let’s face it, when you go to a quality restaurant you wouldnt expect your food to be served on a plate with remnants of a previous dish or smeared with fingerprints, would you? For a master chef, presentation is essential to the dining experience. The palette is primed by means of inviting visual stimulation.With this in mind, how can a live performance be considered complete when the musicians themselves havent primed themselves for VIEWING presentation? Of course opponents of this perspective will offer that one can’t see how musicians dress on a recording, but that is not the focus of my argument. I’m not challenging anyone’s right to dress as they please. I’m speaking from the perspective of a bandleader as well as from that of an ardent fan of live jazz concerts, and I feel that artists should present themselves appropriately for a paying public. Performing for an appreciative audience is a privilege, and I certainly shall, to the best of my ability, treat anyone who pays for my art with the utmost consideration and respect by means of a TOTAL presentation – and not just good music played while wearing jeans and dirty sneakers.


Let’s parallel an evening of music to that of having a great a dining experience.  Some people prefer, when eating out, to settle for sloppy Mom & Pop diners, fast food chains, and greasy spoon type establishments. They have no problem if their food is served on unwashed tableware, that the chef openly picks and scratches various body parts and NEVER washes his hands or any of the serving utensils, that the wait staff openly talks over the food or coughs without covering themselves, or bothers to dress in server’s apparel. It’s also no problem for them at all that the fried chicken tastes like fish because each was cooked in the same oil. It’s certainly no problem at all that none of the chairs or seat cushions match and have holes in them where visible springs and tacks prick you where the sun doesn’t shine. The fact that the place hasn’t been painted or remodeled in decades doesn’t factor into how the food tastes to them at all …. all they care about is the VIBE of the place and they would contend that, to them, the food tastes better in these types of joints than when dining in a well tended establishment, which is also known as having a dining EXPERIENCE – and not simply grabbing a sloppy meal somewhere. Yes, the food may indeed taste decent, but the preparation and presentation is highly suspect. People who eat at these places regularly are perhaps the same folks who also don’t seem to mind to have their music served to them by jazz bums. To this I say, “Bon Apetit”. For me, music, like food is a complete experience and I feel no obligation to close my eyes during a performance and to pretend that I’m listening to a recording. Performance ethics and concern towards appearance are not disposable factors where my idea of a total live musical experience is concerned. But that’s just me. I don’t expect everyone to agree nor comply with my taste in this matter, because I’ve realized how futile it is to debate with individuals who won’t budge on a subject. We could volley back and forth forever and there will be those that will maintain their position that the manner in which musicians dress has no importance at all – and that’s fine with me. I respect differences of perspective and opinion. I will maintain my position that I won’t hire slovenly-dressed musicians that dress down my bandstand. 


Bill Cosby told me once that in his circle of friends in the 50’s, jazz musicians were considered the very definition of style. He and his friends would, as best as they could afford, try to emulate the look of the musicians on the covers of the lps. He said that his favorites were Miles (of course) and Lee Morgan. Unfortunately, many of the current musicians have somehow bought into the lame argument that the music is more important than garb. I would tend to agree, if all they ever did was to play inside their homes. Once an artist demands payment for his craft, then that product needs to be packaged properly. One doesn’t buy food that is haphazardly packaged either. Proper presentation makes food taste better, just as it can enhance a musical performance as well. Of course, it’s a matter of taste and preference. Some folks don’t mind drinking fine wine from a mayonaise jar….


Here’s a couple of links to blogs which feature other viewpoints.


There’s also a online blog of a truly bitter and misguided individual, that no one has ever heard of, who, along with his tired bunch of loser friends,  has taken it upon himself to attack me PERSONALLY with his “writings”. His problem with me has nothing to do with the current topic but rather stems from a series of sensationalized misquotes that I allegedly said in a jazz magazine from over 20 years ago(!). (Anyone who doesn’t know that magazine articles are chopped up, edited and embellished beyond recognition immediately after the actual interviews have taken place truly doesn’t know how the game is played.)  I don’t know who he is and he has every right to disagree with my views, but he’s taken these web wars to an entirely different level. He claims to be a saxophone player and critic and yet no one that I  know has ever heard of him or even heard him play.  Many so-called critics and self- proclaimed authorities on music and art are little more than frustrated hack musicians who spread poison in online forums. Their writing offers little resolve or insight as well. Just pure hate and jealousy. That said, I hope that we never meet. I’ll leave it at that. 


I’ll conclude by suggesting that stage attire should be venue and genre specific. When I toured with Phil Lesh and the Dead, I wore jeans, sandals and appropriate garb for the gig. Actually, when i did wear jeans for those shows I considered myself to be dressing up for the gig because it was something that I would never do on my own. It was a stretch for me to even wear jeans on a gig. But that was what was expected and I went with the flow.


So do your thing and do it well. It wouldn’t hurt to try to look great while doing it either. 


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Late and infrequent posts

I’d like to apologize to the senders of the endless stream of messages from those who would like to see me post on here more frequently. Unfortunately, I’m spread a little thin with multiple duties and responsibilities which prevent me from contributing as much as I would enjoy. I try to be as detailed as possible here and don’t wish to offer senseless little "fill-ins’ or meaningless little blurbs just to appear active. That said, I’ll attempt to get back a bit more, in good time. Blogging by musicians who aren’t seasoned writers isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do – not by a long shot! But I’ll continue to give it a go. I enjoy the exchanges and feedback as well.

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