He first moved to New York in 1958 to attend Juilliard Conservatory. The 17-year-old saxophonist hungrily absorbed the music of Miles and Monk; when he didn't have the money for the cover charge at Birdland, he would sneak in by acting as a roadie for the drummer. Soon he was playing with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln; eventually he joined that great post-bop finishing school, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. An association with McCoy Tyner, which continues to this day, strengthened his musical ties to John Coltrane, who, along with Charlie Parker, was one of Bartz' greatest influences. He played with Miles Davis in the early '70s and appears on his Live-Evil recording. Miles' use of electronic instruments had an impact on Bartz' experimental NTU Troop (NTU: a Bantu word meaning "unity of all things"), whose albums on the Prestige label were seminal in the development of jazz fusion. Rappers, DJs, and hip-hop artists cite Harlem Bush Music: Taifa and Juju Street Songs as highly influential. And his album, I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, was decades ahead of contemporary spoken-word music/art.
Today, Bartz tours with his group, Sphere; records on his own label, OYO Records; composes and teaches at Oberlin Conservatory; and is working on several soon-to-be-published books on jazz composition and saxophone technique. He also acts occasionally in theatrical productions and writes lyrics and poetry (one of his next recording projects will include poetry by his 11-year-old son). On Saturday, January 18, Bartz will be the featured artist with drummer Gerry Gibbs' trio at Carmen's de la Calle Cafe. I spoke with Bartz about his work and his strong sense of social justice.
Bett Butler: In the '70s with NTU Troop, you often chose pop music, such as Motown hits, and reinterpreted them in a jazz context. What are some of the qualities that attracted you to those particular songs?
Gary Bartz: The Gershwin estate makes millions from people performing his compositions. The songs I chose were written by black artists. Black artists would get the royalties; I wanted to support that. Back then, I was coming from a more nationalistic point of view.
BB: Is that still a factor in your selection?
GB: Yes. But also lyrics, melody, chord changes, context, even the title.
BB: What would you say about the state of jazz today? There doesn't seem to be much innovation or experimentation in the mainstream.
GB: Most musicians today, white and black, are only doing what they are told to do by people in the industry who know nothing about music. Everything I've ever done musically is what I wanted to do.
BB: The debut album on your own label, Live @ the Jazz Standard, Vol. 1: Soulstice, has gotten great reviews. How is your new record label going?
GB: Very well. I should have done it much sooner.
BB: A lot of artists are taking that avenue.
GB: It's the only avenue, if you want to have control over your music.
BB: Where should people look to find something other than what the corporate cultural machine churns out?
GB: Look in your own neighborhood. I've been all over the world, and I haven't been anywhere where I haven't seen great artists. And when you find them, support them. If you hear them in a small club, support that club. That's where the real art is.
BB: And what would you tell musicians?
GB: When a musician buys one of my CDs and asks for an autograph, I sign it, "Musician Power." We have to take back the business for ourselves. For everybody else, I sign it, "Music Power."
Music power: There is no better description of the artistry of Gary Bartz.
WITH THE GERRY GIBBS TRIO
8:30 & 10:30pm
Saturday, January 18
$20 at the door, limited seating
Carmen's de la Calle Cafe
720 East Mistletoe