Bunky Green (left), recording with Rudresh Mahanthappa.
Bunky Green (left), recording with Rudresh Mahanthappa. Larry Fink
For most of his 75 years, the jazz spotlight mostly eluded Bunky Green. The alto saxophonist was briefly in Charles Mingus' band, but left for personal reasons; he spent many years on the fertile Chicago scene, but never broke out widely. He withdrew further from the public eye when, in 1989, he moved to Jacksonville, Fla. to direct the jazz program at the University of North Florida.
His records fell out of print, but a handful of younger, innovative musicians never forgot his cutting alto style. And his reputation as an educator grew — he was even president of the once-prominent, now-defunct International Association for Jazz Education. Now with a new record and new band co-led by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, Green is finally enjoying a little bit of stateside recognition again. (New York readers can see this band at the Jazz Standard through Sunday, and all can find the album Apex.)
I recently spoke with Bunky Green over the telephone about his long career. Part one, on his early history, is up; part two covers his philosophy on education, jazz in Jacksonville, and being "rediscovered" by new generations of musicians.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Another thing you started doing in Chicago was that you started teaching. Why?
Bunky Green: Well, I started to teach, actually, to be quite truthful, because I needed money. I needed a job that could provide me with a living wage, where I could play my instrument, and do what I want to, and have enough to pay the rent! But I can remember playing shows in Chicago at a place called the Gay Paree, downtown on Rush Street, and I remember the other people playing with me — there were two other individuals. They had a teaching job that they could go to the next day ... if the [performing] engagement fell through, and you got your two weeks' notice — which you didn't get in Chicago. When they said "go," they meant "go"! And you just left.
I thought about that, and thought, "That's a lot of anxiety. I would like to have that as a backup so I can relax, and not have to deal with all this tension, and deal with the music more." Not wondering where the next dollar would come from. So I went to school, and put that time in, studied very hard and made good grades. And someone called me for a job, so I wound up at Chicago State University.
PJ: You've become known as a pretty formidable jazz educator. In fact, you moved to Jacksonville to take the position of director of jazz studies at the University of North Florida.
BG: Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm in the Hall of Fame [for Jazz Education] in Down Beat, and I'm in the IAJE [International Association for Jazz Education] Hall of Fame.
PJ: You were once the president of IAJE too. How have your views on formal jazz education, and collegiate jazz education changed over time? When you were coming up, there weren't these jazz conservatories and schools.
BG: Exactly. Niente. Nothing to speak of. Very little jazz in schools — it was extremely rare. It's a good thing, because when you get people that are knowledgeable about what they're doing, they can help a student reach that goal faster by keeping them on that straight, narrow path. ...
I've also judged the Down Beat tapes from students around the country, and what you hear is phenomenal. Not good, phenomenal. Just phenomenal, from a technical perspective. However, I always tell my students, "Once you finish with your degree, your studies, once they culminate and receive your degree, then you need to go the real school. And that school is in the streets of New York, Chicago and wherever there's jazz being played at high levels." That's where you need to be, that's where you learn, that's where you get that feeling of: It's not all about just notes, it's about your life, about how you view the world.
So that's really what happens eventually. No matter how good, you still have to go to the real school. You have to take it to the streets. It's like a reporter, that you listen to. That person never leaves the studio. You turn on the television, you hear this person, "Blah blah blah, this happened in Bangladesh, so many people are starving in Africa, etc." But have you ever been to Africa? Have you ever been to Bangladesh? Have you been there, and seen that? Maybe you read about the Eiffel Tower. Good. Have you ever been to Paris, and stood at the base of the Eiffel Tower, and said to yourself, "Oh, wow, Eiffel Tower." You know? Because then you're really, truly educated, and you live it. You've got to take it to the street.
PJ: To take a little tangent, do you have any advice for your students in that regard? Not just "you need to go out and live it," but "these are the economic and financial realities you'll have to deal with as a jazz musician."
BG: I tell them that up front. I say, "More than likely, you won't make a lot of money playing jazz." However, it ain't necessarily so, because there are people making a great deal of money playing jazz, without calling any names, but they're making a great deal of money, once you become a star at a certain level, and you have maybe some music with a bit of a commercial edge to it. And I don't mean commercial commercial, but something that's palatable to the general public, and they can hang on to. Hey, it's possible to make a lot of money. But don't go into jazz thinking that you're going to make a lot of money. Go into jazz because there's something inside of you that drives you to accomplish this, something that beckons you, that's in your heart, that says, "I've got to do this."
With me, it's a matter of life and death. It's always like that. I practice in my head all the time. Sometimes it's not so pleasant, because it's hard to get things out of your mind, but they won't go away, and if you really think about them, and pull them all together, then you're happier, and it can pay off. And the main thing is that you love it, and you're dealing with your art, and developing it.
PJ: What's the scene like in North Florida, in Jacksonville? Do you find lots of people to play with, lots of students?
BG: Well, the students make their own scene. There isn't a whole lot going — it's Jacksonville, Florida, and there isn't a lot going on. What's going on is happening mostly in the college. If you came to the college, you'd hear so much music, you'd go, "Wow." ... I have two saxophone players that will just peel your hair back, you know? They're incredible young players.
Like it was when you and I were in Milwaukee — well, I don't know about now or when you came up, but at that time, you made your own scene, you know? And it's the same thing in Jacksonville. You do have great players in Jacksonville. You have players who have been around town for years. There's one player here called Von Barlow, and he plays drums. And he's just incredible, just world class. But he prefers to be right here at home. Great musicians — I can't say enough about 'em. It's a good scene for Jacksonville. It's just that any Jacksonvillian that wants to move forward with the music, and get more exposure, you have to be in a larger city.
Well, lets say that's the way it would work the best. I imagine you can do like I do now: I'm not in a larger city, but yet and still, now my name is traveling around the globe. It's a good thing. But it's easier if you're, like some of the guys, Ornette and the guys, they're right in New York, because that's the scene. And not only that, the problem here in Jacksonville is that I'm the last person to get home when we come back from Europe! You know, everybody has been home — Steve Coleman has been home for hours, and I'm just coming in, because I'm traveled with Steve Coleman as well — another incredible player. Like I told him, him and Rudresh and Greg Osby: Those are my boys. We're trying to think in terms of moving the music forward.
But yes, the scene here is a good scene, and I'm very fortunate to be here. And I'm very fortunate to be able to teach these young people. I enjoy it, and what's so good is that I learn from them as well. It's not a one-way street, because they're always coming up with stuff, and I'll say, "What was that? What did you do there? You wanna run that by me again?" But that's the beauty of it.
PJ: Bunky, what is it like being "off the grid," to some degree, in Jacksonville? You talked about the musicians who were able to achieve some level of acclaim, and make a career, and make pretty good money, touring. You've spent a lot of your career — especially the last 20-or-so years — teaching, and not being as prominent. Obviously you still make recordings, and occasionally tour ...
BG: Well, for maybe the last five years, I've been [touring] in Europe. As a matter of fact, the reason that we're talking now, probably, is that I was "rediscovered" in Europe. Like I told someone else that did an article, I experienced my own renaissance. But they did it — it wasn't me. People came and got me. One person from JazzBaltica, Rainer Haarmann, the German person who [founded and directs] JazzBaltica, he heard some of my music. And he said, "Who is this person?" The bass player, young lady, Eva Kruse — [Haarmann] uses her a lot at JazzBaltica — she lives there, in that area. She knew about me. And [Haarmann] said, "I've got to hear more about this person; I've got to." And he brought me to JazzBaltica, recorded me, ended up with a four-and-a-half star recording over there.
And it started moving around — there was a buzz, you know. And it all led to me being prominent, and people writing about me, and articles and things, and opening the doors. It's not like I went out [in search of publicity] — I'm not that type of person. Just, things happen. You know how things can get moving, and before you know it, everybody gets caught up in the flow. "There's this buzz about this person, Bunky Green. I'd like to hear more."
I think Rudresh [Mahanthappa] and I teaming up was a really great thing because we think alike. I heard him many years ago at one of those IAJE meetings — and you can find this on YouTube, about Rudresh and I — and he had heard me, and heard one of my records, and said, "Who is this person? I've got to meet him, etc., I'd like to study with him." And when he met me at IAJE, he handed me a record, and said, "First of all, would you listen to me play?" He was playing with one of the student bands there. And I said, "Sure, I've got some things to do, but you let me know when you're playing." And I came back, and I listened to him, and he sounded really good, and he sounded differently. I really enjoyed the way he was playing. And he gave me that record, and said, "Listen to this — these are some of the things that I'm doing on my own." And I listened to it, and I finally got it back to him, and I said, "Hey, you're one of us!" A kindred spirit.
PJ: How did this project come about happening, this new album [with Rudresh]?
BG: We played in Chicago this past summer. It just came together, with some of my tunes, some of his tunes. Without even trying, there was an affinity that was incredible. And when I heard the tapes back, and he heard the tapes back, he rushed to call me because he said, "Man, did you hear what I heard? I said, "Yes, I did." He said, "We gotta do it, we gotta record." I said, "I know. I'm there with you." And that was it.
PJ: So there you go. And now you're playing New York again with that band. I'm told that until recently, you hadn't played New York for nearly 50 years.
BG: Right. Well, I did play maybe three or four years ago — I played with Jason Moran at Birdland. He wanted me to come in and play a couple of tunes with him, and I did — I performed with him as his guest. But I think that's it, really. The rest has been in Europe. And I had Jason with me in Europe, and his whole group [the Bandwagon trio]. Nasheet [Waits], you know? Nasheet is just killing. And when I played with Jason — there's another thing. When I played with Jason, there's a certain magic. He just opens up those doors. He's so sensitive, it's incredible. He puts, like, an orchestra behind you. He leads you and feeds you. And then he'll make you go to daring places that you might not go. He's beautiful; I love him.
PJ: And you guys are playing this week as well.
BG: Yes. And Francois Moutin, the bassist, who's extraordinary, and Damion [Reid] — well, you know. They're on the record. Just smokin', on fire.
PJ: So what are your goals now? Do you aspire to tour the U.S. more, to tour Europe more, to do a Bunky Green-led project?
BG: My primary goal is to try to play the stuff that I'm hearing in my head. That's my primary goal; that's my main goal. I'm hearing this stuff, and it's coming together, after all these years. But there's so much that I know that I need to learn, you know? I'm a student. One thing I've learned over these years, is that I'm a student. And when you stop being a student, it's over. When you think that you've arrived, guess what? You have, unfortunately!
Me, I haven't arrived. I'm hearing this stuff, and I'm piecing it together, and it's becoming more natural and automatic. That's my main quest. And if I play gigs with a group along the way, and we travel and do things, that's fine. But it's more about me trying to learn these things that I'm hearing in my head.