Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Email Exchange with Peter Evans

[Note: my last writing, concerning the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, generated a lot of conversation, both in private emails and on Facebook. Below is an email I received from Peter Evans, who co-founded and formerly played trumpet with the band. I include my email response to him as well.]

On Feb 24, 2015, at 12:59 AM, Peter Evans wrote:

Hey Keir

I've been following all the internet activity over the last few days about MOPDTK. I am sorry I didn't respond sooner but I'm glad I didn't since, it seems like you and [bandleader] Moppa [Elliot] had a really productive conversation. I still very much feel like there is a lot to say and I'd be happy if you put this entire thing on the facebook conversation which I is still going on. (I'm not active on facebook). Some of the directions the facebook conversation took frustrate me and and there is a lot I think is distracting and a lot I disagree with. It's important stuff to talk about, for sure though, all of it.

So, as a starting place I guess I'd say that I am totally in line with where you are coming from politically. There wasn't anything in your blogpost I disagreed with in principal or didn't understand. I read your blog from time to time, keep up with your music and I appreciate you are out there with a fire in your belly. It's sadly rare. These issues are really important for everyone in our society to be thinking hard about, and I don't think I am alone in wondering how we can and must try harder to make our scene something that reflects the change we'd like to see in society instead of a depressing reflection or microcosm of it's problems. 

I have no need to argue with you about the general racial or social issues you've brought up, or the way you have framed them. But I think you might be barking up the wrong tree here, and all I'd like to do is talk about the band and the music. Since that what this is about centrally. The music, and the values in the music. That shit is audible, I really believe that. 

I was a member of the band for many years. As time went on, I noticed that there was a persistent problem we had of intention versus perception. It wasn't on the level of your accusation (not that I know of), more just people just finding the band obnoxious, annoying, or in the case of really straight-ahead jazz people, thinking we couldn't play our instruments, didn't know the music, etc. The latter issue is a battle many great musicians have been fighting harder than us for a long long time, so that didn't bother me so much. What did start to bother me over the years was the constant description of the band as ironic. I played tons of concerts with these dudes, spent hundreds of hours in trains, cars, planes on the road, very often talking about music. I am being completely serious when I say that we didn't use the word irony or talk about irony as a musical concept in the making of our music a SINGLE time. Never. As far as I know it's not in any of Moppa's words to the press as a descriptor of the band. The only time it would come up was when some journalist dude would come backstage after a show, do an interview, ask us why were making "ironic jazz", or some other variation of this question. Then we would argue with these people, tell them time and time again that using familiar materials in new ways that yield (to us anyways) surprising and new musical results is actually a pretty normal process. That we really loved all the musicians and materials we were drawing from and had studied and practiced seriously and reverently in order to be able to play like this. We also had an unusual (and often visible) amount of fun on stage doing it.  

I have devoted my life to music and particularly to a practice of music that while very hybridized, works with improvisation of many types, and often pretty directly with the improvisatory, black american tradition of music that unfortunately keeps being called "jazz". When I would be on stage with Mopdtk, playing a blues, one of Moppa's tunes (which were deliberately stylized and familiar sounding to serve as good launching points for improvisation), or "A Night in Tunisia", pretty much all of my heart, mind and physical energy went into creating something deeply felt.  And actually I don't have a lot of other opportunities to deal with that material so flexibly so it was really something positive to be able to bring in everything I've learned from checking out Roy Eldridge and Rex Stewart and combine it with stuff I've explored in solo or electro-acoustic contexts.  Also having [saxophonist] Jon [Irabagon] as a sparring partner in the front line was great- he has an insanely demonstrable knowledge of so many types of improvising, he knows Coleman Hawkins and he knows Evan Parker and can do both at once. He has played with tons of really straight ahead masters, and studied with Roscoe.  And he loves all of it. I mean, clearly; it has pretty much taken up his entire life.  

It was all very experimental for me, but I never could imagine that someone would listen to me play a solo in that band (or any other) and thought I was taking a dump on Roy's grave for lulz or something. It takes a lot of work to learn how to play like that! There really wouldn't be energy left over to like "make fun of" that stuff even if I wanted to. The group dynamic was usually about figuring out how to improvise our way from thing to thing, sometimes in really disjunct, unexpected ways.  We would try to find new and surprising (again, for us) group interactions every gig as a way to propel the music to new places and not get bored.  Very often the vocabularies we would use would come from music we love: post-Trane 70's burnout stuff, placid 1950's West coast textures, super sparse almost Cage-ian soundscapes, the obligatory post-Sidewinder Blue Note bugaloo, etc. It was never about "improving on" or making a joke out of these different (by now) and heavily stylized kinds of music. The idea was often about amplifying their qualities, sometimes to the point of absurdity, and seeing what happens. I mean, this is a brief description of what we were doing when you saw us play at Zebulon back in the day, as was my understanding as a steady contributor to the band. So just talking about myself for a moment, stating that the band is a mouthpiece for racism, and following the logic that I'm not a different player or person when I play in different situations, this would mean that musical decisions I make in my other groups which also deal to a extent with the transformation of historic or traditional material are ALSO "ironic" or even racist. Like this  

or this

.... and that's an implication I have a real problem with. Do you really think that? Have you heard Jon's record "Foxy", the Rollins homage? It's insane! It's the most moving, weird, (and yes at times even funny) tributes ever. This is the man I shared the stage with. I actually really love your playing and music, (the duo with [Rafal] Mazur is sick) but how much of this more explicitly black american music have YOU tried to engage with in a creative way- use some traditional shit to build something new? It's not easy man!

So I have to ask you- since this is about MUSIC and a band that made a lot of it- what do you hear in the actual music as being explicitly racist or offensive?

Here's the thing though. The intention versus perception problem DID become more acute and more depressing for me over my last few years in the group, and I was open about this with Moppa. Especially on the humor angle. When I would play some sound that I've spent years working on and some Belgian guy in the front row would just laugh immediately because he contextualized the group as a "funny jazz band", I would want to go down in the audience and physically assault him. Not a good feeling to have on stage!! And I love comedy but I'm not fucking Jerry Lewis with a trumpet. So I felt that, among a few other reasons, whatever I personally was putting into the music wasn't getting heard, and possibly neither was the improvisational interplay, use of timbre, and yes, exploration of traditional forms that I cherished so much in the experience of a Mopdtk gig. At least not the the extent I wanted. But it's not my band.

It's definitely a fair question- "Why, if this music was actually coming from a sincere place, did so many people think it was annoying, ironic, or in the case of Keir Neuringer, racist"?? There were definitely musicians (I'm thinking here actually of older free improvisors in the predominately white scene of european free improvisation) I respected who were quite open with me about not liking the group. I think the presentation of the band, the "brand" that developed around the music invited a lot of grief but it also invited attention that materialized into gigs (I mean, there were (unaccepted) invitations from jazz promoters for us to play "Blue"). Regardless, it became a problem for me. So I do get it, I really do. And the teeth kicking quote, even in context reads badly. I agree. But it's been on the internet since 2004 and I'm not sure what Moppa can do other than publicly disavow it.  

Lastly, about the bandleader. Moppa as you might know now has devoted his professional life to teaching. A lot of his students are black and brown kids from Queens. I know for a fact he initiates discussions about race and politics in his classes all the time. He paid his dues playing straight ahead jazz in Cleveland several nights a week in a scene that at least in the late 90's was still a lot of older, working black jazz musicians. Also, some of these guys were the guys that taught at Oberlin when Moppa and I were students. It just doesn't seem like the right person to make an example out of in the context of these issues that you, like many of us, are so deeply concerned about. I see that you revised the post and that's cool. I don't know where this thread is going... but I made a lot of music with that band, I think it's within my right to at least articulate what was behind it, for me personally at least.

Thanks and hope to see you in Philly or NYC sometime soon!


On Feb 24, 2015 2:54 PM, Keir Neuringer wrote:

Thanks for getting in touch Peter. I appreciate how you and Moppa and Amirtha have all been able to talk about this with me in a tone I didn't start out with. I've read your mail several times. I hope this response speaks to most of it.

I feel bad about the way I started out. I dialed back the personal accusations from my blog post and have since tried to center the conversation on my FB wall on the issues, not Moppa or the band. I hear what you all are saying, that you and Moppa (and presumably the other guys in the group) genuinely understand structural racism and feel aligned against it. I hear that in what is being said to me. Of the guys in the band, I've only ever spoken with you and Kevin, and I've only ever had good conversations. And I respect everyone's musicality.

I want to be accountable for what I started. That's part of why I dialed down the language on my blog. And I'm down to continue to be accountable. No one has taken any accountability for the really racist shit that was used to promote the band, however. That language was not a review, but was excerpted straight from the liner notes for the band's first record. It's still up on the Ars Nova website, for example. But even if taken down, that's not accountability. The damage was done when it was made clear who was welcome at the concert, and who was not. Moppa told me he does not intend to disavow the quote, which I regret.

In our cities, and especially in Philadelphia, white supremacist values are waging a very tangible, visible war against black people (the majority demographic here). A lot of what I do in the world is activist/volunteer work that addresses this and associated oppression. The violence here comes from Washington and Harrisburg, Wall Street, the mayor's office, the D.A.'s office, it comes from the police. But it also exists everywhere. And when I see it in my own scene, it fucks me up. And it doesn't seem to be going anywhere on its own.

Since we (you, me, Moppa) recognize structural racism, since we recognize white supremacy, I think it's necessary to see ourselves not as benign, neutral entitites. Challenging white supremacy demands of us not merely saying we're against it but also interrogating the effects of what we do and what we participate in.

On the two ocassions that I heard mopdtk live I was really turned off. It wasn't that I just wasn't into it. I felt there was something wrong going on. There's more than one way to show disrespect to the tradition, and my read on the band was that instead of disrespecting it by over-reverence (i.e. participating in the Jazz Industrial Complex, which, for what it's worth, I know and loathe), the disrespect was through over-irreverence. I'm not opposed to irreverence. I hear it in the work of Dolphy and Schepp and Sun Ra and Carla Bley and Mengelberg and Bennik and Threadgill and and and. I'm also not opposed to having fun onstage. That's important too. But something felt - both times (at Zebulon and at Judson Church, I think) - really out of whack.

Understand that I felt that way already knowing your solo work and admiring it. I have since heard Kevin and Jon in other contexts and admired them. Something about mopdtk just reads wrong. And it isn't merely onstage. It's the whole package. Apparently I'm not the only person who has this reflection. I imagine many folks either love what they read as a send-up, or attack you from the vantage point of the Jazz Industrial Complex. My reflections come from neither place.

Should the tradition be respected at all? Many of my comrades see black liberation as a condition for collective liberation. And they see jazz as a music of black liberation. This may be a little old-fashioned for some, but I largely agree. In that spirit, I see the tradition as something to honor and respect when we play with it. Many black people in America have a very different notion of ancestry than do decendents of Europeans. Lester Bowie's notion of Great Black Music - Ancient to the Future, speaks to this.

You say the band has never intended irony. And yet people keep saying this sounds like irony to them. I recognize art's not made by taking polls. And I recognize that irony is the way some people communicate (I have a deep aesthetic aversion to it). And I know irony is different than racism. I mean I think you know this: if I say something terrible and someone calls me out on it, I can keep saying that's not the way I meant it. But if I keep saying the same thing, and the response is constantly the same from lots of different people, then I may suffer from lack of self reflection. It's one thing for people to say you guys can't play your instruments. That's a lot of ignorance. But the band has built a reputation (like with the Belgian guy laughing at your first note) that it seems to have capitalized on, or at least that you recognized clearly enough to decide to leave the project. So irony, regardless of intention, is there. And I found that the irony crosses over into racism in the total presentation - presence, packaging, music, promotion.

Again, I take issue with the project, and I don't hear the issues showing up in your other work that I'm familiar with. That said, I think white supremacy is utterly prevalent in our culture, and it is literally impossible for us to take any work, to put out any music, without being caught in its web in some way. The question for me is where one's efforts fall on a spectrum between embracing it outright (hoods or badges) and fighting it outright.

I have been thinking a lot about how much racism there is, but how seemingly few racists there are. Taking that tack, at first, with my response to the mopdtk show in Philly was heavy handed and wrong. Again, the question is about participation in racism, since the whole structure of our society is racist. And in my rush to call out, I was not as clear as I wish I had been.

Briefly, to answer your question about me: I have wrestled with my relationship to black american music for most of my musical life. I made some atrocious moves as a high school and college student and I am so glad that youtube and myspace did not exist back then, and that it was more difficult to put out music independently. My college jazz training (North Texas, then Ithaca) was so terrible and damaging that for years after I insisted that I did not play jazz, while continuing to reflect the inspiration of black musicians in my work. George Lewis set me straight, thank god. He and others. I used to think that unless I can burn like Johnny Griffen or Sonny Stitt, I can't play jazz and thus my improvising was definitely not related to the jazz tradtion. I've been able to open up to more specific references to the tradition in my playing over the last few years, and have been writing tunes lately as well, for whatever that's worth. And I hear you, it's not easy to build on. I think a lot about structural issues though - the music is going to be personal and there's no accounting for taste, but who gets work, who feels safe and welcome in a space, who sees their identity reflected onstage, all that really matters to me and really does not seem to matter to a lot of people in the scene. 

Thanks again for writing to me. I'll see you around soon.