Upstate, Kingston New York. 1995. My self-imposed exile from the straight-ahead scene in NYC has taken an unexpected turn. I work for an organization in Ulster County that gets work for and then supervises folks with mental illness. Today my crew is working at a recycling plant. Trucks come and dump recycling into a giant pit. A conveyor brings the trash up to a platform where my crew sorts everything by separating it and throwing the trash into giant bins. Unfortunately for me, there is a massive clog at the base of the conveyor and our production has come to a halt.
Rick, I need you to go down there and unclog the pit man.
Not today Matt, sorry.
As I have always down in situations like this in my life, I went down into the pit myself. I entered a waist-high sea of what people have discarded. Recycling is still trash. It’s backwash, it’s slime, it’s filth, it’s the excrement of society, one of the lowest forms of civilization in American life. As I struggled to reach the clog and free up the belt I paused and said to myself that I’m going to remember this moment. I was working to survive, doing what I had to do, no shame in that, but this was still low. I was the slime on the sewer that the rain cannot clean. I was in danger of getting my soul stained.
I made it out of the pit. Now 23 years later I’ve been wondering where my sounds come from. Why does everything I play have a blues element? That could just be me. It could also be that my sound comes right from that pit. I enjoy playing raw, blues type feeling. I could be playing somewhere and recall my day in the pit. You know what happens next. Funny as it is, I might have a plunger in my hand when it happens.
I’m hoping to put these kinds of experiences in the rear-view mirror, and as NYC continues its long, tired, slow transformation into a massive temple to the superficial (Hey, I work in Times Square) I have had moments so bright in my life lately that I can hardly see.
Roy always told me to remember the bright moments.
Not that long ago, brother James Keepnews organized a 12 Houses concert in Newburgh, NY. I was headed back upstate, but not to the pit. Thanks to James and his crew the 12 Houses had their first performance out of NYC ever, in over 10 years of our existence. A chance like this to perform how I feel and hear music was something I’ll never forgot. The love of the 12 Houses in playing music is what makes our music so human.
Then came an experience I just couldn’t explain. It came upon me the way Ornette and Giuseppi did, out of nowhere. Pianist David Haney asked me to play with him, my ESP partner Reggie Sylvester and none other than the great Julian Priester. When I look back on his story, I’m left in awe. Ellington. Coltrane. Booker. Dolphy. Blakey. The list goes on in the discography of a remarkable human being, and simply the sweetest man I have ever crossed paths with. Incredibly, David’s plan was for us to play free. It really doesn’t get any better. I’ll never forget what Julian told the audience.
“The way this works you see, is that we lean on each other.”
Then at a pause he said “Somebody say something.” I picked up my alto clarinet and Julian looked at me and said:
I hear you
These days I’m at pains to ask myself, what if it takes 30 years to find yourself in music? Would you still take that on and give up 30 years of your life to try to find something that may not even exist? Going back to school has changed everything for me, and now studying Bird and Ornette very closely at the same time has brought me to the endgame of something I started the moment Bert Hughes played Joe Williams with Basie singing Work Song for me in 1987. I’m afraid I’m leaving free jazz and playing too inside, voice leading and stuff. I’m hearing the genius of Lester Young. I’ve even asked myself if I’m trying to resolve Ornette somehow. Sometimes I sound like Willie Smith or Sonny Criss, but I’m powering through. I’ve never been so close. Maybe, hopefully, I’ll discover something.
Even if I reach the top, the universe will simply place another mountain before me. I know this. I’ll climb it, I can’t help myself. Tired old soul I may be, but I came equipped. My birth as an Aires and a spiritual messenger was no accident.
Neither was the pit.
Maybe the pit gave me my sounds, maybe not, but I was alive to try to find out.
I’m still trying, and I’ll always be thankful for…
That pit of gold.
With Love, to master Julian Priester