Interview by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi (DooBeeDooBeeDoo’s chief editor), August 20, 2013
All photos by John Pietaro
John Pietaro (J): These days the annual Dissident Arts Festival features a lot of free jazz and new music that is thematic of progressive politics and urgent social matters. The radicalism can be overt but the statements are often symbolic, a revolutionary creativity. The Fest has matured. But I began it in 2006. It was Bush’s second presidential term and the nation was terribly polarized, the working class was under attack and illegal war with a first-strike policy had become commonplace. It was a bad time for everyone but the terribly rich. I have been an activist for a very long time, so I sought a way to make a big statement through the arts, particularly my medium of music. I have been a musician most of my life and spent much of that time performing jazz and new music, but I had been delving deeply into the cultural movements in the Left for many years, absorbing the repertoires of related music (everything from modern composition to work songs, punk rock to free jazz). Much of my research –and enjoyment– also comes from the social justice messages inherent in some of the great music, poetry, theatre, film and literature related to the larger concept of People’s arts. So I wanted to draw on the full spectrum.
I am a Brooklynite but in 2006 I had relocated to upstate New York for a several year period; my wife and I lived in the little Hudson Valley city of Beacon from ’05-‘10. There is a thriving cultural scene up there and I had been performing a lot of folk-oriented protest music at that point (LOL yes I sing a bit and play some banjo!). I thought, “What a great place to create a folk festival that is all about radical politics”. I could find no other annual fest that was particular to topical song, let alone one that sought to break down barriers of just what “folk” music is. Immediately I knew that I wanted to include jazz, punk-folk, roots music, choral works, poetry with improvised accompaniment and more, even if the main focus was on singer-songwriters in the folk-protest vein. I insisted on having a variety of faces on stage—different hues, cultures, ages, accents, and of course both men and women. To me the image of the folk singer as a white guy with a guitar was terribly exclusive and that would never do. So I reached out to everyone up there who would get this concept. And I knew it must be called ‘the Dissident Folk Festival’ to make a statement on both the politics and the sort of anti-cliché I was seeking. That name lasted only through the first year—it soon became ‘the Dissident Folk and Arts Festival’, finally simply ‘Dissident Arts Festival’ as it developed. That first year we had Pete Seeger leading a tribute to Woody Guthrie, Malachy McCourt came in as a guest speaker, the songwriter Lach (founder of the ‘Anti-Folk’ movement of the ‘80s), a chorus from the Pittsburgh Raging Grannies, my own ensemble at the time the Flames of Discontent, a tribute to Paul Robeson featuring a powerful vocalist named Kenneth Anderson and labor legend Henry Foner, plus various local poets, jazz musicians, bards and more. We had a blast over a full weekend. By year two, the focus had already begun to expand and we had a tribute to Bertolt Brecht!
S: What makes it different from other NY music festivals?
J: We live in the greatest city and its one filled with amazing musicians and other artists. It would be fool-hardy for me to say that my festival was better than any of the others but I can say that among all of the annual new jazz/new music festivals out there, the Dissident Arts Festival is the only one that ties this brand of forward-looking, experimental music to social justice issues. One of the earlier events which I draw inspiration from is the October Revolution in jazz organized by Bill Dixon. That amazing concert sought to revolutionize the audience through the music’s inspiration. And there were other similar events that were a part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, as well as groups like the Composers Collective of New York in the 30s that used modernist composition as a tool to symbolize revolution and organize activism. But presently there appears to be no ongoing vehicle that presents music that is radical in every respect.
S: What’s the main theme of this year’s festival?
J: I choose a different theme each year, one which is immediately relevant, though the performers are not quite bound by it; this is an event which calls for true expression. But as I was putting the finishing touches on the line-up, I was haunted by news reports of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman of a white Florida town who chased down and then killed Trayvon Martin. This nation was quite literally built on inequity, we are the belly of the capitalist beast, and so divisiveness is a standard means separate people. The US may be a more tolerant place than it was 50 years ago but the stain of racism and classism lingers on and in many parts of the south, that stain is a bright blood stain. Here was a perfect example of the heritage of hate. And so it was decided that we need to make a statement about the terrible loss of Trayvon and the awful crime of his murder’s acquittal.
S: How did you chose the musicians and bands for this festival?
J: Every year I seek out some powerful performers. I am careful, in my search, to reach out to a wide variety of artists and by that I mean culture, color, gender and age as well as creative vision. Some of the folks on my original list were unavailable and some of the others who are on the bill now reached out to me. It’s a combination of sources but if the artist is deeply creative as well as rather unafraid to discuss socio-political issues and have spoken out in the past, I want them!
S: Who are the endorsers this time? And why? How do they support your event?
J: Well for one I am thrilled to have ‘DooBeeDooBeeDoo’ on board as an endorser—your mag has been highly supportive of several of my efforts, so thank you for that. Local 802 AFM’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign has also lent us their support. The Rosenberg Fund for Children, an amazing organization founded by one of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, has been there for us over the last couple of years, offering not only their name and helping with outreach, but a small financial contribution as well. Presently, their small donation is the only money that comes in as this is a grass-roots organization with no grants or gifts. And of course the Brecht Forum has happily housed and co-produced this event with me over the past four years, ever since I moved it to NYC.
J: Hard to answer this as I have been a musician most of my life and performance has been so deeply important to me—my musical self, my creative self is surely the biggest part of me. But on the other hand I have a day job (I work as an organizer in the labor movement) and derive an income from that. This allows me to play the music I want to as opposed to something more commercial. I have been playing this kind of experimental jazz for many years, since the late ‘80s, mostly in NYC though I did live outside for several years. When I returned here in 2010 I immediately felt into what I saw as the best part of the new jazz/new music circle.
S: Why did you chose the vibraphone as your main instrument?
J: Though I too see vibes as my main ax, I am a percussionist and play many instruments: vibraphone, xylophone, drum kit, frame drums, hand drums, orchestra bells, small percussion instruments. I also sing. But the short answer is that the vibraphone is the only instrument that allows a percussionist to retain drum chops while also offering much of the breadth and expressiveness of piano. For me, the instrument has many of the characteristics of an electric piano and I enjoy allowing the bars to resonate and blur and smear. I do this often with great use of dynamics so that certain tonalities dominate at certain points, and then others move to the surface. I use a vibraphone without a motor as my training and a lot of experience was on the xylophone: I use rolls on vibes very much the way most percussionist do on marimba. But here it shimmers and widens in a way no other instrument can. Its an amazing voice. Its my voice. I love listening to other vibes players, especially Bobby Hutcherson and Red Norvo, but I have come to realize that its Bill Evans’ piano playing that has stood as the bigger influence to what I do on my instrument.
S: Are you a jazz musician?
J: This is such a relative term: yes, I feel strongly that I am a jazz musician and I have the opportunity to perform regularly with some powerful names associated with the music including Karl Berger and Ras Moshe. But then jazz is such an all-encompassing genre—just look at the leaps and growth it experienced in its first 50 or 60 years! Buddy Bolden could never have envisioned a Thelonious Monk would come along, let alone an Ornette Coleman. But while I have made jazz my primary focus, not only as a performer but as a historian of sorts too, I also play and enjoy non-jazz music. I cannot claim that I do not love the Beatles or King Crimson or Aretha Franklin or Talking Heads because I really do. And Hanns Eisler and Woody Guthrie and Stravinsky and Hindemith just as deeply. The West Coast studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew are among my heros. They played on most of the pop hits of the 1960s yet go unheralded. The music of all of these artists and so many more inspires me in so many ways that I can never have a singular focus. But when jazz reaches in, deeply, and then stretches out, it calls to me like nothing else. And jazz, in this respect, surely includes Coltrane, Ornette, Dolphy and Monk but also Bird, Duke, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5, Don Cherry, Gene Krupa, Paul Bley, anything Max Roach ever touched, Billie Holiday, June Christy, “Music Liberation Orchestra”, “Freedom Now Suite”, “No New York”, “Firebirds”……
J: I have always seen straight to the tradition of cultural workers – artist-activists, if you will. In Left politics the cultural workers were the creative army, the movement musicians and playwrights and singers and actors and poets and painters and film makers and dancers who would encapsulate the struggle through their art. They would inspire and symbolize and call to arms. So my social and political activism just naturally grew into a cultural activism. If we are going to make any serious changes for a People’s government here, the artists must be part of the fight.
S: Do you know of any other NY musicians who are music activists like you?
J: While most artists are generally progressive thinking, many choose not to present anything political, any hot topic, on stage or on record. But I am very happy to say that some of the musicians I have worked with have surely been unafraid to speak their minds. Ras Moshe, who is not only a collaborator but I would say now a very good friend, has been open in his radicalism for many years. And many of the others in his Music Now! Circle share his feelings and engage in events such as the Festival as a matter of course. You, Sohrab, are also among the radical musicians I am happy to work with. But many of the veteran musicians of color have a strong connection to the teaching of the Black Arts Movement, and folks who come to the event on Aug 24 will get to hear much of that. I am so looking forward to hearing Roy Campbell’s liberation pieces!
S: When and why did you join the musicians union Local 802?
J: I have been a member of the Musicians Union for quite a few years. I joined on principal as I am a labor movement activist. Admittedly I had let my membership lapse for a few years when I found it increasingly hard to afford, but I was inspired to take another look and re-join (after you invited me to some J4JA events). I am very pleased with the union at this time and will surely maintain my membership.
J: J4JA is a very very important initiative of 802. One of the earlier problems with the union is that it was almost entirely white male-run. And if you go back far enough, the focus was never on jazz but instead only on classical music and Broadway. Studio musicians of the 30s, 40s and 50s were often jazz musicians yet their Business Rep would have primarily been concerned with the radio work. This began to shift in the 70s and 80s but it was a slow move and many folks were turned off. J4JA is a testament to the union’s decision to reach out to jazz artists and commitment to an actually egalitarian vision.
S: Speaking of you as a New Yorker: who’s your favorite candidate for mayor? Will you join the union’s choice of Bill de Blasio?
J: I am not a registered Democrat—I am a Green Party member—so will not get to vote in the primary. But I do like de Blasio a lot. I supported him in the past and well recall when he first ran as a Council Member, he came to visit my then-workplace (day job) and we were very impressed by him. He is a real progressive. I was at the health care rally just today, in the Village just across from where St Vincent’s Hospital was, and he was fearless in his commitment to average citizens, not only with regard to stopping hospital closings but in his stance against the horrible runaway rent situation we have in this city. He has been a very good Public Advocate and among the candidates, I would like to see him as mayor. Naturally, my politics are quite to de Blasio’s left, so I cannot say that he or any Dem would be my ultimate choice. If there was the opportunity for a candidate with socialist values and philosophy to actually win such a race, I would be campaigning for him or her immediately. But in the here and now, all progressives need to fight the onslaught of the far-right, of the corporatist takeover, of the greed that has permeated our city and so much of the world. Its time for a turn-around and there is such a strong place for the arts in this struggle—particularly an art that is as revolutionary in its creativity as it is in its politics.
S: Thanks for doing this exclusive interview. Good luck with your “baby!”
J: Thank YOU my brother!