Scholar. Poet. Playwright. Social commentator. Feminist. Nun. Lesbian. By modern standards, Juana Inés de la Cruz would be a formidable woman. In mid-1600s Mexico, she was an anomaly.
The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish man and a Creole woman, Juana was nevertheless presented at court as a teenager. She soon made it clear that marriage was not for her; she wanted instead to continue her studies, an option not available to women then unless they became nuns. And so she did; as Sor (“sister”) Juana, while carrying out her religious duties, she read, studied, and wrote prolifically. She pulled no punches, yet adhered to the written style of her time. The effect remains both elegant and utterly badass:
O foolish men who accuse
women with so little cause,
not seeing you are the reason
for the very thing you blame:
for if with unequaled longing
you solicit their disdain,
why wish them to behave well
when you urge them on to evil?
You contend with their resistance,
then say gravely that the conquest
arose from their licentiousness
and not your extreme diligence.
The audacity of your mad
belief resembles that of the
child who devises a monster
and then afterward fears it…1
Her voice remains fresh and vital, to say nothing of the look on her face in her portraits.2
“Are you kidding me right now?” she seems to be saying. “We’re still stuck on this sexist bullshit?”
For a certain type of woman, she’s an ideal patron saint. For anyone, she’s a phenomenal example of living your truth and persevering, regardless of what society says, and indeed, will continue to say, long after you’re gone.
~ Emma Alvarez Gibson
1 Translation by Edith Grossman, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Selected Works, pp. 33-34
Multi-instrumentalist, producer and writer Jim Sclavunos has been a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since 1994. Alongside Lydia Lunch, he was an integral part of the No Wave scene in the late 1970s, playing in bands Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Beirut Slump and 8 Eyed Spy, before joining Sonic Youth to record their first album, Confusion Is Sex. Since then he has recorded with a diverse host of artists including Grinderman, The Cramps, Marianne Faithfull and Iggy Pop, along with solo albums as The Vanity Set. Sclavunos’ work as a producer encompasses The Horrors, Gogol Bordello, Beth Orton, The Jim Jones Revue, Beth Jeans Houghton and The Wytches; under the moniker Silver Alert he has done remixes for Philip Glass, Depeche Mode, and Boss Hog, and in 2012 presented “Faustian Pact”, a live adaptation of Murnau’s Faust at The Perth International Arts Festival.
EAG: I’m writing on the topic of cool, and what’s cool, and who’s cool, and what are the criteria.
JS: I hope you’re not coming to me for answers.
EAG: Well, it’s funny, that’s what everybody keeps saying.
JS: But I wonder if that’s because there’s almost a stigma to attaching yourself to the idea of being cool, because it’s not cool to think you’re cool.
EAG: It’s not cool to think you’re cool, and I think too the topic makes a lot of people nervous—
JS: It doesn’t make me nervous, but it’s hard to…maybe it’s just a habit of a lifetime, but I’m not used to thinking of myself as cool. It’s usually something that I think of as something that’s assigned by other people to people other than me. And when people tell me I’m cool, not in like, “That’s cool, Jim,” or something like that, but cool in terms of a trend or a zeitgeist or a legacy, it amuses me more than flatters me.
EAG: Why’s that?
JS: I suppose there’s some flattery anytime anybody kind of implicitly compliments you. But it amuses me more, because it seems so removed from the process whereby I go about doing things, which is usually quite heated. So the temperatures seem misaligned.
EAG: Tell me about the first time in your life that you remember thinking something was really cool. Even if you didn’t know the word yet.
JS: I think Audrey Hepburn. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I can’t remember clearly enough to know how she came on my radar as a child, but I became aware of her as an image, as a icon. And she seemed to embody a lot of things that later on Twiggy seemed to embody. There was a sort of lightheartedness but also a reserve, a distance. There was a sort of elegance mixed with a kind of goofiness. And yeah, there was that hint of an accent that made her most ordinary gestures and comments somehow more exotic. And Twiggy kind of did the same thing later on. And, you know, I grew up in the ’60s so these…skinny ladies… [laughs] were sort of the burgeoning of my sense of female otherness.
Now since then I’ve learned that Raquel Welch is pretty cool, too. [Laughs] She was pretty much the opposite. But she didn’t have that same kind of alien quality, almost. She seemed like a product of Hollywood, whereas Audrey Hepburn seemed very much like something apart from that. And then later on, I started identifying that same sort of quality with Marlene Dietrich. And, you know, in the ’60s they had all this kind of late, late shows. I don’t know if they were still around when you were—
JS: —but, you know, in the pre-cable days if you managed somehow to stay up late, particularly if you had an indulgent babysitter, you could watch all these interesting movies that weren’t on in the daytime. And they were often from Hollywood’s golden age, but sometimes they were also foreign movies. And like I said, I don’t know when all these exotic European-type women started coming onto my radar; I can’t remember. But it was something that seemed very different from the women I was encountering in Brooklyn. And the way they spoke was completely and utterly unlike the way my peers spoke or the way my schoolmates spoke or the teachers. So there was something quite enchanting about it, and that’s where I first kind of started looking or projecting this idea that that’s cool or these women are cool. Because they had reserve, they were understated yet at the same time flamboyant. There seemed to be this real paradox to their demeanors that I couldn’t quite reconcile. And that was what was intriguing about them. And alluring.
“They had reserve, they were understated yet at the same time flamboyant. There seemed to be this real paradox to their demeanors that I couldn’t quite reconcile.”
EAG: Is that tension still part of your criteria?
JS: I think I use cool in a pretty ironic way these days. I’ll use it in conversation like, Oh, that’s cool, meaning, if you say so. I’ll accept your point of view reluctantly, but I’m not prepared to do battle over something that I consider potentially pretty trivial.
EAG: So removing the language aspect from it, what lights you up now?
JS: Well, loads of things. But I have difficulty thinking about them in terms of cool as applied to maybe taste or a signifier of a lifestyle that I’m attracted to. Not to pester the semantics aspect too much, but the other way in which I use “cool” is as a directive to musicians when I’m producing or arranging or bandleading. But it’s often to the drummer, and I say, “Play it cool.” And that’s like meaning don’t make it sound like you’re trying too hard. Hold back a bit. Show some reserve. And so in that way it’s kind of connected with that idea of what I identified in those female actresses when I was very young.
And all that’s before I actually became sort of clued in to music that I might consider cool. I think it really did start with film and film icons. And then I kind of became aware that Marlon Brando was allegedly cool. And that was a little trickier for me, first of all because he was male so he wasn’t quite as attractive to me; and also I had a toy monkey that was called Marlon. My parents told me his name was Marlon and it was probably some kind of in-joke on their part, you know, because Marlon Brando was like the hot actor at the time. So I couldn’t really look at Brando and really feel he was quite as cool as he was alleged to be, or even as cool as my monkey. I still have trouble with that. I mean, it’s hard for me to watch Apocalypse Now and not think of Marlon. The monkey, I mean.
EAG: Really, that works on so many levels.
JS: But I’ll tell you who I did really come to identify with the utmost in cool, and it’s kind of obvious, I suppose, to a certain generation and certain types of musicians of a certain generation. That was Lou Reed.
EAG: Oh, sure.
JS: Yeah. That was indisputable, you know. And everything he did up until he took up Tai Chi was for me the epitome of cool.
EAG: And talk about understated, right?
JS: Well, it was more that he was disdainful. And I started becoming aware of him in my puberty leading to my teenagehood, and that was the sort of posture that I found most attractive about him was his disdain. His withering disdain for almost everything under the sun. And his very elegant way of expressing it, both in terms of his look and his gift for lyrics and his stunning interviews, which were always the embodiment of complete and utter lack of respect for journalists, most journalists, and most of his fellow musicians. His own band included. And it wasn’t so much that I found that disrespect so attractive; I actually didn’t think it was a very attractive trait, you know, dissing musicians, dissing journalists. But the fact that he was so unapologetic about it and so consistent about it made him sort of a marvel to behold. He really seemed fearless. And maybe it was all coming from a deep lack of confidence or very troubled soul, but on the surface it came across as absolutely fearless, his not cottoning or seeming to want to even care or care what the consequences of what he said were. And of course that sort of behavior was a gateway for me through glam rock into punk. And ultimately No Wave, and all the sort of cartoonish behavior all that entailed. But I suppose, you know, I’m as guilty as the next punk rocker of, you know, on some level emulating Lou Reed. I admit it. And that’s probably not very cool, but if I am cool I guess I was in a spiritual journey for finding my own form of coolness. And that’s where I set out, the path I set out on, till I came to that strange fork in the road where I didn’t need to consciously or unconsciously emulate people I admired.
“Photographs are by their very nature the coolest medium, I think. Because they seize this one moment in time, this one perfect moment in time, and make a monument of it, a permanent index of this one monumental moment, where everything was perfect.”
EAG: When was that?
JS: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think I was too busy being alive to notice. But you know, you grow out of it, like you grow out of most things of your youth. Or you hope you grow out of it. And it’s probably in there still somewhere. I can still look at a picture of Lou Reed and my first thought is, Hey, that’s cool. And then I remember the other stuff I know about him, and I think, Yeah, he was cool. Or maybe just his picture was cool.
Photographs are by their very nature the coolest medium, I think. Because they seize this one moment in time, this one perfect moment in time, and make a monument of it, a permanent index of this one monumental moment, where everything was perfect. The lighting was perfect, the person’s expression and body shape. And the photographer either lucked out or had the keen eye to capture it. And it’s preserved forever. And all the imperfections that might otherwise have existed in this person’s life are irrelevant because this image is forever. And the camera is by its nature also a sort of a clinical device. It reflects what it sees; it captures what it sees. It’s not, apart from any darkroom trickery or other special effects. Joel Peter Witkin style. You know, apart from any of that kind of thing, the camera usually just captures what’s in front of it. And if you capture that one moment, the camera is sort of a passive observer; even though it’s being directed by a photographer it’s a passive observer. It doesn’t overtly manipulate reality; it just captures it. And so it’s cool in the sense, again, of being held back, of being reserved, of being almost a sort of passive engagement rather than a proactive engagement. Does that make any sense?
EAG: That makes perfect sense. Are there other concepts or things that fall into that category for you?
JS: Not as much, no. Because film, you know, you would think film is a very closely related; it’s basically the same technology, right? But because it deals in time rather than a single frozen moment in time, it’s more…I can’t think of the word I’m looking for. Things get manipulated more and so there’s more of a subjective sort of activity going on. It’s not as phlegmatic. It’s more fiery. To use a sort of alchemical sort of analogy. But also the way…I guess painting comes the closest, at least from a observational point of view, because you have to sit there and look at it and kind of digest it. And you have to be still; you can’t be like jumping back and forth. It has to happen in that moment and it only can happen in that moment. So everything about something that’s sort of stationary and in a frame demands a sort of passive regard, more so than films or books or watching theater or dance or any of the other arts. It sort of almost demands a meditative eye. And there’s usually one single ideal position to look at any of these things. And it’s almost like time has to stand still the same way you have to stand still, whereas the other arts unfold in time. You’re reading a book, it takes time to read a book. You have to turn pages. Sometimes you have to reread a passage, you know. It’s something that involves a sort of an intellectual motion. Likewise film, likewise theater. Photography more than any other is preserved in amber. There’s a moment preserved in amber. Painting comes close, but the process is not as refined as the photographic moment. Does it make sense, what I’m saying?
EAG: Yeah, totally. I see that.
JS: I’d love to have read the Susan Sontag book on photography before I said any of that stuff, because she’s got a good way of analyzing things and sometimes in a way that might undercut some of my thoughts or enhance my thoughts. But I haven’t read it. Sarah [his wife, publicist Sarah Lowe] just acquired it, and neither of us have read it. And she’s a pretty cool lady.
I guess I’ve been equally drawn to individuals of both genders that I thought were cool. I never thought of Susan Sontag as a hottie, but the idea of an intellectualized woman, a woman that was unsparingly intellectual, had a sort of allure beyond the scope of her thoughts. And I never could say that I felt sexually attracted to Lou Reed, but I could see that there was something about him that was sexually alluring, in some weird way…something in a sort of panther-like, cool sexual vibe that I just thought, Yes, there’s a sexual component here. It’s not something that makes me horny, but it’s something I think in some way is a sublimation of a sexual impulse. Yeah. It somehow is sublimated, not in the sense of the sublime. That’s a different set of ideas altogether, but sort of sublimated in a Freudian way, almost like fetishistic kind of appeal of an image.
EAG: Transference, almost.
JS: Yeah. Transference. That’s a good way to put it.
EAG: On a different note, I was amused to see that an old photo of you appeared in the final episode of Parts Unknown.
JS: Did it?
EAG: Yeah. Because Lydia Lunch was in that episode.
JS: [Talking in the background] Oh, yes. Okay. Sorry, I didn’t…that’s how cool I am. I don’t watch TV. I didn’t actually know what Parts Unknown was.
EAG: Yeah, the last Anthony Bourdain series.
JS: I don’t really know anything about him. Marty, the bass player in the Bad Seeds—who I also think is very, very cool, I’ll have you know—he has been an avid reader of Anthony Bourdain’s books. But I’ve never picked one up myself.
EAG: I wondered if you guys had crossed paths at any point, because you were kind of in the same time and the same place in the ’70s.
JS: Not knowingly. What was the context in which this picture showed up? Was it just sort of showing what Lydia looked like back in the day?
JS: Well, I’m certainly acquainted with Lydia’s style of speaking.
“Can people who are provocateurs be cool? Not in my traditional sort of understanding of what cool is.”
EAG: Good God. I was not ready for some of the things she said.
JS: Well, she’s always tried to be a provocateur. And that poses an interesting thing: can people who are provocateurs be cool? Not in my traditional sort of understanding of what cool is. And when I say traditional, I mean that kind of reaches back to the model of the beatniks and their bohemian predecessors and then the various forms that coolness took in the swinging ’60s. And then the coolness of punk rock, as most iconically embodied by, say, the Ramones or Willy DeVille or something. Lydia always has been an outspoken person that has a sort of a…it’s a high-energy demeanor usually. And this is no slight against Lydia or what she does as an artist or a personality, but she doesn’t, for me, evoke the idea of cool. She evokes the idea of Lydia, and that’s a unique and special thing in itself. And a valuable thing. But I can’t think of her as cool in the same way I think of a more reserved personality is cool.
JS: I’ll tell you what No Wave band—if we can talk about No Wave, if that means anything to you…
EAG: Of course it does. I’ve done my homework, Jim.
JS: Okay. Well, Mars, that seemed like a cool band. And the people in it were cool, because their social behavior was so bizarre and seemed so disconnected from normal social behavior. And the music they were making on stage was so unlike rock and roll music of any form, that they seemed to me very cool.
EAG: What was their social behavior like?
JS: Ranging from catatonic to hallucinogenic. I don’t know if they were druggies; I don’t think they actually were. I think they were just very unusual people in a very unusual band. And maybe some of it was affected, but I think a lot of it wasn’t. I think they were just really oddballs. And by comparison with, say, Lydia Lunch and James Chance, who were always kind of very provocative and confrontational, Mars were very sort of off in their own world. Planet Mars, I guess. Anyway, enough about No Wave.
EAG: It seems like that commitment is a big part of what you’re talking about. A commitment to doing your own thing and sort of not taking the rest of the world all that seriously in terms of how much it dictates what you do.
JS: Yes, but there are a lot of people who claim to do that and yet are clamoring for attention all the time. And their behavior bespeaks that. They say, “I don’t care about what the rest of the world thinks. Do you hear me? I don’t care. I really don’t care. I hate you all. Do you hear me? I want to make sure you spell my name correctly when you quote me saying how much I hate what you think of me and how much I don’t care. Did you get that? And if you want more information, my manager and publicist can be reached at this number. But I don’t care what you think. Am I on the front cover? I don’t care.”
That’s how a lot of those people come across to me. And I don’t believe it for a second that they don’t care. I do believe that they’re doing their own thing, but I don’t think that that’s the entirety of the story. Lots of people do their own thing. Nuns do their own thing. I’m sure there are some cool nuns out there, and some that are not so cool. I mostly was educated by the ones that weren’t.
Mason Mixx is a veteran musician, singer, and songwriter. Currently he’s a member of grace metalious and noise band Blim Noir. He lives in New York with his wife.
EAG: You’re someone who believes strongly in the DIY ethos. Tell me about that.
MM: Well, what can I say, other than if you want to do something, then you have to do it. I mean, there are and were—I suppose there were more than there are now, but—middlemen people that you need to coordinate with or get permission from or have someone else sign off on what you’re doing. DIY kind of eliminates a whole heck of a lot of that. And for those who are motivated and energetic, it’s kind of the obvious way to achieve things. And you don’t have to wait for anybody but yourself.
EAG: Is it something that grows on itself? When you first said, I’m just going to do this, did you then find yourself looking at other avenues where you might apply that same thinking?
MM: Absolutely. I mean, the only limitation is basically the amount of time you can devote to something. And the level of devotion to the task, I guess. There are people who want to do a lot of things in order to accomplish whatever it is. And then there are those that don’t. I mean, anybody who’s been in a band knows that you’re going to have to rehearse, you’re going to have to have a space to rehearse, you’re going to need equipment, you’re going to need material written. You’re going to have to contact clubs to book gigs, you’re going to have to promote it. You’re going to have to make flyers and staple them to telephone poles or whatever that entails. You need to put together a fanzine and develop a mailing list and get that out to the fans and recognize them and be gracious and thankful for the fact that they’re paying attention to you. So all of that requires maintenance. And that’s the nature of DIY. I mean, it’s certainly not easy and it takes more work than people can probably imagine. But the rewards are many.
EAG: What are some of those rewards that you’ve seen?
MM: Well, the rewards are realizing that there are people out in the world that are, to some extent, in sync with what you’re doing and spreading that kind of excitement and being able to cultivate that from the standpoint of either connections related to recording or interviews on radio stations, interviews for newspapers, whatever. I mean, so all of that, if you’re continuing to reach and connect and interact and network and so on, the rewards are there.
EAG: That makes me think of something. You started doing all of this in what, the 80s?
MM: Well, without letting anyone know that I’m 120 years old, I would say I was definitely doing it in the 70s.
EAG: Since the internet came along, it seems like we all spend a lot of time talking about how much smaller the world’s gotten. Do you think that’s something that DIYers were already aware of? That we’re all interconnected?
MM: Well that’s an interesting point. I wonder if the world really has gotten smaller. There’s a lot more noise. There’s a lot more static in the air because there are so many choices and it’s so easy to decide what you want or change your mind. So I think it’s really a different playing field. Although, there are aspects that are exactly the same. There are people who will invest enough energy and effort to realize whatever it is they’re out to realize. And there are those that will give up halfway there. So it’s still up to the individual to decide how far you’re going to go with something. And I mean, it can and does get to the point at times where your health is suffering, your finances are suffering, your social life is suffering. There’s no way you can be aware of everything. And so there is, to some extent, a lot of subjective isolation, if you will, involved with pursuing this one thing. I mean, take for instance, how many bands can you be aware of? How many records can you buy? How much time do you have to absorb all of this? And in the meantime, you’re writing your own material, you’re organizing rehearsals and recording sessions and gigs. There’s only 24 hours in the day.
EAG: Thinking about the mindset that’s required to do things yourself, would you say that there’s a unifying characteristic among people who do a lot of DIY stuff?
MM: Yeah. There’s a tremendous amount of unification out there. It’s kind of the essence of getting into anything that’s off the mainstream. And that’s generally where most people start. Nobody can jump directly into the mainstream, if that happens to be where someone wants to end up. But even finding off the wall, non-mainstream music, you’ve got to hunt for it. You’ve got to put the time and effort into exploring and discovering where that resides. And that’s incredibly exciting because you’re going to end up interacting with a lot of other people who are doing the same thing. And so you can end up discovering scenes that aren’t really recognized, if you know what I mean.
EAG: You’ve got to kind of follow the trail of breadcrumbs.
MM: Yeah, absolutely.
“I think the reason that DIY matters is that it’s just phenomenally liberating. You can start, you can just begin, no matter what it is.”
EAG: As a kid I spent tons of time reading about bands, and actors, and movies, and fashion and art. And I tracked all this stuff down by myself because none of the other 10- and 11-year-olds I knew were interested in that kind of stuff. As I followed these trails, I would stumble on other things, and make other discoveries. And one of the ideas behind this project was, wouldn’t it have been cool to have a little guidance? I’ve actively been indoctrinating my son into various parts of culture, like, Okay, look, you have to know this artist. You have to know this school of thought. You have to know X, Y, and Z. How great would that have been to have some of that structure, those underpinnings?
EAG: Of course, by the same token, I’m probably robbing some people of the opportunity to look it up themselves.
MM: Well, I would suggest that from the standpoint of being a young person in relationship to the older person who’s providing this enlightening information that the young person is going to invariably at some point say, “I’m just way, way more fucking cool than this.”
EAG: Yeah. Absolutely.
MM: “This stuff is maybe, maybe 10% there, but I’m 80% there.” Which is good. We want everybody discovering the golden nuggets however, and wherever they may find them.
EAG: And that’s as it should be. God forbid you have youth without ego. That’s useless.
MM: Right. Yeah. And as long as it’s not some…I’ve always really despised the “10 Easy Steps to Whatever,” you know what I mean? Never was anything that attracted my attention. I just, I hated that concept.
EAG: “Here’s your kit. Now you’re a cool guy.”
MM: Right. I think the reason that DIY matters is that it’s just phenomenally liberating. You grow up and go through life with a huge list of why you can’t do things, and DIY allows you to, if you can put your money where your mouth is. You can start, you can just begin, no matter what it is. And if you’re bold enough to get out there and interact with people that are doing the same thing, then if you stay committed, you’re ultimately going to be involved with a larger group doing that. And to a certain extent, it’s all about getting more and more people aware of it, getting attention, getting recognized, and that can be a hell of a lot of fun because it’s not going to be all positive recognition.
MM: Which is a significant part of the learning process. You’re going to hear a lot of no’s. The ratio of no’s to yes’s is daunting. So you learn to not take things personally and keep your eye on pursuing your DIY mission.
At 14, Gregory Talley began to teach himself photography using a Brownie Hawkeye camera. He won several photo competitions, motivating him to pursue a career in photography. Upon graduating high school, he was drafted into the Army and deployed to Vietnam. When he returned to the US, he became a high school photography teacher, and continued producing his own work, taking classes and completing postgraduate work. After 36 years of teaching, he retired from education and continues to make photos from his home studio. Along the way, he’s become an expert on jazz.
EAG: What makes jazz so cool?
GT: Okay. Well first, people who perform jazz—not everyone, you know, because some people go off the deep end—but their first concern is usually not “How much money can I make?” or, “I’m going to be this rich, famous musician.” It’s usually a dedication to the art. You do it for the passion.
And it’s very individual, you know, because if you’re listening to other types of music, they all play together. No one is outstanding. The band sounds like a band. But in jazz, the leader will always give the individuals in the band the opportunity to shine. To go off on their own. When they do that, it’s not following the notes on the page. They go off and the band continues to play. The beat’s there, it’s still structured, and a lot of people don’t understand that. There’s still that underlying structure.
And you can hear their brilliance, because they’ll go off and they’ll play something, but then it comes right back into the melody. It’s a genre of music that I think is unlike any other music. It takes you with the musician. You go on that ride with them, you know. I can remember when I was probably about 14. I used to listen to jazz, so I was kind of not the ordinary kid, because everybody was listening to Motown. Which was good, but when I was at home, I’d get a Miles Davis album. I’d put it on, and I could just close my eyes, and I’m there with Miles Davis. It was just cool. Not hip, because there’s a big difference between hip and cool.
EAG: Tell me about that. What’s the difference between hip and cool?
GT: Well hip is like you’re up with the latest styles. You’re doing what’s new. It’s like everybody’s wearing this style of clothes or this kind of haircut. That’s hip. Cool has nothing to do with that. Cool is feeling good in your own skin.Being able to be an individual and not worry about what other people think or how other people feel. Being open-minded. Being accepting, willing to accept other people for who and what they are. What’s really hilarious is when you see someone that’s my age and they’re trying to be hip. You just look stupid. It’s like, you’re trying to wear what young people wear, it doesn’t work. You know, you’ve got the strange haircut and you’re like 65. You’re 75 and you’ve got blue and purple hair.
EAG: But what if they’ve always had that crazy haircut?
GT: If it’s always been that way, then they were the shepherd, not the sheep.
EAG: Right. Then does that make that cool? Because they’re being true to themselves?
GT: Then it’s cool, because of who they are, not because of who they’re following.
EAG: You said being true to yourself is part of being cool, and jazz includes the individuals and makes space for them to express themselves.
GT: Right. People who are cool, they may not be musicians, or they may not be artists, but they’re usually people who appreciate the arts. The arts are usually a major part of their life. Like to me, jazz is my background music for life. You know, if I’m in my darkroom and I’m making prints, jazz is in the background. The foundations of how I work are very similar to jazz.
EAG: Tell me about that.
GT: My work is structured. When I have an idea for a photograph, it’s going to be well composed. I’ve planned it out well in advance of when I’m getting ready to do it, because I’m doing these still life pictures, so I’m setting up things and I may make up props and models and so forth and so on. All this goes into it, but when I have it in front of the camera and I’ve lit it, it’s like, “Okay. That’s all right. But I’m going to step back, and: what can I do? How can I change it? Should I move the light around? Should I move my subject within the frame? ” I begin to innovate within the context of what I’ve already planned. Which is basically what jazz is. There’s this plan, there’s the music on the page, and yet each musician has their opportunity to go outside of that and come back in. Come back into that structure.
EAG: How much of the success of the piece would you say is about editing?
GT: A lot of it. I just came back from Morocco, my wife and I went to Morocco, and it was really cool, and I took pictures, of course. [Laughs] I don’t consider that my high art. I take vacation pictures. And every now and then I’m going through them and it’s like, “Okay, I see this.” It’s not the kind of stuff that I plan and work hard at, but I’ll see something, I’ll say, “Well you know, if I cut this out, and…” Photoshop used to be a sin to me, but it’s not anymore. It’s just another art tool.
There was this photo contest with the organization I’m involved in, about street photography around the world, and I saw this picture that I took in Morocco of this little shop. You can see a reflection of the shop owner in one of these polished brass pieces. In another piece, there’s a pedestrian. It’s just in this corner of the picture. I said, “Okay, well, I’m going to use that corner of the picture.” So I cropped, and the majority of the picture’s gone. It’s just this little corner, these two little images, the face of one person and the face of another one. I’m thinking, “That’s pretty cool.” At one time, the technology wouldn’t allow you to do it because if you start cropping this little corner and blowing it up, it would fall apart as far as the technical quality.
EAG: I’m hearing that maybe improvisation is really central to coolness as well.
GT: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You have to improvise, I think. That’s the same thing as being open-minded, is improvising. But not depending on it. In other words, you still have that structure. But within the context of that structure, you figure, “I can do something else.” Because like I said, what I’m doing is still lives. I’m setting things up and moving things around, and sometimes I’ll just leave the setup. That’s why I like doing still lives, because it doesn’t go away. Like when you photograph people, it’s “Okay, I don’t want to sit here.” All this. But I have everything set up. Sometimes I’ll just go sit somewhere, go get a cup of tea, think about it. What can I do with it? And come back half an hour later, 45 minutes later, and then make the picture. Because it’s not digital, you really are not absolutely sure what you have. The next day I’ll go process the film or whenever, and then I’ll look at the negative and I’ll say, “Oh, shoot.” And I’ll go back and I’ll reshoot the whole thing, because it wasn’t what I wanted. You have to be open-minded enough to say, “It’s not what I want,” and to go back and re-do it and accept your fallibility.
EAG: So have some awareness and relationship with your own ego.
GT: Oh yeah. It’s like me being able to say I’m no good at playing the saxophone. I’m not going to put photography aside because I’ve gotten pretty decent at that, but I can look at what I do and say, “Oh, that’s not good.” I’ve gotten to the point where I can tear up a picture and not feel bad. I’ve done all the work. I’ve made the print, it’s dried, and I’m looking at it, and I spent the money because now it costs a lot more money to shoot. And then the paper’s pretty big, so it gets expensive. Then you look at it and you say, “That’s crap.” And tear it up. And you have to be willing to do that instead of saying, “I spent this much time doing it and this much money, well hell, it’s not that bad.” No. But anyway, that’s getting away from cool.
EAG: Well, I’m not sure that it is. Art is cool, music is cool, but so is having self-awareness. So is knowing the rules before you break them. So is being open to new experiences.
EAG: It almost comes down to really, being cool is knowing who you are, and being a decent person.
GT: It does. It really does. I don’t go to jazz concerts as much as I used to, but if there’s something at the Hollywood Bowl—I’ll use that as an example, because jazz is the only thing I’m going to go see at the Bowl. I don’t go see anything else there. That sounds horrible, huh?
EAG: The Bowl is such an ordeal.
GT: Yeah. But the thing is, if it’s somebody you’re really into, you go. And there you have this crowd of people that are so eclectic. You’ll have somebody there that’s in their 80s with an oxygen tank, and then you’ll have teenager who, they can’t get in a club but they can go hear jazz at the Bowl. Every ethnicity you can possibly think of. And everybody is cool. I’ve never seen a fight or an argument at a jazz concert. You might smell some dope, you know what I mean? But you never see fights or arguments, and that guy that’s next to me with that oxygen tank, that’s in his mid-80s, and he doesn’t look like me? We’re still cool. Because he’ll say, “Hey, I’ve got a bottle of wine, you want a little bit?” And I’ll say, “Okay, you know, I’ve got some cookies, you want a cookie?” Everybody’s together.
“I’ve never seen a fight or an argument at a jazz concert. You might smell some dope, you know what I mean? But you never see fights or arguments.”
If you’re a musician, I say you’re automatically cool. If you’re a visual artist, I think you’re automatically cool. People who are in the arts. Literature, you know, writers. You have to be open minded to do those things. You have to be a risk taker to do those things. You have to have enough passion in your art to do them.
EAG: People who really know jazz, and who really love jazz, seem to have a special bond.
GT: You have this thing in common, this love for the music. Okay, so you have that in common no matter what else. If it’s a passion, if you really love jazz, then the bond is even stronger because it’s like…it’s unmentioned, but you’re kind of kindred spirits. I think it’s like old soldiers. Whenever you meet someone else that was in the army. I was in the army, you know. It’s like you’re instant buddies. My wife and I, we went to Vietnam. We were on a ship, and there were a couple of veterans. You didn’t know who a veteran was or who wasn’t, but then somebody said, “Yeah, well, you know, when I was there …” I said, “Hey, you were there? When were you there?” And they’ll tell you a year. It’s like if there are 1000 people on that ship, that one has become your friend immediately. I think it’s the same thing about jazz. When we go to a club, and you’re sitting down, you may strike up a conversation with somebody at the next table, because you’re both listening to Pete Escovedo‘s Latin Jazz Orchestra. You’re enthusiastic about it. It’s the bond.
EAG: Tell me about Miles Davis.
GT: Oh, Miles Davis. He was really not a nice person. But he was so innovative. He was one of the founders of the cool school of jazz. Breaking away from the big band era, and working with trios. He was very innovative in the music that he made, and his sound was very distinctive. I think that’s one of the things that kind of set him apart from a lot of people who were playing trumpet back then was, his sound was unique. When Miles Davis started, you knew immediately it was Miles Davis. You didn’t have to say, “I wonder who that is?” You knew, because it sounds like Miles Davis. The more you get into jazz, the more you can distinguish one musician from another just by the sound of their instrument. It’s like when Ben Webster plays his tenor saxophone, you know that’s Ben Webster within two or three notes.
But back to Miles Davis. One of the founders of the cool school, like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey and there are a lot of others, but he was one of the first. But he was trumpet. So his sound was distinctive. He evolved with that music, and he played with a jazz orchestra, the Gil Evans Jazz Orchestra, and they did several things together that were just…back when he started doing it, it was kind of like, “What’s he doing?” But he was always so cool that he would think, “I can do this outside of what I’ve been doing.” And when he did it, it would work. You know, like the Sketches of Spain album, which is like, if you’re a jazz aficionado and you have a collection of music, there’s certain things that you must have in your collection, otherwise you’re not serious. The album, Sketches of Spain, you must have that. You must have Kind of Blue. There are certain albums that you have to have. You have to have something in there by Thelonius Monk, and you have to have something in there by Bill Evans. Or Paul Chambers. These are musicians that are the foundation of that kind of music, or foundations of jazz. So Miles Davis I think was that. I loved his music. I hated his performances.
EAG: Why is that?
GT: You would pay good money to go see Miles Davis. If you went to see him at a club, and I’ve seen him in a big venue, at the Bowl. He had no respect for his audience. There’s some musicians that work hard to give you a great performance, because you paid your money. Okay? Not just because you paid your money, but because they’re glad to see that they have an audience. Miles Davis was so aloof that he didn’t care anything about his audience. He would come onstage. He would play a few notes, and he might just walk offstage, and his band would continue to play, and 5 or 10 minutes later he might come back onstage and blow a few notes, and walk off again. I paid this money to see this clown and this is what I get, you know what I mean? How many thousands of people are there to hear Miles Davis, because this is the biggest name in cool, right?
EAG: Do you think there’s a line where the bad-boy thing comes into play and people view that as cool in addition to the other stuff?
GT: There were other musicians that followed his persona. If Miles Davis did it, they thought it was cool. Well, he was always loaded. So a lot of musicians figured, “Well, Miles Davis can make this great music and he’s high. So I’m going to get high, too. Maybe I can make better music.” It was to their own detriment. I think that was one of the bad things about Miles Davis, you know, but he made such great music that you appreciate the music apart from him. That’s the way I was with Miles Davis. He stopped performing some of his standards at concerts, because he said, excuse the expression, “That shit’s old. I’m not doing it anymore.” He’d come do this stuff, which is like… experimental. And it’s okay, but it can be so far out that melody is lost, and the musicality of it is gone. He did one called Nefertiti, that was the name of the album. Because he had such a reputation, I went out and bought the album, and regretted it, because it was like, “This just don’t work.”
Yeah, Miles Davis was very innovative. He did a lot to advance jazz, because before Miles Davis, most jazz was big band. Which I love. I really love big band jazz. It’s just that it’s so expensive to hold together a big band, that there are very few of them out there. So you can’t go hear big band jazz. The quartets and the sextets and the trios became much more accessible. You could go to a club and you’re sitting there, and you’re like a foot away from the bandstand. Because they can afford to have three, four, five musicians. The music is still great and innovative. But big bands, oh God, I love them. There’s a few that I would drive 100 miles to go see. Like, I like Latin jazz.
And Pete Escovedo’s band is to me the pinnacle of big-band Latin jazz. He’s on the West Coast, he’s out of Oakland, and he comes down to LA about once a year. Whenever he’s down here, I’ll go see him. He’s probably in his 70s, and he plays timbales. It’s a family band, almost. He’s got three sons. They’re all in the band, and they all are percussion players. So it’s like the regular drum set, the congas and the bongos, and then Pete Escovedo on timbales. Then he has trombones and saxophones. He’s got a 15-piece band. I went to see them at Catalina’s, which is a club down here in Hollywood. It’s about as big as these three rooms put together. So when you have a big band in a club that size, it fills the room, right? My wife and I had a table probably as far from here to that wall, you know. You don’t really even need amplification. So we’re close up, and we’re just sitting there waiting. He comes on the bandstand, he’s got white hair, because he’s older. And he’s slowed down a little bit, but he gets up there and they’re funny, you know, they’re talking and so forth. Then he says, “We’re tired of talking, we’re going to make some music.”
When they start, the music just blows you back. But it’s not just noise, because you can hear some different genre of music where the volume blows you back, but it’s not the quality of the music. Well this one, it’s the quality of the music, and it’s not the volume. It’s loud, but it’s not the volume that does it. Then his daughter will be in the audience, and he’ll say, “Well, I’m going to have my daughter come up and take over on the drums,” and he kicks his other son off the drums and his daughter comes up. His daughter’s Sheila E.
GT: Yes. She will show up at most of his concerts, and she goes up with her little heels on and she takes them off, you know, and she gets to hitting the skins. That band just sends chills through you. They’re all very friendly. He used to say, “Well after the concert, we’ve got CDs for sale over there, my wife is selling CDs. If you want I’ll autograph them.” They’ll sit there and they’ll autograph them. They’re just good people that make this fantastic music.
EAG: Back to Miles for a second. We all do terrible things in our lives. Some more terrible than others. Is there a point at which someone like Miles Davis could stop being cool? Or is it just, look, he did this incredible thing. He will forever be cool because of that.
GT: His music was cool. He had this imagination and he had this ability to innovate. That didn’t make him a good person. Would I want to sit down, if he were still alive would I want to sit down with him and we could shoot the breeze and we could just kick back and have a good time? Not particularly. I think there’s a difference between being able to produce things that are cool, and being cool.
EAG: Don’t you think that there’s sort of a transference of that quality, if what they’ve produced is cool enough? That’s separate from wanting to hang out with them. I don’t know that there’s an answer to that question.
GT: I don’t either. Miles Davis was cool in his own right. He just wasn’t a good person. I think that people who are into jazz, and on a larger sense into the arts, are people who are cool.
Jazz is high art. As Americans, we don’t appreciate, for the most part, our high art. To me, it’s a metaphor for what America should be. Because when everybody coexists and you all have this one thing in common, that’s beautiful. It’s what we should be as Americans.