THE HIGH ART OF JAZZ
A Conversation with Gregory Talley
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.