Ann Braithwaite of Braithwaite and Katz Communications sent me an email asking if I would like to receive a copy of Gregg August's first album as leader entitled Late August. I replied, "Yes send it to me." It arrived and I put it into the CD player and then had to stop everything I was doing and just listen. Late August is contemporary jazz in the straight-ahead style with a Latin flavor. After listening to the CD a few times, I called Ann and asked if I could interview Gregg for an article on JazzReview and she arranged for me to speak with him.
The interview which is below was as enjoyable as the CD and left me hoping that Gregg August composes, plays and records some more of his captivating music, sooner rather then later.
JAZZREVIEW: I’ve been listening to your CD Late August [IACUESSA Records IACU2922] and I have really enjoyed what I’ve heard.
Gregg August: Thank you.
JAZZREVIEW: Now all nine of the works on there are your compositions.
GREGG AUGUST: Yeah.
JAZZREVIEW: Over what period of time did you compose the songs?
GREGG AUGUST: Well, let me look. I think that the bulk of them were written in the months leading up to the recording. There is one tune on the recording, it is the last track in fact, "Work in Progress" that was written before, it was the earliest one that I had written which is why it is at the end of the record, if you know what I mean. I kept reworking it and that is why it is called "Work in Progress." The other works, the first track "Sweet Maladie" and all the rest were pretty recent compositions. There’s one that Frank Wess plays, "Deceptions," that was finished on the morning of the session.
I had been doing a gig with Frank in this restaurant next to Carnegie Hall called "Shelly’s". It was a steady gig and Frank would play maybe every other week. I asked him if he wanted to play on something for my CD and he said that he would, so I went home and crammed and tried to write something that I knew we could record without rehearsing- I wasn’t sure he would want to come to Brooklyn and rehearse. Anyway, I finished "Deceptions" that morning. Then the Arco thing that I did, "Eulogy," was basically an improv piece. I had some ideas that I came up with the night before, and then went into the studio and played around with them.
We did two dates in July of 2003 with the sextet and then the third date in November in which we recorded "Deceptions," "Eulogy," and the conga-bass duo with the Chembo, "Los Dos Cotós." I tried to make the record a little more comprehensive. I had to get more music on to it. It wasn’t long enough with only the sextet’s music being recorded.
JAZZREVIEW: Yes. I recall buying albums when I was growing up and you would get seventeen minutes of music on each side. Now you usually get an hour of music.
GREGG AUGUST: That seems to be a good amount of time. Maybe seventy minutes as I’ve seen some guys do, you know on jazz records. But that was all I had. It wasn’t a conscious decision.
JAZZREVIEW: Well, what you got is pretty good.
GREGG AUGUST: Thanks.
JAZZREVIEW: I looked at your web site, which has lots of good information, and found that you are a very extensively educated musician.
GREGG AUGUST: Yeah. I had a lot of years in music school, but that didn’t come for a while. My first training was on piano with my aunt up in Schenectady where I grew up. But I had always wanted to play the drums, and began to study in elementary school. I was basically a drummer until I was eighteen, with some piano and electric bass skills. What happened with the bass was my brother received an electric for Christmas when we were teenagers, and since I understood harmony from the piano, I found it easy to figure out. The high school jazz band needed a bass player when I was sixteen, so I bought a Fender Jazz Bass from a different aunt for three hundred dollars, which I still have, and played in the band.
I was into the bass, but hadn’t yet played an acoustic bass. Time was running out. I had to hastily decide what I was going to do with my life after high school. I knew I wanted to be a musician, but didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have any real formal training on anything; I was spread out all over the place. So I started studying percussion, classical percussion, in hopes of being able to go to music school with the intention also of taking upright bass.
I went to SUNY Albany for two years. I studied percussion with Richard Albagli. He said, "Come to SUNY, play in the percussion ensemble and start studying upright bass. Hopefully, you will do okay and they will accept you as a bass major." That Richard Albagli let me into Albany State as a percussion major with the intention of dumping that major, was extremely lucky for me. He let me do what I wanted to do. He had faith in me. I was very fortunate. That’s where my real formal training began. I went there for two years and transferred to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where I finished my Bachelors.
JAZZREVIEW: You have always lived where it is incredibly cold.
GREGG AUGUST: Man you know it, but hey, I lived in Barcelona for two years. In Rochester I’ll never forget the first snowstorm there. The snow fell an inch an hour.
JAZZREVIEW: When you say you were studying percussion, was that the wide range of percussion from around the world, or was that timpani?
GREGG AUGUST: Timpani and mallets, and to be honest that was what I really didn’t want to do. I was always interested in being classically trained, I wanted to have the education to fall back on, but I didn’t want to play percussion in an orchestra. I always felt that there was all this great music being played, like Mozart symphonies and you’re playing only two notes on the timpani . . .one-five, five-one, or a variation. With the bass, I felt I was going to be much more in the music. That was one of the reasons I was attracted to the bass because of its role in classical music. It seemed more fulfilling than the classical percussion role.
JAZZREVIEW: Who did you study bass with at SUNY?
GREGG AUGUST: His name was Paul Erhard and he was a graduate student at Julliard with Homer Mensch, who when I went to Julliard as a grad student, was my teacher. Paul was playing in the Albany Symphony and getting his Master’s at Julliard while teaching up at SUNY Albany.
JAZZREVIEW: Was it at Eastman that you began to study composition?
GREGG AUGUST: Well I took some composition classes at SUNY Albany, but at Eastman I did study more jazz composition and arranging with Ray Wright, for two years. They had a basic arranging class where you would write for five horns and a rhythm section. In the second year, in Advanced Arranging as it’s called, we wrote for big band and then for studio orchestra, which is big band combined with orchestra, so it was challenging.
Ray was one of the best teachers, and he had been there for a number of years, he was legendary. Bill Dobbins was there as well, although I didn’t study writing with him. Bill was a huge influence in the sense that he was so emphatic with the students getting to realize and know the importance of Duke Ellington’s music. That music, to this day, is a huge influence on me because it is jazz that is compositionally so advanced and interesting. He’s on the same level as the some of the best classical music composers. Everybody knows that by now, but when I was twenty years old, I didn’t. Dobbins was really the first one to lay this on me and I was into it immediately. I tip my hat to Wynton Marsalis for pointing that out to a lot of people, musicians and non-musicians alike. For me, as a composer, Duke is the guy, he and Mingus, but maybe Duke a little more.
JAZZREVIEW: Why did you choose Eastman over say NEC or Berklee?
GREGG AUGUST: I had considered NEC and actually auditioned there first, and I remember going there, looking around and liking it. But I had always heard of Eastman, maybe because I’m from New York State. The facilities, the Eastman Theater, it is such a beautiful school. I don’t know, it seemed like that was the place for me. They offered a heavy jazz education and performing opportunities as well as the classical thing. I thought that was the perfect school for me at that time. Later on I went to Julliard, and it was solely a classical school but at least I was in New York and around great jazz players. Julliard was much more conservative, and I was really glad to have gone to Eastman first. At least I had the opportunity to experience both.
I wasn’t interested in Berklee because there were about seven hundred guitar majors there and I knew that a lot of them were just playing rock and roll. There were so many students that you were probably not going to get the same amount of attention from your teacher. They didn’t offer a really good classical program, although there are teachers there who do teach it. I wanted to be in a little more focused environment than Berklee seemed to offer. But I have to say that many guys I know and play with in New York first hooked up there, so I have wondered, like man, maybe I should have gone there.
At the time I didn’t have much of a classical background. The jazz thing I had a little more contact with, even though it wasn’t much to speak of, but I felt a little more competent as a jazz musician. Classical bass wasn’t coming easy and I felt I really needed to focus on that if I could and maybe put jazz off until later on. That is basically what I did until I went to Barcelona, Spain. I played there for two years in the orchestra as principal bass. After that I felt it was the time to go back and try to develop myself as a jazz player.
JAZZREVIEW: How did the job as principal bass for the Barcelona Symphony come about?
GREGG AUGUST: I had just come back from playing and studying in Banff Canada where they have this great summer jazz institute. Banff is absolutely the most magical place I have ever been to- there are elk walking around in the streets, in this little town. Steve Coleman, Rufus Reed and Kenny Wheeler were all there. It was an amazing experience for me. I wasn’t playing any classical bass there, and when I got back to NYC there was an audition. A friend of mine said there were a couple of openings in Barcelona, and I thought, "I want to be in New York. I don’t want to be playing classical music full time." But I was broke, so I took the audition. Usually I would practice very hard for something like that, but I didn’t. For three days I went through all the excerpts that they provided, but I was very relaxed as the result of having this great musical experience in Banff. I won the first chair and it was a good salary. There was a tour in Japan coming up as well as playing in the Barcelona Olympics. And it was only a one-year contract so I said okay.
One month later I was living in Spain and I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. I had a girlfriend there and through her I developed pretty decent Spanish. Now in New York I play with a lot of Cubans, so I’m able to speak it quite often and that allows me to maintain a certain level.
JAZZREVIEW: Then you moved to Paris?
GREGG AUGUST: Yes I did, but that was after two years. They renewed my contract for another year in Barcelona, but after that I said I have got to move on. I really liked living in Europe, the certain quality of life, so decided to go Paris. Soon after arriving there I felt that I was missing out on what was happening in New York. There were a lot of great musicians there and a lot of great New York based musicians coming through to play, but I started to realize that New York was definitely the place I needed to be. I stayed in Paris for one year and then came back to New York. I still play in Paris frequently. I think one year I was in France four times or five times just with Ray Barretto. He’s playing there all the time. Last year I played with him in Marciac [Marciac Jazz Festival in France near the border of Spain]. The French love jazz. I remember going into these kebab places in Paris and they would be playing Basie or Ella. In New York you don’t get that unless you are paying for a specific type of ambiance. They seem to have jazz closer to their hearts.
JAZZREVIEW: Well what happened when you returned to New York, what about ten years ago?
GREGG AUGUST: I tried to establish some work contacts. I offered what I knew in order to survive to make a living. I tried to hook up with everybody that I could, classical as well as jazz, to get everything moving again. It took a while, but eventually I found myself working in many commercial types of things, like playing in the Grammy’s and MTV Video awards- these kind of upper echelon union gigs.
I was also playing jazz gigs where ever I could, and trying to find out what I really wanted to do jazz wise. A lot of the jazz I heard in New York then wasn’t really inspiring to me. I was getting more and more attracted to Latin music, and eventually immersed myself in it. That’s all I was listening to, trying to figure out how to understand and play it. I later went to Cuba for a few weeks, which really messed me up. The fire in the music there, the general approach to playing, it all had a huge effect on me (like a lot of guys in the history of jazz I suppose, Dizzy and everybody else). I decided maybe I ought to try to put this stuff together, not that I wanted to write Latin jazz, but more to use the inspiration. Basically it’s a rhythmic thing. Sometimes in jazz what a lot of guys, not everybody, but a lot of guys rhythmically do is not really representing what I like. The older jazz, the more "classic jazz", it always has a certain rhythmic component - to me it’s the main component of jazz. So much of the newer stuff, it doesn’t really have that. Guys can play in all kinds of crazy meters and play all kinds of crazy changes, but rhythmically speaking it’s not speaking to me, and often it’s not speaking to the audience. What I am trying to say is as a result of having discovered Afro-Cuban music, even on the very basic level that I have, I reconnected with jazz.
GREGG AUGUST: Latin Music, this may sound silly, even Ornette Coleman’s music has an organic thing to it that is not there in a lot of modern jazz or even modern classical music. That is something that I really need, and if I don’t hear that I’m not moved. It’s an emotional thing. I still play classical music and play with some of the best players in New York. The thing that gets frustrating is that we have this method of preparing everything in rehearsal, leaving nothing to chance or to individual personalities. They want those things to of course be in there but it has to first have this flawless quality. So when you get to the gig you are not listening anymore. You are trying to focus in on what you’re doing and making sure you’re doing it as perfectly as possible, playing in tune, playing in rhythm, trying to connect with that particular section for this passage. The performance rarely gets beyond recreating the rehearsals.
I had a gig on Friday with my band and it was actually the best gig I’ve ever done with this band or maybe ever. We played at "A Place for Jazz," in Schenectady, NY. The venue was a Unitarian church, a small whisper dome, and there were no microphones needed. It was a really comfortable setting and the band was relaxed and playing as musically as it ever has. That is not an easy thing to feel. There are so many factors that get in the way, with monitors, and people talking in the audience or not enough people in the audience, but that one really came together.
I had Myron Waldron on alto (he’s on the CD), John Bailey on trumpet (also on the CD), Greg Tardy on tenor, E. J. Strickland on drums who is just killin’, and John Hart on guitar (also on the CD). We had only a short rehearsal the day before because I had some new music that I had finished that day, so we needed to go over it. I never try to tell these guys how to play. I may say let’s work on that passage because it’s not really correct yet, or break things down. Even if they are not initially phrasing it the way I anticipated they eventually do, they seem to fall into it. And I feel that is achieved by not rehearsing it too much, leaving it up to the musicians to figure out what to do which means listening and being communicative with each other.
JAZZREVIEW: Are you going to be touring out here in Southern California?
GREGG AUGUST: Hopefully, but there is nothing solid as of yet.