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Hugh Ragin

I have a soft spot for the more adventuresome aspects of jazz, the avant-garde, free, way out, loft scene stuff. And I have been a Hugh Ragin devotee since my first experience hearing him on a David Murray album. When I heard he was set to release an album on Justin Time, I knew I had to talk to him about it. We sat down from his office at Oberlin to talk about his album, "An Afternoon in Harlem," his friendship with David Murray and Roscoe Mitchell, and his teaching. This is a conversation with one of the standard bearers of this brand of music I so dearly enjoy, uncut and in his own words.

Q: Let's start from the beginning.

I started playing trumpet in eighth grade and that just came by way of, a lot of the guys in the neighborhood that played football, actually decided to start playing trumpets. I was in this beginning band with like twenty-five players, twenty-five trumpets really. I had a difficult time at first because I was sitting in the twenty-fifth chair and I decided I wanted to try and do something to get a little better on it. I started talking to the first chair trumpet player, who was the cousin of Billy Harper, who is a jazz tenor saxophonist in New York. He told me he was taking lessons and practicing everyday and he would get advice from his cousin who lived in New York. So I say, "So you practice everyday and you take lessons." So I said, OK, so once I started doing that, I found out, that's when my practice ethics started, I found out that if you really practice on something, you could get it done. From there, I was in junior high at the time, so the eighth grade. The next year, well, actually, towards the end of the eighth grade, this was actually in the early sixties when Martin Luther King was making some of his strides. During this time, when I had made advanced band, I was playing first chair in there and our director said that the people from the Houston Symphony, I'm from Houston, Texas, and the people from the Houston Symphony were looking for black students that wanted to study, because previously, before those King marches, that was just unheard of and so when this opportunity opened, I started studying. I started essentially studying classical music, but at the same time, my band mates in junior high grew up with Horace Silver. Our band director would instill the importance of being a good jazz player as well as being a good classical player. I think also, during that period I made the all-city junior high band in Houston and then in high school, I started playing in the Houston all-city orchestra. I made all-state band, and I played in a civic orchestra which was more of working adults. I just kept playing all the time and then I went to, it kind of ended with playing principal trumpet in the all-city Houston, the high school all-city orchestra. We went to England and Wales. Then I went to the University of Houston and got my Bachelors in music education and kept making the point, although I just studied classical music, I would still find jazz people to talk to. I talked to Donald Byrd quite a bit during that period. I would say I had three, kind of, what I would call important street lessons and there were some other people, but Donald Byrd in particular was very helpful. From there, I went to Colorado State University and I got a Masters in classical trumpet performance and after that I went to the Creative Music Studio in New York in the late seventies, primarily to study composition with Roscoe Mitchell, of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And at that time, the whole Art Ensemble of Chicago was in residence. This was during a New Year's Eve intensive, which was December 26, 1978 to January 4, 1979. After that, that summer, I went on the road with Roscoe Mitchell/Leo Smith Creative Orchestra. We went to Germany. We played a festival in Germany at Moers and then we went to Paris to record. While I was recording with Leo Smith's part of the recording, Anthony Braxton sat in on a tune that I was soloing on. I had met Braxton previously, two times. The first time, I showed him some transcriptions of his that day and I asked him if they were correct. He said they were. And the next time I saw him at the Creative Music Studio while I was studying with Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony was there visiting. We played chess a lot. We sat down and recorded, soloing on the same tune and then he came to me and said, "I didn't know that you played trumpet? Why don't you do this duo tour with me?" This was like May, '79 and that fall, by October, I was on the road with Anthony Braxton doing a duo tour. I'd say, ever since then, off and on, I've been going to Europe periodically, and pretty much playing and teaching.

Q: Let's touch on the European scene, are the audiences more receptive?

Definitely. Definitely. Now, just being in Paris recently, I was just reflecting on how Paris in particular has been very open. When you go back to Haydn Paris Symphonies. Haydn, being from a German type of background, at one time, was received very well in Paris. In a way, they took pride in how they accepted foreigners and what they did. When Haydn was writing symphonies, there were a lot of Persian guys writing symphonies too, but they say, "No, this is really happening." And it got a lot of support and I look back into the seventies and that's when Braxton and Roscoe, all those guys went to Paris, and their music was very accepted. They started feeling in a small box in Chicago and then they became, they gained more worldwide acceptance. In Germany, I just went to this festival in Berlin. I think it was in late fall in '98 and boy, they are keeping this music on a very high level too, a very high level. I think here, we have five record companies, major corporations that dictate the scene. They put a certain scene out on the radio and it's very locked down. You have to really go out of your way to find extra information, where as over there, they don't really have that. They come from a long tradition of a lot of music. The Art Ensemble is definitely more well received over there than they are here. Europe really gave them their first acceptance. Europe really brought Louis Armstrong over there, France in particular. They said, "This is great music. This is what's happening." Where as, when Louis Armstrong was in the States, a lot of people didn't look to him like that. He had to go overseas and come back to gain more acceptance. Europe has a history of wider acceptance of different things.

Q: Let's talk about your relationship with Roscoe.

I'd say, Roscoe Mitchell, for me, I feel he's kind of like my mentor. I was just captivated by his compositions, the way he composed and the way he works his music in general, the way he could do solo concerts, and the way he would organize ensembles, and the way his music dovetails into a lot of different areas. For instance, right now, I am teaching, I'm the Acting Director of Jazz Studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. We're part of what is called the contemporary music department. It's under three headings. It's under jazz, new music, and electronic music. Roscoe moves in through all those areas very well, as well as he's rooted in the basics. We just came back from Paris last week doing a concert and he was telling me how he was studying Baroque flute and dealing with recorders. I like somebody with a three hundred and sixty degree picture of the music, and yet still wanting to take it forward, but never forgetting what came before. I would say that mirrors the direction I like to go in and I can always look to him to see somebody that's really, firmly rooted and committed in that area. I just talked to him last night and he's always encouraging. I look at him as the teacher, really for me. Leo Smith was more or less, it just happened that him and Roscoe had that gig together, but Leo, I've just admired his work with Braxton and I know Leo too. I talked to him recently. But I would say, Roscoe, more than anyone has been like a, I still call him the teacher.

Q: And David Murray?

For me, David is like a blood brother. He's like a, he's like family to me. I've always liked David's music also. When we met, it was funny, we were in Boulder, Colorado and I was on the road. I had met David in 1980 in Moers, Germany and then when I was on the road with Maynard Ferguson in '83. The whole year in '83, I was on the road with Maynard Ferguson. I'm on his "Live from San Francisco" (Palo Alto) album. Whenever we would go to New York, I'd always go see David, just because I loved his music. Then I would say, a year later, when he came to Boulder, I was watching his octet and he said, "You know, I've never heard you play with them. I'd like to hear what you sound like with my band." I said, "No, David. I can't do that. I didn't bring a trumpet." He said, "Well, I have two trumpet players in this band. Why don't you borrow one of their horns?" I said, "Oh, no, David. That's going to be too rough, playing somebody else's horn." Then he said, "Oh, let me hear how rough is it." He wanted to hear me play and so I went and played and then two months later, I was in New York, staying at his house, playing at Sweet Basil. We've had a very close since then. That was January of '85 and we've been very close ever since. But to me, I've always felt that David was like a Coltrane of today. Even though to this day he says Sonny Rollins was always his main man. This week, actually, he's going to do a tribute to Trane. David keeps the swing in the music. I really like his energy. He's another very dedicated soldier to this music. For me, him and Roscoe are like musically, two really dedicated soldiers of this music and they want to take it as far as it can go. I like the way David says, he doesn't so much like the word "avant-garde" as much as he likes the word "extended blues" to what he is doing. To put a little bit more light on this idea of extended blues, Fred, when I was in Houston, Lightin' Hopkins came and there was a summer camp, a jazz summer camp, and Lightin' Hopkins came, this was like early seventies. Lightin' Hopkins was going to come and play with this rhythm section. We had some guys from Houston that had gone to Berklee and they came back, you know, they felt they had a real good handle on the twelve-bar blues and they were ready for the Lightin' Hopkins gig, so Lightin' came and he had never sang a twelve-bar blues. He might sing a twenty-bar blues or a seven-bar blues or thirteen-bar blues, but when he would sing his blues, the harmony would always go with the words. The words were primary, the melody, and yet when we go to school and a lot o times we're studying twelve-bar blues, we're studying the background real heavy. And the background gets more precedence, so when Ornette Coleman came on the scene, Ornette Coleman said, "Let's focus on the melody and not the background." So consequently when Ornette Coleman was writing the blues, it would be more of the way Lightin' Hopkins was singing. There would be some four-four measures and two-four measures and then after that it's not really about measures anymore. It's wide open. In a way that what Lightin' Hopkins was singing, what Ornette Coleman was playing, and what David Murray is talking about is extended blues. A lot of that, when I got with David, he was real strong about emphasizing that with his music. So I enjoyed that too, but both of them, Roscoe's the teacher and David's my brother. That's how I feel about those two. They're real strong influences on me and I really look to them for inspiration and as far as instrumental music is concerned. For me, they're at that level that I'm trying to get to.

Q: As an educator, do you find the younger player lack that type of initiative to further the music?

Unfortunately, a lot of teachers lack the ability to push people in that direction. A lot of these students are reflections of these teachers. I think a lot of times, it is to the students advantage to have a teacher that's actually performing and doing a lot. Where as sometimes, you can just stay in the university and be in what they call an ivory tower type of situation. You don't really get out that much. I think the eighties and nineties have kind of, I think the seventies was a real rich period for a real open type of music and the eighties in particular, it started going backwards, getting rooted into the museum aspects of the music, which is OK, but I do think the musicians are opening up a lot more. A lot of these students are telling me, they like to talk about their generation, "Well, my generation has heard a lot." That's actually encouraging. I've done some real adventurous things over here at Oberlin and people are ready for it. Consequently, the students are going for it a little bit more too. I teaching a class on avant-garde composition and I'm focusing on the music of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and David Murray and I have fifteen students that are just going for it. I have four private students that are even going for it on a higher level. Recently, last summer, I played lead trumpet with the Roy Hargrove Big Band, and I found Roy to be very open. When I played with him in late May and early June with that same big band, playing lead trumpet, and Roy, I see him as being very receptive to a lot things, where as when Wynton Marsalis was coming on, I didn't really see that kind of receptivity towards the new music. I do think it's looking real encouraging with this generation coming through right now.

Q: What is the most important lesson any student of the music should be instilled?

I would say, they need to make the time to really go after their passions, and spend at least eight to ten hours a day, really working toward it. I like to develop a strong work ethic, leading toward a, going for their passions. I like to instill upon them to really go after promoting themselves as musicians and promoting their own music. I would say that the work ethic would take care of a lot of things. If I can instill a strong work ethic, I think that's a fundamental. It's one thing to kind of want to do something, but to really get into the zone of dealing with it, eight to ten hours a day, if not you are up against people that really work at this from 6 AM to midnight. I would say, keep growing and always be about creativity, receptivity, and sharing. I would say when they acquire knowledge, absorb what's useful and discard what's unnecessary and add what's uniquely your own.

Q: Is that was is lacking in the young musicians, that which is uniquely their own?

Right, Fred, and that's the whole point. With their uniqueness, that's where the progress will come in. And that's what the world wants and that's how we grow. We just can't really stay, know the past, but grow from there.

Q: Let's talk about your new release on Justin Time, "An Afternoon in Harlem."

I'm very happy with that album. I'm very happy with every musician on there. Every musician on there gave me a hundred percent of their effort. Craig Taborn is on piano and David Murray is a guest on two tunes playing bass clarinet. Andrew Cyrille is a guest playing drum set on one tune and percussion on another. I would say the concept is an ancient to the future kind of concept with a heavy Sun Ra influence on it. Sun Ra has been influential to me. When I was on the road with Anthony Braxton, we talked about Sun Ra a lot. Anthony respects Sun Ra. Sun Ra likes to deal with the ancient, like ancient Egypt and he uses those themes a lot, as well as rocket ships to Venus. Anthony Braxton likes to read scholarly material on ancient Egypt and he talks about doing compositions on three planets and these types of things. These guys are big ancient to the future visionaries. A couple of years later, after a Braxton tour, on this Braxton tour we were in Venice and I found out that there was a real carnival of Venice. I think it happens in March and there are parades. They were telling me that they had a parade with Sun Ra and they were treating him like an African king. They had him on the shoulder of twelve guys and they would walk in with Sun Ra sitting on their shoulders, waving his hand. Maybe a couple of years later, I had a dream. I was in Colorado and I had a dream. Sun Ra was sitting on a throne, giving me some advice. He said, "When you're on the road, always keep a hundred dollars on you." The second thing he said was, "Remember the six people." I said, "I don't know who that could be." I thought of the six main religious figures off the top of my head, maybe, Jesus, Moses, Buddah, Mohammad, I didn't know. And I didn't want to pursue that any further. But the third thing he said was, "No John Coltrane." I thought immediately, "He must mean, you have to know you're 'Giant Steps' and blah-blah-blah." Then when I told another saxophone player that, he said, "Does no John Coltrane mean K-N-O-W or N-O John Coltrane?" I said, "Oh, I don't know." In real life, Labor Day weekend in 1987, I had my own gig on a Sunday at the Sweet Basil. It was part of a Music is an Open Sky Festival. But two days before I thought I was going to gig in Philadelphia, but that didn't come through. So I'm walking down the street in New York and the trombone player from Sun Ra's band says, "Hey, Sun Ra wants to talk to you." I said, "What do you mean, he wants to talk to me. I don't know him." He said, "Well, we need some trumpets and I told him you're in town." He wanted to know if I would come to the Village Gate in New York at 7:30 and talk to him. I said, "I'll be there." So when I got there, I didn't want to talk about this dream or anything. I just let him do his thing and he talked for thirty minutes with no pauses, no periods at the end of his sentences. He was just going. Ten minutes of that was how he felt he was Moses, leading his people. I said, "OK. Probably out of those six people, I know Moses was one of them to know." Another ten minutes, he talked about how disappointed he was in John Coltrane. I guess it had something to do with the fact that when Coltrane came through the band, talking to Gilmore and getting some of those outside concepts, this was when Trane was approaching doing different things. That ended with him saying, "If Coltrane would have stuck with me, he'd be alive today." So I said, "I guess that meant N-O John Coltrane." So that night, we're playing the gig and I noticed how heavily rooted Sun Ra is in the blues and in a way he was an extended blues player. This was really that extended blues thing that David was talking about. Sun Ra has this mythology going around it. Late at night, I'm kind of tired and I'm looking at Sun Ra and he's trying to perk up the band and he starts playing some straight up boogie woogie. He was all happy and all dut-da-dut-da-dut-da-dut. I said, "Oh, this cat is a blues man." After the gig, I got fifty dollars and then the next night I got fifty dollars, so by the time all that was over, I had my hundred dollars on the road and I knew that Moses was his man and I knew that "No John Coltrane" actually meant N-O John Coltrane. So on this album, I really wanted to get that Sun Ra concept with a New York point of view. My first tune on there is a blues. It's some easy to handle blues. Then we move into the final tune and it gets a little complex. It's a little faster blues, kind of a beboppish kind of blues. We end with a Sun Ra piece and I'm trying to get a concept of the blues, essentially going into outer space. Sun Ra is definitely a heavy influence.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Hugh Ragin
  • Subtitle: Up close and personal with Hugh Ragin
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