An AAJ Interview with William Roper
By Allen Huotari
You can deliberately ignore the tuba if you choose to, or even take it for granted, but to do so would be to deprive yourself of some of the most interesting (if not important) recordings in jazz.
For example, the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations "Birth of the Cool" and "Miles Ahead" both include tuba (played by Bill Barber or Jimmy McAllister). The inclusion of the tuba was inspired in part by Evans" earlier work with Claude Thornhill (in which Mr. Thornhill included both French horns and tuba, a relatively groundbreaking and radical decision for a mid-1930"s "dance" band).
Carla Bley has utilized tuba numerous times in her own recordings (featuring Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart, or Earl McIntyre) as well as including it in collaborative efforts (Gary Burton"s "A Genuine Tong Funeral" includes Howard Johnson and Charlie Haden"s "Ballad of the Fallen" includes Jack Jeffers).
More recently Henry Threadgill decided to forego bass (upright or electric) in favor of dual tubas for his highly innovative Very Very Circus ensemble (Edwin Rodriguez and Marcus Rojas move some serious amounts of air here!)
Reaching across the Atlantic finds Melvyn Poore (UK), Michel Godard (France), and Giancarlo Schiaffini (Italy) to name a few of the better known (and most creative) practitioners of the tuba in highly improvised settings (NOTE: dear reader - feel free to drop the author a line if you have a tuba player that you"d care to recommend).
Bringing attention back Stateside, composer/improviser William Roper has been making important contributions on the tuba to a number of recordings over the last 15 years.
Although William Roper is probably best known for his work with the late pianist Glenn Horiuchi on a handful of recordings ("Kenzo"s Vision", "Dew Drop", and "Elegy for Sarajevo" all on Asian Improv, "Fair Play" on Soul Note, and "Hilltop View" on Music & Arts) as well as being a member of the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble ("Decennium Dans Axlan", "Commemoration", "Tutto Contare", and "Portland 1996" all on Nine Winds. Especially check out Mr. Roper"s playing on the track "Mahlow" from "Commemoration" for his interactions with bass trombone and bass saxophone) he has also worked with James Newton, Horace Tapscott, Bobby Bradford, Wadada Leo Smith's and has backed soloists Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Ray Drummond, John Carter, Wallace Roney, Shirley Horn, and Regina Carter.
This past summer finds Mr. Roper with the first release under his own name, "Juneteenth" (Asian Improv) and hopefully increased (and well-deserved) attention.
Named after the day (June 19, 1865) in which slaves of the eastern portion of Texas learned of their freedom (the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed on January 1, 1863), "Juneteenth" is about "finding and expressing freedom(s) within the context of structures" (from Mr. Roper"s liner notes). Indeed, the pieces on this recording depend as much upon improvisation as composition. Largely instrumented with only tuba and percussion, the pieces on "Juneteenth" may be sparse, but are hardly stark; are austere, yet possess an underlying warmth. With a healthy balance of laughter and tears, "Juneteenth" is both an inviting and captivating listening experience. The space provided may leave little room for the musicians to hide in, but this is true also for the attentive listener.
Also of interest are two recordings featuring William Roper as co-leader. The first, entitled "Double Yellow" (Thankyou Records, released 2000), finds Mr. Roper ably aided and abetted by Rob Blakeslee: trumpet, flugelhorn, Michael Vlatkovich: trombone, and Brad Dutz: sundry percussives and sound makers. The second is "The Lament of Absalom" (Asian Improv) which includes Francis Wong: woodwinds and Elliot Humberto Kavee: percussion, cello. Each of these ably illustrates the capacity of the tuba to be both powerful and sensitive (when in the right hands or lips.)
Of "Double Yellow", AAJ Modern Jazz Editor Glenn Astarita writes: "Double Yellow brims with contrasting notions intermingled into a rather quixotic presentation, although a sense of mystery tends to hover atop the proceedings as though the listener might be sequestered in a sacred ruin during the still of night. While it will not be suggested that the band is serving up a religious mantra, the music, whether vibrantly performed or quietly mystifying, rings of power and substance." (All About Jazz, September 2001)
Of "The Lament of Absalom", AAJ Modern Jazz Editor Glenn Astarita writes:
"The interplay and creativity displayed by this trio sheds some new light on what some may perceive as being unorthodox instrumentation and off-center conceptual approaches. Roper and co. put forth fresh, invigorating ideas that may serve as indicators for the limitless possibilities in jazz, free-improv and music in general. The quest or thirst for innovation is a long-standing element within modern jazz and could be viewed as a component or parts of the sum, yet innovation is not everyone"s cup of tea. Here, Roper along with Wong and Kavee don't necessarily set the world afire with strikingly new musical concepts, yet simply maintain a direction or course which may help dispel notions that the tuba has no place in modern or improvised jazz. Recommended! * * * * (All About Jazz, July 1999)
To help commemorate the release of "Juneteenth", William Roper graciously consented to the following q&a. This interview was conducted via e-mail in August 2001.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ: Would you please tell the AAJ readers about where you were born, raised, and what your earliest musical memories are?
WILLIAM ROPER: I was born at L.A. County General Hospital. I don't know which floor. I was raised in Los Angeles, which is a big place. Most of my youth we lived in the central part of town, around Adams Blvd. and Central Avenue. Yeah, that Central Avenue, but not much was happening during my time. My earliest musical memories are not particularly special. I certainly don't come from a musical family. My Aunt Ora (my sister and I were raised by extended family) wanted us to play music. We really had no option about being in the school music program. I remember watching Polka Parade and Lawrence Welk -- not my choices, that was what the big folk wanted. You see, Aunt Ora and Uncle Ed were really my grand aunt and uncle. They were already old. When I did the rounds to the barbershops etc., with Uncle Ed, I'd hear a lot of baseball games and jazz. I found them both rather oppressive. Early on in elementary school we had to take a hearing test. That had a snatch of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. That, for some reason, got my attention. I very much remember the force with which it got my attention.
AAJ: What led you to choose the tuba as instrument of choice?
WR: Okay, that is a bit of a story. In fact that story is going to come out on a CD, hopefully in the next 12 months or so. But I'll give you the fast version. I started out playing the flute. Don't ask me why. Maybe Aunt Ora wanted me to play it. In any case, it didn't work out. Too inefficient. All that air going nowhere. So I switched to trumpet. I was lucky, I went to schools where the band and orchestra directors let you play the instrument you wanted to play, rather than force you to play what their ensemble needed. I liked the trumpet a lot better, but I definitely was not able to develop any skill on it. When I got to junior high school the band director made it known to we newcomers that although he himself was a trumpeter and loved the fact that so many of us played it, he had enough of trumpet players to last until doomsday. What he actually needed was a tuba player. Who wanted to play the tuba? I asked him, "What is a tuba?" He showed me a huge, shiny, 4 valve beauty. I told him I'd take it. He gave me a little three valve pea-shooter. That was okay. I had something to work up to.
AAJ: How would you describe your musical education? Formal? Informal? Both? Please elaborate.
WR: It was very formal but spotty. Well, the academic side was spotty. The tuba side was very formal, very consistent and started almost as soon as I took up the tuba. This was the master/apprentice model. I took tuba lessons with somebody from the time I was thirteen until I was probably twenty-five. With the exception of one year when I didn't play at all. Academically, that was formal also. After high school I went to conservatory and also the schools of music of a university or two. In Cleveland, L.A., Pittsburgh and New York. I say that side of it was spotty because I didn't stay at any of these schools. For various reasons. None of which had anything to do with the schools. And I also played in a lot of orchestras. That too is part of a musician"s formal training. An absolutely essential part. My musical background is classical. I was grooming myself for an orchestral career. So the education had to be formal. Improvising didn't come until much later.
AAJ: Was there any watershed moment where you decided (or discovered) that you simply had to become a musician? Please elaborate.
WR: Actually there is no such moment that I remember. Once I began the tuba I think it just became clear somewhere in my subconscious that I was a musician. Not that I had to become one. Though I do remember a moment of affirmation. One Sunday afternoon, after church -- this is back towards the end of junior high -- I'm sitting with Uncle Ed watching a football game. He asks if I've given any consideration to what I want to do when I grow up? I thought it was a bit early in life for such talk, but he seemed serious. So I told him, "I play the tuba pretty well, I think I want to do that. Play the tuba." The next thing out of the man's mouth was that the Post Office paid pretty well! Serious as a water buffalo. Yeah, I guess that was a watershed moment. It gave me a clue as to what the life of a musician might be like.
AAJ: When did your first exposure to jazz occur? What was your reaction?
WR: As I said, I first heard it in barbershops. But I was real young and there's all other kinds of stuff goin' on for a kid around the old guys at the shop. That music struck me as something grownups could deal with.
My first impacting exposure came when I was in high school. I went to Locke High School for awhile. That school bubbled over with music. They had a jazz ensemble that met after school and for some reason I spent some time in it. The sounds and the concepts were new to me and not easy to grasp. Still I learned some things. But it was peripheral to my main musical life, not a focal point. I was impressed with improvisation, but I didn't do any. They didn't make me and I don't remember having any desire.
AAJ: Who or what are your most profound sources for influence and inspiration? (this can include non-musical items) Why or how do these influence and inspire you?
WR: I'm going to get trite for a moment. Nobody in my family ever tried to stop me from playing the tuba. I did tell that story about the Post Office, but that was the only instance. And he never mentioned it again. It matters what happens when you're a kid. They let me know that whatever limits this life is going to put on me, those limits shouldn't start with my imagination. That is a powerful gift. Beyond that, I don't know. There are lots and lots of people who have influenced me. I hesitate to get into it. That is part of what being an artist is about, absorbing things. I don't mean to skirt your question, but hell, a person can have an epiphany a week. So let's talk about inspiration. Mortality inspires me. I think that it always has. There are people dying all around us all the time. I'm from a big extended family : that means people were always dying, we went to a large Baptist church -- people dying, the Vietnam War was on -- people dying, I got hit by a car -- me knowing early on that I actually can't know -- when. I hope this isn't too morose, but that's the deal. I don't need people to die in order to create, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that I believe expressions of our spirit matter. People's expressions touch us. Then we answer back in the languages that we know. One of my languages is music.
AAJ: What other languages are at your disposal?
WR: Well, I'm a visual artist. I paint and do assemblage. You can tell a lot of stories, express a lot of opinion with painting. Assemblage is very interesting. As an artist I am associating disparate, found objects (occasionally I'll have to manufacture something). At the same time, each one of those objects has it's own individual association -- relative to my life. So I put different things together in an attempt to say something that is an amalgamation of those various associations, yet more than the sum of them. The interesting thing is that anyone who deals with the pieces will have specific associations, relative to their own lives for each of the objects in the piece. Consequently, the whole that they create may be far different from the concept I am trying to convey. That is what happens with abstraction. Assemblage is a form of abstraction. Like music. Music is abstract. Some musics are more abstract than others. You never know what anyone else is hearing. [It's too individual, too out of your control. I had a teacher say to me once,"When I'm at the Philharmonic, I wonder, Bill, what people are hearing? They don't hear what I hear, they don't hear what you hear. We're musicians. What are they listening to?" It's a deep question really.]
But I'm the artist. I'm the kind of artist that recognizes that I have some control over other people's perception of my work, however abstract it may be. Also I believe in the politics of art and the ability of art to generate political discourse. One of the ways I can direct this discourse is by my use of titles. A title can really point the way. Words are less abstract.
I also write. Not in any grand form. But I used to do "performance" pieces. I had to write for those. I've done two one-acts -- one produced, the other not (yet). And I do spoken-word. Prepared spoken-word and extemporaneous. The extemporaneous stuff, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Like everything else.
AAJ: You mention your musical background is classical and that you were grooming yourself for an orchestral career. You also mention that improvising didn't come until much later (adding later that you were impressed with improvisation, but didn't do any). Could you please elaborate upon when you first began to improvise and why?
WR: Yes. In any type of musical performance study you have to play in ensemble and you have to play solo. One or the other is stressed more heavily depending on your individual talents, your instrument, the judgment of other people, for all kinds of reasons. So I had to play solos. Then consider that the tuba is a relatively young instrument. Of the orchestra instruments it is the youngest. So there are not hundreds of years of repertoire for the instrument. Most of it is pretty recent. Add to that the fact that I really loved modern music. You can play transcriptions and I did. But I gravitated to music of my time. That music had episodes of improvisation. Short episodes. They print in the music, "improvise-10 seconds", stuff like that. That is where it started.
A lot of things happened at once. Or so it seems, looking back. When I moved back to Los Angeles, I started doing recitals. Nothing grand. Shows at local colleges, opening theater performances, things like that. I'd work very hard getting this music together. I'd play some of the out pieces. What would happen? People would come up after the show to look at the music. Not because they had some academic interest in notation. I talked to these people. They weren't sure that there was actually any music there. They couldn't tell whether I had made it up or what. Imagine where that kind of reaction could take a particular kind of cat.
At the same time I began working with a lot of improvisers. Not just musicians, but dancers, theater people, painters. This was the early eighties. A lot of that was happening in Los Angeles. I enjoyed it. The people enjoyed working with me. I did all right at it. I got asked to do more and more. It felt like getting out of jail. There is a lot of responsibility involved in improvising. But it is a different responsibility than in classical music -- composer's wishes to be true to, codified performance traditions, everyone knowing what's coming next. Improvising was very liberating. I was ready for it.
AAJ: Do you feel that your classical training has been essential in your work as an improviser? Why or why not?
WR: Absolutely. First, because it gave me command of and confidence in the instrument. Then it contributed to my understanding of complex structures, giving me an appreciation for the "long form." My pieces tend to be pretty long. The form of a piece needs to be strong enough to hold the listener, but not so strong as to straight-jacket her. At least that is what I often strive for. You can learn this in many disciplines. My learning just happened to take place where it did. There is the inverse thing, classical training provides the "control group." All I have to do is start working on some sonata or suite where every note is written, and it becomes clear who the boss really is. This clarity is essential to me as an improviser, it makes me willing and happy to be the boss for a little while.
AAJ: What advantages of improvisation do you feel are often overlooked or dismissed by composers?
WR: To start off, we can probably agree that improvising is composing? Okay, onward.
I don't think that "composers" overlook the "advantages of improvisation". There is either room in a composer's concept for the input of others or there is not. How much of the music is going to be mine? It is a matter of proprietary rights. Musical notation is actually very inexact. This one of the first things you learn as a composer.
If you get some music in your soul, you painstakingly write it down--all of it, then you put it out into the world for musicians to play. You have essentially given up control of your idea. Your idea has been reduced to lines and dots on a piece of paper. In terms of your original concept there is lots of room for things to wrong. Unless you play the piece yourself, you are at the mercy of other people. Then you're supposed to give musicians license to do what they want within that piece? You might as well order the lowering of the lifeboats!
If you write music and leave space to improvise, you are essentially telling the musician, "I'm interested in what you have to say about this." If you've written a piece with no such space, you heard all you needed to hear before you wrote it down. The musician"s job is to go out and follow your instructions. I read Paul Hindemith's Harvard Lectures when I was a kid. If you're a classical player very high on your high-horse, read those and you'll be crawling on your hands and knees pretty quickly.
I'll say one more thing. Those classical pieces I talked about earlier, where they give you ten seconds to improvise? What is that about? Seems a bit gratuitous to me. Of course, it depends on context. I mean, if within a very conventional slow movement of a symphony, the composer gave the principal trombone ten seconds to wail on anything he wanted, that would be saying something.
AAJ: What advantages of composition to you feel are often overlooked or dismissed by improvisers?
WR: Same answer as above. If your concept demands a certain control, you're going to compose to whatever degree makes that control viable.
AAJ: You've worked with a diverse range of musicians. What recordings and/or performances do you believe have been the most beneficial, challenging, satisfying, etc.? Why?
WR: You know, I'm almost too old to answer that question. I just read Horace Tapscott's autobiography, so he is in my mind right now. Horace was an old man and he was still very accepting of different musical styles and types of playing. He had a big heart and a wide humor. It came through not just in performance, but I think also these qualities are inherent in his compositions. I started playing with him at a somewhat difficult time in my life. And I do a kind of soloing that is somewhat different than what usually was happening in that organization. Yet he still called on me to solo. He, his music, and the Ark helped me to see some light.
My first concert with Wadada Leo Smith. It was Wadada, Sonship Theus and myself. Those two guys can really play. The challenge was to hold my own with cats like that. I felt there was a connecting energy happening between us that night that was very powerful. Minds and hearts became very open. It was very satisfying.
Playing the Rite of Spring at Carnegie Hall. When you're a kid playing classical music you somehow just assume you're going to play Carnegie Hall. When it actually happens that first time, well that's something.
On the last tour I did with Vinny Golia's large ensemble, I did an extemporaneous spoken-word piece on every solo he gave me. I've done spoken-word for years, but in small group situations. To do it in the middle of a roaring twenty-five piece band takes a different kind of decision. You have to really be prepared for failure. It was important to me because of the degree to which I was willing to risk. And also it was about me accepting the truth that I just didn't have that much to say on tuba in that context at that time.
Glenn Horiuchi's "Elegy For Sarajevo". I think almost no one has heard that album. It came out at a time when none of us could really do the press mailings. That was a recording session that lasted forever. Piece after piece after piece. We probably recorded enough material for four CDs. That is all I remember about the session, but when I listen to the CD, everyone's playing is especially strong. Everybody's burnin'. Francis Wong is just playing outside of himself. I love that project.
I could go on and on.
AAJ: How did you come to meet Glenn Horiuchi?
WR: I'm pretty sure this is the story: the city of Los Angeles called Glenn to do a gig. They wanted a big band. Glenn didn't have a big band and wasn't about to start one. But I guess he wanted the gig. So he called Vinny Golia, who has a large group. I'm in that group. That's how we met. It was one of the weirder gigs I've done. Glenn's the leader, it's Vinny's band, I don't think we even played any of Glenn's music. Everybody got paid, so everybody was happy.
After that he called me. That cat loved the tuba. He figured it would be much more effective in his music than a bass. First I did some trio work with him and Jeannette Wrate. Later Francis Wong came down for a concert and recording. That was the Fair Play music. As time went on we conceived a lot of music with each other in mind. Now that he's gone I've had to rethink some projects I had in mind.
AAJ: What have you learned from working with Glenn Horiuchi that you believe has made (or will make) the most impact upon your musical philosophy?
WR: The impact of Glenn is:
1. Even though there often are second chances in life, don't live like you're ever going to get one. And why do you need one? I don't think that man ever did a second take on his sessions. Ever. I couldn't believe it, the first session I did with him. Even the level check was a keeper. If you approach your music this way, it demands a certain integrity of you. If you have something to say, say it. Life is short. He was like that in all of his life. It makes for a certain integrity.
2. Record. Record. Record. Document your work. Record it when it is fresh, fairly new. Because music changes. The more we play it, the more it mutates from our original concept. This is not a bad thing, but the music is different. Also you might move away from that music entirely. No longer have any feeling for it. How then can you record it? Document your work, because your work is important -- at least to you.
3. To the greatest degree that you can, maintain proprietary control over your output.
AAJ: Are there any stories you'd like to share about working with him?
WR: For the time I knew Glenn he was always a very minimal eater. We went to New York once with Wadada Leo Smith's N'Da Kulture. Glenn took some protein bars, rice cakes, dry cereal and non-fat dry milk. This is what he planned to live on for however many days we were there. Yeah, I rolled my eyes too. So at the rehearsal we're ordering out (Chinese) for lunch - on the management. Everyone puts in their order. Except Glenn. He says he'll just eat his protein bars. I'm saying, "Glenn! Get some food man!" He ends up eating a little steamed rice with his protein bars.
As you know, a few years later Glenn came down with colon cancer. I took him in for one of his chemo treatments. Those sessions really knocked him out, extreme nausea. On the drive home, waiting at a red light, he turns to me and asks if I know any place on the way where he can get a good carnitas burrito. That was out!
AAJ: What aspect of making "Juneteenth" was the most fun? What was the most difficult? What did you learn that you carried forward to subsequent recordings?
WR: "Juneteenth", like all of my recordings (most unreleased) was not conceived as an entity. I record whenever I have the money, material and energy. Then I bring the pieces together to form a package. "Juneteenth" is the result of at least four unrelated recording sessions. "Kagami Jishi" is from one of Glenn's sessions, not mine.
Perhaps the most fun aspect was after the actual recording, creating a flow from piece to piece. It is a long CD. I don't expect anyone to listen to it from beginning to end in one sitting. On the other hand, I know that people do, so it was a challenge to balance the pieces and create an engaging listening experience. Creating the artwork was also a lot of fun. Taking that cover photo was a good time.
The most difficult aspect was Joseph Mitchell's piece, "Dance of the Sophists". It requires delicate and accurate playing. Because I'm using a wok top as a mute, a lot of notes become unstable. We had to do a lot of takes of some short sections. I'd blow something, then when I got it right, he'd blow something. It was nerve racking. Then there was the editing and mastering session. I probably spent more time on that one piece than on the rest of the CD put together.
What I learned is to do the correct type of recording for the particular piece of music. Seems intuitively obvious? Well, I had to learn. I had to learn the differences between my pieces. For some of them, the absolute best way to record them is from beginning to end, no stopping whatever happens. So for those I can go direct to two-track tape. For others, a mistake is a mistake, fess-up to it and fix it. That demands a different recording technology. There were things in some of the pieces that at the recording sessions I thought I could live with. Months later during editing and mastering, I found that I couldn't live with them. At that point it was not impossible to make fixes, but it was a lot of work. So basically I learned to be ruthless in my judgment and to come into the twenty-first century.
AAJ: Why the name Judicanti Responsura for your work with percussionist Joseph Mitchell?
WR: The simple answer is that you should have a name that people are going to take note of and remember. Especially if you know the group is going to be around for a long time but perform sporadically. We knew this.
Judicanti Responsura is Church Latin, from the Tuba Mirum, from the Mass for the Dead. This is the section in which the dead are called forth from their graves to answer to their Judge (the guy with the long white beard). Being a tubaist, I cannot help but be somewhat familiar with the Tuba Mirum. Also, considering the kind of music Joseph and I make, we figured that probably a lot of people were going to try to make us answer for it.
AAJ: The second track on "Juneteenth" is entitled "Pigs, Pigs, Oh! Those Tasty Pigs". Could you please elaborate on this?
WR: In this piece the notation is a series of cards with drawings on them. I wrote (drew) this piece for a classical pianist friend of mine who didn't like nor understand modern music and improvisation. I figured presenting her with a set of images to interpret would give her a minimal structure on which to base improvisations. It was a dismal failure.
Anyway, the most outstanding drawing in the series is of a pig. At the recording session we (Glenn, Joseph and myself) dealt the cards out among ourselves . The cards are dealt face-down, then you place them on your stand in a stack, face-up. When you start the piece you have seen only the top card. You play whatever that drawing does for you, then move on to the next card, which is a surprise. All the players are doing this at their own speed. The challenge is to create a coherent ensemble music from a totally individualized set of notations.
Knowing this, it becomes clear when you hear the recorded performance that Glenn got the card with the pig. The piece was not titled until after that performance.
Furthermore, pig is my favorite meat. Worse than this, when I was a kid I used to talk to the pigs on my uncle's farm when we would visit him in Kansas. Pigs are almost human. Some cannibals say people taste like pork. Maybe that is because, like pigs, we'll eat anything. Pigs are people too. And oh! so tasty.
AAJ: Could you please elaborate on your opinion/philosophy in the use of post-recording session editing/mixing for a "live free improvisation" album? (the notes for "Double Yellow" indicate "recorded live" but also "edited by" and "mixed by"). As follow up, how would you respond to "purists" who insist that a live, free improv must be preserved as closely as possible to the original?
WR: I'll address both questions in one answer. This could deep because you are asking about decisions that are certainly artistic, but can also be philosophical and political. I'm not going to go there. These decisions are ultimately personal. When I did "Double Yellow", I thought at the end of the session that whatever had gone down was what was going to go out. (Within the time limits of a CD.) When we all got a copy of the session, Brad and I were ready to put it out. It was Michael and Robb who suggested some editing. Almost all of those decisions were Michael's. I couldn't believe how much better the music was after he did the edits. When you play free, a lot of weak music can happen in the midst of a lot of good music. Playing live, the only thing you can do about the weak stuff is to recognize it and try to change to course of the music making. But if you've recorded, why not take advantage of the technology and get rid of those weak moments? To the extent that you can. There's really not that much you can do anyway. "Double Yellow" did some long improvisations. The same was true with "The Lament of Absalom" session. Francis made the decisions on that project.
If in playback you realize that the piece ended two minutes ago, get rid of those two minutes. If you want to. It depends on where you stand artistically, philosophically, politically. I couldn't get into much of an argument with a "purist" on the subject. I would guess that not too many "purists" who are players would get into the argument either. This is because I think they would recognize that the way to go would be clear to the person making the decision. I think that this is an important discussion, but for the most part it is an academic discussion.
AAJ: Your composition "Poem for Emmett Till" received it's premiere performance earlier this year. Could you please explain who he was and why you felt compelled to compose this piece? As follow up, why was this composed for the cello instead of the tuba?
WR: Emmett Till, born in 1941, was an African American from Chicago. Often, in the summers, he would visit his uncle in Money, Mississippi. In 1955, Emmett supposedly flirted with a white woman. On August 28, 1955 he was beaten and killed by J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the woman's husband and his half-brother. They said they beat him but didn't kill him. He did die. The jury's verdict was not guilty.
The piece came to me while I was doing a sitting as a model for an art class. It just showed up. That happens sometimes when I model. If the pose is not too uncomfortable and if there is no music playing, the space between my ears can become very receptive. So the germs of the piece presented themselves in this situation. One element was the repetition of Emmett Till's name. It announced itself as his piece. I don't know why. I was probably angry about something.
The cello was the best solution. Because of some of the playing requirements, it certainly could not have been for a wind instrument. In places the player has to sing/speak, play her instrument, and play the hi-hat all at the same time. This can't be done on a wind instrument. Also, string instruments have a broad range of colors and effects. Comparatively, wind instruments are very limited. The cello is in the correct tessitura. The piece requires strength and a certain vulnerability. Cellists are inherently vulnerable because they play with their legs open. The piece has something to do with motherhood and childbirth. Childbirth often happens with the legs open. A lot of my music is not instrument specific. "Poem for Emmett Till" is not for any instrument other than the cello.
AAJ: What musicians would you most like to work with that you've never worked with before?
AAJ: What recording(s) as a side man do you wish more people would be exposed to? Why?
WR: Wadada Leo Smith's "Golden Hearts Remembrance". It is the only documentation of Wadada's N'Da Kulture band in that particular incarnation. Wadada's music is very unique. He has a very sui generis conception. We played most of the music a lot over an extended period of time. We were ready to record it, we did it well and nobody's heard it. Harumi Makino Smith's poetry is integral and organic. For a musician as significant as Wadada, it is important to be familiar with his whole oeuvre, to have a sense of his progression and development. This one seems to have been lost in the shuffle somehow.
I've already mentioned Glenn Horiuchi's "Elegy for Sarajevo".
How about all of them? I and generally the people that I collaborate with have a small audience. This is the era of the niche market. I'd like a wider audience.
AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?
WR: I'll tell you the strangest gig I've had. There is a rare disease that causes people not to recognize their need for food. Left on their own they'll die of starvation. This is true. So dogs are specially trained to signal these people when it is time to eat. The dogs are trained in Portland or Seattle, I forget which. The sufferer of the disease has to train with the dog. We got this call from a woman who's dog had been run over and killed. What she wanted was a party when she returned to Los Angeles after the training sessions. At the boarding gate in the airline terminal. So I got hired for the gig. One trumpet, one tuba, that was the band. Our repertoire was to consist only of doggie songs. It was a weird, sort of funny scene -- two horn players in the airport, playing songs about dogs and four or five balloons. Everyone thought we were crazy. I felt like they should think we were crazy. I'm surprised we didn't get busted. Out she came with her dog. How she got them to let her travel with the dog is beyond me. Anyway, it was very weird. But for her it was a matter of life and death, so we played the doggie songs.
AAJ: What projects can All About Jazz hope to hear from you in 2001 - 2002?
WR: In early 2002, I'll release "Roper's Darn Yarns" on Asian Improv. That's for certain. It is a spoken-word/music project that includes Francis Wong, Elliot Humberto Kavee, Glenn Horiuchi, and Joseph Mitchell. Beyond that release everything is speculation.
There is a recording titled "Sweet Time" that is supposed to be released on CRI. It is very far behind schedule and out of my hands.
Also there is a co-leader project I did with Francis and Glenn called "Cartography". That too, is behind schedule.
I'm going to do a duet project with the trombonist Michael Vlatkovich. I expect that to be available in the second half of 2002.
I have another project completed, with a working title of "Epitaph for a Hangman". I haven't made the decision whether to release it in 2002 or 2003.
Double Yellow has recorded again, but we haven't decided what to do with it.
I'm sideman on a few recordings that may see the light of day in 2002. Maybe.
So potentially there is a lot.
AAJ: What similarities do you find between cooking and improvising?
WR: For a certain type of cook, the kind of cook I am, you have a certain knowledge, then you play with it. You improvise. The level of personal input for a meal varies widely. It depends on the circumstances. It's like music, if you're playing someone's sonata from a hundred years ago, you have to play the notes, but you still have input over the nuances. On the other hand, you can play completely free. No thought given until you put the horn to your lips. Likewise, if you're going to make a pasta with an Alfredo sauce, you certainly have some license, but the Alfredo has to be recognizable as such. Or you can work with whatever is in the fridge, title it later.
I cook professionally. On location cooking -- catering. In that business more of the improvisation comes with dealing with particular logistical circumstances than with the food. The flavors, dishes, recipes have already been decided. How to make it work out in the open, in the middle of the high desert is the challenge.
I get questions like this a lot, so I'm going to say a controversial thing. There is a certain mystique to cooking and it gets a lot of play as a result. Don't mistake mystique for art. Cooking is not an art. You can do it artfully, with an art spirit, but it is not an art. It is a skill.
AAJ: On the subject of pork, where's the best tonkatsu in Southern California?
WR: Since I was a kid, I've always have been a certain kind of guy. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles. They all serve Tonkatsu (Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet). How good can it get and how in heaven's name can you mess it up? So how can there be a best one? That's the kind of guy I am. I very often go to Koraku in Little Tokyo. The food is generally good, they're open until about 3:00 A.M. and the late night crowd is really something to behold.
AAJ: To conclude, a purely hypothetical question: if you were to cook dinner for the staff of AAJ (or could take them to dinner) what would you serve (or where would you take them)?
WR: Very sweet iced tea.
Starter: head cheese with flavored mustards and crackers.
Main course: Batter fried chicken, fried catfish dredged in corn meal, hoppin' john, mustard greens with diced chili and onions, savory corn pudding.
Dessert: Pound cake with ginger peach ice cream.
for more information about William Roper, please refer to his website at: http://roperarts.com