IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 89
INTERVIEW with John Wubbenhorst
After joining Facebook, it wasn't long before I ran into John Wubbenhorst (who we had actually reviewed him much earlier (in issue #63) & struck up a conversation with him right away... probably because he was actively posting (a lot) of vids of his playing sessions there... as so often happens, when I got CD's from him for review, it was a whole PACK of them. Literally HOURS of listening pleasure and adventure. He was a natural candidate for interview. We sincerely appreciate his taking the time to give strong insights into himself as both person and artist!
Zzaj: I see (from reading your bio) that you grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut and that you started your musical training at an early age... enlighten us a bit on how it was growing up there, where your musical journeys led you away from there and where you live now - in other words, please give us a biographical sketch.
John Wubbenhorst: Some of my first memories of ecstatic music were being at our church (Episcopalian) and hearing the church organ wailing away and sending me into ecstatic states. My mother played some folk guitar but mostly I was into sports until around 11 or so. I'd had piano lessons, but was bored, till I discovered improvising and I was thrilled. In 6th grade I was singing in a rock band and by 9th grade was heavy into the blues and singing blues and playing blues harmonica (John Mayall was an early hero). since I was already standing and singing, I thought why not play flute. ??.........Then around the middle of 9th grade (or around 13 years old) I just suddenly got deep into jazz. Since we lived an hour outside of New York , we could see top jazz anytime. I also discovered classical Indian music at this time and was simultaneously learning western classical on the flute as well. I just was into everything Chick Corea, Miles, Coltrane, Oregon, John McLaughlin, Mozart, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, J.S.Bach as well as both North and South Indian music. I quite remember my High school schedule left me with a free "last" period every day before taking the bus home. There was one Indian music record "Ravi Shankar live at Monterey Pop"..........I listened to that record every day in my last period. John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra was a big favorite. I saw Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, the New York Philharmonic and classical Indian music of all kinds. I was also getting into Transcendental meditation, practicing yoga and reading "Autobiography of a Yogi". By the time I was 16, I decided I wanted to go to Maharishi International University in Fairfield Iowa. This was quite a switch from the East coast, and not as much access to music, but I continued studying everything I could including classical western flute studies as well as more jazz (I had attended a summer program at Berklee jazz college in Boston) and listening to India music (however I could not find a teacher). I led several groups during college (including a performance with Paul Horn) and was voted "most creative student" of my class. Next I moved to Washington DC and found some real authentic Indian music teachers. I started out on carnatic (South Indian) vocal music and later started bansuri with Debu-Prasad Banerjee and Vijay Rhagav Rao. Somewhere along the way, I heard the bansuri of Hariprasad Chaurasia and was totally mesmerized, I had never heard a flute like that !!! Before long I packed up everything and went to India and stayed there for most of 2 years (1992-1994). Amazingly, I was able to meet Hariprasad and he accepted me as a disciple, I was thrilled beyond myself !!!! We would sit and play for 3-5 hours a day sometimes and after that he invited me to come and join him at the Rotterdam Conservatory in Holland where he was now a professor. While I never moved fully to Holland, I commuted there over the next 12 years and studied with Hariprasad there (as well as general world music) and received 2 degrees in world music. Along the way (starting in 1994), I started composing my own music. I was not trying to do anything except play what I was hearing. Not surprisingly, the music had Eastern and Western influences. and so it has continued, to this day where I am constantly studying compositions and forms of music that inspire me. 7 CDs have come out so far as well as many wonderful collaborations along the way such as with Jack DeJohnette, Victor Wooten, Hariprasad, Paul McCandless and others. I have especially been drawn to free improvisation where the magic is in the moment and the setting as much as the style or type of music being played (3 of our CDs were made this way). I have deeply enjoyed playing for my spiritual Guru Adi Da Samraj and the wonderful atmosphere I found myself in being in His sphere. He has been very much into having ecstatic music off all kinds around Him as part of His spiritual work and I have become a director of music for that ashram.
Zzaj: Your "style" of music has more of an Eastern flavor than many folks in the U.S. are used to listening to. What made you pursue those forms as opposed to (let's say, for instance) "straight" jazz flute?
John Wubbenhorst: I was just attracted to that sound. It always blew me away how the Indian musicians were relaxed and free like jazz musicians and also playing a deep tradition like classical music. I feel there is a spiritual depth in all kinds of music, but there is an especially meditative part of Indian music that has drawn me deep into it, but fundamentally I have just followed what has been most appealing. Ultimately I don't know exactly what that is, only that bliss is attractive............
Zzaj: Having lived in Thailand (1 year) and Korea (15 years), I have a bit of insight into Eastern culture and religion... since you've traveled in that direction (India & other places), please tell us how your time there changed your view(s) about the music you were playing, or your take on the culture/religion you were born into (if it did).
John Wubbenhorst: Yes, Indian culture in general has been very profound for me. I have been very attracted to the famous "Realizers" and great yogis of India. Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Muktananda and others inspired me with there meditations and writings. At 14 years old, I met and become a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The intensity of the guru/devotee relationship in Indian music and spirituality has deeply effected my life and often lifted me to spiritual depths. The profound disciplines and depth of integration of the whole cosmic outlook of these "Realizers" was and still is a deep part of my life. In 1998 I met Adi Da Samraj and have come to feel He represents the pinnacle of knowldge and literal transmission of this profound spiritual oneness or whatever you want to call it (or the "Bright" as Adi Da has named it).
Zzaj: You are an expert at interweaving the music of east and west together, most notably jazz with World music forms... since you were (so heavily) studying North Indian music, how did your interest in the jazz side of things come about?
John Wubbenhorst: Actually for me the jazz came first. I spent my teenage years deep into jazz forms of all kinds. Later I got more focused on Indian music studies, but have never stopped studying and listening and playing jazz. I love and am always listening and playing jazz as well as my Indian music studies.
Zzaj: I'm told (though I've never experienced it myself) that musicians are (in many Eastern cultures) considered in the "lower strata" of their society... did your travel and study there give you insight into whether (or not) that's true? & if it was, why?
John Wubbenhorst: Unfortunately, parts of India have become more and more materialistic, and music can sometimes be challenging for making money so economically it was put down by some. However I think true spiritual people in India truly value music and consider the classical musicians heroes of a kind.
Zzaj: Do you believe that improvisation should "come before the jazz", vice versa, or is that an important question?
John Wubbenhorst: I think improvisation is just like breathing, it is just a natural expression of any kind of music. Jazz has no "copyright" on improvisation, but who cannot be amazed and inspired by the jazz greats like Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Miles and others.
Zzaj: I grew up in a very musical environment, but it was all "white church" related music; ergo, when I got out on my own and discovered jazz, soul, R&B and other forms of music that allowed a person's spirit to express itself, I became enchanted (then) with music. Have you had similar experiences; were you were able to "let your spirit move" because of the music? If so, how did it affect your person or your playing?
John Wubbenhorst: I think different music enlivens or emphasizes different parts of the body, mind and spirit. I think that music which has put improvisation away or made it non-existent is ignoring a natural part of music. I feel that improvisation is deeply expressive and personal while also drawing me into a more universal egoless state.
Zzaj: Some of the musical folks I was around preached (often) that there were "dark" (or "evil") types of music... do you believe that, or is all music "light" (i.e., "good")?
John Wubbenhorst: I feel that the best music draws one into a more egoless state, and that to me is the highest music. However the form that music takes might be very intense or even seeming chaotic on the surface, but at the depth you can feel the power and truth of it. The mind can come along and make all sorts of judgments about good and bad, but at the heart you feel it at depth. I like what Ramakrishna said "the mind is a great servant but a terrible master"................
Zzaj: I noticed in some of our correspondence that you work with some improvising musicians. Please let our readers know how a session starts, where it goes & how it ends (if it does)?
John Wubbenhorst: Since music is all about ecstasy, why not make music in environments and situations that are most ecstatic? 3 of my records came about because Adi Da enjoyed music around Him and we were so ecstatic to be in His company. So in those cases there was often nothing whatsoever said about anything, we just started playing and the magic took over. I would have had many more CDs from occasions like these, but often there was no recording equipment around. We used to improvise for Him sometimes 12 hours a day and fall into ecstatic states for long stretches.
Zzaj: My personal (somewhat jaded) sense is that music CAN change the world, & in some cases actually change people... do you agree, or disagree? As a part of that, how (if at all) are YOU trying to change the world? Lastly, is music a career for "everyone", or are only certain types of folks really suited to it?
John Wubbenhorst: Absolutely music can change people........it is obvious that it does. J.S Bach's body is long gone but people are getting ecstatic every day from his music. The old Indian emperors had it right, keep top musicians around all the time (in the old "courts" of the rulers"). Maybe if our rulers had a steady diet of great music around them, some better decisions would be made. The heart is where true change is made and music is one of the heart's best ambassadors.............
As far as a career, music can sometimes be challenging financially. Some times I have to do other things for money, Charles Ives used to sell insurance !!!! Unfortunately, the materialistic world does not properly appreciate and give music the proper grand place it should have in our society. If we are having a problem with some country, lets exchange musicians with that country instead of bombing them...........Hopefully people seem to be waking up to deeper values, lets all hope so and keep playing our hearts out !!!