IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 92
INTERVIEW with Robert Frazier
I first "met" Robert (or Bob) Frazier on FB... it took a couple of months, but we finally arranged to actually meet each other non-virtually (in other words, in the flesh) up in Bellevue, Washington, during a jam session that jazz pianist Bill Anschell hosted. Bob is a vibrant person, full of life & excitement for the many projects he is associated with, and I've no doubt you'll appreciate this INTERVIEW with him!
Zzaj: We always lead in with a request for a brief sketch of where you've come from, why/how you wound up where you are right now, & where you think you're going to be in five years... in other words a bio-sketch that will let our readers get better acquainted with who you are. So, without further ado, please start (more or less) from "the beginning", & bring us all up to date.
RF: It has been by the grace of God, hard work and the prayers of my departed mother that I have had the pleasure of working at something that I love doing for so long. I was born in Lakeland Florida in 1944 to Johnny and Johnnie Mae Frazier. American apartheid was the order in which I grew up under. Lakeland was for me primarily the north or side as it was referred to at the time the colored section. As I tell all who ask. "It was a great place to be from" After spending time at Rochelle elementary, Jr. and senior high schools where I engaged in the band learning the trumpet and civil disobedience. Upon graduation I joined the U. S. Army and was sent to Southern California and 72nd U. S. Army Band. This move for me turned out to be a wise one. The military B. S. not withstanding. For although upon graduating high school I had received scholarship offers. I was not mentally ready for college and could not envision myself returning to Lakeland. The 72nd was an opportunity to play with some really great professional musicians such as Johnny Williams bari. player with the Basie band, Joe Banks trumpet player with the watts 103rd street band and Bill Henderson pianist with just about everybody at one time or another in L. A. After three years my wife Effie (high school sweetheart), my son Quentin, My honorable discharge and I settled in Los Angeles a city that had always been in my dreams even as a child. I got my BFA from CalArts, Did studio and road band work, Music director for KPFK Pacifica, Divorced and re- married a couple of times, Played most of the jazz festivals in Europe and the U.S., Earned fellowship grants from the NEA, The California Arts council, Was a Institutional Artist Facilitator for the California Dept. of Corrections and wrote several librettos for musicals some of which even got produced.
Zzaj: I've been listening through a bunch of the tracks on your "RESUME" page; seems to be a lot of references to 'gators & stuff about swamps... I can almost visualize players like Eddie Harris wadin' through the lower parts of Louisiana on some of that stuff... tell us what was going through your mind when you were composing/playing this music, please.
RF: I always loved the southern cats. Because no matter how technically proficient they became. The sense of humor and the real life engagement always remained a part of their musical and life stories. Cannon Ball Adderley was from my part of the country. He and his brother Nat were legends and celebrated as such. Their recordings such as "Walk Tall", "76 Miles" and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy are perfect examples of this. "Alligator Tango" is my contribution to that way of thinking and It's FUNKY. It also gave me a chance to say a musical thank you to Little Jr. Parker who was the first major star to recognize that I did have something going on in the talent department. Junior Parker and I became great friends and I got him to teach me the harmonica.
Zzaj: It was (& still is) ultimately cool to listen back through Obama's acceptance speech & realize that you had composed the music for the "Yes We Can" piece that played behind the President. Please tell us how you got that opportunity... do you have "connections" somehow, or was it just "luck", man?
RF: I am afraid that that that was done via pure inspiration and I doubt the President has any idea that it exists. I love this man and his family. The music is a gift. If a person is blessed to have an artist gift you use it or my fear is that you might lose it. If you talk to him please tell him to give it a listen. I have heard that he really loves music.
Zzaj: In our FB chats & interchanges, I get the impression that you believe (seemingly, a LOT) in music & performance that gives the future "hope"... is that an accurate picture of your worldview? If not, tell us how I've got it "wrong"....
RF: Communication is the secret to understanding or in some cases misunderstanding. I have spent most of my life trying to hone my skills so that if I wanted to express myself through my art I would have the vocabulary to do so. I have been given an additional gift. The ability and the honor to work with children and young people. I work with at risk youth for a program called Spruce Street, A powerful program called The "Power Of Hope" and a very progressive program called ArtsCorps. The thing that they all have in common is that they empower our young people using the arts to teach social-justice. The commercial media doesn't care what it produces and sells to our children but through the performing and visual arts we can tap into them and perhaps give them something of substance to ponder.
Zzaj: You & I spoke briefly (at a Bill Anschell jam session in Bellevue) about your work with drum circles... I've had a bit of exposure to working with kids & music, but it sounds (to me) like you've done quite a bit of work in that arena. Tell us what drives you to encourage kids to learn more music, & why it's so important?
RF: Drumming circles are perhaps as old as the concept of family. The unbroken line is a very spiritual symbol. It is a way of disseminating information while promoting unity towards a single goal. I have facilitated circles to people as young as kindergarten to corporate CEO's and the learning curve seems to be about the same mentally. It's in the physical part that the CEO's seem to have the advantage. We need a paradigm shift. We have examined this thing to death and over riding conclusion is that we don't all learn the same way. Music and drumming is another way to get to teaching our youth to solve problems through critical thinking.
Zzaj: When I listen through your tracks Robert, I get a distinct feel of free-style, in many ways like Miles Davis. Is he one of your musical heroes? Who are some of your other heroes, musical or elsewise?
RF: Miles, Monk, Picasso, John Coltrane, The Vietnamese lady that works hard down at the cleaners (very inspiring) I look at her and what she goes through and my trials and tribulations are nothing. Duke, Count and me in the mirror.
Zzaj: What instruments do you play? I've seen that little "pocket trumpet" on your site, but do you play other brass, or other instruments? If so, what else do you play?
RF: Trumpet is my first instrument. I use the piano as a writer would use a word processor. I think at this point I love and play the djembe as much or more than any thing. Of course there is no substitute for composing.
Zzaj: You seem to have a LOT of varied talents; not just composition & performance, but work in films & cinema, too... give us some idea (in a few paragraphs) of why it's important (to you) as an artist to "branch out" in different directions... or IS it important?
RF: Steve Allen put it better than anyone When he was asked a similar question. "Most people only use about 10% of their brain think of how much more you could accomplish if you would try 50%" I agree 100% with Stevereno. Also as a black man from Lakeland Florida; I was always told that I had to be twice as good as people of the dominant race just to break even, But most of all; I love all of what I do. It's kind of like being a researcher looking for new paths to explore.
Zzaj: What was your attraction to the Seattle area when you were first considering coming here? Where are you at on that now? Will you be staying here, or moving on in new directions soon?
RF: I love this area, The physical beauty rivals any where in the world. It has inspired about 3 extended large choral works from me. However professionally; For me it has to many glass ceilings. That's not just a black, white thing; it's also a male to female, and musician to musician thing. There is a lack of the maturity that it takes to build an arts/music community here. I love Los Angeles just because it has no sense of community and it makes no pretense about that, but it does have an arts industry that hires and pays you for your professional services.
Zzaj: What can you offer to young players hoping to make it in today's (very) competitive scene? Is music as a career "worth it", or is it only for certain "crazy" types who are like junkyard dogs... just won't let go? Is THAT what it takes to survive in today's scene?
RF: I would say you do this because you love it more than drugs, cars, family or the girl next door. Unless you are a very wealthy person or have family that believes in your future and all the possibilities it is a hard life. Get the education that you are going to need to survive. Study with the people you want to play like. (that's a lot easier than you might think). Learn three skills that will keep you next to your art. Mine are performing, teaching and Arts administration. Always treat your profession as a profession. Be on time, update your resume, try to document every time you perform, respect the cats that came before you and always give back to the ones coming up behind you and tell your mom and dad that you love them even if sometimes you don't mean it.