Gerry Hemingway

Could you explain to us how you came to music, to drums and then decided to do it professionally ?

For me as a ten year old the drums beckoned my fascination and wonder. My main exposure to the instrument at that point was at school by way of a drummer in the class above me who had a gold sparkle Ludwig kit and was featured at the school assembly playing a drum solo on one of the pop hits of the day, a drum feature by the Ventures, Wipe Out. I wanted to have the experience of performing in this way and having the opportunity to be in the spotlight like this other guy had, so I begged my parents to get me an instrument. They wisely bought me a snare and a cymbal, no drum set at first, and when they saw that I wouldn't stop playing it for the next year, they bought me a drum set, a Ludwig (Blue Pearl finish), that I still play to this day (this occurred in the mid-sixties).

I can still remember how the instrument felt at this early juncture, even what it smelled like, the exhilaration and mystery of this instrument was mine to explore. In not too long I would have my first performance, a duo with my dad on piano, at the same school assembly my predecessor had performed on. I took a solo in this performance that brought the house down and promoted me to the coolest thing at school since malted milk. I had found the completion of who I was in this instrument and played it daily for hours as if my life depended on it.

This was coupled by the general excitement about the music of the day we all felt in the sixties, I am speaking of early Cream, Hendrix, Who, Mothers of Invention, plus the R & B such as Motown that by way of radio invaded the otherwise quite culturally white middle class semi-rural suburban milieu I grew up in. I must also credit my older brothers for turning me on to what music they listened to at that time which additionally included twentieth century classical and folk blues. By the time I was headed out of high school at seventeen my relationship to music had only deepened with the few resources I had including the radio and the school library's subscription to Downbeat. Through these means I had expanded my musical curiosity into jazz and knew intuitively that my future lay in that direction.

What are the musicians and the experiments which influenced you ?

There are many musicians along the way whom I met and heard and in many cases eventually worked with who had a very powerful impact on me. I've mentioned the rock era that acted as my entry point to music as a life. I heard hundreds of concerts, often in close physical proximity to the performers, and I can not say enough about the energy in these situations I absorbed, internalized and assimilated as a foundation and motivation to pursue a life in music. Its not a nostalgia or is it about a need to reduplicate the content of these experiences. It is more the power of witnessing a Hendrix or Cream performance and wanting in some way to emulate the effect I received in these formative years in what I give to others with the music I create. In another way this music formed my roots in the blues. Of course there were other more personal encounters along the way where my intuition and direction received support and nourishment, such as...

It seems that AACM was very important for you, I think of course about people like Anthony Davis, George Lewis and Anthony Braxton.

All very true. The first two people to significantly impact on me was Anthony Davis, the first musician I played with, whose background was jazz and who, upon understanding my breadth of interest in different areas of African-American music (new, recent and traditional), took me in as a friend and infused me with his influences at the time, which included Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Bud Powell among others. He was not just a great pianist figuring out his playing but also a composer who was working on the formation of his identity through channelling these sources in his early works. Then there was Leo Smith (not yet Wadada), whom had taken Connecticut as a home on the basis that if Charles Ives could call it home, why not he? Leo was also very generous with me. We spent many days over several years working together on music and experimenting, in the great AACM tradition, with ideas he was exploring at that time which included the formation of his musical system Ahkreanvention. We also listened to Partch, Chinese Opera, King Oliver, Music of Burundi and my ears were broadening further by way of this exposure. It was through Leo that I would eventually meet Anthony Braxton, who lived in Woodstock, NY at the time. George Lewis also made a huge impact, he returned to Yale and New Haven after taking a year off between 1971-72 to complete his college education at Yale. He came back enriched by his first significant encounters with members of the AACM with whom he had joined. Together with Anthony Davis we were playing the compositions of Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell and I can recall many late nights in George's dormitory listening to late Coltrane, a mutual obsession at the time. We did many concerts with a collective group called Advent that included George, Anthony Davis, Hal Lewis (not related), and bassist Wes Brown of music inspired in part by the visceral outpouring of the late 60s as well as the experimentation of the AACM and our increasing interest in traditional musics of the world, specifically, Africa, India and Indonesia.

Listening to you, I have the impression you always combine really abstract things with a deep jazz background. You are regarded as an improvisor, but do you consider you still play jazz ? Free jazz ? What does this word means for you ?

Yes I have been told before I have some indelible Sam Woodyard in my being, and I don't disagree (though I would add a few sentient influences, Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Max and Buhaina to name but a few). I play a lot more traditional gigs than my recordings reflect, and certainly my many early years of bebop related playing are formative in my conception. It might seem contradictory to say this, but I hear a 'groove' even in the most outwardly non-rhythmic approaches I participate in. In the book Arcana (Vol 1) I wrote an essay about my relationship to groove which details this perspective I have on music and life. In very short, groove is to me another word for connection, and as I am player who uses his ear as a guide to his musical input, to me a primary force I seek in making music with others (as well as solo) is connection.

I also teach music history (currently at the New School in New York City, starting this fall I will be teaching at the Hochschule in Luzern, Switzerland), which reflects my comprehensive overview and experience listening and researching various areas of music including Contemporary Jazz (the 60s and beyond). So I place the term 'Free Jazz' in historical context as primarily a descriptive term coined to try to align the divergent views of experimentation and exploration in the 1960's. Thats what that term means to me and certainly all of the artists who fell under this somewhat arbitrary umbrella impacted on me deeply.

Could you explain to us what is and what means « improvisation » for you ?

The willingness to invent music that lives in the moment informed by a life of musical investigation, refinement and experience.

What are you waiting for when you listen to somebody improvising ?

For the musician's intention and ideas to connect with the player's own breadth of expression, as well as to the other players and to the outside witness (audience), who is often overlooked as a significant part of the equation of what makes music become music.

What makes the quality of it ?

Content that is brought to life and offers meaning and feeling through the artist's articulation, character, honesty, energy, artistry, individuality and/or idiosyncracity.

You are also a composer. Do you find with composition things you can’t get with improvisation ?

Absolutely, and the converse is true as well in my experience. I have remained involved over the years in exploring the interrelationship of scored music and improvisation. To me its successful integration has the potential to produce really wonderful work. This means dispensing with post bebop head-blowing-head models and developing material which develops rather than simply recapitulates the main ideas of the composition. Take for instance the possibility of using repetitive material which has subtle variation scored into it, to me thats an interesting possibility that mirrors the natural inclination of a jazz player to personalize the interpretation of the fixed outlines of scored material. These proposed models and approaches are being developed by many players in more recent times. And they take many forms, certainly my experience of performing with Anthony Braxton who employs many levels of interaction between what he writes and how it is both interpreted and improvised from, through, over etc...

Do you feel close with other drummers in a musical point of view ? I think especialy about Joey Baron, Jim Black…

Good friends for whom I have tremendous admirations for their mastery and contributions and with whom I keep in touch with as paths cross along the road.

I have also played with both of them, in the case of Joey, in a duo performance & with John Zorn, and in Jim's case we worked together on a project of Mark Dresser's with two basses (Skuli Sverrisson) and two drums. With Joey I have a long history of conferring with each other, particularly in the 80's when we were both experimenting with live processing of solo drums. I once interviewed him for an article I did for EAR magazine in the early 80s about his relationship to timing where he spoke about how he absorbed this concept by studying comedians.

Jim Black or Jimmy Carl as I like to call him (in reference to Jimmy Carl Black " the Indian of the group" from the early Mother's of Invention) is a player whose approach employs a number of interests I explore as well, including elasticity of time and very pointed and dramatic dynamics. I have been honored to have many good relationships with drummers a number of them close, including Edward Blackwell, John Betsch, Han Bennink, Michael Vatcher, Milford Graves, Paul Lovens, Sunny Murray, Martin Blume, Billy Hart to name only a few....

You often play in Europe and with european musicians. Are things very different from the USA concerning improvised musics and the different ways to play them and to live them ?

Well, I am about to become a European based musician as I am moving to Switzerland in the fall of 2009. So soon I will have more to say on this subject....However I meanwhile observe that things have evolved to the point where I visit Europe to work in more or less the same way colleagues from Europe come to the States to play. Audiences are great in both places. Money is scarcer here then there, but difficult all over. There are maybe more musicians literate in so called twentieth century 'classical' traditions in Europe than here but to me musicians here and there are part of one family concerned with advancing similar principles and values.

What is the stronger musical or artistic emotion you ever had ?

There are a few ways to answer this question, what I will say for now is that the strong emotion of anger and rage finds a very healthy channeling in my playing. It is very useful energy in music, not so useful anywhere else however...

Is there any young (or not !) musician you discovered recently (or not !) you want to talk about ?

Closest to my own configurations at this point is the 30-something guitarist Terrence McManus (http;// He has something new to my ear, and he is very open thinking player, always looking for new information and hungry to seek out possibility and relationship in music. We are working in a number of groupings of his design, in a collaborative duo and he is part of a new hybrid quintet/quartet I am developing. I just was checking out the drumming of Nate Wood at a festival I played in Münster, Germany and was very inspired by his highly developed understanding of subdivision.

Next gigs ? New Cds ? Projects in mind ?

The three newest cds are Mauger, with Rudresh Mahanthappa & Mark Dresser on the Clean Feed label, The two ongoing duos of John Butcher and myself "Buffalo Pearl" Auricle Records 07 as well as Tom & Gerry (w/Thomas Lehn), "kinetics" Auricle Records 08. Auricle Records can be found via Metakime in France and also via my website. "Songs" originally released on between the lines, is being re-released in March of 2009. And there are quite a few projects in the works including 4 hours of duos with Anthony Braxton, duos with Terrence McManus and Ellery Eskelin are in post production, and slowly I am progressing on some new solo work. Later this year I intend to record some new material with a quintet of Oscar Noriega - reeds, Ellery Eskelin - tenor, Terrence McManus - guitar, Kermit Driscoll - bass, and myself on sampler and drums. BassDrumBone will hopefully get a new cd out before years end, and there are a few other projects developing towards a production, including a trio with Finnish trumpet player Verneri Pohjola and Swedish bassist, Anders Jormin. There are also two other recordings in production with the Frank Gratkowski Quartet and Carl Hübsch quartet.

Interview by Pierre Villeret