(25. 10. 2021 Interview made by Ellen Moysan in Ascea, Italia, transcribed and edited by Joel and Dana Boyer)
Interviewer: Ellen Moysan
Interviewee: Hugh Steinmetz, Trumpet player, bandleader, composer. Hugh has been the leader of the Hugh Steinmetz Quartet/Quintet/Sextet/Octet, as well as the Communio Musica and Vogel-Steinmetz Quartet. He was also a member of The Contemporary Jazz Quartet/Quintet, the Brothers Vogel Sextet, the Cadentia Nova Danica and the ToneArt Ensemble groups and worked as a composer and soloist with the Radio Jazz Group. He was elected the 1966 Danish Jazz Musician of the Year. He is a member of the Danish Composer’s Society and ToneArt and has composed for large and small groups from string and symphony orchestras to saxophone quartets, choirs, and workshop ensembles.
E.M.: The first question is always the same. And we discussed it a little bit here. Do you think that the expression “inner song” is good, and if you have a better one, what would it be? And otherwise, what does it say to you, I mean, how do you understand this expression? What is the inner song for you and do you think it’s a good definition—a good expression?
H.S.: Yes, sure. I think it’s a good definition. Yes. I read your papers in advance, you know. And it gave me a lot of thought. But, like I said in my own papers, I think that the inner song is something that lies in our inheritance, in our DNA. I think it’s a possibility that it’s something we have inherited from a very long time ago. Like I said, I have always been wondering why some constellations of notes immediately touch us, like a melody or moves our feelings, while other signals, if you could call it that, leave us completely cold. And I think that the inner song is comparable with that, in a way.
E.M.: In the sense that everybody potentially has something like that? And when you say it’s in the DNA, does it mean it’s human to have this kind of music in us or to be moved by the music? Or do you mean that it comes from generation to generation through the culture?
H.S.: I think it’s something that works through the DNA information from generation to generation.
E.M.: So is it something biological or something cultural?
H.S.: I think it comes originally from the primitive, animal’s survival instincts. They have signals, like the dinosaurs had signals, like the birds have signals. Everybody agrees that the birds today are the descendants of the dinosaurs, and they have these signals. I don’t know if they are conscious about it, but of course this singing means something, either when they’re scared, when they’re frightened, when they’re threatened, or for mating or whatever it is. I don’t know if it’s kind of automatic or if they are more concerned about it and aware of it than we think. For certain, it’s meaningful for them, I mean otherwise they wouldn’t have it.
E.M.: So it would be a way to communicate with each other.
E.M.: But then we have the capacity to channel that through an instrument. So, we can sing with our voice, or we can learn an instrument. And I was saying that with René, it’s a channeling of something. There’s a channeling which means that we learn the technique of the instrument and we—even if I don’t really like this parallel—like with language, we have all this capacity to communicate but then we channel that through the French language, the Italian language, the Danish language. So, for music, we have the capacity to be musical but then we channel it through a certain instrument, right?
H.S.: I think, whether you sing or whether you play an instrument, it is indeed a prolongation of your inner song like the way you called it. And like I said during the symposium, it’s my experience if you’re teaching people who have some limitation in getting in touch or getting acquainted or unified with the instrument, if you tell the person that what he or she is doing, he has to like it—I mean, you have to like what you’re doing, because in that way, you get in touch with the notes—and I’m very convinced that this is a very important thing: you have to be acquainted and familiar with the notes and identify them, like they are your voice, your notes, and at the moment you do that, you will be much more confident in what to do and not to do because you can recognize it as having been meaningful, as having something to say. That’s what I think, you know. Also, when I hear an opera singer singing a very good tune, I can get so touched, I can get so moved that I can almost start to cry, and my throat goes like. [mimics getting choked up] That has to do with your feelings. Some notes bring up these feelings in you. And the same when you play. When you like the note that you play, immediately you recognize it and it will touch you. And you will say “wow, this note is great because I am touched by it.”
E.M.: Yes, I’m wondering what’s happening when we select what we like. It’s what touches me. And you mention the voice. I think it’s part of the musicianship to develop my own voice, but I’m wondering, also, what that is. What is my voice? For me, it develops through the playing of my cello, when I try to find songs that I like, songs that are attuned—because intonation is an important parameter—but also the way I touch the instrument. So how would you define the voice, my voice?
H.S.: Yes, well, I started to get educated as a musician and a music teacher. I started to play when I was very young. I was fourteen years old when I started to play the trumpet. I was forty before I took any lessons in music. I was not a good singer. I didn’t think I could sing at all, you know. Because if I wanted to play a tune I could easily identify it on the trumpet because I was familiar with the trumpet and the sound of the trumpet but I couldn’t sing it until I got educated as a singer. Then my whole perception changed. I guess you could say that my musicality improved in that way because suddenly I could sing the notes.
E.M.: So, you were not able to sing what you were able to do with the trumpet. So, it was going through your body before going through your voice.
H.S.: Perhaps. I never practiced singing when I was much younger. I loved to play the trumpet but when I started this education at the university around when I was forty years old, I also couldn’t play the piano. I started from scratch on the piano. I started from scratch with my voice. But during my education I learned to sing like I could play on the trumpet. I learned to play on the piano. So, it’s a question of getting the information that you know and getting acquainted with it and getting used to it, adapting it, if you understand what I mean.
E.M.: Adapting to what?
H.S.: Adapting the ability to know what it is. Like the example I used during the symposium. If you cannot identify if a note is in tune or not in tune—if it’s right or false—if you start to learn to tune the guitar, then you learn what the difference is and suddenly you can identify if a note is in tune or not in tune.
E.M.: Yes, I think until my twenties, more or less, I didn’t have good technique because I was in a small conservatory in a small town, so I guess we don’t always get the best that we can get. But my experience before was that I was very musical, and I had a lot of music in my head but I was not good at channeling it with the cello because I was blocked physically by the instrument but also because my mind was unclear. And then I started to solfège more—to read purposefully with the name of the notes—and then to connect the name of the notes consciously with the movement on the instrument. Instinctively it was almost always attuned—I am from a musical family so I could do that pretty easily—but it was never good, it was almost there but not really. And so, I think with my second education with a different professor, I learned to have more clarity. And I’m wondering if it’s not the same as when you can speak a language and then you learn how to write it and then you can clearly separate the words, you can clearly separate the sentence and how it works, and so on. So, I’m wondering if part of the inner song that we hear, and we listen to when we play, which is made of movements and feelings, is also made of all these almost grammatic elements that help you to be clear but not just, “I know how to play it,” but more “I know how to read it.” I’m wondering, what are all these elements that are part of it? Maybe because I come from the classical formation, but there’s almost a grammar. One of the jazz musicians I interviewed, a saxophonist, he said that in order to improvise, you have to learn the vocabulary and the grammar.
H.S.: Yes. Of course, I don’t know if I agree with that because I think, like I said, most of the education in jazz music is concentrating on learning these figures—almost all of which derive from performances of very well known, famous, jazz musicians. It’s a kind of aping, if you understand what I mean. All these figures, you learn them and train them again and again, and in the end it may spoil your ability to be creative yourself. You don’t know what to do if you don’t use all these helpers all the time. I’m not so happy about that, for sure.
E.M.: So it’s like learning by taking the solos in detail and in dictation and replicating?
H.S.: I prefer to have your own imagination, your own invention, your own creativity deciding what to do instead of having all these finished formulas for what to do. You can lean on them all the time but it’s not personal and, for me, it’s not improvisation; that is for sure. But another thing is that I really think that you can train your musicality.
E.M.:Yes, me too.
H.S.: You can improve your musicality.
H.S.: By, for example, some people are born with what they call perfect pitch, and somebody else doesn’t have perfect pitch. But I think you can train your sense of pitch to be almost perfect.
E.M.: I’m not sure you are born with it because in my family, two people have perfect pitch—my mother and one of my brothers—and it looks like, or, at least what my mother says is that it’s a memory thing. You memorize the name with the sounds. But she also says that it’s not always good because if she goes to a concert with Baroque music or something tuned differently, it bothers her.
H.S.: I have the experience that, for example, to recognize intervals like a flatted fifth or a flatted seventh or something, if you are sight reading and singing, then of course you have to be able to identify if the notes tell you from here and to there you jump a flatted seventh, then you have to know what it sounds like. You cannot just produce a flatted seventh unless you have a clear imagination in your mind, and I know that many singers that are very good, they are training in this capability and capacity. Finding out in songs that this song that I know very well, from here to there, this is a minor third, this is a fourth. And by singing it again and again, if you’re going to produce a fourth and you’re not so trained, and you ask “what is a fourth?” “Oh, it’s from that song; it’s when they play this” then you can identify a fourth and then, after some time, it becomes natural for you, it becomes automatic to identify a fourth.
E.M.: So how do you think that imagination plays a role in this? You mentioned you have to be able to imagine.
H.S.: You have to get it from information about what it sounds like and then, afterwards, you have to remember it so you can reproduce it. [Vocalizing] Where does that come from? Oh, that’s Wagner. [Vocalizing] Oh, yea, then it’s very easy suddenly.
E.M.: So, you remember it in a specific context?
H.S.: In the beginning, yes. Then, after a while, it becomes automatic. When you can identify the [vocalizing] in all kinds of tonalities. [Vocalizing the same interval with different pairs of notes]
E.M.: Yes, I’ve never heard that. I mean, I learned abstractly, by imagining it—I sing it in my head [vocalizing]—I sing it and hear how it sounds….
H.S.: Somebody can identify it from remembering where, in these songs, they know the song. And if they can suddenly remember, [vocalizing]
E.M.: [vocalizing to finish the musical phrase]
H.S.: Yes, yes. Oh, yes. And you learn it in this way and, in the end, you don’t have to sing the song, you just remember the interval.
E.M.: So, when you were playing the other day—how do you connect stuff? (Because I think it’s like an ego, you know?)—sometimes you were playing something and then I was singing the rest in my mind, because I know it, but I was wondering: How does that sound in your imagination? You have parts of standards, parts of intervals and all those kinds of things, and they connect with each other.
H.S.: I’ve been playing all kinds of jazz in my lifetime. Most jazz musicians have a big repertoire in their heads, you know, from standards. But in the end, we were playing free and we didn’t have any kind of preparation, and during the song something develops and sends it to that song and then triggers happen and you start to play some other song. It’s not that, if you play free jazz, you cannot play tunes. You are free to play tunes if you want that.
E.M.: But how do you build this repertoire? And how do you think it’s organized, or is it disorganized? And if you can think about it, how would you say what this repertoire is—do you have parts of songs that you sing in your mind? How do we build up a repertoire? Because I think that with classical musicians, it’s not so important because you have the score in front of you. So having a repertoire for classical musicians….
H.S.: Oh, how I build the repertoire? I mean, in the beginning it’s because you have to play certain tunes with somebody, then you have to learn, and….
E.M.: So, it’s a memory thing.
H.S.: Yes, you memorize it. You learn it and you memorize it. But what I do when I rehearse on the trumpet—you see, playing the trumpet requires that you practice one hour, two hours, at least one hour every day. Otherwise, your “chops,” as jazz musicians call it, gets weaker and you cannot play the higher notes, you cannot play it for an hour or two or three hours. You have to practice all the time. It can be boring because you have to spend all your life practicing every day. But when I practice, I don’t sit down and improvise freely. I practice something, and usually I practice from The Real Books, published by Hal Leonard, I practice all these standards. So, even if I don’t use them, I have most of them in my mind.
(The Real Books)
E.M.: So how would you describe a typical practice session? Do you do scales, and then, how do you work at home?
H.S.: When I play the trumpet?
E.M.: You have your trumpet here, so you practice even in these days, so what is your routine when you practice?
H.S.: I have in my phone, I have all The Real Books, for example.
E.M.: And what do the books indicate? Is it a score? Is it one line, two lines?
H.S.: You don’t know the real books? It’s a very famous set of books. Every jazz musician has The Real Books.
E.M.: It’s wonderful that you can move with your library. Can you sight-read well?
H.S.: Oh, yes. Either I sit playing some of these at home—this is a repertoire that I practice….
E.M.: So how would you practice that? Do you play first what is written and then start to improvise around?
H.S.: This one, you know, [vocalizing], it’s very famous. Miles Davis made a fantastic version of it.
E.M.: Yes, All Blues….
H.S.: So, you can play that, and then you can start to improvise on the chords afterwards. You know the A7, for example. That’s the dominant chord in the tonality of D. So, an A7. Normally the 2, 5, 1 in D would be Em7, followed by an A7, leading to D, you know. All these chords use the D scale. That’s the way you can practice when you sit and play.
E.M.: By varying the chords?
H.S.: Yes, you can improvise on the chords, and you can alter them like for instance a tritone substitution. Almost all chords can be altered, which means that you can use different scales on them.
E.M.: And rhythm, how do you practice changes? This is to vary the melody, but if you want to vary it on other parameters, the rhythm, for example, how do you practice learning the improvisation for the rhythm?
H.S.: I use my imagination. If I sit at home practicing this and improvising on this, I kind of imagine I am playing with a band, playing a standard tune.
E.M.: So, you not only imagine your own thing, you also imagine whatever they would play.
H.S.: Yes, more or less, I can imagine I am playing with a band without actually imagining what the others would play.
E.M.: One of my questions is, is it the case that part of my inner song is the other’s. For example, if I practice a cello piece, is my inner song just the voice of the cello or do I also hear, somehow, in my imagination, what the piano does? I think it’s the piano too.
H.S.: Yes, but besides playing or rehearsing things like this, I play with a lot of big bands. And when you get the scores or the voices for the fourth trumpet for example out of four or five trumpets, then you have your voice. Normally, you don’t sight-read. Usually, you get them in advance so you can sit at home and sit and practice that particular voice. But if I practice that particular voice, I don’t really have much of an imagination of what the others are playing before I play with them. Then you have to put what you have practiced into context. Then the conductor will say that you should play it in this or that way, but it’s much, much easier when you have seen the notes once than if you are sight-reading.
E.M.: Yes, but I think that context matters. I remember what I did when I practiced in an orchestra, they would tell us at the end of the rehearsal to listen to the CD to have a clear understanding of what the others were playing. So, it’s still part of my own voice. We are not solipsistic; we are not alone. And I guess you need to learn how to integrate your own voice into the choir of the voices.
H.S.: Indeed, indeed, indeed. That’s very, very important. But Denmark is a very small country. It’s only five million people. And in Copenhagen there are quite a lot of big bands. But not that many musicians who are trained in playing big band. So, when you play with different big bands, it’s always the same faces you see again and again. And those people, they’re quite trained in playing big band. They have an a priori idea of how it should sound, more or less. You don’t have to tell them that this should be phrased this and that way. They know it in advance.
E.M.: And then you still renew your repertoire? This is something we mentioned, how do we keep being creative, because we can’t always do the same thing, over and over again.
H.S.: Yes, I don’t know how we keep being creative.
E.M.: By being receptive to the others?
H.S.: The point of practicing is keeping your skills up. The different big bands are, all the time, trying to enlarge their repertoire, they always come up with new songs. You cannot sit and fall asleep. You have to be alert and ready to get new challenges. That keeps you going. We’ve got to be creative. For me, as a composer, it means I try to compose new things. Whether I compose for a quintet or an octet or a big band or a symphony orchestra, I try to develop to get new ideas. You can get new ideas from an old piece and then you work it out. You create a fine piece of melody that you can use as a seed to build the whole composition like you would build a house, for example.
E.M.: Do you listen to a lot of other music? Like classical music?
H.S.: Oh, yes.
E.M.: Because, how we get new ideas is also how we build our culture, how we keep enlarging our horizons….
H.S.: I think it might have to do with what you call the inner song. If somebody asks you to write a piece for any kind of orchestra, and you don’t immediately have an idea, then you start playing on the piano or you start whistling, or you start imagining, or you take a trip in the woods, or something, but, suddenly, you get an idea and that might arise from what you call the inner song. Suddenly something pops up in your brain and you say ‘wow, this could be something, that’s quite a good piece… [vocalizing]. Oh, wow! I could use that.” And then you start to build on it, you make it bigger, you think of something and ‘Oh, that’s not good. But if I use this, Ah! That’s better.’ And you can work from that. It’s like a tree growing.
E.M.: So, there is a primary idea that is not necessarily very clear but it’s like an embryo of something and then your work is to develop it.
H.S.: Yes. For example, if I stay in my little cottage, playing my trumpet, and I have my recorder and I just sit and improvise on my trumpet and suddenly a melody pops up and I say, “Wow, where did that come from? I really don’t know.” But I get my recorder and then I blow it and then I blow another version or three, four, five versions of it. I go home, I put it on my computer. I start on the piano and use Sibelius, a notation program, and I listen to it and then I write it down in notes, and then I listen to it again, and then I change it a little bit, and then there’s a piece of it that I don’t like, so I change that to something I like. In that way it builds; it’s like you’re putting building stones on top of each other. The composition emerges that way.
E.M.: So, for you the trumpet is really like—I think our inner song has an instrumental bias. So, for example, I learned cello, I am primarily a cellist even if I also sing, but I tend to hear, for example, if I listen to an orchestra, I hear the bass line more; if I sing with the choir, I hear the medium voice. So, it looks like you have a trumpet bias in the sense that your ideas come through the playing of the trumpet.
H.S.: Yes, sometimes. Yes, mostly, for me.
E.M.: So, from the body; also from the sensation. You know, Renee was mentioning the haptic feedback.
H.S.: I start to swing with myself. Like, [vocalizing], and the phrases come out of the trumpet, I record them, and I go home and work with it, and when I have the melody line worked out, I start to harmonize it. Then I put chords on it and those chords are the fundamentals for the orchestration.
E.M.: How did you learn to harmonize? Did you have a conservatory formation?
H.S.: I spent eight years at the university, and I got an MA in musical science, and there you learn everything—you learn to sing, you learn to play piano, you learn all the musical theory, how to harmonize, things like that. Of course, you use that in the end, but you can mold it and change it in your own way. Sometimes it’s a goal for you to do something else than what is obvious. You try to find new ways, find another way of harmonizing, find another way of voicing it. There are so many ways, you learn how to voice an orchestra in the right way, but it becomes boring in the end just to do that the same way in the same way and do it like everybody else does it. That’s such a recognizable sound. It’s much more fun to experiment and try to harmonize it and voice it in a completely different way. Sometimes it might not sound so good, and ‘Oh, this guy, he doesn’t know how to harmonize, he doesn’t know how to voice.’ But I mean, if you don’t care about that, you’re free to experiment as much as you want.
E.M.: You said two things. You said one of the parameters is ‘I like this, or I don’t like this,’ and the other one is ‘It’s right or it’s not right.’ So, can you elaborate more on that? One is about your own taste and then there is what is theoretically correct?
H.S.: You learn, all the time, ‘It it shall be done in this way, or this is right.’
E.M.: The rules.
H.S.: I mean if you do a choral harmonization in school or university, the teacher says ‘this is right, that is wrong. You should do it this way, if you do it that way, you won’t pass the exam.’ But in the end, I don’t agree with that. I think you should have the personal freedom to do it the way you want.
E.M.: A musician told me this quote. Miles Davis said ‘learn the rules and forget them.’
H.S.: Yes. Yes.
E.M.: So how do you understand that? Does it mean learn how to do things correctly and then…?
H.S.: Yes, once you know how to do it, you have that knowledge. And then, after that, it’s a question of not getting rid of them, but not letting them decide what you should do. I mean, you should regain your freedom to be yourself, but with that knowledge. It’s not that you should get rid of that knowledge. Not at all. But I can understand what they say because, like I said, musicians who practice all these licks, they forget, some of them, they forget to be inventive and creative.
E.M.: So, they learn the rules and then they are trapped by the rules?
H.S.: Yes. That’s what I think. And I can immediately identify if a trumpet player, in his solo, is merely using licks all the time and I get so bored with it.
E.M.: So why would you say that it’s important to learn the rules?
H.S.: Because it’s important to get educated in how to do it the right way. It’s like Picasso and Monet and who else of the painters. They went to school and they learned how to paint. You can see from their first paintings, they know very, very well how to paint. But then they developed into something completely different, and that’s why people agree it’s art because they know they can paint. They take it more seriously than if it was a five-year-old child. And I think that if you’re a professional, you have to learn that, you have to know how to do it, you have to be able to read notes before you can start playing free jazz properly, in my opinion.
E.M.: Yes, in some way, it’s not relativist. It’s not whoever can do whatever. You need to go through a channel and then you can gain your freedom, but you need to learn the rules first because, maybe because they are a sedimentation of the past generations selection of what works and what doesn’t work. Because, at the end of the day, what we receive—for example, if we think about the posture, my first teacher told me ‘Just hold the cello how you want.’ I ended up having tons of tension. The second one told me, ‘Here’s the way you need to be grounded, with your feet on the floor.’ And then she showed me on the bow, it’s the weight of your hand on the bow that gives the strength; it’s not because you are pushing. And then I could find my own way, which corresponds to my own body which is not very muscular. But first, she gave me formation about how we usually do this. I think now, it was important because it was like a short cut. We have like thirty generations of cellists who learned to hold the cello and they selected what gives tension, what doesn’t give tension, what is good, what produces a strong sound, and if you don’t learn that, it’s almost like you start as a beginner, like you cannot benefit from all the past generations’ knowledge.
H.S.: It’s very similar to if you want to be a good craftsman; you have to learn how to use all the tools. That’s a simple thing about being professional. But it’s the same as the way you describe it with trumpet playing, for example. I started out, taking lessons with a classical trumpet player from the symphony orchestra. He told me I should hold the horn this way, I should keep my mouth this way, I should use my fingers this way. And, okay, I started with that, but a lot of people do not. You see trumpet players who hold the valves here, like they do this instead of that [gesturing]. And some trumpet players keep the mouthpiece to their lips in a completely different way, and you could say that is utterly wrong, you know. But they’re much better at doing that; it’s more comfortable for them, and that’s their way of doing it. But I guess they all started out learning how it should be—the proper way.
E.M.: You can go further with it, maybe. I mean, if I think about a ballet dancer, you can tell, among contemporary dancers, you can tell who has a classical background and who doesn’t have one, because they don’t turn in the same way. And I guess that by learning the sedimented knowledge from past generations, we can go further and move further because we don’t have to go back and find everything ourselves. There’s this trend that rules are used less, or that you can do whatever, that everybody is creative, but I do think that learning un métier, like we say in French, learning the craft is a very important thing because it builds you up; I think it brings us further.
H.S.: Indeed, indeed. No doubt about that. I remember, my teacher—I wanted to play jazz music but he wanted me to play classical music—he said, if you keep playing that way, you won’t be able to play one note when you are fifty. [Laughs] For sure, that was not right. But he also said—I wanted to play like Louis Armstrong because that was the reason I started to play trumpet. And after having this guy for a couple of years, we talked about Louis Armstrong, he said to me ‘Louis Armstrong, he can’t play trumpet at all.’ So, I said, ‘No. Well, I got the wrong teacher here.’ So, I changed to a jazz musician for a teacher after that.
E.M.: So, I think this is one of the important parameters. When we start an instrument, we just like the instrument. We kind of flash on a couple of musicians that we like and so on, and so we imitate their sound. What did you like with Louis Armstrong that made you think, ‘I want to do the trumpet’? It’s his sound? It’s his freedom with the trumpet?
H.S.: His technique. I don’t know. It went straight into my heart, and I said ‘Wow! This is fantastic!”
E.M.: But I think the great ones touch everybody, you know? It’s like the classics, novels like War and Peace or some great things that are the classics in literature. Why do they stay in history? It’s because they are able to touch a broader number of people. And I guess, for musicians it’s the same. Maybe they carry an atmosphere that is attractive, because you would think, why does a new generation—people twenty years old, thirty years old—why do they still like Louis Armstrong? You can see the sound is an old sound, but it keeps attracting people. For him, it’s because I like his joy; he is very joyful.
H.S.: When I listen to his recordings from the twenties and the thirties, and also from the forties, but especially from the twenties and the thirties, when he was playing with Fletcher Henderson’s big band, it’s unsurpassed. I mean, he is much more advanced than we generally realize.
E.M.: For what, for the technique?
H.S.: For the technique. Also, for the arrangement. The versatility, his way of playing is so sublime, you know. It’s much, much, much better—it’s unsurpassed, actually, I think. You can come with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, but nothing surpasses what Armstrong did there in those years, from a jazz point of view.
E.M.: And it was a time of repression also, no? Was he free to play? No, they were not free to play. There was some kind of repression going on in the US. They were politically not free.
H.S.: No, they were suppressed.
E.M.: Because I think there’s something with this too. When you have to find a way to get—I mean, it’s like the artists in the communist regime, they were oppressed, and they needed to find a way to be free. So they go through this channel. I’m wondering if sometimes if general repression doesn’t push creativity further, because you have to find a freedom that you don’t have. So, you find it through arts or something like that.
H.S.: Yes, for sure, for sure. In the segregated United States, that for sure played a role. There’s no doubt about that. But I think that Armstrong was one in a million. He can do something that his contemporaries and also people today can hardly do.
E.M.: And Sidney Bechet? Do you like him too?
H.S.: Yes, sure. Not as much. Not as much as Armstrong.
E.M.: Yes. To go back to this notion that interests me, how do you think this haptic feedback plays a role when you play? René was calling that the haptic feedback, the contact with the instrument, the resistance of the instrument. Because we cannot do whatever we want with the instrument, we have to deal with some resistance or some sounds that don’t come out as we want.
H.S.: I was very unlucky in being knocked down in a bar, years ago. My lips were split open, you know. They were really broken. Two times in my life, once I had an operation in my forehead where they operated on the bones at the corner of my eye, and the doctor, afterwards, told me that I should never play trumpet again.
E.M.: Why? Because it’s too much pressure?
H.S.: Yes, too much pressure, and then that the bones that they removed meant that there was too much air coming up in here [gesturing], too much pressure. So, for ten years I did not play trumpet at all. And then I was knocked out in this bar by this psychopath. And for years, again, I could not play trumpet. And I still have a scar on my lip.
E.M.: Somebody beat you?
H.S.: Yes, he hit me. I didn’t realize it. I suddenly woke up, lying on the floor with the blood all over. And, he had knocked me down and my lips were completely open. So that took many years to heal and today I still have trouble with it. I have some scars here. And that means that there are certain things that I cannot play. So, I’m having trouble and there are things I cannot play.
E.M.: And do you think it developed other things? Because sometimes, for example, when you are deaf, you have a better vision, or when you are blind, your sense of hearing is better.
H.S.: With regards to my lips, it’s only that there are things that I cannot do. I cannot play, for example, the first trumpet in the big band; I cannot play the high notes. I have to play only up to a certain point. So, I can only play second or third or fourth trumpet. I’m restricted in my trumpet playing. I have to live with that.
E.M.: Yes, but sometimes it can push other aspects.
H.S.: No. Not for me. I don’t feel that it improves other things.
E.M.: But you are forced to play differently, then. I spoke with a musician one time, who told me that some musicians have a physical disease. For example, Yo-Yo Ma has something in his spine. And so they found other ways and develop other skills, other muscles, or….
H.S.: Yes, indeed. But I don’t think that goes for me. I am restricted to what I can do. It’s not optimal. No. I have to get along with what I can do.
E.M.: And when you play, we spoke also of the attitude and where we are. So, when you are playing, you have to give your attention to what is going on around you. But where would you say you are? Are you inside of your image? Are you focused on the playing of the trumpet? Or are you focused more on what you hear in your imagination? Or… how do you think the attention is divided?
H.S.: I focus mostly on what I hear. When I play, I usually play with my eyes closed, actually. If I have my eyes open, and look around, and look at the audience, I get disturbed. I close my eyes automatically, and then I orientate by what I hear.
E.M.: From the external then? Or also from your inner song? So from the inside?
H.S.: Yes. I think I am responding to what I hear when I play free jazz, you know. But I think my playing is directed, more or less, by my subconscious. Like what I call ‘running on auto-pilot.’ I respond to it, but not always after having thought about it. It comes very spontaneous.
E.M.: At the same time, maybe, if I play at home, I listen to what I play but I’m also having this melody going on in my imagination, you know?
H.S.: I think my subconscious is much more aware of what is going on than my normal consciousness. I think my subconscious reacts to things before I really realize it.
E.M.: Your body also reacts. You feel some ideas come by touching the instrument.
H.S.: Mostly—and I think that goes for other jazz musicians too—if I’m improvising on standards, I have these chords passing through my imagination or my consciousness. It’s like a film, like different pictures—you remember these chord progressions and they run like a film in your head, in a way.
E.M.: Yes, they flow. Right? And is it a visual? Do you visualize the chords or…?
E.M.: It’s the sounds, right?
H.S.: I kind of memorized them. I don’t think it’s a kind of photographic memory or something—I don’t see them. But I remember the succession of the chords.
E.M.: Yes, I think we have a, we really have something flowing at the same time. When we play, we also have this flow of…
H.S.: Like a film running in your head, but not a visual one.
E.M.: Yes, a succession of things and it develops as we play, so… I’m wondering about… We mentioned Keith Jarrett who sings when he plays. I think he sings this, you know, I call it the inner song, but I think he sings that, because he plays what he is singing. So, I’m wondering if it comes together, or… I’m wondering what is happening when he does that. What is this thing that he is singing?
H.S.: I know it’s true for many jazz musicians. When you talk with them about it, they say ‘well, I never think about that.’ But I think it’s because when you start to play jazz, you have to learn these things. You learn them and you train them in the beginning, and then it becomes automatic. And then you stop thinking about it, actually. You always know, on your spine. For example, bars—successions of bars. Is this bar number four? Is this bar number five? Is this bar number six? Or number eight? If you are playing a twelve-bar blues, you always know when you are at bar number seven or bar number eight. I mean, that comes completely automatically. You don’t think about it.
E.M.: So this is about knowing the rules, then. You know the rules, you know that there will be twelve bars.
H.S.: You have rehearsed it and got used to it so many times that it becomes completely automatic, unconscious, or whatever you call it.
E.M.: And then after a certain number of bars, it’s somebody else who is playing the solo, right?
H.S.: When you play jazz music, most jazz music is built up in blocks of eight bars or four bars. So, it’s very easy for a jazz musician to improvise on a twelve-bar, sixteen-bar, twenty-four-bar, or thirty-two-bar period. But if you come with a period consisting of seven bars, eleven bars, thirteen bars, and then three bars and four bars, then they get messed up. They’re not used to thinking that way.
E.M.: Yes, so that’s the way, that’s why it works. It’s because you have some kind of bones or, I don’t know—it’s like a road: you know where you are and so you can catch up with what the other people are doing. Because, from the audience’s point of view it’s like somebody is playing something and then, when he’s done, somebody else takes it. We don’t know the background.
H.S.: No, most of the audience, I mean, for sure they don’t know much about jazz and are not counting. They are getting a total impression of the whole thing. But they don’t think about whether he is in bar this or bar that. You will, if you are a jazz musician. You listen to it in another way, that’s for sure. And then you can hear the scales that he uses or the chords and everything. But the common audience doesn’t think in that way.
E.M.: No. And do you think…. And when it’s finished, when do you stop this? Is it because you run out of ideas?
H.S.: Yes, you asked that the other day. When do you know how to stop or how do you know when to stop? But when we played the other night, it was… suddenly, we were agreeing, now it’s over, now we stop. But we didn’t agree to stop at that particular moment. Suddenly, we could all feel that this is running out, so we stopped.
E.M.: It’s also, when you speak with people in a conversation, you understand that it’s over. Also, when you start to lose the audience.
H.S.: Yes, perhaps. If you can sense that. I think you can sense that sometimes.
E.M.: Or when you don’t have anything more to say because your ideas run out. An idea cannot be developed endlessly, right? It seems like, yes, it can, but…
H.S.: Sometimes it happens like it did the other night: I was ready to stop; I played something that I thought was like the finish, but then somebody else continues and then, okay, you have to jump on the train again.
E.M.: Do you think that these bars—this counting—is part of the inner rhythm? You mentioned the inner rhythm in your paper, and so we talked about the melody but not really about the rhythms. I think that we have this basic inner rhythm that we have, that we feel, and then, on top of this, the melody develops as a rhythmic melody. But how does the inner rhythm play a role in the inner song when you play?
H.S.: The inner rhythm. I think that most people have an inner rhythm in a way. For example, the other night, this melody [vocalizing] that’s a song that was created by an American saxophone player, Albert Ayler. He’s a very, very famous free jazz musician. He wrote this song, supposedly after having been in Sweden, listening to a Swedish folk tune.
He called it “Ghosts.”
When I started that song, it was because of the rhythm in the room or the rhythm between René and me that triggered that. Because it has a special, dancing rhythm that, in a way, harmonizes with, perhaps the rhythmic feeling that I have. I like something like that because I feel the rhythm in it. [Vocalizing] There’s something rhythmic in it that appeals to me. I feel comfortable in that rhythm.
E.M.: Yes, I think the rhythm is the structure because it’s like the bone. Don’t you think?
H.S.: If you listen to a trumpet player like Don Cherry, for example, if you listen to his solos from the recordings with, Ornette Coleman from 1959 to 1963, you can hear, actually, the rhythm that is in his body. He was always improvising in a very special, rhythmic way that is very defining for him and is his rhythm. No doubt about that. And if you listen to that, you can hear it so clearly.
E.M.: It’s the way he embodies the sound.
H.S.: It’s the way he phrases—the rhythmic way he phrases—his phrasing.
E.M.: So, this is part of his own voice, then.
H.S.: Yes, indeed. It’s the rhythm in his body. It’s his rhythm.
E.M.: And then there’s the sounds. How do you work on the sounds that you want to produce?
H.S.: I think he didn’t work on his sound. I think it developed very naturally. In the beginning he was playing on a normal trumpet. He had very big lips, so his embouchure and the way his lips were touching the mouthpiece was completely different from what you normally do on a trumpet. And then he was playing on a very, very little Pakistani trumpet—a very small trumpet—and that was, kind of, unheard of in that time. And what he can do on a little trumpet like that, in terms of melodic ideas, of phrasing, of rhythm, of technique, it’s amazing. It’s so fantastic.
E.M.: But then it’s also related to his body.
H.S.: I think that if it develops from his body, it’s a mixture. His ancestors were both people coming from the east Asia, it was American Indians and it was African Americans. According to his DNA, he is a mixture of many different things. I was personally friends with him and he’s a magnificent person, you know. As an artist, he’s unique. And he’s very close to surpassing Louis Armstrong. He’s the only one who can really be said to have those skills.
E.M.: Yes, I mean, sometimes we think about geniuses as somebody…I mean, I do think that the body is a part of the genius. Like, just the natural way you are done—like you are made. For example, for ballet dancers—I like watching documentaries, so I watch documentaries on the selection of ballet dancers in Russia, for example. And you see some kids, they just have a ballet body. They have a long neck, they have a certain muscle energy. And with music, it’s not as obvious. But I think that the body plays a real role in how a musician comes out as a great musician.
H.S.: Yes, but in that way, Don Cherry is different, because his technique—especially blowing, the lips, and the mouthpiece—it’s not like any other trumpet player. And he said to me, “yea, I know I’m playing the wrong way, I should improve that.” But at the same time that was what made him so special. He was world-famous. Today he is world-famous and regarded as one of the most fantastic trumpet players ever. But his technique, a classical trumpet player or teacher would say he’s doing it completely wrong. [Laughs]
E.M.: But he knows how to play right, I imagine.
H.S.: But I think it came natural for him to do it that way and that’s how he did it.
E.M.: Yes. Well, I think I’ve covered all of the topics I wanted to discuss.
H.S.: Okay. [Both laugh]
E.M.: Well, thank you so much.
The present interview is dedicated to the Professor Lars Aagaard Mogensen (†), without whom this encounter would have never taken place