JD Allen, Fightin’ to the Edge of the Grave: Something Else! Interview

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We continue today with the second installment of David Greenberg’s three-part talk with JD Allen, as the saxophonist discusses developing confidence as a young player, participating in the good fight, and how music influences us — for good or for bad …

DAVID GREENBERG: When I mentioned your debut album In Search Of, you said that you threw every CD that you had of it into the garbage.
JD ALLEN: It was such a crazy point in life. The whole situation was crazy. I had songs, but I had more of sketches, just little ideas. When I brought it to the guys, they looked at me like I was crazy. They said, “This isn’t even a song; this is like five or six bars, what are we supposed to play?” But I thought that was enough, just the general idea. It’s like a paragraph. The first line of a paragraph can usually tell you what the stuff is going to be about. It didn’t become evident to me until recently that there’s something cool about having a composition that isn’t composition heavy. I want to be able to play something where it relies on me or the people I’m playing with to give it life or some type of flavor. And I started that on In Search Of, and I thought that I was wrong. That’s why I threw the whole record away. That’s why when I got it, it didn’t sound like what my friends were doing — it didn’t have slick hits and eight-bar phrases, or 32-bar forms. It was raw; it was the diamond in the rough, but I thought that I was a loser when I did it because it didn’t work. But then when I got older, I realized that short stories are cool. I love to read short stories: They get to the point and then you move on. But once again, I had never really been asked about In Search Of; I had thought it was a failure. And then when I did (2003’s) Pharaoh’s Children, I tried to get into the vain of what was happening, and it still wasn’t quite what my friends were doing. After we did the session, they looked at me like this was the jivest record we ever did. (Laughs.) So I had to gain confidence about what it is that I can do, and make that a plus instead of a minus. That’s the beauty what of jazz music is about. You can turn your weaknesses into your strengths. Look at Billie Holliday, or look at a lot of people– their limitations are what actually gave them their individualism. And I was actually depressed for a couple of years after that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In the first segment of this intriguing three-installment talk with JD Allen, the saxophonist explores how faith has changed his life — and his music.]

JD ALLEN: Yeah! Aw, man, it was a drag! I wasn’t all over the horn, but that’s just not me. However, God made me; I have to accept that and not be anything else but true. And if I grow, that’s great, then I can do something else, but accepting where I am and being content with that for the moment, of where I am at. So yeah, In Search Of was a drag. After the record, no one could find me for three months. I just disappeared.

DAVID GREENBERG: What happened?
JD ALLEN: Yeah, they were really in search of me. (Laughs.) I got down, and that’s why I like these younger guys that are out now, because they have the confidence that I didn’t have. I just did not have it. And when it’s piled on, it’s piled on, because if you don’t believe it, the people around you aren’t going to believe it. They’re going to say: “I don’t believe it either; I don’t believe you can do this.” There was something in me that made me not give up. I don’t know if I’m stubborn, but I just refused. I said, if I’m going to go down on this ship, I’m going to go down fighting. I’m still up there trying to duke it out. I didn’t believe in myself or believe that it was possible until (2008’s) I Am I Am came out. It was just that I got so tired of waiting for somebody else to give me something that I said: “I’m going to do it myself, because I’m tired of waiting. I’m going to take a chance on myself.” That’s what happened.

DAVID GREENBERG: In the face of adversity, during those really rough points in life, in those darkest hours when life tests you to see how far it can push you and when you’ve got only one ounce left, how do you find the strength to fight back?
JD ALLEN: It depends if it can make you jump off a bridge. (Laughs.) When you’re on the edge of a bridge, and you think, this has got to be it! David, I don’t know — to this day. That’s why I know there’s a God. I don’t think it’s being stubborn. It’s just the willingness to want to live. Now that’s why I wanted to say that it’s not just playing music. It could go somewhere else, it can be another medium, because God forbid something happens and you can’t play music, then all your dependence was on this machine and it’s just an instrument, a tool. But I think the willingness to want to live — I wanted to live. I thought that if I didn’t at least hang onto that fire, then I would’ve just been swallowed up by life. I would have been swallowed up in a direction that society had said I was going go as a result of — not where I come from, but maybe as a result of coming up the way I came up. And this isn’t a cultural thing; it isn’t a class thing, because it happens in all types of cultures and to all types of people. It’s like, whenever I go to another country, especially in Europe or some far off place, I always think about what do kids want to be when they grow up. Do they want to be a fireman or a doctor? Because here, when you grow up in America, it really does seem like anything is possible. But there are some places where everything doesn’t seem possible. And then there are some places where a child can grow up and it’s preordained who he’s going to be, unless there’s a person who wakes up and says: “Well, I’m not going to be like my father,” or “I’m not going to be like my grandfather.” There are certain things that we can’t help, as a result of who we are, but I think that if I had given up then I would have just gone into this abyss that I saw other people go into — and I just refused. I think, for lack of a better word, music is such an honorable thing, art is such a beautiful thing, that when you’re doing it well, or when you’re great at it, people respect you. No matter who you are. And I wanted that! I wanted that.
When I would walk around Detroit with my instrument, I was different than the other guys in the neighborhood. People treated me different. They respected me. They felt that I was going to do something different; I was on my way. And I liked that, I liked being associated with that. When I don’t walk around without my horn, I feel weird — I do! It’s just crazy for me not to have it, even if I’m going to the store. I had gotten so into that that life issues weren’t important. So, at this point in time, that’s why I say there’s no difference between me and the music. But I think what kept me going was first of all, God — even when I didn’t acknowledge him, his grace kept me afloat. From a worldly sense, if you asked me what was my refusal to give up, it my refusal to be what I was told that I was going to be. I’m a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter. Even if it’s not like this (Allen puts his fists up), I try to keep a strong mind.

DAVID GREENBERG: That reminds me of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna, the best archer of his day, is conflicted about whether to enter battle. If he engaged in the battle, he will be killing his enemies — who are also his relatives, whom he loves — but if he doesn’t enter, evil may take over the land. Lord Krishna urges Arjuna to fight!
JD ALLEN: Well, then again, what is the fight? Identifying where that fight is — that’s the tricky part. It’s funny how the fight brings itself to you, even when you try to do something right, or what you’re doing is right, but they present themselves to provide interference for you to lose your way. You can fight physically or you can fight up here, and during those darkest moments, even now, I just refuse to cave in.
I met a guy who told me this, he told me he was going to play — to the edge of the grave. A musician said that. I asked: “what does that mean,” and he said: “I’m going to keep fighting to the edge of the grave,” and I thought that was beautiful. That’s kind of my motto.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: JD Allen’s 2012 release ‘The Matador and the Bull’ showed once again that he has a lot to say – and that he isn’t afraid to shake things up.]

DAVID GREENBERG: I like that a lot.
JD ALLEN: But you lose a lot, though. You lose a lot. You can lose family, you can lose friends, and you can lose loved ones, people who don’t want to go around this way with you. It’s not easy for the musician and it’s not easy for the people that are around the musician. That’s why I say it’s kind of selfish, because you could feel like this (Allen puts his fists up in air again), but the person around you may not feel like this, or can even hang with that, so you can’t even get mad about it, but I refuse to give in.

DAVID GREENBERG: As you mentioned before, there is no difference between you as a person and your music. I’ve long been interested in how music can be used as a therapeutic tool. I think that it has the potential to help people lead better lives. Does music have the power to heal?
JD ALLEN: Well, it does. The Egyptians proved that. It has the power to change lives and it has the power to destroy lives — I do believe that. I remember when gangsta rap became popular in the ’90s. When that whole type of genre came about, I had a friend who consistently listened to gangsta rap, and I watched it change him. It totally changed his being. He became those characters that he was listening to. And on the other hand, just as it can destroy — well it didn’t destroy him, but it changed him — just as it can bring a person down, it can also bring a person up. When you go to a church, right before the preacher preaches there’s usually a choir. I used to think that that was just — I didn’t understand that. I didn’t understand, because sometimes the choir would be happening and sometimes it wouldn’t. And if it was a good choir, I enjoyed it, but I’m waiting for the service. Actually, the choir is part of the service, it’s supposed to open a person up and ready to receive the words, to bring a person in. So that by time the person comes to preach, you’re all warmed up and you’re ready to go. But there’s an opposite end to that. Just like it can do that, it can destroy a life. It’s like if a certain person sees a certain type of thing all the time, whether it’s violent movies or something like that, those characteristics become a part of you, it changes you — so be careful what you do.
I know music serves a purpose, I know that, I would not be here talking to you now if I did not hear certain songs that brought me through problems. It could be Stevie Wonder, if you’re going through a bad time you want to hear a Stevie Wonder tune. It could be Michael Jackson, it could be whoever. It does serve a purpose. Now in other cultures, it’s even a medicine. In African cultures, where it’s a language, it tells a history of what a particular tribe had gone through. I think here in western societies is probably one of the only places where it’s something that’s not functional; it serves as something that you can talk over or an event. I do know, as a result of just seeing: You could go to any hood in America and see it, and I say that because we’re here, and you could see whatever’s being played on the radio in that neighborhood — look at the neighborhood. Word, check it out: Look at the neighborhood. When you go into a person’s house and they have the TV on, look at what they’re watching. Check out their conversation. It all has an influence. These things we have — ears, eyes, all of these senses — they take things in. They serve a purpose: What you’re hearing goes into your brain and then becomes a part of you. So, you’re right, not only does music serve a purpose, what you look at, what you eat. That’s why listening to good music is important — reading good things, seeing good things. It’s so hard for me to break it down into just music, David, at this point. I’m seeing it as almost bigger than music. it’s quality of life. The music for me was a way of realizing that — that this is just so much bigger than just playing. Way bigger than that, way bigger.

PART I: Preaching the Word Through Music
PART III: Exploring the Symbolism in Grace

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