Kenny Garrett, jazz saxophonist: Something Else! Interview

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Kenny Garrett is one of the most exhilarating and prolific musicians of our time. I was recently in Philadelphia where he headlined the annual John Coltrane Jazz Tribute and Festival, and a few weeks later I travelled to Louisiana to hear his quintet in Baton Rouge, where Mayor Kip Holden officially declared September 25, 2014 as “Kenny Garrett Day.”

My experiences at these concerts were extraordinary and unlike any other that I’ve had. I’ve never seen audiences react so strongly to music. What was even more incredible was that the crowds — regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, or age — reacted in the same way: cheering, crying, and always by the end, dancing in celebration. It’s like getting a shock to the system that uplifts and frees you: The soul is awakened from its slumber.

We caught up with Garrett for a rangy Something Else! Sitdown that covered everything from his musical beliefs to his performing experiences. In this interview, Kenny opens up about some of the spiritual aspects in the music and his attempt to bring his audiences on a journey. He also talks about playing John Coltrane’s soprano saxophone while in high school, and where he thinks the future of jazz music is headed.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: September 23rd was the 88th anniversary of John Coltrane’s birth, and recently you headlined in Philadelphia at the John Coltrane Festival. You’ve spoken before about how Coltrane’s music has influenced you, but in what ways has his life story influenced you?

KENNY GARRETT: I think for me, most of the stories I’ve heard have been about his focus and his determination — his mindset about accomplishing things. It felt like there was a sense of urgency for him and I think, for me, that motivates me a lot. What touches me is the idea that a person can come from a force like Charlie Parker, and to find your own voice through that — that motivates me to try to do the best that I can do. And then when I hear his music, it’s so touching. Spiritually, it really touches me.

It reminds me of when I used to play Coltrane’s soprano. It was the strangest thing: Ravi’s [Coltrane] cousin, his name is Darrell Roberts, we went to high school together at McKenzie High School. He used to tell me his uncle was John Coltrane and, of course, I never believed him. [Chuckles.] It seemed so far-fetched, because we were at McKenzie High School in Detroit, Michigan — and I was thinking: “Well, how did he know John Coltrane?” So, I used to play that soprano. Then one day, he called me when he was in Queens [New York] and he said “I’m with my cousin Ravi.” That’s all he had to say and I went into this complete blank of remembering that he said I had played John Coltrane’s soprano. I even told Ravi that story, but he knew because he [Darrell] ended up giving the horn back to Ravi.

But to get back to Coltrane, I think that to hear his music, it actually sends me to try as hard as I can to get to that level. That’s what Coltrane does for me.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: When you say you’re trying to get to that level, do you mean a musical level — or is it a spiritual or emotional level?

KENNY GARRETT: It’s actually all of those. It’s the music, but I think that what was driving him after dealing with a lot of adversity through life was that there was an urgency that he needed to accomplish things. He didn’t know how much time he had. And I kind of feel that urgency in his music.

I remember when I heard this record called A Blowin’ Session with Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan, and I remember Johnny Griffin was killin’ it. I mean, he was playing all this saxophone and Trane came in and just played one note — and that was it for me. I was like, man that’s incredible. Trane just went: [singing the note]. And I always remember that — that, with just one note, you can touch people — because that’s what it did for me. So, emotionally he really touched me too, because he didn’t have to play a lot of notes.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: Speaking of playing just one note, I was at your gig last October at Ronnie Scott’s and I remember at the end of your tune “Haynes Here,” you played and held out just one note, and it knocked me out. So for me, as a listener, it made me jump out of my skin. But for you, as a musician, do reactions like that happen for you when you’re playing on the bandstand? I’m curious about what you’re feeling while you’re performing.

KENNY GARRETT: When I’m playing, I’m really trying to connect with the people. I’m trying to take them on a journey. Not only just a spiritual journey, but I want the people to come away with something that they can remember, and something that is uplifting for them. Because there could be one song that doesn’t have anything to do with some spiritual connection, or just something that touches them, or reminds them of some experience that they had. That’s what I try to do. When I hit the bandstand, I’m trying to get to that place — first and foremost for the band — and if we can connect, then I believe we can connect with the audience, and I think that has been true. When we were in Philly, there was an elderly gentleman who said that he hadn’t danced for a long time. That really touched me — not because of him dancing, but just because of the fact that that was what the music was supposed to be about: having some fun, dancing, just having a great experience for an hour or 90 minutes, just going on a journey. And to remind people about the African drum, or remind them about the church experience they had. I’m just trying to conjure up those emotions.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: Some musicians refer to the audience as an additional band member. What is the role of the audience in your performances?

KENNY GARRETT: I tell people that sometimes the audience doesn’t really know how to react to your music, because there are so many different experiences. So, what I try to do is to help the audience to understand where we’re trying to go … because not everyone’s going to get the same experience. I have a lot of young people who come to my concert and they say, “That’s the first time I heard jazz, and it was a great experience.” But for me — we’re going to play some music that might be, I don’t want to say serious, because I like all the music, I just like to have fun. But we’ll play some music that you might not quite understand, or there’s some music that you might relate to immediately. So, if they’re able to connect with that, then I think we’ve accomplished the goal.

Do we need them to participate? Well, we definitely want them to participate. We want them to participate, if they understand what it is we’re doing. But we’re also trying to get them to understand — this is how we like to have our fun. This is how we like to have our party.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: Is there a definable level or endpoint that you and the band are trying to get to when performing?

KENNY GARRETT: I think sometimes it’s defined but the main thing is that, because everyone responds differently to the music, the only thing you can do is to present the music and say: “People have taken this journey, and they have really experienced some great things.” I find that everyone is relating to it differently, because some people say, “We don’t know what happened, but we know something happened.” And that’s okay with me. I don’t have to define what it is. At least I know that they experienced that. I’m not really trying to define what it is. I’m just trying to say, we’re going to go on a journey. And it’s not guaranteed that the journey is going to be the same every time, because it’s bigger than us. So, sometimes the journey is exactly where we want it to go, and sometimes it’s actually even deeper than where we want it to go.

We were actually in New Orleans, we had never played in New Orleans, and we played there earlier this year at Dillard University. It was a very special concert. It was almost in line with a concert that maybe Cannonball [Adderley] might have had with Operation Breadbasket — it was that kind of experience. I think it was a great experience for us because we were excited to be in New Orleans, we had never played there. The last time I was there was with Miles Davis. And I think it was great for the audience because they didn’t expect anything, they didn’t know what to expect, and we could take them on a journey. At the end they went, “Wow, we didn’t even know people were trying to play music like that anymore.” So, a lot of people are doing it, you just have to give them the opportunity to present their music in the way they want to present it.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: As a music psychologist, I’ve been interested in people’s strongest musical experiences and have been recently conducting some research into this area. What’s the strongest or most intense musical experience that you’ve had?

KENNY GARRETT: That’s quite difficult, because every night we are experiencing something different. There’s so many of them that I can’t really say which one was the most intense, because we had fun in Philly, we had fun at Dillard and we had fun at Ronnie Scott’s. There’s just so many different ones. The reason I say this is because sometimes some of them are more intense than other ones, but I really don’t stay there too long. I don’t stay with those concerts that long. I try to say, “well, that was that,” and move to the next place and see if we could get to the same place like that. With Miles Davis’ band, they played so much that they would just walk up on stage and play, and that’s what I’m trying to do today.

There was an experience when we played in Paris, France, and we were playing at Parc Floral. The first time we were there we were playing “Happy People,” and the concert was already running long — two hours — and then we did a 45-minute encore, and the people were just going crazy, and that was a great experience. And then I said, we can’t get any higher than that. Then, the next time we came to play at that same park, they had the police officers standing in front of the stage like it was a rock concert. It was really intense, it was crazy. So I said, well that was great. Then we played in Poland. The people started singing — they went crazy. And the sound went out, the electricity went out. We were playing acoustic, so I thought that was a great concert. And then I said we couldn’t get any higher than that. Then we played in Italy, it was so loud that we couldn’t hear, it was almost like we were in a stadium, my ears were ringing because of the intensity of the audience and the intensity of the music. So, it’s hard to state just one. Sometimes we have these experiences and they’re so intense that you can’t really remember the last one because it feels like they out do the other one.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: What are your thoughts on music as a healing power and as a way to bridge social divides?

KENNY GARRETT: I think that we’ve been able to connect with people around the world. I think music is healing for people, because I hear people describe it. Sometimes, it’s hard for them to articulate it, but they know that it’s something that’s happening. Like I said, I don’t like to define what it is, but what we’re trying to do, like Art Blakely always used to say: “The music is from the creator, to you [the musician], to the audience.” And we try to connect to the people, through the music, and through the spirit. We try to conjure up all these different emotions, and I think we’re successful because people respond from all around the world. And for people around the world to respond the same to your music, then you know that it’s a universal, it’s a human thing, that people just connect to it in that way.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: Sun Ra talked a lot about music and the Creator, and later in Coltrane’s career he said that every song should be a prayer to God. Are you thinking along those lines when you play?

KENNY GARRETT: Absolutely. I’m definitely conscious of that. And I’m definitely conscious that the music is bigger than us. We’re like the messengers and the music is coming through us. It’s bigger, and that’s why you can’t say that one is the most intense. It just happens. And I think as musicians, that’s what keeps us coming back — that sense of being able to connect with people. And then the next time you want to be able to connect with people on a higher level if you can — to take you to the next level, wherever that level may be.

And I think sometimes, in writing, I try to write music that reflects that. Like the tune “Pushing the World Away” — sometimes people hear it and they’re not used to hearing tunes like that, but once they hear them, they say “Well, wow, that’s interesting.” It’s almost like when a person is hungry for something, and they haven’t had it in a while. You can give them a steak, and they say, “You know what, I haven’t had steak in a long time; that was a pretty good steak.” So, you realize you can feed people that. You can feed people what they want. It’s probably a small community of people, but you can still feed them what they’re looking for. You just need the opportunity or the platform to get to the people, and hopefully, like I said, let them hear it.

For me, that’s the blessing about music: It’s that we can go to these places and we get the opportunity to let everybody hear the music, to experience the same music in a different way, because it’s filtered differently — you know, culturally — and sometimes they don’t quite understand it. We were in Portugal, and this lady was kind of like, “What were you saying, what was going on? Something was happening, but what was happening?” And I get that a lot: “What is going on?” And for me, I’m not really trying to explain, because we’re in a culture where everyone needs the answer to things. I think that some of the things you just want it to be. You just want to present it. You want to see if people can experience this in the same way that they experience it in Philly, or London, or Japan, or Brazil, and then if they can do that, then you realizing that it’s bigger than you — and it doesn’t have anything to do with you.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: Like you said, you’re just the messenger.

KENNY GARRETT: Right. You’re just the messenger, and we’re just happy to be able to go to these places, and for people to be able to respond to the music.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: In one interview, you mentioned that there will never be another Coltrane, but that you’re trying to carry the spirit of that music. Who do you think today, especially saxophonists, do you think will carry the torch after you?

KENNY GARRETT: The music will always move. Will it move in the way that I want it to move? I’m not sure it will do that.

But I’ll back up a little bit to talk to you about that statement [carrying the spirit of Coltrane]. Because you know I played with Pharaoh Sanders on the bandstand, and he stood on the bandstand with Coltrane, and I was honored to sit on the bandstand with him. And he always said, “You remind me of John, you remind me of John, you remind me of John” And it’s interesting how people see things. There’s another friend of mine, he’s a saxophone repairman from Boston, and he said, “You remind me of Brother Yusef [Lateef].” And I said, “well, this is interesting.” So, one day I was looking through a book that was called Swing Journal and they had these birthdays, and I came to find out that me and Brother Yusef had the same birthday. So, I thought that was kind of interesting. But he [the repairman from Boston] had this intuitive thing that there was something about us that was similar. And actually before he [Yusef Lateef] passed, I came to find out that we thought similar, even though he was 40 years ahead of me. There was so much wisdom — 40 years of wisdom and life that was different and that I couldn’t experience, so I couldn’t get the same experience that he had because he was 40 years ahead of me and, during that time, it was so fruitful. I’m saying that to say that the musicians who come after you won’t get the same experiences, so the music will be viewed a little bit differently, and I’m not sure who will carry it on from that point.

There’s some guys who I hear some qualities in their playing and I say, “well, wow, that’s interesting.” There’s a tenor player that I don’t think a lot of people know about, his name is Steve Carrington. And when I hear him play, Steve reminds me of the older guys that have the spiritual quality in their playing — but he reminds me of a person if given the right opportunity and the musical experience, I think he’ll probably be able to carry the music on to some place. I don’t know if it would be the way that I would do it, or the way that Coltrane would do it, or the way Brother Yusef would do it, but he would carry it in the way that his experience would align him to do it.

For me, I’ve been blessed with so many great experiences, with Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Pharaoh Sanders — there’s so many experiences. It’s all so different now, but there are people, I’m sure they’re looking and researching, so we’ll have to wait and see for that one. I can’t really say. Off the top of my head, the tenor player Steve Carrington, he reminds me of having that quality in his playing.

DAVID M. GREENBERG: Considering how jazz music is evolving today, are aspects that you think are notably positive, or are there aspects which are evolving that might be negative for the music?

KENNY GARRETT: Well, I can’t say it’s really a negative influence. It’s just a different time. I think it’s just a different time from how I came about learning music, which really is from the elders. And the elders passed along the music, so that’s how I learned it. But today’s generation is learning it from the schools, so they’re learning differently. Some are learning from the elders and some are not, but the music is still going to be what it’s going to have to be. But they have to carry on in the way that their experience allows them to do. But I wouldn’t say negatively, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know who’s going to come through and connect with you.

We don’t know, just like we didn’t know Trane was going to be the guy. We knew he had a drive, and people said, that’s all he did was play music. He lived for music. But also he had a mission. I think he probably understood that it was bigger than him. And he’s left some great music for us to study and to learn, and I’m sure from generation to generation, they’ll keep studying it, and hopefully, somebody will hear something and take it to the next place.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg

David Greenberg is a PhD researcher in music psychology at the University of Cambridge in England.He also plays saxophone in various groups including the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra. Follow him on Twitter: @dgreenberg7. Contact Something Else! at
David Greenberg
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