Interview with Ras Moshe conducted via email, February 11-March 10, 2014
Cisco Bradley: Could you talk about the Brooklyn of your childhood? Where did you grow up? What was the environment like?
Ras Moshe: I grew up in the East New York Section of Brooklyn. Born March 22nd 1968. There was a lot of music going on in Brooklyn from what I remember as far as the childhood days go. In Bed-Stuy and further, not so much East New York. There was a cultural center called The East that my father and other family members frequented. I remember the energy. I wish I was older, I could have asked those great artists some questions now that I actually play music myself!
My paternal Grandfather, Theodore Burnett (Ted “Barnett” professionally) played Tenor Sax, sometimes Alto. He came here from Jamaica in the 1930’s I think. He played with a lot of big bands. He’s on film with Lucky Millender’s band. Also played and recorded with Earl Bostic, Don Redman, Louis Armstrong and many others. The drummer Shadow Wilson was his closest friend. His son, my father, was born in East New York as well and played a lot in Brooklyn in the 70’s and 80’s. I am formally known as Theodore Burnett III. The name Ras came from my involvement with the Rastafari movement and playing reggae music. The name Moshe was given to me earlier on due to a religious conversion in the family. “Ras Moshe” is like a stage name, also spiritual.
My maternal Grandfather didn’t play music but grew up in Harlem with the young musicians who were around at the time, Jackie McLean, Richie Powell, Sonny Rollins etc. He always talked about Buhaina Art Blakey’s first band called “The 17 Messengers.” Apparently, they all wore turbans and were playing some very creative music. He also talked often about the impact of the recording “Things To Come” by John Birks Gillespie. He knew a lot of the Calypso artists who were coming to the states at that time.
My Grandmothers were music lovers too. I’m not leaving them out! Not at all. All the way.
CB: East New York has the reputation for being a rough area. Was that your experience growing up? Or is that perception partly due to fear propagated by the media?
RM: I didn’t have any problems in East New York. An area can look intense, but a lot of times it doesn’t mean it’s really dangerous. It was some of both, there were parts that weren’t so good, but then there were a lot of nice parts too. I grew up on Stanley Ave. but moved to a “better” part of East New York later on (whatever that means). My parents were born here and grew up in East New York … my dad’s sisters all lived in the same area. So, we were all in and out of each other’s houses. The media does engage in negative propaganda about certain areas, but deviant behavior goes on everywhere. The criminality in other areas is more romanticized.
CB: What sparked your interest in music? What challenges did you have to overcome to initially pursue your work as an artist?
RM: What sparked my interest in the music was being around it and hearing it on both sides of the family. This is not unique at all because the music wasn’t some distant elitist thing in the community, it was pretty prominent in a lot of households. The challenges came a little later into young adulthood when it became apparent that I was pretty much not going to turn back from what’s known as “free jazz”. In that time period things had gotten somewhat conservative and the music I was interested in (Ayler, Sanders, Shepp, Taylor etc.) was definitely being promoted as what NOT to do! The music flowed on though and everything ended up working out.
CB: Free jazz was discouraged–by whom? Your peers? Musicians at the time? Broader cultural movement? Jazz establishment?
RM: Well, this would be the early 80s. Certain writers and musicians would publicly say disparaging things about “free jazz” or “the jazz avant garde” (these terms don’t totally capture the essence of the music, but that’s the musical area they were referring to). I didn’t feel this was necessary. Very divisive. It’s no crime if someone doesn’t like so-called free jazz, but I didn’t think it was necessary to be negative. All in print too. Who and what does that serve? That goes for everyone, regardless of what style they’re playing. We have to be together. “In” … “Out” … who cares? We’re all confronted with the same issues on this music scene. The good part was that there was a resurgence of interest in jazz with a lot of young people. That’s what’s most important. Now, after that, you have to educate yourself about the history, but be yourself musically.
CB: Could you tell me more about the role of music in the community where you grew up? The community of musicians was very accessible and ever-present as a part of daily life?
RM: I feel that the music was an integral part of the community because I would notice jazz records in people’s homes when I was hanging out with friends or if I was with my dad when he was making the musical rounds. People like John and Alice Coltrane, Gary Bartz, McCoy Tyner, and Archie Shepp were almost on the same level as the social figures [Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, etc]. I was only a kid, but I remember the energy.
A lot of musicians at that time lived right in Brooklyn. Reggie Workman and Bill Barron were teaching at The Muse, which was a music school in Bed-Stuy. When I got a little older, moving around on my own, a lot of musicians still lived in Clinton Hill mostly … Lester Bowie, Leroy Jenkins, John Ore and many others.
CB: Did you mainly interact with musicians at the East? Was this the site of your most poignant introduction/connection to black nationalism and the black cultural movement of the 70s and 80s?
RM: I didn’t interact with musicians at The East! Their kids maybe! I was waaay too young. But like I said, I remember the energy. I was always inspired by the stories coming from older people who frequented The East a great deal…who played there etc. The great Roy Campbell, who just passed unfortunately, was one I was close to the most. I met him when I was 14. He always told me a great story about Lee Morgan’s band at The East. Tyrone Washington, who was a great tenor player (and one of my influences) was in the band and he began to stand on his head while Lee was playing! You had to hear him tell the story for a better impact. These stories and other stories about social activity served as a poignant introduction.
CB: Would it be right to say that the community that stretched from Clinton Hill to East New York (including Bed-Stuy and Ocean Hill) was simultaneously the heart of the black community in Brooklyn and the center of the music you grew up with?
RM: I would say that the area you outlined had the highest concentrations of Black people in Brooklyn. Flatbush, too. There was not a lot of live jazz in East New York when I was there, but it existed in people’s collections like I said earlier.
I should add that Sista’s Place has been bringing jazz right in Bed-Stuy for a long time. They just don’t get talked about as much.
CB: Who were your teachers and mentors as a child and young adult?
RM: My father was my main music teacher. My Grandfather showed me a lot too. I was in the school bands from 5th grade throughout High School. I was a member of the “Heritage Symphony Orchestra” at Pratt Institute. An orchestra of young people. 1980 or 81, around that time.
CB: How did you go about getting involved with the Heritage Symphony Orchestra and what impact did your involvement have on helping you develop as a musician?
RM: I think I got involved with The Heritage Symphony Orchestra through a friend of my mother’s who lived by Pratt Institute. I learned a lot of basics, reading, transposing, etc.
CB: How and when did you get your start as a professional musician?
RM: For my Junior High graduation, we had it at Brooklyn College and I got a good reception from playing “Watermelon Man,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and I think “Milestones” (the 1958 version). I said “hey, I like this!” I was playing with a few others from the area on the weekend …Vernon … Preston. I forget the trumpet player’s name. Called ourselves the “Soul Defenders.” There was a later version of that group and we played functions in the neighborhood. We knew ALL of the Stax, JB, New Birth horn lines. I played in a few reggae bands after that, especially after I became a Rastafari. I was sometimes with a Rasta drum troupe called Drums of Freedom based on Nostrand Ave. They were good.
CB: When you first were playing live, were you primarily working in reggae groups? Free jazz as well? Were these distinctly different scenes or was there a lot of cross over?
RM: There was some crossover because the people who comprise horn sections in Reggae and soul bands are serious jazz fans. In some cases they were older than me and they would quiz me on records and I usually knew the answer. Now that I think about all this, it’s also true that a lot of “pop” music was made by musicians who were into jazz, even though they were playing commercial music. They would infiltrate it in through the chord changes. Not so much in this time period though. It’s more generic these days … not even with instruments in many cases.
CB: Were you more or less playing professionally, then, from about your late teens onwards?
RM: I began playing music around 1986. I took some of the Jazzmobile classes that year and played with the Drums Of Freedom drum troupe. I began playing downtown in Manhattan in the early 90s. I told myself it doesn’t make sense to try and play this new music in one area. What’s funny is that now I’m mostly playing in Brooklyn! I’m enjoying this a lot. I’ve been playing gigs in areas that I frequented a great deal, just imagining that there would be music there. This is one of the better changes in Brooklyn. The bad part is the economic warfare. But there are young people around doing the right thing, bringing the music back. This is also the consensus with all the Black elders I talk to as well who saw the great ones play… they like the fact that music is back, but not the high rents!
CB: Can you walk me through the steps you took in your career from your early beginnings in the 1980s to about 2000? I have a clearer picture of the past decade or so because of records you have released, etc., but would like to learn more about that middle period. Who were your main mentors and collaborators? What bands were you a part of?
RM: Publicly, I didn’t start playing until 1986 or 87. Alto and Soprano. I was playing both sax and hand drums in African Dance Classes. Playing sometimes with Drums Of Freedom. I would sit in with Reggae groups sometimes like Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus. I was interested in the real Rasta Roots music. Before that I was in the High School band at Forest Hills High School in Queens and I learned a lot. It wasn’t a long ride from the part of East New York we moved to. My Grandfather showed me a lot too. In the early/mid 90s I was also doing a lot of poetry … reading it publicly … playing alto and soprano with African hand drummers … a lot of community functions.
There was a lot of “new music” happening downtown like The Improvisors Collective and a place called The Cooler that was on 14th and 9th avenue that I wasn’t playing on because I was only playing in Brooklyn, but the music was everywhere, so I started sitting in and jamming … slowly making my way. I was always in the audience for all the “downtown” music (I’m not really into all that “round town,” “cross town” stuff).
I formed the early editions of Music Now Unit in 1998, and it’s still going strong and getting better and better … it’s a group of people I play with in different combinations including Matt Lavelle, Kyoko Kitamura, Larry Roland, Anders Nilsson, Tor Snyder, Dave Ross, Shayna Dulberger, John Pietaro, Jamal Moore, Luke Stewart, Dafna Naphtali, Tom Zlabinger, Chris Forbes … sorry about who I left out!
CB: What music events have you organized in Brooklyn personally?
RM: I started the Music Now series in 2000 at The Brecht Forum. It’s still going on now. It is a child of all the independent activity that went on with the “new music” being played in living spaces and spaces that were not clubs. The “Loft” activity of the 70’s stands out as a main inspiration. I was already a member of the “Neues Kabarett” music series that was at the Brecht first. I joined about a year after it started even though I went to their performances. We brought some great artists once a month and they were well attended. Music Now was created to keep the music going even more, with more people being able to play. It’s also an outlet for the different editions of the Music Now Unit that I formed.
CB: What did you set out to do when recording and releasing your 4-volume Live Spirits records on Utech? Were they a product of your Music Now Unit?
RM: The “Live Spirits” series came about through Keith Utech. Who asked me if I’d like to put some music out on Utech Records. The series consists of live performances of the different combinations of musicians I work with. There is still a great reception for these CDs.
CB: How did you go about forming your quartet? What new direction does it represent for your music?
RM: I formed the group based on the sound I hear. I like the Bass. Sometimes it’s all basses … sometimes a drummer is added. I liked the things that Coltrane and Ornette were doing with multiple Bass players. It’s something I naturally feel myself. The new direction it represents is that it is a chance to explore all the musical directions I want to go in. Utilizing the same pool of players in different combinations establishes a musical identity even though each gig is different.
CB: Did Outsight also grow out of the Music Now Unit?
RM: The Outsight CD is an event I like very much. I like the playing of the players, as well as my own playing. The performances were suggested to me by Robert O’Haire who has been documenting a lot of my music. It so happens that they were gigs that I wanted to do something with anyway and was going to suggest myself! So it was one of those things. It did grow out of The Music Now Unit.
CB: So, Music Now Unit has been your working group with shifting personnel over the past 15 years or so? Could you talk a bit about the group’s evolution over that time?
RM: The group started out in 1999 or 2000 with myself and Tor Snyder on guitar, Matt Heyner on bass, Ryan Sawyer on drums, Matt Lavelle on Trumpet and Bass Clarinet. I met Matt Lavelle at the Brecht Forum, two locations ago. We had similar ideas about music. Todd Nicholson came in the next year on Bass as well with Jackson Krall as the drummer and he played with us for seven years. We recorded a CD called Into The Openness, which still sounds great. Very raw. I utilized composition to give it direction, but the underlying thread through it all was fire music time. It still is. Fire music can be static, concise and free of meter and rhythm at the same time. Holistic. That was a great band. We came to play!
Shayna Dulberger is the bassist with most of my projects and the music has been really great. We have a serious duo project as well. Dave Ross is unbelievable on the Guitar. Tor Snyder was on guitar first in the band form the beginning, I love his sense of sound … unbelievable. Anders Nilsson has been on the guitar with me for about 10 years now… he has incredible dimension. I play with these cats all the time, separately and sometimes together. Since about 2007 or 2008 I’ve been doing a lot of gigs with multiple basses or only one bass. Kyoko Kitamura has been in the band for over 10 years, she is a serious musician and always sounds new. Thankfully I get to hear the Vibes again through John Pietaro and we’ve doing a lot of music for the past two years now.
CB: How did you meet Shayna Dulberger? What compelled you to form a duo with her?
RM: We met when she first came to Brooklyn to live from upper NY. She was doing a series at a place called the Spoken Word Cafe, an African restaurant in Park Slope on 4th ave. I played a lot on that, mostly with her, Dave Ross on guitar and Charles Downs (Rashid Bakr). We just started playing a lot from there in different situations. It’s been great too. The duo concept has been going for about two years now.
CB: And the Transcendence Quartet?
RM: Transcendence is a CD done in 2008. I’m really proud of that one. It was very diverse and well done. The music had really grown by that point. True free jazz and a dedication to Brooklyn. That vibe runs through it … you can hear it in there … hard to describe verbally, but the music says it if you listen. Me, Shayna, Dave and Charles (Rashid). We still play too.
CB: What other bands have played a big part in your musical life?
RM: I’m also a proud member of Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble since 2009. I never knew I’d be playing with people I came up listening to … Joe Daley … Warren Smith … Bill Cole. It is an honor. Lisette Santiago is now in the band on percussion. Be sure to check out our new CD Politics for Jayne Cortez.
Being in the ensemble/workshops Of Karl Berger is a great experience too. I’ve been having a lot of fun in William Hooker’s different ensembles … different every time. William Parker’s Orchestra is serious fun as well. We went to Italy and Montreal. I’ve been listening to him since my early years … got to hang with Mr. Roy Campbell, who I knew already from back in the day when I was a teenager.
CB: I was hoping you could tell me a bit more about your involvement in the groups Dissident Arts Orchestra, Synergy, People’s Revolutionary Party, and Fusebox. Who led these projects? Could you talk about the music that each of these created? I haven’t had the opportunity to hear any of them.
RM: The Dissident Arts Orchestra was formed by John Pietaro. I think was going already for a minute before I joined. It is an extension of the Dissident Arts Festival. We’ve been doing some very successful performances with film … Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis. Synergy is a band started by altoist Saco Yasuma with Amir Bey, who does all kinds of art … sculpting … masks, etc. The emphasis is multi media. Fusebox is a trio with Dafna Naphtali and Shayna. Our version of 20th Century/Post War modern music. Dafna and myself have a strong musical affinity as well … we’ve been playing together for over 10 years. She is a pioneer in many ways.
People’s Revolutionary Party was started by guitarist James Keepnews. It started about 7 years ago I think. It’s on hiatus now … but will probably be back in the future. James and I have been doing some great collaborations as well. He is on my latest CD. He’s been putting together shows for quite a while and we just did a film shoot of my music. Playing outdoors.
CB: I noticed that you have had a leading role in the “Black August Unit” for a number of consecutive Augusts. When did this start? And what was the aim of this group?
RM: “Black August” is a name that I gave to whatever performances I would do in August. I intentionally form large ensembles around that time. There was a series called Black August at The Brecht Forum and I played on their last two events. I am very appreciative about working together with the Brecht Forum to keep this music going. I was already a long time fan, politically and went to many of their events. I even read poetry there many years ago a few times. And played in a few bands as a sideman. They are open to the arts in conjunction with the socio-political development, and that is important.
CB: What are your musical plans for the future?
RM: My musical plans for the future are to start performing more of my compositions, along with spontaneous playing. I have been writing a lot. I’m proud of the results. And I’ve been taking better care of myself! Seriously.
CB: How does free jazz/creative music remain revolutionary music in our time period? On a cultural level, what do you feel it represents?
RM: This music remains revolutionary because the circumstances that lead to this music being made still exist. Social circumstances … personal circumstances … organizational circumstances. And new musical ideas are still flowing on … so much more to do musically. On a cultural level I feel the music is an artistic example of how a functional social society can develop. The democratic nature of the music is a perfect prototype of how people can live together. As opposed to a community becoming homogenized through selfishness. I think it’s really about “Selflessness” like John Coltrane said.
Be sure to check the following link for information about upcoming events: https://www.facebook.com/ras.moshe
Here are a few upcoming performances by Ras Moshe in March 2014:
- March 10 (Monday): XXL: Ingrid Laubrock, Daniel Carter, James Brandon Lewis, Steven Leffue, Catherine Sikora, Briggan Krauss, Travis Laplante, Michaël Attias, Patrick Breiner, Yoni Kretzmer, Mike McGinnis, Isabelle Dutoit, Josh Sinton, Sara Schoenbeck, Ras Moshe, Michel Gentile, Jen Baker, Brian Drye, Ben Gerstein, Kirk Knuffke, Thomas Heberer, Ben Syversen, Franz Hautzinger, Dan Peck, Tom Rainey at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center 7:30 pm $22
- March 19 (Wednesday): The Red Microphone: John Pietaro, Ras Moshe, Rocco John Iacovone, Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic at Bar Chord 9 pm
–Cisco Bradley, March 10, 2014