John Esposito

Pianist Composer

Intervewed by Alain Drouot


Chicago, January 7, 2006


I read that your grandfather played with Paul Whiteman.


Yeah, I don't think it lasted very long. My father tells me that my grandfather was fired when he told Paul Whiteman that he wasn’t a musician but a shoemaker. My grandfather tended not to be politically astute. But I’ve found a photo, which is the only way I know he was a jazz musician. He was an eccentric figure, a classical violinist as far as I know. He made violins and he was also known as a teacher. He was from New York but he moved upstate when I was a little kid, up near Catskill in the Hudson Valley. Everybody referred to him as Professor but I never knew why. But I remember that my grandmother ran an Italian restaurant. Behind it was an old barn full of antiques and his workshop. Every time I came to visit him he would be shuffling around with a cigar, broken down slippers, and baggy pants with the fly open and the shirt tail sticking out. He would be making violins--he would make about one a year. He was very meticulous and the violins were beautifully made. He would always be tapping the wood and saying: “Listen to this [taps, tap] and listen to that [tap, tap]. Which one do you think is better?” I could never tell but he was always listening for the ringing in the wood and he would explain why this wood was better, what his secrets were for making violins, which had to do with thickness and the way he carved.


My memories of him were of a classical musician and a violin maker. When he died, my father dropped off an envelope full of photographs among which was a band photo from 1921 or 1923. You had four guys with a bunch of instruments on the ground in front of them. And there was grandpa. He must have been 19 or 20. He’s playing a soprano saxophone or a clarinet. And there’s an alto saxophone, a violin, and a bunch of other instruments. His name was Salvatore Esposito and it said Sal and the Gang. I went to the funeral and I was introduced to one of his lifelong buddies. I said that I had found this photograph and didn’t understand. He said: “Your grandfather played jazz. He was a jazz musician. He played all kinds of music.” Then, I remembered when I went to college, after a year, one summer I started to play the piano. One day I was visiting him and he asked me: “I heard that you’re playing some music. What kind of music are you playing?” I said jazz. He said: “You’re not playing that bebop, are you?” I assumed he was a classical musician who was confusing terms--that bebop was a general term for jazz. But later I realized that he was probably a traditional jazz musician--he must have been in his forties when Charlie Parker arrived--so it must have been shocking revolutionary music for him. So, that’s pretty much everything I know about him as a player.


Paul Whiteman and his brand of symphonic jazz was a controversial figure. He took a lot of heat from jazz purists as well as classical purists. It seems that your grandfather totally fit into that scheme?


I have no way of knowing. I don’t know how much of an improviser he was. I am assuming that he improvised because he was in a small band. But maybe not that much, who knows? It was just interesting to me that, in some way, he was a typical American musician. The music represents this kind of cross-cultural range, from African-American to European music, and whatever type of music one had to be able to play in order to work.


From what you’re saying, your grandfather is not responsible for your interest in jazz?


No, not at all. When I was in high school, I met a guitarist named Steve Geraci who’s now down in Austin. He’s a really brilliant guitar player. He had a band in the late sixties. I heard music in the distance and I followed it. I followed it for about three miles. It was a band rehearsing in a garage. That was how loud it was. I made my way through the fields and orchards, found the band. And it was this guitar player playing blues. Coincidently, I was starting to listen to blues around that time. He got me involved--I was playing harmonica. He was also listening to other types of music and he introduced me to Django Reinhardt, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Mingus, but I was mostly interested in blues. He was trying to seduce this young woman who was a classical flute player. So we suddenly became a jazz band. His reasoning was that we couldn’t have blues flute but we could have jazz flute. And we couldn’t have jazz harmonica--we didn’t know about Toots Thielemans. So, I had to change instruments. From harmonica to piano. So, he gave me my first lesson on the piano--how to go from a C major chord, from a one chord to a ii-chord, in time. This way he could improvise over it. After thirty minutes, he gave up and screamed at me that he could teach a chimpanzee how to play a chord progression more quickly. That was my introduction to jazz piano.


Around that time, I started listening on my own. I remember the first few records that I bought accidentally: Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” a Coltrane compilation featuring “Equinox,” “Giant Steps,” and “Central Park West,” and a Cecil Taylor record called “Air.” Those are the three that got me hooked and interested. When I went to college, I started to buy records seriously. The music that was coming out at that time was the beginning of the electric era: “Bitches Brew,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Straight Life” and “Red Clay,” Pharoah Sanders’ “Tauhid” and “Karma.” I was buying any Coltrane album I could find, which meant that I would be listening to “Equinox”, for instance, over and over again trying to copy and play on my own. Then, I would buy “Sun Ship” and couldn’t make anything out of it. Then, my conclusion was that he was not likely to have gone crazy in five years; it was me who was unable to hear what was on it. Obviously, it was one of the richest periods in American music. Early on, I got the idea that I would have to listen to things a lot until I could find a way in, until my ears would open up. At that point, I was listening to everything--although not that much early music with the exception, perhaps, of Sidney Bechet and James P. Johnson--from Bird onward.


Despite that bad experience with the guitar player, you kept at the piano...


I went to a state university when I was 17, in 1970 or 1971, and I think that piano was my escape. This state university in Albany was a big school. I needed to be away from home but I wasn’t quite ready for school. Everything was politically very tense at the time: The students’ strike was the year before; anti-Vietnam war marches; civil rights marches; race riots; major political assassinations. It was a very unsettled time to be a kid. The music gave me a way of having a center. Music dealt with all of it but seemed to put it in a perspective or at least gave me some ground to stand on and watch everything around me. I had been a very good student in high school but wasn’t much interested in being in college. I spent most of my time during the first year in the basement of a dorm at the piano trying to figure things out. I didn’t know anything; I just knew a few scales.


Weren’t you interested in taking lessons?


I think it was a combination. I was in Albany, NY. There weren’t that many people around. I eventually had a few lessons with a piano player named Don York who’s no longer a jazz musician. He’s a new music composer working with dance. He was a Juilliard educated child prodigy with two right hands. He worked with a saxophonist named Nick Brignola who was the local heavy player. That was the first live jazz that I was able to hear. It was Nick Brignola, Don York, a young prodigy drummer named George Leary, and a series of bass players--- Dave Holland, Glenn Moore, and Frank Tusa were the three that I saw with that band. And other musicians would come through: Jimmy Heath, the Heath Brothers, Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Sam Rivers, Jack DeJohnette who would play with Nick, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, VSOP, Sonny Rollins, Ted Curson, Freddie Waits, Jimmy McPartland, Ray Bryant, Bill Evans, or Billy Taylor who would give jazz piano historical presentations. There was a pretty good scene in terms of people coming through. So, looking back on it there was a lot of live music. But what was available in terms of education was very little. This was a time when there was not much jazz education in colleges. There was a flute player named Ervin Gilman, who had been a swing-era saxophonist until he came out of the Navy at the end of WWII, heard Charlie Parker, and decided that he would be a classical flutist instead. He lived in Detroit and played on a lot of Motown records and with the Detroit Symphony. He was into African-American music and he had a course on music history. He had a lot of knowledge on music up until the forties but he was a very open guy. He would have me do some presentations and play music that I was interested in--music from the sixties. I would play Cecil Taylor, Trane, Miles, and all of that. So, what I’m trying to say is that there was much more emphasis on self-education because there was not much school education available, except for classical theory.


The second year I was in school, my studies got interrupted by the draft. I took a year off and worked on the piano. Then, I went back to school and got into the music department and studied classical music for a year or a year and a half. Then, I left again and that gave me a chance to see what the basics of music were. There was nothing that was specifically oriented towards jazz. Musicians I was meeting who had some kind of jazz education were coming out of Berklee. At that time, the only programs were at North Texas State, the New England Conservatory, and Berklee. And everything was pretty much modal harmony. There was a real dichotomy as to what I was hearing on the records and what was being taught. I remember playing for three or four years and thinking that if I could get my fingers in shape somehow I would sound like Herbie Hancock. It wasn’t working. At that point, I had read about modal harmony and I had asked a few questions. I learned the modes and it didn’t sound like Herbie Hancock. I gave up and decided I would learn those Charlie Parker tunes. And maybe, something would unconsciously rub off, which was like shooting in the dark. I started learning some tunes in 12 keys. And I remember trying to play “Donna Lee” through the keys, which was torture. Then, I had an epiphany and suddenly understood that it was chord structure. I understood that melodies were spelling of the chords. It was complicated but it was still a spelling of the chords. And sometimes the harmonies and the line, the melody, didn’t quite match up with the chords. Years later, I realized that this constituted the basic description of modern jazz: Improvisation on a chord structure; where you spell the harmonies; your spellings are alterations of the chords and you’re rhythmically displacing them, which is why it doesn’t sound like Wagner. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I just chipped away at it. When I started thinking that way, when I went back to modal harmony, which of course then made sense. Then, later I had the realization that of course, the great masters of modality, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans also happened to be the great masters of bebop, of chord-change playing. Also, I had no problem absorbing free improvisation. Having not been afraid of uncovering things myself, no matter how long it took, I trusted that more than taking somebody’s word for it. Now that I’ve been playing for 35 years, I think that I am much better off not having studied in a school. And I teach now--at Bard College. That’s one of the issues that always comes up with improvising musicians. It’s not whether this music can be taught, it’s what is the best way to teach so you don’t create a bunch of mindless clones. How do you teach it so that people can develop as individuals? You want them to be able to function with other musicians but at the same time you want to get their systems working without the systems being taken as a set of rules.


You also studied with modern composers like John Cage or Elliott Carter?


I won’t say that I seriously studied with them. When I was in college there was a program called the “Free Music Store.” The man who organized that was the head of the composition department--Joel Chadabe, an electronic music composer. Pretty much, it was a visiting artist program that lasted a month or so. There was a room with oscillators on all the walls, a couple of tape decks, razor blades--that was state-of-the-art electronic equipment for 1971. Composers in exchange for working in that room would tutor one or two students and they would do a performance at the end. We would all participate in the performance--either performing, rolling up wires, or doing whatever was needed. I was able to be there for a tremendous amount of music, and it happened that those visiting artists were John Cage who came with David Tudor and Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Elliott Carter used to be Joel Chadabe’s teacher. His woodwind quintet was performed. I was trying to follow the score with my pitiful reading skills. The whole younger generation of new music composers who would have been Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Sal Martirano , Richard Teitelbaum, among others would come and stay. So, I got to hear a lot of people and talk. I think it was good for opening up my ears and getting me a more inclusive idea about what constituted music making. I was more interested in Coltrane and Sun Ra than I was in that music.


At first, I didn’t perceive such a great difference between the African-American avant-garde and the European music avant-garde, which they did. I remember one of them talking about Coltrane’s “Sun Ship” and saying: “Who can listen to that old stuff any more?” It was only two or three years old, but on the other hand there was Sal Martirano who liked to play Monk tunes on the piano and I think it was Phill Niblock who was performing in a space called The Kitchen with my girlfriend at the time, who was an electronic music composer. Phill Niblock took me to the back of the stage like he was going to show me his heroin stash. In fact, he had an original Bud Powell recording he was very excited about. He didn’t want anybody to know he liked Bud Powell recordings. So, some of those composers were very open-minded, others were a little full of themselves. For me, it was a great experience to be around older musicians, creative people who were producing works--it didn’t matter what work it was. I got the same thing from African drummers or visiting jazz musicians. I would meet them and show them around, or put them up in my apartment if they needed a place to stay. David Liebman’s band stayed over, as well as John Stubblefield who later became a great friend and introduced me to Arthur Rhames who made a major impact on me as a player.


Could you tell us more about the influence Arthur Rhames had on you?


Yes. When I got to New York, in 1980, I had done some professional playing with some more seasoned musicians. I had worked a number of times with Nick Brignola, I had been in the band of tenor sax J.R. Montrose for about a year (1979). I had my own band and I was doing a lot of writing. With a guitar player named Kevin McNeil, a bassist called Otto Gardner and a drummer named Jeff Siegel. When I left Albany to move to New York, I was recovering from pneumonia--I almost died-and made the decision that it was a message telling me to move on and to get my work done. I had no idea whether I was prepared for New York but I had satisfactorily played with some bebop masters and I knew how to put together a band. I had performed 20 or 30 of my own compositions which were more influenced by 60’s musicians such as Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, etc.


When I got to New York, I was there for about six months doing little gigs, accompanying vocalists or doing theatre work, I got a call from the guitarist Steve Geraci--the guy who was teaching chimpanzees how to play the piano--he had a record date and asked me if I would do it and help him find some musicians. It was for a small independent label with questionable sources of money. It was in 1980 at the height of the cocaine craze. This producer is now dead. When I got to the rehearsal, the producer had people he wanted on the session and Steve had people he wanted on the session--of course, he wanted people he knew. But he didn’t know that many saxophone players, so I recommended John Stubblefield as a tenor player who I had met two years before in Albany. He had heard me playing, and was very encouraging, and offered to hook me up with a road gig but I wasn’t ready to leave at that time and I turned it down. He heard me rehearsing some of my tunes and he told me that I should record my music right away. But I knew I would run into him some day. And here I was at that recording session with John who had brought a young alto player--Arthur Rhames.


Rashied Ali was on a few cuts, but he was not what Steve was looking for so I recommended Jeff Siegel who made it on the dot. We had to call him in the middle of the night. He was in Boston and arrived literally five minutes before the session started. He read the music in the hallway. I remember as we were playing the music Arthur’s playing stood out--the energy and what he was doing harmonically. It was so ferocious, even scary. Then he sat down at the piano and played the hell out of it. He also told me that he played the guitar but he thought that the session would be over if he played that instrument. He was an extremely virtuosic guitar player--in fact, he was virtuosic on all three instruments. Then, a month later, I had a gig for a couple of weeks with a singer in Montreal at L’Air du Temps. I was asked to put the band together. I asked her what she wanted and she told me a rhythm section with a saxophone player. She was a nice singer but she had a very small repertoire. The idea was that she was going to do her half-hour and we were going to do the rest of the gig, which is how it turned out.


So, I hired Arthur, not really knowing what I was going to get, and Otto Gardner, and Jeff Siegel. It was two weeks during which it felt like playing with Coltrane. After the second night, I remember saying to him: “I feel I’m playing everything I know how to play and it’s not enough.” He asked me “What do you eat?” His recommendations were to become a vegetarian, to work out, and to take supplements (ginseng and bee pollen). We went around Montreal and bought the entire ginseng and bee-pollen supplies in all the health food stores. Then, the other issue was musical. He told me: “You know a lot about chord voicings like Herbie’s. You can do twenty versions of C minor, but you should think about the possibility of simplifying the chords and moving them through sequences.” Of course, this is fundamental to Coltrane’s music, which was what he was interested in at the time. Then he asked me: “Can you play ‘Giant Steps’ in keys?” I answered yes because I thought he meant playing it in another key. But no, he wanted to play in twelve keys the repertoire he had picked: “Giant Steps,” “Lazy Bird,” “Impressions,” a minor blues like “Mr. PC,” a major blues and some bebop tunes like “Cherokee” or “Minority” by Gigi Gryce who was his teacher. We would play those tunes through sequences, like “Minority” in four keys, in minor thirds.


There was a lot of that pretty demanding repertoire through different sequences of keys like “Giant Steps” up in fourth or half steps. We would sequence “Cherokee” in the middle of the tune so that the first half would be in a traditional key and the second half would be down a major third; the last eight would be in a different key than the first eights. Those were fairly complex things to pull off live. So, it sent me back to practicing really hard. It took me about 6 months to pull everything together. We would play two long sets; a two or two-and-a-half hour opening set and an hour-and-a-half second set. When we got back to New York, we worked at the Jazz Forum--minus the singer. Rashied Ali had a club, Ali’s Alley, and we had a steady gig for a month, then we worked all over New York for about two years.


Working with Arthur was a meeting of the minds that was extremely helpful. We had great conversations about how music works, what we were trying to do, and our assessment of what was important. We exchanged ideas, worked on a lot of material together, it was a chance for me to work with somebody who was a more realized version of whom I was trying to be. He was more virtuosic at what I was trying to accomplish. It was great to work with somebody who could play three instruments. He played more piano in a technical sense than I did at that time. He was interested in me as an improviser, probably because I could play a wider range of music than he did. He had more to draw on but for me it was always a challenge to play up to the level he was playing--technically. I guess we were best friends. He was like a brother to me. It was a great connection of minds and spirits. Unfortunately, his music was too left of center for what the industry was prepared to deal with at the time. There was also a certain amount of homophobia although jazz musicians are supposed to be open-minded--because he was gay. On top of it, he just played too well. Very few piano players will hire a saxophone player who can actually play the piano better than they do. By the same token, very few saxophonists could hire him as a pianist knowing what he could do on a saxophone. This put him in a situation where he had to be a star or nothing.


Talking about another star, In the 80’s, Dave Douglas was playing in your group Second Sight. How does it feel to see one of your band members become such a big star?


It feels great. I felt great about working with Dave right from day one. I had auditioned informally a lot of musicians and he was a creative player, quite a virtuosic player. He’s also an excellent piano player and a musical thinker. I could always trust him to come up with something of his own in the music. My attitude about putting the band together was trying to find people who were strong individual personalities, which is what that band was. Then, I would try to write music that would encompass the different personalities. [Saxophonist] Jeff Marx played in a very contrasting style to Douglas. I loved that. So I was trying to write music that could accommodate them but also would be a little bit ahead of what both of them could do. Dave would always accuse me of writing trumpet etudes for him because his parts were difficult. I wouldn’t have played with him if I didn’t think he was a great player. The fact that his career has been successful is for me a subject of great happiness, and I still value his friendship.


Did you know at that time that he had the potential to become that big?


A career in terms of financial success or whatever that is? Who knows what’s that going to be? If you had looked at Arthur Rhames, as John Stubblefield said to me at his funeral (Arthur was in Reggie Workman’s band): “Reggie and I thought that the history of music would be Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Arthur Rhames.” Maybe, it should have been that. If you had heard him, it would have been obvious that he was going to be a great success. When his friend Stanley Jordan came and sat in with us, when I heard him play “Round’ Midnight” solo--he was still in college, two years before he recorded for Blue Note--my reaction was “Why isn’t somebody recording this? This is great, very different from what everybody else was doing.” Stanley could have easily gone the way of Arthur Rhames. There were other people who I fired because they couldn’t play that I would see on TV with Harry Connick two years later. Who can predict? So, no, I couldn’t predict that Dave would have a successful career. I know he was determined to have a successful career because we talked about that. What I’m happy about is that he’s able to do it playing music he’s interested in. He likes playing a wide range of music. I think what happens is that as you get older you realize that there are some musics you’re not that interested in playing but your friends are and you’re happy for them if they’re successful.


Talking about success and recognition, the public does not know you very well but you’ve got the respect of your peers. Are you what we would call a musicians’ musician?


I don’t know. [Pause] All I ever wanted to do is to play the music better--and I still work at it. When I discover the next thing for me--and I don’t have pretensions to discover the next thing for music or for posterity. For me, a career is to get to play music in front of people with interesting players. A lot of times, that means that a lot of music goes by without being documented. The music being documented is always a function of money.


Although it has become easier these days...


It is easier. I have two CDs that are about to come out because it’s easier. I’ve had more offers from people to record because it’s easier. When I was in New York, I was very clear about why I was there--to learn. When I got what I needed, I left because I never really liked living in New York. It was boring there. I have this theory that people who were born in New York can’t wait to get out and that people who were born other places can’t wait to get in. I’m not and I’ve never been driven by the desire to be famous--only driven by the desire to make music better. Yes, I’ve been guilty of not pursuing this as a business. I have to really force myself to do any business at all. I am very disinclined to produce commercial music. I don’t have a problem with making music that is accessible if it’s the music that I want to make, but I’m very unconcerned with being calculating about producing commercial music. I do what satisfies me. In the last ten years, I’ve done a lot more interesting music from the perspective of situations that were challenging. I did four or five records with Franklin Kiermeyer, I’ve had a good working relationship with Eric Person.


The last three or four years, I’ve had a trio with [bassist] Ira Coleman and [drummer] Peter O’Brien. A quintet with Kenny Davis, Eric Person, and Greg Glassman who’s another up and coming musician. You can ask me in ten years whether I knew Greg was going to be a big star like Dave Douglas. [laughs] I try to work with people I enjoy playing with. Once again, it’s just doing the work, finding some new paths in the music, finding ways of organizing the music so that it brings out new things in people I’m working with. It stimulates me. Happily, I’ve been able to work over the years with people I used to listen to when I was growing up. It was a lot of fun doing the Franklin Kiermeyer record with Pharoah Sanders. His music meant a lot to me when I was in college. It’s great spending two or three days recording and talking. Same thing with Sam Rivers; I got to ask him a lot of dumb questions about records I listened to when I started out. I got to record with John Stubblefield, which was a thrill because he was such a dear friend. He’s gone now. Just a lot of people along the way that were fun to make a connection with and play music with. Some are gone; others I will probably do further work with.


When you were in college, there were not that many jazz programs in the US, or in the world. Now, there are quite a few everywhere--you’re teaching yourself at Bard College--but at the same time the music is getting less popular. How do you explain that?


Perhaps, it means that every jazz fan now is learning how to play. [laughs] I don’t really know how to assess it. I’ve never worried too much about how the music is selling. I probably worry more about clean water. I’m most concerned about drinking it. I am not terribly concerned on a daily basis that it’s being bought up by corporations or how scarce it is, unless I start having a conversation with someone that reminds me of it. I’m an artist, so I’m self-involved. For me, it’s about making the music, getting out in front of people. You get used to the audiences being of different sizes. If you do an appearance on “All That Jazz,” that goes out to eight million people or whatever it is; or you do the Montreal festival and there are a couple of thousand people in the audience; or you do a small club and there are fifty people in the audience. I am not famous, so I do all of that. And it’s just the next thing you do. I just toured with Eric Person for a couple of weeks, throughout the Midwest, and it was colleges and clubs and some of the clubs were pretty high-end, fancy venues filled with people. And I might come home and play a cafe down the street in front of 30 local people, with kids coming in to sit in. You play standards and the bebop saxophone player from the next town comes to sit in. It’s whatever it is. I don’t have pretensions.


I remember Rashied Ali telling a story of being in Japan with Coltrane. Coltrane was playing what you know he was playing then, showing how advanced he was as a human being. At one point he was a guest at a performance by Japanese musicians and they were playing all of his old music. At the end, he got up and he did a medley of all those old tunes, from ten years before. He hadn’t forgotten any of it and played the hell out of all of it. Rashied said that everybody in the band was kind of shocked because their idea had been that he had “moved on” to a higher level and that was some sort of lower level music. For me, there’s not a higher or a lower level. Stravinski made music of a certain complexity and depth and it happens that there are recordings of Pygmees chanting while playing with water that has another kind of depth to it. I don’t think that one of those people is more important than the other. They’re just two expressions of different aspects of the human being. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. If you’re looking down on something that’s created by a human, in one sense you’re looking down on the human. I get as much pleasure out of listening to Robert Johnson playing something simple as I get out of Cecil Taylor playing something more complex in a certain way. When you listen in, the experience reaches you on a deep level. Both musics are compelling and made by interesting people. That’s what I can say about fame or career. Maybe, my grandfather was wrong. Maybe, Paul Whiteman was a shoemaker but there’s nothing wrong with making shoes. Music should have an everyday quality. There should be a certain simplicity of heart or unpretentiousness. That’s something I tell my students because they bring a lot of baggage to it--they worry about whether what they’re playing has any merit. People put too much weight on one of the purest and simplest things that human beings do. They hum a little tune, or tap their foot, or improvise, or write a symphony. It’s the same impulse.




Contact Info


John Esposito



Contact Page