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In Remembrance of: Benjamin Henry, Eva Burrell, Eric Paul Jackson, Bertha Smith, Leon Guitry, Jackie Hall
By Richard Henry on August 20, 2010

Tell us as to what originally led you to apply 20th century classical theory into the music structures of jazz and blues?

I was working on McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance" solo and improvising with two triads a whole step apart. i.e. Eb and F triads which can be found in the head of "Passion Dance" as well as the solo. At that time I also started teaching at Princeton University which has an amazing music library that I took advantage of. I started reading various theory books and listening to 20 century classical music. It was very exciting and through this reading and listening I realized that I could expand on McCoy's ideas and use not only three note groups like the Eb and F triads previously mentioned but I could do this with non-tertial three note groups and I could expand this to four 3 note structures to form 12 tone groups. In other words, there was a lot more that you could do with improvisation and composition within 12-tone theory than had been previously thought. It gave my writing and playing a whole new sound, one that I've spent the last 20 years developing.

What impact have your jazz books and learning materials had on your students and those who are studying jazz or music in general?

In general I think it has demystified the process and helped my students to organize their time better and understand the nature of the work that goes into getting to an advanced level. You do the exercises and if you do them faithfully, you improve; there's no way around that. I particularly think the ear training books have had the most impact because these books are not just for guitarists but for any instrument. Through the ear training books and my extensive writings and interviews on the subject I think students are starting to realize that there is a systematic way to achieve the high aural skills that are a necessity when working in an improvisational setting.

What is your aim in terms of educating others in music and jazz?

I grew up in Sioux Falls South Dakota in the 60's. There was hardly any accurate information for anyone serious about music, so you were pretty much on your own, teaching yourself as best you could with whatever you could get. When I moved to the east coast to study music I had to relearn a lot just to get to the level of the people around me who had had the benefit of an informed musical education. But I still found that there was a lot of misinformation out there that hindered a music student's progress. I felt that by writing books that reflected my own experiences, about the things I found that worked, I could help students achieve their goals more quickly and avoid some of the pitfalls I had encountered in my own development.

How has your mixture of classical music into rock, jazz and blues been received by audiences?

I'm not exactly working in a friendly environment by trying to create new forms of music. These days you either fit into a category or you are excluded. Audiences tend to like my various projects once they hear them, but getting them heard is difficult. Case in point if you have a website like Apple iTunes that makes you choose a specific category for your music. Let's say I record a CD that is based on Webern's 5 movements for String Quartet where the instrumentation is Woodwinds, Electric Guitar, Acoustic Bass and Drums. On the iTunes site I'm only given the choices of listing my music as Classical or Jazz. Which do you choose? And if I feel that neither of these categories is correct, how does the listener choose?

How does it feel to present such unique music to people who have not heard music in the style that you bring?

It actually feels great. Recently I booked a tour in Europe and played in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. The audiences really liked the music and I had sold out shows at most venues. But on the down side, try to get a booking agent in these countries and they either say no or don't respond. Probably because again it's hard to describe or categorize, outside of the norm and they don't want to take a chance. And I don't want to be my own booking agent-- it's too time consuming and exhausting.

Do you feel that composers should continue to find ways to stretch and explore new avenues of blues? How?

I think many uninformed musicians think that everything has already been tried. I couldn't think of a statement so far from the truth. Between the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic possibilities that haven't yet been explored there is a whole world of new ideas available for composer to create new styles and idioms for the blues and of course any other style you want to pick.
For instance a composer could explore different types of forms. i.e. 16 bar, 18 bar blues. Here is a few examples from my new CD "Art of the Blues"
G Blues is a 30 bar form in 3/4 in with 5 measure phrases.
D Blues is an 18 bar form in 5/4
A Blues is a 15 bar form in 7/4
E Blues is a 12 Bar form in 9/4
B Blues is a 24 Bar form in 4/4
You could build your chords on non-tertial structures (not build in 3rds)
Again my new CD "Art of the Blues" uses a 1/2 step and a minor 3rd to build 3 note chords to represent the I IV and V chords of the blues.

Which artists have been your biggest influences in your music and performing?

At an early age Duane Allman, Johnny Winters and Eric Clapton were the biggies. When I went to Berklee College of Music I was there in the heyday of great up and coming guitarists so Pat Metheny, Bill Frissell, and Mike Stern who were all local artists around Boston greatly influenced my direction in music.

Tell us the objective of your book Explorations in the Application of 12 Tone Techniques to Jazz Composition and Improvisation.
The My Music book (with the longest title of any book available) was my attempt to first explain what I was doing with my music to the public in general, but it was also aimed at music students who were curious about how I had arrived at my signature sound.

How do you think composers should continue to experiment with the sounds of jazz?

It's my hope that the current period of "It's not worth listening to if it doesn't sound like something else" will end. I remember the 60's where there was a new group emerging every month; and everyone was open to it. Hopefully through the internet we will see this happen again where composers feel free and motivated to try new things and receive praise and financial reward for their originality.

Interview With Bruce Arnold
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