An Interview With
David S. Ware
by Fred Jung
Who is David S. Ware? Some would say he’s the undisputed “King of Free Jazz”. Some would say he’s pound for pound the finest tenor in jazz. And still others may not even categorize what Ware plays as jazz. Whatever your opinions of Ware’s music are, there is no denying the sheer strength of his skills. Ware has game. I wanted to shed some light on whom I believe is one of the heavyweights of the avant-garde revolution. This is the candid conversation that I had with Ware, in his own words. It is my hope that this gives people an opportunity to get some rare insight into the man and his music.
JazzUSA: Let’s start from the beginning.
DSW: Basically, I was born and raised in a household that I heard the music. I heard a lot of rhythm and blues, and blues, and Motown, and stuff at a very early age. So then, comes fifth grade instrumentation demonstration and I come home and tell my father that I want to play the drums. He say, “Well, why don’t you try the saxophone?” He just loved the saxophone. He wasn’t a musician himself, but he just loved the sound of the saxophone, and particularly the tenor. I took up the alto. I went right to the alto and then to the baritone, because they needed a baritone player and I was involved with all the school activities, dance band, concert band, orchestra, marching band, all-state regional band, here in New Jersey, and private lessons. On my own, it was several years into my studies, then I got a tenor. I studied the tenor on my own. I didn’t play tenor in the school system at all, never did. And I just went through a very intense period of listening, going to take you back to the early ’60s now, mid-’60s. And I developed my jazz concept, basically on my own through listening and playing in my own musical environment. And by the time I was seventeen, I think it’s fair to say that I had developed a fairly high level of competence. I knew my direction. I had strong direction. I had a strong approach. I had a significant technique. You know, that was it. I went away to music school and I met other musicians that I could develop my sound with, my concept with and that was it. As far as music school, I found myself in conflict with, basically, their philosophy of what music was all about, basically. You’ve got to remember that I’m seventeen years old, seventeen, eighteen years old, and that’s a rebellious time anyway. I just couldn’t come to any meeting ground with these people. So, basically, they asked me not to come back to music school. And so the story goes one from there. Moving into New York and the loft scene days, and all that, Cecil Taylor, and Andrew Cyrille, you know, all those people.
JazzUSA: What were those loft scene days like?
DSW: It was a very creative time. I came into it in 1973, from Boston, we moved to Manhattan in New York City. What people have to understand is that, for example, we had the whole building, OK, down on, downtown New York City, close to Chinatown, the whole building. We had four levels above that for living space for five fifty a month, the whole building. So this is what allowed, basically, that scene to take place. Economics at that time were affordable and cats could rent out spaces, could have spaces, and so forth and so on. There were a lot of loft spaces like that. They were sprinkled all over town. You could put on a concert and cats would come in from all over. A lot of cats came from California. A lot of cats came from Chicago, St. Louis. Cats would come in from all over for this scene, at that time. There was Sam Rivers’ place. There was the Environ. There were just so many places, a lot of places that I never even played, never even went to. They were all over. It was a good time. It was a good time. There were a lot of cats doing a lot of different things. Sam Rivers, at that time, started an alternative summer festival. It was a musician’s festival that he had down there at that time, running, basically, opposite of what was going on uptown. It was just a good time. It was a rich time.
JazzUSA: Was it creatively stimulating for you?
DSW: Yes, of course. I was doing what I wanted to do. We had developed this sound, Cooper-Moore (pianist), Marc Edwards (drummer), and myself. That was the loft scene days.
JazzUSA: Who were your influences at that time?
DSW: I had many. Everybody knows Sonny Rollins and Coltrane. Archie Shepp was a very heavy influence. Pharoah Sanders. All those guys. Albert (Ayler), a little later on, moving into the late ’60s, when I got out of high school, around 1970, and then I think Albert became a little bit more of an influence. He died, I think in 1970, actually (November 5, 1970). I only saw him, actually, I only saw him for a few minutes. I never saw a full concert of Albert Ayler live. I saw him only for a very few minutes. In those days, I think he was using an organ.
JazzUSA: Did you get a chance to see ‘Trane?
DSW: Yes, Fred, I did. I saw ‘Trane a couple of times. One really unbelievable concert, it was Coltrane and Coleman (Ornette Coleman) in 1966, in the East Village Theatre. That theatre had turned into a space capsule, and just traveled through time. That was the first concert that I had ever heard Pharoah Sanders. He had a whole lot of percussionists. It was a big, big, massive sound. That’s a concert that I will never forget. I’ll never forget. You’ve got to remember, Fred, I’m sixteen years old. That’s something that stays with you the rest of your life. Not long after that, I saw him again, for this recording “Live at the Village Vanguard Again!” I was there and I spoke to him very briefly. I asked him, what did he think about Sonny Rollins, because Sonny Rollins was my first hero. He was my original hero. He just shook his head in the affirmative, and that was it.
JazzUSA: What impressed you about Sonny?
DSW: Just the originality. Just his identity. He had his whole, when you’re listening to him, you know it’s original. You know it’s absolutely original. That’s his. This is his evolution. This is his sound, his aura, his spirituality. At that time, in the ’60s period, man, Sonny was out there. I’ll just put it like that. In a friendly way, he was out there. I had an opportunity to hang out with him as a teenager, sixteen years old, I was hanging out with Sonny Rollins, and driving down the street with him, and spending time in his apartment, learning circular breathing and stuff, five in the morning and stuff. I got a chance to see him up close, live and in person. At that time, he would be driving and he would go into a yoga pose. He’s driving and he’s doing a yoga pose at the same time. I mean, this cat was, he was in his own world, at that time. He was really into some heavy stuff. He would be back, in between sets at the Village Vanguard, standing on his head. This cat was into it. He was just into it. There was just nothing more beautiful than to see this cat. He was an inspiration. He was a big part of the reason, he was a model for me. I looked at him like cats today look at Michael Jordan. I was looking at Sonny Rollins in the 1960s. I was saying that I wanted to be like this cat. I wanted to continue what he was doing. Whatever it was that he was doing, one day, I wanted to take it up. I want to keep it going, whatever that is. That’s the way it was.
JazzUSA: What recordings of Rollins were you listening to?
DSW: “Our Man In Jazz,” “The Bridge,” and that standards record, the record full of standard tunes that came out on, I think, RCA.
JazzUSA: “The Standard Sonny Rollins.”
DSW: Yes, right, Fred. I couldn’t get my hands on enough of his records. I would walk five miles up the road to the record store to get a new record. And in a couple of days I was looking for another one, and there wasn’t going to be another one for another nine months or whatever it was. I couldn’t get my hands on enough of his new stuff. The stuff on Impulse, of course, he wasn’t making enough as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t find enough of him. The Village Vanguard, when I was sixteen years old, my parents, basically, let me go. They let me go to New York and I could even spend a weekend with my friends over there, hanging out at the Village Vanguard with Sonny. So the Vanguard became my main hangout on the weekends. If Rollins was there I was there. And he would invite us on his tab. He would tell us, because at that time, guys would be there for weeks at a time, or weekends, for a month or three or four weeks, and so he’d tell us the next weekend you guys come back on my tab. Just tell the guy to let you in on my tab next weekend and we’d be there. Me and my two buddies would be there. We’d hang out with him back in the kitchen, in between sets, and we’d go home with him. At the end, five in the morning, because at that time, you had two bands, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins at the Village Vanguard. Sonny and Hawk would be working. You’d have Sonny and Monk would be working. I’ve seen all them bands together like that. So they wouldn’t get finished until four or five in the morning. It’s not like now. Now it’s, like, half of that time. At that time, you didn’t get out of the club until four or five in the morning. We went home with him, this one time and he taught me circular breathing, when I was sixteen. He taught my other two buddies too, but I was the only one that ever got it. I’ll never forget those days. How can you forget that?
JazzUSA: Give me your impressions of these two Coltrane recordings, “A Love Supreme” and “Meditations.”
DSW: “A Love Supreme.” Oh man, I think that it exuded spirituality. I believe it was in ’64 wasn’t it?
JazzUSA: Yes, December 9, 1964.
DSW: For some reason or another, that record exuded spirituality. It exuded spirituality. There were many like that, but that particular one captured it in a certain kind of way. There’s just certain things about certain records, that you don’t know why, it just works. This was like that. It just came out like that, for that moment and time. It got captured like that. It was masterful. Had it been a day later or a day earlier, it might have been different, but at that moment in time, it went down like that. And that is forever.
“Meditations.” I can’t recall when I first heard it. I know I have it. That’s more an extension of, they’re extending the form. He’s had time to work with that and it’s more an extension of the form. It’s a little bit more blown up. It’s searching. It’s searching for the next level.
JazzUSA: You played with both Andrew Cyrille and Cecil Taylor. What was that time like?
DSW: You see, Fred, I have always been very aware of rhythm. Andrew was so very, very sensitive to you rhythmically and it was very easy to play with him, his rhythmic acuteness and sensitivity. We were basically dealing with a blues concept in the later years that I played with him. In the earlier years, it was more expanded. It was more of an expanded form. It was such a joy playing with Andrew. Andrew knows how to counterpoint with you. He knows how to counterpoint.
With Cecil, what I learned was about composition. How to deal with composition. Having a much more finer sense of composition and how to move through a composition. How to appreciate that. Now, when I give my musicians, I want them to deal with it. At the time that I was with him, I was young and I wasn’t really dealing with his compositions the way I could have. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability to, my concept, I was approaching it from a different concept. I learned that you must be able to deal with the form and structure in front of you. Otherwise, don’t have it there.
JazzUSA: There are factions in the media that refer to David S. Ware as the “King of Free Jazz,” are you the king?
DSW: (Laughing) Well, all that is good, Fred, you know? This is very good. It means something when they say that, I guess. This is something you have to earn, this recognition, this creative mantel, this torch, you have to earn this. I’m willing to try to go for it. I’m willing to try to go for it. I think that I may be able to achieve it if I can have the longevity. If I can stay in good health and have the longevity, I don’t think it will be any problem. This life is so very stressful. Even when you are trying to do everything right, life is still stressful and it takes its toll.
JazzUSA: What do you need to do to achieve this longevity?
DSW: You need to be a saint, that’s what you need to be. You need to become a saint, really. You need to take advantage of all the alternative minded paths. You need to be health conscience. You need to know how to take care of yourself. You need to know about meditation. You need to know about different forms of exercise. You need to know about stress management. You need to know about self-healing. You need to know about astrology. You need to know so many things. You need to take advantage of all of it. You need to know about the correct nutrients to put in your body in order to keep yourself strong. You need to know about juicing, about fresh juices and stuff, and about herbs. You need to be a saint, really, literally, I mean, almost. That’s the way it is. What people have to understand is that, when you make a commitment, when you make a heavy-duty commitment to go for something, you’re going to have resistance. It’s not going to be all free flow. There are going to be forces that mount against you. The opposing forces will mount against you, in order for you not to reach your different points. That’s a fact. That’s a fact. To study spirituality is a must. It’s an absolute must. It’s an absolute must because in there is knowledge of how to move through and have the correct perspective on living. Otherwise, you’ll freak out. You’ll burn out.
JazzUSA: What has helped you keep your focus?
DSW: I’ve know what it is that I’ve wanted to do since I was twelve. That hasn’t changed, so that’s one thing. Another things is that spirituality has always run parallel to my music and my musical activities, whether I was listening or whether I was playing, spirituality has always been the underlying reality for me. I never lost sight of what it was I wanted to achieve. Through all these years, of playing with other cats, driving a cab for fourteen years, busting my behind driving a cab for fourteen years, so I wouldn’t have to freelance around and do things musically that I didn’t want to do, and be unhappy in other musical situations. I always tell my folks, I never lost it. I knew that the time would be right some year, some decade, for the field to be fertile. And now, it’s getting fertile. Now, for whatever reasons, it’s getting fertile. Now, the time is right. Things just came together. Sonny told me years ago, “Life is like a flower. It just blooms and blossoms out.” And things just came together. I met people that helped me in certain areas. It all started back, about ten years ago, we met a man that helped us tremendously with becoming aware of radio promotion. That’s how it started, this last sector, going back ten years ago, it started with that. And then Silkheart, getting the Silkheart records made and get them some airplay. Then DIW came and that gave us a boost, then the Homestead records, and a couple of them were happening at the same time, if not one, than the other. A lot of work was done with the radio promotion. We made ourselves known through the radio play. We built that up, built that up. Little things started happening in Europe. We got a little tour in Europe. At first, it was, like, only one a year. I’m going back less than ten years now. It was only one a year and then I met a lady over there who offered to start working for us. She was hooked up to a theater, and I hadn’t worked in France in fifteen years, and we did a concert over there in ’94, I think, and I met this lady and she started working for us and has been working for us ever since. We were able to get a foothold in France. As a result, we work more in France than anywhere else. It just kept growing and growing. And then, three years ago, the summer of ’95, Branford Marsalis heard the band in France. He called me in the summer of ’97, two years later he called me and said he was becoming the Creative Director at Columbia Jazz and that he wanted to record the band.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your radio play.
DSW: College radio, we have gotten tremendous airplay. Our records have been number one, almost all of our past records have been number one, have reached number one on the college charts. All of our records have reached number one.
JazzUSA: Is that because college radio stations are more open to new, more advanced forms of music?
DSW: Yes, basically, I guess that’s what it is. They seem to be more open. We’re trying to penetrate on up the music world, on into the different epsilons of the music world, but the college level is doing good. We need more work at colleges, but that’s just a matter of the odds and ends, the details.
JazzUSA: I was sure when I found out that you were signed to Columbia, that you would be doing a ballad album or one with strings, how were you able to keep your concept in tacked?
DSW: Let me tell you how it went down. I was told by Branford that they didn’t want us to do something contrived or something like that, something watered down, or something that we didn’t do. One on one, he told me this. They wanted what we did, what he had heard and he heard it live in concert, and he said, “That’s what I want. I don’t want anything else, but what you’ve been doing.” That was it. So I was free. I was totally free. As a matter of fact, Fred, people don’t believe this, and I wouldn’t believe it myself. I had more freedom on this last record than on any of my other records, DIW, and Silkheart, even those cats were in the studio. This record, we were totally on our own. There was nobody from the company. Branford came by for about fifteen to twenty minutes, he came by and that was it. He came in for a few minutes and that was it for the two or three day, whatever we had to record it. I was totally free. I’m cool with strings, but it won’t be any kind of contrived sound with strings. It will be something that I’m involved with if it is strings. There’s no guarantees in this thing, Fred. You just have to take it as it comes. You have a lot to think about. It’s not only the recording, you have to think about the tour that’s going to support the recording. You have got to think about the work involved, and the pay involved, and all that. You can’t see too far down the line. There’s certain doors that we are trying to open now with this Columbia deal. We’re trying to take full advantage of it. It takes a long time, Fred. Doors are still not opening. But, at least the possibility is there, where it wasn’t before, still there’s resistance. It’s like, you’re chipping away at a brick wall, but now you have a hammer. You’re tool is a little bit bigger. It’s chipping away a little bit easier, but the wall’s not getting any smaller.
JazzUSA: Have you ever played in Los Angeles?
DSW: Not since ’76 with Cecil. I did a concert at UCLA. That’s the only thing I’ve done out there.
JazzUSA: So you have not played in Los Angeles since Jimmy Carter was last in the Oval Office?
DSW: That’s right. That’s right.
JazzUSA: One of the sheer tragedies.
JazzUSA: But you would like to play in Los Angeles?
DSW: Oh, of course! Yes. Our next project, we’re trying to get out to the West Coast there. We haven’t done that. We’re trying to get out there. We’re working on it.
JazzUSA: How have you been able to keep your Quartet together for so long?
DSW: This is what I want to do. I want to have a steady band, and I’ve always done it like this. That comes from my power of projection. Another thing is to always have a certain amount of work, that always helps. This is my idea. I was just thinking about it yesterday, I guess this band is somewhat of an institution now. I hope to try to continue it on, in one form or another, I hope to try to continue it on, to where cats can come through. Cats come through the band. Right now, we have got a hundred compositions, a hundred pieces, and so I think that’s lacking, where cats come through bands. Years ago, you could come to New York to play. They were coming to New York to get a gig with Blakey, or Lee Morgan, or Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins, or somebody, Miles, or Mingus. It’s a legacy. You’re leaving something. You have to leave something. You have to contribute something and leave it, and have that access so everybody can access it. It’s like a school. It’s a school of thought, a school of music that is steadily evolving.
JazzUSA: And in the future?
DSW: More searching music, that’s for sure. More searching music, I’ll do it as long as I can stay healthy enough to do it, I’ll do it. More searching, more intense, more open-ended music, in whatever form, and let it be that.
JazzUSA: Any studio dates?
DSW: Yes, we expect to go back into the studio. It should happen this year. I can’t say exactly when, but it should happen before too long.