NYC Jazz Record Interview with Douglas Ewart

by James

by Kurt Gottschalk
Douglas Ewart was likely not the name most known to the thousands of people at the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day, but he made one of the strongest showings of the weekend. Besides delivering a set at once ebullient and thought-provoking, he wore a vivid red marching band coat with the letters “A-A-C-M” and the numerals “5” and “0” sewn onto the back, in what looked to be hand-cut felt.

Even among followers of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Ewart’s may not be the most recognized name among members of the seminal collective, which marked its 50th anniversary with concerts in its two bases of operations: Chicago, at the city’s annual jazz festival, and New York, as a part of its seasonal concert series. But if he hasn’t racked up an international reputation like Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and some of the organization’s other acclaimed artists, the saxophonist and instrument-builder still has long been one of the most vocal champions of the cause. And despite having built a career that often takes him far from the concert stage, he continues to work with the musicians he met when he first encountered the AACM not long after its inception. “It’s one of the most amazing things about staying in the flow of things, as Roscoe says, when you build these relationships with kindred spirits and something comes of it,” he said.

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Ewart grew up interested in music even if he wasn’t yet altogether pursuing it. “I made instruments out of tin cans,” he remembered. But, he added, he had nothing “in terms of having formal training or even having a drum kit, which is what I wanted to play.”

His mother left for New York in hope of forging a better life when he was a child. Visa problems soon had her fleeing to Chicago, where she was able to find work and, eventually, legal residency. She sent for her son to join in 1963, when he was 17. At that time he was considering a career as a tailor but he still had an interest in music and when a classmate took him to an
early AACM concert he saw what would become his life’s pursuit. He befriended AACM members Fred Anderson and Joseph Jarman and at 21 had his first formal music lesson, studying saxophone at the AACM school on Chicago’s south side. Following the multiinstrumentalist mold of the organization, he soon added the flute and clarinet and, not long after that,
returned to his old practice of making instruments out of salvaged materials. Inspiration wasn’t hard to find for the young musician. “There was a lot going on,” he said. “Coming from an island of relative quiet, the
music was in foment. It was a powerful time, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy was still around. 63rd Street at that time was a bustling street with lots of theaters and nightclubs. Howlin’ Wolf was at a place called The Palace every week.”

At the same time, the unrest of the era was leaving its mark on Ewart, who lived on the same block as Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Political concerns continue to be a big part of Ewart’s music today. At the Chicago Jazz Festival, Ewart’s four singers called out the increasing number of reports of police using violence against civilians, intoning “Shoot him in the back, he’s black” alongside Sun Ra chants. And this month when he plays at Roulette, Ewart said he’ll present a piece addressing another problem besieging America. “I want to address some aspects of homelessness because it has become so ubiquitous throughout the country,” he said. “When I think of all the wealth and all the empty buildings in this country, it’s become so desperate.

“One of the things that I’ve realized is that people who you think are really compassionate have difficulty giving money to people on the street,” he added. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with it and I can’t monitor that but I can, out of compassion, give somebody a few dollars. I think if we could see ourselves in those circumstances, we’d live in a different world.”

Ewart left Chicago for Minneapolis in the ‘90s, moving with his wife who had been offered a job up north, but his connections to the city, and to the his old school, have remained strong. He has taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and has been a co-chair and corresponding secretary of the AACM. His commitment to the organization, which teaches self-expression and communal support, is unwavering. “It’s an integral part of my life,” he said plainly.

Ewart has released some stellar records, but those have been few and far between. Much of his work simply doesn’t fit the recorded medium. His efforts often revolve around children and artistic expression—for example, dribbling a basketball to teach concepts of rhythm, counter-rhythm, soloing and composition. He holds an enduring fascination for the creative potential that can be found in spinning tops or medical crutches
and for building environments where people can discover their own creative potential. His “Crepuscule”, for example, can involve as many as 400 people in a large, outdoor area—not just musicians but also dancers, painters, martial artists and doll-makers. As much a fair as it is a concert, it is orchestrated not for a listening audience so much as passers-by who decide to participate. Such projects may not have earned him a place on the shelves of record collectors, but they have been the building blocks of an unusual career. “Playing will always be close to my heart,” he said, “but I’m looking for other ways to engage myself and engage the communities I visit.”

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