As American and European jazz continue to lock horns, Caribbean saxophonist Jean Toussaint tells Trevor Hodgett that jazz is just jazz
OPEN hostilities have of late broken out in the jazz world. On one side of the conflict are some British critics who argue that jazz's centre of gravity has shifted. European jazz, they contend, is now more creative and more innovative than American jazz. On the other side of the conflict are some American critics who believe that jazz is an American art form and to be valid has to remain close to its American cultural roots. So where does the great Caribbean saxophonist Jean Toussaint, who established his reputation in America with the legendary Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers but who now lives in London, stand on the matter? "The way critics differentiate the music and say 'European jazz' or 'American jazz' or 'Pakistani jazz' or whatever is for me not important," he says. "It doesn't matter where it comes from. Just like if you're playing Beethoven and you're from California, you're not playing Californian Beethoven, you're playing Beethoven. "So, jazz is jazz and its essence is for a musician to learn from the history of the music and then find their own musical personality within that. And if the history of the music isn't within what you're doing, why call it jazz? Obviously you're playing something else. That's how I look at it."
Playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, from 1982 to 1986, was crucial to Toussaint's development. "When I was with him [band members] had to arrange and compose for the band and when we did that each of us basically rehearsed the band, so it was bandleader training," he says. "And Art taught us how to present the music as well: how to make it palatable and understandable for the audience and also to be true to yourself."
Toussaint's latest album, Live In Paris & London, has received fantastic reviews. "In jazz you never make an album to make money but you got to make it to spread the music around," he says.
One wonders why, at this stage of his career, Toussaint decided to release a live album. "In a live situation there's audience interaction and reaction to take into account and that adds to the music and I wanted to get that on record," he explains.
The album features Toussaint's regular band which comprises Andrew McCormack (piano), Larry Bartley (bass) and Troy Miller (drums). Toussaint has said that as a bandleader he likes to be challenged. "A lot of bandleaders suppress their sidemen but I want to allow the musicians space to play to as high a level as they can," he says. "I want to be inspired and I wouldn't get that from someone who's not allowed to let loose."
As well as leading his own band internationally, Toussaint is a respected educator, teaching at London's Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and elsewhere. He good-humouredly dismisses the suggestion that if he had concentrated totally on his own musical career he might have achieved even greater success in it.
"I like teaching because teaching teaches me," he chuckles. "To teach you have to understand what it is you're trying to teach which means you really have to think about it and break down every element of it. Then, once you understand it, you can teach it effectively. So, for me teaching is part of the learning process and I use that to further my own understanding. That's why I like teaching." One of Toussaint's greatest musical inspirations has been ex-Miles Davis saxophone genius Wayne Shorter. "I've met him several times," he says. "He doesn't speak much and when he does he speaks in riddles. Like, I remember [saxophonist] Bobby Watson asking him about the high notes on the soprano saxophone and he said, 'Well, you got to go upstairs and visit them individually.' And I was like, 'Well, that's a cryptic answer to a technical question.' "That's how he approaches things. And once you listen to his music then what he was talking about makes more sense. And what I got from it was he was talking about having a personal relationship with each note and not thinking about it from a purely technical point of view." Toussaint is a member of the teaching faculty and also performs at this year's Sligo Jazz Project. "[Organiser] Eddie Lee is an amazing guy and works non-stop to make the festival happen," he enthuses. "The teaching part creates a buzz because you have jazz musicians of the future trying to pick up as much as they can from the experienced people.
"It's always good to pass on knowledge and I'm always glad to help younger musicians because that's how you keep the music alive."