A dark house. A quiet night. John Coltrane coming through the speakers to deliver A Love Supreme.
When pianist Marilyn Crispell was already in her late twenties, jazz arrived like a spiritual revelation and pushed her through the ensuing decades as smoothly and swiftly as a line of falling dominoes. From Boston to Woodstock, from the Creative Music Studio to the Braxton Quartet and then beyond, Crispell has explored a rich catalog of music both alone and in the company of some of the field’s most talented artists. For a musical trajectory that began behind a piano at the Peabody Conservatory in 1960s Baltimore, it may not have been the most obvious career path, but it’s also not one Crispell seems to have had any doubts about following.
Soft spoken but not shy, in conversation she betrays only hints of the passion she seems to reserve for performances—an experience one critic equated with “monitoring an active volcano.” Still, she aspires to an openness and truth in performance that she also readily offers in off-stage encounters, calling up a rich volume of anecdotes and observations collected in the course of building a life for herself in what she often refers to as “creative music”.
White, female, caught between the worlds of classical music and jazz: Crispell has carried a number of labels through that life, and some have weighed on her more heavily than others. But no matter these pressures, she has been able to follow the music wherever it has led her.
Molly Sheridan: I was particularly struck by the story of how you first fell for jazz, so to speak, while listening to the music of John Coltrane. Was it an abrupt switch, that experience—like turning on a light—or can you trace it as something more evolutionary?
Marilyn Crispell: It was kind of a combination. I was living with a guy at the time on Cape Cod, and he was a jazz and blues pianist. He had a great collection of contemporary jazz. So one night he was out playing a gig, and I just picked out some stuff to listen to. One of the things was A Love Supreme by Coltrane, and it was a life-changing experience.
MS: Do you remember what it was specifically about that experience that affected you so strongly?
MC: Well, it was dark and very quiet, and I just had this record on. There was a McCoy Tyner solo during one of the sections, and something about the spirit, the feeling of the whole thing, I just felt like—I don’t know how to describe it, really. I felt everything shift. I felt totally drawn into the music, like I had to figure out what was happening and I had to be part of it. But it was very, very intense; I wasn’t just sitting there thinking this. It completely took me over. And not to get too Woodstock-y and weird here, but [laughs] I felt a presence in the room and I felt connected to this presence, which I felt to be the spirit of Coltrane. This is the only time in my life I’ve ever had an experience like this. It was very emotional. I felt like we communicated, and I said something to the effect of “Please help me to enter into this and to learn it and be a part of it. This is what I want my life to be.” And I felt like that was heard. I felt this incredible presence of love. I was just completely overwhelmed. And the interesting thing is, I’ve talked to other people about it—not in this depth—and other people have had the same experience with that recording.
I also told Alice Coltrane, when I was on a double bill with her at a concert in London, about that experience, and she said, “Yeah, that sounds like John.”
MS: So what’s your next step? You had trained at Peabody and the New England Conservatory, and you had all this experience playing the piano in a classical context. What happens after that night?
MC: Right after that I heard about Charlie Banacos, a teacher in Boston who used to teach at Berklee School of Music. At the time I heard about him he was teaching privately, so I moved back to Boston and started studying with him. I studied with him for two years, and while I was in Boston, I met the saxophone player Charlie Mariano who told me about the Creative Music Studio, which was a school up here in Woodstock. I came up here for a visit, went back to Boston and got my stuff, and came back to Woodstock. After that Coltrane experience, things just happened one after the other [snaps fingers quickly].
When I came up to the Creative Music Studio, almost immediately I met Anthony Braxton; he heard me playing in a workshop and then we started playing together. So it was almost as if things were orchestrated. They just happened very fast, and before I knew it, I was on the road playing with all these people who up until that point I had never heard of, actually.
MS: I love that story about your first performance with Braxton where there’s the moment when he puts a beer in your hand and tells you not to play so many notes. It’s such a cute story, but how did it feel for you at the time, while you were feeling your way towards what you wanted to say?
MC: Well, I was still very new to playing this kind of music. I had been improvising since I was young, because when I was at Peabody in junior high school and high school, there was a woman there named Grace Cushman who taught theory and harmony and composition to pre-college kids, and she required everybody to be able to improvise on the piano, even if they weren’t a pianist. So we would learn intervals and then each person would have to do an improvisation focused on perfect 4ths or perfect 5ths or major 3rds or whatever it was that you were studying at that particular time. I still use that concept in my improvisations, like using major 3rds but in an abstract way, not connected to any particular tonal center.
Then after I had this Coltrane experience, I met a guitarist named Baird Hersey, who lived in Boston and had a band called The Year of the Ear. He came over one day and said, “Okay, let’s get you improvising.” It was just him on guitar and me on piano, and it was very scary: It was like going to the edge of a cliff and just jumping off. And he said, “Just keep playing and don’t stop!” So that’s what I did. I played as fast as I could and as much as I could, and until Anthony put that beer in my hand, that was my modus operandi.
MS: So, you come to the Creative Music Studio and meet Anthony Braxton, and from there you moved on to Braxton’s quartet, which represents something like a decade of experience. You came to that at a relatively young point, and then all of you grew so much inside that experience it seems, and then went on to have these amazing careers after the quartet disbanded. What was going on inside that ensemble?
MC: Yeah, well, it was like a family. Playing with Anthony really taught me a lot about space, the use of space and silence and breath, and the use of composition in improvisation. I would say that a lot of the changes came about through the changes that were happening with Anthony’s compositions. When we first started, we were playing quartet music. There would be a small composition or a head, and we would improvise on the feeling of that, on the motives contained there. And then we would play that again and then go on to something else. But as time went on, he got more and more interested in incorporating improvisation with written composition, to the extent that by the end of my time in that quartet we were playing pieces where even some of the solos were written out.
When you play with a group for ten years, a lot of things happen; it’s like a marriage. I feel like we had kind of reached a plateau, actually, and it would have been really interesting where we would have gone from there, but at that point Braxton was teaching at Wesleyan and had just got a MacArthur grant, and I think he wanted to start focusing on operas and other types of things. I think he just felt like we had reached an end of the road that we were exploring together. Each person knew what the other person was going to do; this was his feeling. But I felt, and I think the others in the quartet felt, that we could have and maybe should have pushed past that to see what would happen then.
MS: Any chance for a reunion?
MC: I kind of doubt it. I’m not sure that Braxton is interested. I don’t think he’s ever gone backwards.
MS: Well, to go back to that beer one more time, then, and what he said to you—to kind of give things some space. What about that spoke to you that you could turn around and say yes, you’re right?
MC: It was maybe the beginning of my thoughts about space and silence. Just being inside his compositions taught me a lot about composition. You know, it’s something that I can’t really put into words. What really impressed me is that he was composing in a way that was very similar to contemporary classical musicians but with a lot more freedom, allowing interpretation. Also, when he played, you could hear that he had equal exposure to Stockhausen and to the world of jazz. People accuse him of just being intellectual, but he plays with a tremendous amount of passion. And when he does play traditional jazz, he plays it very creatively.
MS: Do you approach your own music somewhere in the middle of those two points then?
MC: I approach improvising in a very compositional way. I won’t know what I’m going to play when I sit down, but after the first notes, then there has to be some kind of logical development from that. It’s a very natural result of having studied composition and being exposed to a lot of music.
MS: When you do sit down at the piano to play, often your hair is down and covering part of your face and you appear to be very focused on the instrument in front of you. Where are you—mentally, creatively—at that moment? We’re talking so much about energy, so how is it flowing for you at those moments?
MC: I’m not thinking about where I am. I like it when I kind of disappear, because if I’m there too much, if I’m thinking about things too much—especially about who might be in the audience and that kind of stuff—it doesn’t come out right. The best times are when I can disappear, and for that to happen certain things have to be in place. I have to allow myself to go there. It’s hard to do sometimes if there’s a lot of extraneous noise or if the lights are really bright. Sometimes it just happens more easily than others. It’s like in meditation, you know, when they talk about the state that you’re in; they compare it to tuning the strings of a violin. And it can’t be too loose, unfocused, and it can’t be too tight–it has to be just the right tension in the string.
MS: Is that very much an internal headspace equation, or is it more what’s happening around you?
MC: It’s everything. I never know what I’m going to play until I walk into a room and I feel the room, I feel the atmosphere, I feel the people, the ambience—everything contributes to it.
MS: Do you have a process that you go through before each performance to prepare yourself?
MC: Well, beforehand I’ll go through some compositions that I’ll think I might want to play, but I may or may not use them. And I’ll usually practice Bach, just to be in shape. I almost never practice just free improvising because I don’t want to get into a rut—I don’t want it to be really predictable, what I’m going to do.
MS: Is there anything in particular, though, that you find yourself going back to over and over again? And do you keep digging at it or decide it’s time to put it away for a while?
MC: Sure, absolutely. If I’m not feeling particularly inspired, I’ll tend to fall back on certain tried and true things—not planning it that way, it will just happen. I will consciously try not to do that unless it’s what I really feel. I’m trying to be honest in every moment, I’m trying to feel what is real for me at that moment, and what it might be is a lot of silence. If I’m playing with a band, and I’m not particularly feeling or hearing something, I can just lay out. But when I’m playing solo, that’s another story. In that case, I might just allow the space.
Other times I’ll sit down and I’ll feel a lot of energy and I’ll just start right in. I have noticed that I have certain types of things that I often play. There is a totally free thing that will start with some kind of motif, and go through lots of different spaces, often involving a lot of energy. There are the slow, ballad-type things. Or just using sound, maybe even inside the piano. There’s stuff using rhythms, which in a way works better with a band. There’s what I call a sort of bebop feeling, which is not traditional bebop, but it’s a feeling of it, so the bass will be doing a fast walking feeling, not necessarily locked into a time, and then I’ll play fast and free on top of that, sometimes coming into other stuff. And now I have all these compositions that I play by other people.
MS: Well, that reminds me, I’ve heard you talk very carefully about this as “creative music.” It’s not this equation of “this is the head, develop it here, now the drum solo, okay and we’re out.” Is there a categorization for your work that you struggle with, or don’t you pay it any mind?
MC: Yeah, I struggle with it; I think everybody does. I think what I do is largely inspired by contemporary jazz. So in that sense, I would call myself a jazz musician. But I’ve allowed a lot of the things that inspired me when I was doing classical music to enter back into it. I feel there’s a lot of counterpoint to what I do and things that people could think sounded almost more like classical music than traditional jazz, but I wouldn’t call myself a classical musician. And I don’t play much traditional jazz, so some people would say I’m not a jazz musician.
MS: When you’re talking about composed pieces, because of the nature of this art form, you’re composing even when in some ways it’s someone else’s “piece”. How does that flow together? Are there issues of control during a performance that are sort of parsed based on who the primary author of a piece might be?
MC: Well, I have definite ideas about the kinds of things I want to hear. I have a piece called Rounds, and it’s a series of phrases using segments of major scales. And I didn’t write them in any particular time or phrasing, I just wrote all quarter notes with no stems on them. And if there was a space, I’d leave some space on the page. When I played with Joe Lovano and we played that piece, he wrote it out for himself, but I liked it being more free, even though I definitely hear how I want the phrasing to be.
I also have a piece called Ahmadu (Sierra Leone), and that uses a lot of different rhythmic cells that I wrote out. I have definite ideas about how I want people to play certain rhythms against each other and the kind of sound I want, so I do want to have that much control. But then when it gets going, it gets going. All those years I played with Braxton, he never told anyone what to play, never once. I feel like I’m a little more controlling than that, that I might want to hear a certain type of thing or have something interpreted in a certain way, so I want to have some control, but then I have to let go.
MS: It seems like this whole process is a very immersive thing for you, emotional and musical and intellectual, so where does this intersect with your day-to-day life? Which pieces end up actually in the music? Where do you go for inspiration, what do you draw on?
MC: That’s not a conscious thing at all. I don’t see colors and pictures in my head. It’s a totally abstract thing. The one thing that sometimes comes into it is dance, because I did dance and I worked a lot with dancers and did music for dance, so more than anything it’s a sense of movement or choreography, but that’s more when I’m listening to other people play. When I’m playing, myself, I’m just in a space and I don’t feel like there’s any particular thing that is informing that space, but I would say everything in a person’s life comes into that space. It’s like when you cook something and you mix a bunch of ingredients together, and when you’re cooking it you know what the ingredients are. But when it’s all finished and you’re just eating it, you don’t remember what every separate ingredient was.
Like I said, I’m very into dance, I’m very into visual art and nature and animals and poetry and literature, Eastern spiritual philosophy. I’m very interested in other cultures and how people are different and how they come together. So all that stuff is a part of me. I don’t think any of it enters into the music in any particular, specific way.
MS: Occasionally in the media I see you identified very specifically not just as a woman, but as a “white pianist”. Is race something that’s very much on your mind in this semi-jazz field?
MC: Mostly it hasn’t been an issue. Especially when I was first starting, it wasn’t an issue. A lot of the music that inspired me was black music at that time, and I was interested in playing with black musicians. For me, it was a different feeling, and it related to that emotional intensity, although you could say well, okay, white musicians have that, too. But I have to say it was exclusively black musicians who heard me, kind of liked what I was doing, helped me, and invited me to play with them. There was no feeling of competition. It was very generous and kind and respectful. There weren’t any white musicians at that time who took that road. Now I play with a lot of white European musicians and not so many black musicians. That is not by choice, not at all, and that is disappointing to me. It’s not a good or bad kind of thing or better or worse, it’s just different, and I like to experience everything.
But there are racial issues that come up. For instance, one of the musicians I played with early on, Oliver Lake, made a point of saying, “Well, the black musicians help the white musicians to get started, we hire them in our bands, are their teachers, in a way.”—And I have to say, absolutely, Anthony Braxton, Reggie Workman, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, they were my teachers.—And he said, “and then they go off and form bands of their own with all white musicians and they just forget about us.” Well, I don’t think that that is intentional. I mean, I notice that I’m playing with these all-white bands, and it’s not intentional. I don’t even know how it happened, really. What I do mostly is play solo and then play with people who invite me to play; I don’t even really have a band at this point. But I do think about trying to consciously get back to play with some of my friends, people like Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. I miss playing with them.
MS: When you say that early on that’s where you felt at home, to what do you attribute that? Can you pinpoint what it was?
MC: No, no, I just felt understood. I felt whatever impulse was deep within me, propelling me to play this music, came originally from hearing Coltrane, and there is some seed there; there’s some kind of understanding that I feel with them. Also a kind of emotional compatibility, a kind of sympathetic way of being, a sensitivity. I don’t know. It’s different and not different at the same time. It’s just because people come from different places, different cultures. And so everything that makes you who you are, different things make them who they are, and that’s going to come out in the music. And it’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s just different.
MS: Another facet of the issue is the male vs female categories musicians get strapped with, and I didn’t notice so much in the way of you being identified as a female avant-garde pianist in the press, very little of that “good for a girl” kind of characterization.
MC: Oh, they did. And I got a lot of questions, “How does it feel to be a woman doing this?”, etc. In a way, it might have worked in my favor, because, well, for one it made me more noticeable. There’s always been a strong scene in Europe with women improvising musicians, but over here there weren’t so many. And then Myra Melford came along, another white woman pianist playing contemporary music, Geri Allen, who is black. And it almost seems silly to talk about these things in a certain way, except that a lot of gender and racial issues are coming to the forefront now, and I think it’s maybe good that people talk about them.
As time goes on, it does feel like, okay, we’ve been there. But the thing is for anyone who was alive in the ’60s, that’s still an issue. Especially any African American person or non-white person who grew up here, that has to be an issue. There are a lot of African Americans who feel that white people have stolen their music and want to control their music, so there is this extreme negativity happening when in fact there are a lot of white musicians who just have total respect and love for black music and want to be part of that spiritual landscape and don’t want to control it at all. So it’s very delicate. Just like I’ve learned from Bach and Mozart and Ligeti and all of that, I’ve equally learned from Coltrane and Anthony Braxton and African folk music and stuff like that. So where do you draw the line on these things? There is a lot more that has to be clarified and talked about in this.
I always thought that the area of improvised, free jazz, free music, was pretty much not dealing with these issues, because it didn’t seem to really matter if you were white or black or whatever, a woman or a man. I always felt totally respected. And I’m wondering if that’s changed these days somewhat. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I just kind of have this sense that it has, that people are getting a little more defensive. I’ve actually heard at least one white European musician who wanted so much to belong to the scene and to play with African American musicians and after being kind of brushed off a certain number of times, he said, “Forget it. I play white music.” So there are a lot of issues moving in both directions. And you can’t deny and forget about history, and I think no white person, no matter how sympathetic they are, can ever understand what it feels like or felt like to grow up black or non-white in this country.
When I was in high school, the civil rights act still hadn’t been passed and I went to an all girls school in Baltimore, Western High School, and I’d say ¾ of my friends there were black. And I would go to parties at their houses and be the only white person. I didn’t really think about it, and I don’t think they did either. We were just friends. But after school, there were places we couldn’t go to together to get some ice cream or something, so we’d have to walk for blocks and blocks to get to an integrated place where we could all go in.
The civil rights act was passed my last year of high school, which is kind of dating me—it was 1964. I remember that day we all went to this café across the street from Western High School, which up to that day had been segregated, and we sat down and that’s really still very strong in my mind how pissed off the people who worked there were that they had to serve the black women also. They threw the knives and forks down on the table, and then after they had set the table we got up and walked out. And that was only 40 years ago.
MS: Going back to the issue of gender, I wondered how much that was influenced by the way that you played. I don’t want to say you were aggressive, but maybe it wasn’t an obviously feminine sounding sound?
MC: Or not what people think of as feminine sounds. Maybe. I frequently got the “compliment”—it was meant as a compliment—that “Oh, you play just like a man! You sound like a man. If I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t know it was a woman.” And I used to feel flattered when they said that because I thought, okay, that means the music sounds strong and all that. I mean, I have never been a militant feminist or something like that, maybe because I always felt accepted. I always did what I wanted to do. I’ve wondered sometimes, if I had been a man, if I would have been possibly respected in a different way or offered more work. More than one person has said to me, “Oh, if you were a man you would be this or that, or playing here or there!” And then I found myself starting to wonder, well, could that be true? I don’t know.
MS: It doesn’t seem to have weighed too hard on your thinking, though.
MC: Well, I’ve done a lot of what I wanted to do. And the people I’ve played with, I’ve never felt it was an issue one way or another that I’m a woman.
MS: When you look at the arc of the music that you’ve created, there is a point around the millennium, when to external ears—or at least the people who were publishing reviews about your playing—your music took a radical shift. And it doesn’t seem like that’s how it really felt and sounded to you, so I wonder if you would walk us through that arc.
MC: What happened was in 1992 I went to Scandinavia for the first time, and I heard some Scandinavian musicians play and it touched me very much. Some of this kind of beauty and Nordic sound and tenderness opened up something in me that I had really kept hidden because I was trying to be really strong all the time. Even when I played romantic things I played them with a lot of energy. So suddenly this other sound entered into my consciousness and it resonated with something in me that I had not allowed to be expressed. So in a way playing with them and kind of getting into their music became a way for me to express this. And well, if you haven’t done something ever, or you haven’t done it for a long time, I think you’re naturally going to be interested in that aspect of things for a while. At a certain point a few years ago, I felt the pendulum start to swing back. So I never felt like I just changed everything and gave something up, I just felt like another dimension was being added, and I paid more attention to it for a while because it was really interesting to me because I hadn’t really been there before.
MS: What do you think kept you from expressing those things prior to that?
MC: Well, first of all, I was younger. When I got into this I was 28, and the energy aspect of things is what really appealed to me. Also, I’m an Aries, and I tend to like to play things fast. [laughs] I like to play Bach fast and see how much I can phrase it within that fast tempo. I just have fun doing things like that. So it wasn’t so much that I didn’t let myself do things as much as that it wasn’t part of the picture. I did write some sort of beautiful, romantic pieces, but I would always keep them hidden. I would think, “Oh, I could never play that in a concert. I have to be pure and a kind of disciple of Cecil Taylor. This is my statement and that’s what I have to do; I can’t do this other stuff.” And then at a certain point as I got older I thought, “Well, who says I can’t do that? If that’s something I really want to do, I should do it.” So basically I just got older, and not as kind of fanatic about how I thought I should sound or what my place in the music would be.
MS: That said, was it nerve-wracking for you at the beginning to expose that part of your playing?
MC: It was a little scary. I didn’t know how it was going to be received, and I know for a fact that some of the free jazz elite, particularly in Europe, had a lot to say about it.
People have a lot invested in their identity—okay, this is who I am and she’s part of this and I play with her, so if she goes off and starts doing this other thing, how does that reflect on me? That’s what I think is behind it, because otherwise why would anybody care?
MS: Was this feeling what you mean when you talk about “deep lyricism”?
MC: Yeah, I was playing lyrical things before, but they tended to be more abstract and, you know, I wouldn’t let myself sit down and just play a beautiful melody. I would have to mess it up somehow. Everything I did I would have to mess up—mess up in a good way, trying to do it creatively, whereas now sometimes there will be a beautiful piece I’ve heard or something I’ve written, and I’ll just play it as it is. Maybe improvise on the feeling of that and end that improvisation by just playing that piece, straight.
MS: You’re well known as a frequent performer of Coltrane’s Dear Lord, and that’s often the way you end performances. And there’s nothing aggressive or “messed up” about the way I’ve heard you present that. Is that just a little piece that you’ve carried with you for some reason?
MC: That’s one of them. Another one is After the Rain. And now there are others. I have to play things that speak to my heart, and how they come out nobody can say. I can’t say from one time to another. Sometimes if I play After the Rain, I’ll just play it straight, other times I’ll insert an improvisation in the middle where it just goes wild and then comes back again. But it’s not really planned out. Sometimes I’ll have the idea to do something a certain way, and it just won’t work; it’s almost as if the music wants to go somewhere else. I’m trying to make it go here and it’s trying to go there. So part of what’s happening is letting go and letting what wants to happen, happen.
Sometimes it’s still very wild, but one interesting thing is that in the old days I would play mostly wild stuff and have some lyrical stuff, and people would never remember the lyrical stuff. Never. Even if I thought 1/3 of the concert was that. Now that’s switched. Now if I play some very lyrical, beautiful things and then play a lot of other just free, roaming, some of it fairly wild rhythmic stuff, people will not remember that. They’ll remember the lyrical stuff. So, I would just say don’t have any expectations. And me, too. Don’t have any expectations.