Can't Knock The Hustle

Why would a giant of free jazz hang out with middle school kids?

Jazz can soundtrack genteel cocktail parties, it can help sell coffee at Starbucks, it can fill lecture halls in sober college symposia. But it's still weird. Harmonically, rhythmically, economically weird; weird in musical theory and in everyday practice. To wit: I'm watching one of the foremost talents of modern saxophone, a hero of the avant-garde who's already in the history books and on the list of all-time greats. And he's accompanying a bunch of 13-year-olds while they play a sort of walking variation on bumper cars.

Actor-teacher James Williams is directing a rehearsal in the studio of Minneapolis's Pillsbury House Theatre. "Today I just want to do some trust stuff," he says. There are 11 kids in attendance this afternoon. All are from Richard R. Green Central Park School. Williams, two younger assistant teachers, and the aforementioned saxophone player are running the exercise, which will lead to an original production about gangs and violence called Under the Gun: The Story of Our Lives. On the room's mirrored wall are eight big sheets of paper with notes from an earlier brainstorming session. One sheet bears the heading "Gang." Underneath are the words "guns," "prostitution," and "killing." Another sheet is labeled "What Is Important?" What is important to this group are family, poetry, music, pets, religion, dancing, protecting the earth, and, my favorite, tae kwon do.

The first trust-stuff activity I observe goes like this: Student A keeps her eyes closed while Student B guides her around the room. Student B can't touch Student A, or say anything other than Student A's name or "stop." Student B's job is to make sure Student A doesn't run into anything, like walls, or Students C through K (or Teacher L). A few times, Williams has to clarify this point--you don't want your partner to run into another kid or a wall, no matter how great the comic potential of such a collision.

The saxophone player is wearing an artsy two-tone shirt. Some of his thinning hair is tied into dreadlocks that hang down his back. During the game, he runs through the series of four-note lines from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Then, it being April 14, he gets called away to take a call from his accountant.

None of the kids here know that this guy, Oliver Lake, is a rather big deal. He's famous. Or famous in jazz terms, which is to say, not that famous at all. But as a founder of St. Louis's Black Artists Group (BAG), and as a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Lake has been a major figure in left-of-center jazz for over 30 years. He's one of the four or five best alto players of his generation. His tone is part dirt, part air, caustic and bluesy, but pretty, too. His compositions and solos follow the sort of wonderfully circuitous paths once trod by Eric Dolphy, and they have the grit of Maceo Parker.

Am I gushing? Sorry. And I can't stop before I mention that Lake is also a wily arranger and a versatile sideman who moonlights as a painter, poet, and performance artist. His collaborators, sidemen, and employers have included many biggish names in free jazz, plus writers Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, and Patricia Williams, and bohemian pop stars such as Björk, Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and Mos Def.

So why, again, is he serving as one-man pit band to a bunch of pubescent environmentalists and tae kwon do enthusiasts? Well, because it's enjoyable work, it's good work, and he got a McKnight Foundation grant to come here and do it. During his Minneapolis residency, Lake is composing solo-violin interludes for local eminence Carlyle Brown's new show, Talking Masks, a collection of short plays about six different women and the literal and figurative masks they wear. Plus he's helping with Under the Gun and has been performing with Pillsbury's improvisation troupe, Breaking Ice. This is the sort of thing jazz luminaries do these days to make a living.

Lake has been a professional musician for 40 years. When we get a chance to chat, in the lobby of Pillsbury's second-floor offices, I ask him if the economic realities of the artist's life feel vastly different today than they did in the '70s or '80s.

"No, it feels the same," he says, laughing. "I had always thought that when I reached 60, everything would be just floating along and I wouldn't have to hustle as much. But I find that I have to hustle as much now as I did when I was 40, as I did when I was 30. My name is more out there, and a lot of things happened for me. But I still can't just expect my phone to jump off the hook. I have to initiate things.

"For instance, I had to write a grant to get this commission to be here and do this. I'm piecing all these different ways together, without having to be a full-time teacher. Not to put teaching down. A lot of my friends are full professors at universities, and I might want to get to that at some point. But I like the fact that I can leave here and go work with Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and then two days after that I'm working with Flux String Quartet, then I'm out to California to do something with Leo Smith, and then I come back to Minneapolis."

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