The New Jazz Émigrés: Insights from noted artists living abroad
In the 1940s and ‘50s, the sight of an African American in Europe was often associated with jazz. James Baldwin, the Black literary giant whose career began upon relocating to Paris, was so often mistaken for a jazz musician that he made up a title for an imaginary book: Non, nous ne jouons pas le trompette. Many were the reasons for Black American jazz players making the decision to move abroad. There they were treated differently — with a deeper, more personal degree of respect — and were able to enjoy social and romantic freedoms denied them by the inherent racism back home.
Many were the legends who relocated to European countries in that era: Don Byas, Kenny Clarke, Lucky Thompson, Dexter Gordon, Oscar Pettiford, Hazel Scott, Kenny Drew, Eric Dolphy, and others. Some returned home and some didn’t. A number are buried there.
In 2022, the reasons to move abroad remain strong and compelling. Systemic racism is still inextricably woven into the Red, White and Blue. After years of attempts at creating an environment more supportive of music creators regardless of creed or color, American jazz musicians seem to be facing more social and financial challenges than ever. Two years of COVID-induced lockdown and a lack of governmental leadership haven’t helped, either. This article can only begin to consider how far the U.S. has backslid in just the past decade, and it was mostly written before the onset of major population displacements and other hardships caused by the Ukraine invasion, let alone recent rulings by the Supreme Court. Suffice it to say that a new generation of American jazz musicians is once again looking to Europe as a haven, an alternative place to build a career, and, in some cases, to live permanently and start families.
The seven musicians I spoke with for this article are all Americans who reside or have lived in Europe, and who represent a balance of experience, generationally, racially, and gender-wise. Some are in the process of settling there, some already have, while one recently returned to the U.S. Most have engaged in teaching European students in various conservatories and jazz-focused programs. Five range in age from 38 to 52.
Archie Shepp is 85, and his early memories of Europe in the early ‘60s add valuable historical perspective. Shepp and vocalist/songwriter Melody Gardot both spoke via Zoom from Paris; drummer Greg Hutchinson from his place in Rome. I had phone conversations with bassist Joe Sanders, who lives with his wife and children outside of Marseille, France, and with saxophonist Logan Richardson, now in Los Angeles after years in Paris and Rome. I met tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry in a bar across the street from the Conservatori del Liceu in Barcelona, where he now teaches; and bassist Michael League welcomed me to his home and recording studio in Catalonia, Spain.
If one thing became clear in hearing from this mix of talent, it was that nothing about Americans moving to Europe is, well, black and white. The conversations brought forth an array of memories and ambivalent feelings, hence the decision to present their words directly, in a virtual roundtable discussion. These are their own, unfiltered opinions, collective testimonies capturing a moment when musicians are grappling with challenges both old and new, all while thinking more globally — which can only be a good thing.
Another point begs mention. The original title for this piece was “The New Jazz Expats,” employing a term often applied to the 1950s generation. A number of musicians pointed out a semantic fallacy in “Expat” or “expatriate,” resisting what some see as an outdated romancing of what is now a divisive political issue.
“I would just like to bring up the distinction between the words ‘expat,’ ‘immigrant,’ ‘migrant’ — even ‘alien,’” said League in an email. “Those are words that share an almost identical meaning but have dramatically different connotations... The bottom line is these are all people from one country who move to another country. But we use different words to create a kind of class system, a way of elevating and degrading people even though they are performing the same action.”
From our perspective here in America, once musicians leave our shores, they become emigrants or émigrés — jazz émigrés. These are their thoughts and stories.
Archie Shepp: I originally came to Europe by boat. I took the last voyage of the Queen Mary in 1962, and I actually came as part of an American group traveling to Eastern Europe with people like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, and Mary to participate in this Soviet-sponsored event, the World Youth Festival in Helsinki, Finland. It was the Archie Shepp/Bill Dixon trio and I managed to get a bass player from Philadelphia, Don Moore, and with Howard McRae on drums. After the engagement in Finland I did some traveling in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. At that time the Russians considered jazz music decadent and a product of capitalism, but I hastened to remind them they were giving too much credit to capitalism. I made that perfectly clear in the conferences we attended: we played music not because of exploitation but in spite of exploitation. But then I traveled to Paris.
Joe Sanders: My first time in Europe was when I was 16 on a tour with the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, and we had to do all this work to get there — do fundraisers, play free concerts — to take five young jazz musicians and chaperones and play these festivals. First we came to Berlin, Germany, and it was kind of surreal because it was the first day of the Love Parade, which is a party marking the Wall coming down, and it had gotten a little crazy — people were naked on the floats and it was the first time I got offered really hard drugs. Then in France we went to Jazz à Vienne and played on one of the smaller stages. I met Matt Garrison, who was playing with Herbie, and later my classmates and I got kicked out of a boulangerie because we couldn’t speak French and we were unaware they were closing. That was my first feeling of that things were different here and asking myself how can I see myself in this situation? Years later, I had the opportunity to study with Christian McBride in the first two years of the Brubeck Institute. Just last year in the Amsterdam airport I ran into my Brubeck classmate Justin Brown who was on tour with Ambrose Akinmusire, with whom I spent two years from 2005-2007, at the Monk Institute. Justin reminded me I had told him when I was 18 [that] I was going to move to France and have a family there. I didn’t remember that, but he did! I guess I was pretty perceptive even then.
Melody Gardot: Growing up in Philadelphia, there was already this connection with Paris. The road from City Hall down to the Art Museum feels like the Champs-Élysées, and you also have the Rodin Museum there that’s a sister to the one in Paris. No far- reaching coincidence, as the designers of the Parkway were Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber, who were also responsible for the design of the Rodin Museum. So there was that feeling there, and I had a dream to visit Paris for real one day. The first time I came here wasn’t to play, and the weirdest thing happened as I was getting off the plane. There was a smell that hit me, like a perfume. It reminded me of the way we talk about how it can bring us to a certain place and a familiar feeling. Paris just smelled like home. I was still pretty handicapped at the time, so I could only go out for three hours in the morning and then three in the evening. Then I would have to go back to rest. It isn’t so easy here when you have a difficulty walking — no access system for handicapped people in the Metro, it’s mostly just stairs. But I came back again and again, and that feeling never really stopped. Paris was kind of like a gentleman caller going, “Come on, come on, come on,” and I was like wah, wah, wah — not giving in. Later I just gave up and said OK.
Greg Hutchinson: The first trip I ever took playing on a tour was to Italy way back in the early ‘90s, and I always was fascinated with the culture, the history and just the general vibe, which is kind of laid back. The Italian people do things when they want to do them which can be good or not, but the sense of family is really important here so that lured me in back then. Then, on a gig here with Aaron Goldberg, Guillermo Klein, Mark Turner — I was subbing for Eric Harland — I met my ex-wife. We fell in love and I moved here in 2013. But I’m always a New Yorker, I’m always from Brooklyn and I’m not staying here forever though.
Logan Richardson: My introduction to Europe, at least in the physical sense, was when Nasheet Waits took me on the road, an Italian tour of 12 to 14 days with his band Equality — with Jason Moran and Tarus Mateen — back in 2007. I don’t know how to explain it, you smell the air and like it’s just obviously different. People look different, different gestures, and you can feel that energy and the feel of some type of liberty in a particular sense. Then in 2010, after a couple of other tours, including one where I got to take my own band over to Spain, and a buddy of mine there hooked me up with a conservatory program where I could stay in Galicia for an extra week in an apartment, and it was just breathtaking. Then they invited me back in March 2011 for two months to do some gigs and have some time to practice and write, but this time when I left New York I decided to put all of my things in storage, not even really knowing why, except that my lease was up on the place I was renting. Then by the second week of what was supposed to be eight weeks I decided I didn’t want to go back — not to New York or the United States. So I stayed on in Galicia for the next eight months, living out of the suitcase had I brought, and then moved to Paris where I stayed for more than five years.
Michael League: The reason why I moved here is because of Friederike Darius, who is one of the managers of the [Dutch] Metropole Orchestra. In 2013, they commissioned me to compose the album Sylva for Snarky Puppy with the Orchestra, and she told me, “Don’t write that in New York — you need to be in a chill place. I have a summer home in this tiny village in Catalonia.” So I came here over Christmas. I didn’t speak Spanish or Catalan, and I loved the vibe. I felt very much at home here and it opened the door to me. I think maybe that’s the best way to put it, because I tend to be a little bit of a workaholic and adapt quickly to the pace of a place.
FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS
Sanders: The idea of Americans moving to Europe first hit me hard when Ed Thigpen came to Milwaukee when I was a junior in high school. He gave a wonderful master class on brushes and played a concert at the Pabst Theater. He lived in Denmark, and that got me thinking on the idea of jazz musicians not living in the States. Then I learned about how there are so many countries that cats went to, and Denmark was just one, and that Tootie [Heath] had lived there, and Dexter [Gordon], and Thag [Thigpen]. One thing that you feel right away over here is a way of living that is unappreciated in the States, sitting back and having a coffee and just being in one place. There’s always that hustle and bustle — and I understand it’s not only an American notion, it exists everywhere. But here there’s a feeling that’s more balanced between those extremes.
Shepp: When I got to Paris in ‘62 I just wanted to experience Europe, and I thought France was the ultimate destination for that because so many African American musicians had sought refuge there — Coleman Hawkins, Kenny Clarke, Bobby Short. I wanted to experience it firsthand, and I did for a week, and it was quite enjoyable. I didn’t run into many musicians because I hadn’t really intended to perform when I came. But I remember meeting Marzette Watts, a painter whom I had known in the States and later he became known for his saxophone. That time, I didn’t really spend enough time in France to have any thoughts about permanently relocating. Remember I had a wife and two children in the States. But that was in my mind at that time. Somehow I thought that living in Europe was preferable to living in the States, if it was just to escape racism or just to encourage something exotic in my imagination, another experience.
Richardson: I was aware that I was a part of a lineage of historic migration that’s been going on since the 1920s — Sidney Bechet, and cats like that who came over to Europe — but I can’t say that I had a depth of understanding of what that meant, to be part of the walk that others have made. But within my first year in Paris, I had the fortunate opportunity to commune and play and break bread with a number of musicians who live there, like Sunny Murray; Rasul Siddik, who’s a trumpet player originally from St. Louis; Bobby Few; and also Makaya’s father, Steve McCraven. I was around 31 at the time, and they were 65, 70, or 75 and had all been living in Paris for a while. A whole generation of gentlemen I could speak with and learn from, though I didn’t have the opportunity to meet too many ladies coming from the diaspora on the Continent other than the singer [and model] Debra Shaw. Oh, and Joe Sanders was there too.
Gardot: The way people think about artists here is different. In the States I think people have a tendency to dig what’s hip as opposed to what’s deep. In France I’ve noticed they celebrate artists 50, 60…even 80 years later, and they love not just the songs, but what they represent, who they are. They treasure the stories and the vibe. When I worked with Charlie Haden, I remember going to L.A. and telling other musicians, “I’m gonna go cut with Charlie.” “Charlie who?” In the U.S., you have to be in the circle, right? His reputation is still cookin’ here in Paris.
LOVE AND THE BOTTOM LINE
Bill McHenry: In 2012, I was already living part-time in New York and part-time here because I was involved with a woman, and then almost five years ago we got married. I gave up my apartment in New York and moved over here, and that’s when I started here at the school. Right around then she and I separated and eventually divorced, and I was thinking, “OK, I have this job. I gave up my apartment already, I have moved to a pretty little town on the beach that’s 40 minutes from the Conservatori.” It’s funny because that’s about how long it takes to get to the [Village] Vanguard from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I used to live. But everyone here thinks it’s pretty far. So I have a nice little set up. If you go north along the coast, it’s beach. If you go south, it’s beach. If you go inland there’s mountains that surround the city and on the other side of all those mountains is a national park. Beautiful trees, fresh air. My studio apartment, which is a block away from the beach and a block away from the train station, is around $600 a month and it’s nice and modern and clean. I’ll stay here for a second and stabilize.
Gardot: My choice to move to Europe was about my health. I have these physical issues that are like arthritis where you need to move to a warmer place. In Philly in the winter, the cold goes into your bones, while in the summer you can fry an egg on the street. So I tried another climate and moved to Lisbon in 2012. It was warmer there, but it was more like a hermit situation. I need a community, and at the time there weren’t enough music people there to really ground it. Meanwhile I kept getting called to Paris every four to six weeks and for whatever reason, it kept feeling like a welcome home. So I said I’ll give it a shot, and ended up moving here part-time in 2017. I feel really lucky. I poured my heart into being here, learning the language by ear, worked really hard, and they said thank you. Recently I was given an award for writers and poets and artists called the Chevalier [in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's highest cultural accolade, shared by the likes of William Burroughs and Philip Glass.] Meanwhile I’m still trying to get a gig at the Kennedy Center. That threw me for a loop. I cried for a long time.
Richardson: I migrated to Rome in 2017 because of my fiancée, who is from Italy. When we got together I was still living in Paris and she was living in Rome, and I don’t want to say I was tired of Paris, but I needed to continue to make whatever place I was in to be right for me. By then I found that I was able to get work not just in one country but handle the entire continent. In many ways the grass was greener in Europe, not only socially but financially too. They have less taxes, and you can apply for supplements from the government not to mention all the other social amenities. That allowed me to build a life. Also, it was actually the first time I was looked on as being American and not as Black. And with the teaching, it was refreshing to be given a platform and a level of respect, and to find out they were annoyed not with my race but because of the Midwestern drawl I have speaking English.
Hutchinson: At the time I moved, all the work I was doing was coming on tours over here anyway. There weren’t any really big tours happening in the States so why not just be here? Plus, the cost of living is a lot cheaper—my place in New York at that time was like, four grand a month, man — in Carroll Gardens [Brooklyn]! Am I going to kill my life savings trying to pay the rent with almost two years of no work? Are you crazy? The last time I was in New York was at Winter Jazzfest right before the pandemic, and then after, I was “OK, let me just stay overseas.”
League: I think the main motivating factor for me moving here was that in addition to thinking I’ve been in New York for 11 years, this next period of my life I was thinking I really want to focus on music production and thinking deeper about what kind of artists I want to produce. I’m not someone who’s going to produce Taylor Swift — I’m going to produce Eliades Ochoa from Buena Vista, or a Moroccan Gnawan group, or a Turkish oud player. Most of the people I want to work for don’t have budgets to pay enough to afford New York rent. So I was thinking, “Well, maybe I move to this place, and if I put a studio in the house and make it attractive, people will want to come here to record.” Then there’s an infrastructure here. There’s governmental support for music. The clubs always survive, the festivals are always paid for. There’s a safety net. That’s a concept we’re not familiar with in the U.S.
Sanders: When I moved over here in 2014, I thought I probably wouldn’t have many gigs and I’d have to succumb to playing the jazz scene in Paris like I had done in New York City — the four-hour gigs for $50, and then schlepping my bass on the train and walking through five feet of snow. I paid my dues and was ready to do it again, go down to Duc Des Lombards and see if I can sit in on the jam sessions, and try and get gigs with French cats here in France. But then something happened. Cats would be preparing a tour and they’d be looking at the bottom line and saying, “Who do we have over there? Oh, Joe’s over there!” And cats just started called me — first it was Charlies Lloyd, then Josh Redman, and then there got to be more and more work! They’d leave to go home, and I would take a quick hour flight home to Paris, and the next tour came through or the same cats came back, and they’d all be jet-lagged and I’m super refreshed. And I realized if I had stayed in New York, I’d never had gotten the opportunity to play with these cats. So suddenly Paris became a place to hang and have a day off and if the band was in town, I could get them out of the hotel and invite them to the house to have a home-cooked dinner with my family.
McHenry: I was tired of financial stress. Now that COVID has calmed down a little bit I’m taking it year-by-year, but I think that stability is important for me. Right now I’m a little busier than normal; teaching is a part-time job and it takes care of my basic needs, and all the gigs I do are extra. Do I want to spend two grand a month in rent back in New York, or just pay $500 for a flight now and then to play with friends there? I spent two years in lockdown here without seeing anybody. I finally got back last August, and saw everybody, played with everybody.
Shepp: I went back to Europe in 1963 with the group the New York Contemporary Five to play at the Club Montmartre in Copenhagen and other places. John Tchicai, who was of Danish descent, and I put that ensemble together with Roswell Rudd, Don Cherry, and a very fine drummer J.C. Moses. While I was over there I met a woman and fell in love with a Danish girl and so I had a reason to think I wanted to stay there. The day the guys left, I was enthusiastic because I was thinking that I would really be much more content to be by myself for gigs and on my own. But it’s funny. That night I was standing in front of a theater and saw the musician Sahib Shihab. He was living there in Sweden but he was in Denmark at the time, and he said, “So, you’re going to become one of us?” And I almost blurted out, “No, never!” I realized that I was in a state of loneliness I had never known before. I kept that to myself. I began to get some work and the girl I was living with got me some gigs in the area, in Sweden, and places like that.
VIEWING AMERICA FROM OVERSEAS, THEN AND NOW
Shepp: I remember it was November of ’63 and I was standing at the bar at the Montmartre and ordered an Elephant beer, which is the strongest beer they have. The bartender says to me, “Do you know your President was assassinated?” I remember it just like it was yesterday. I was of course shocked and in a state of disbelief. I guess I thought the way that many Americans did. It cast a pall over the rest of my stay there. It encouraged the feeling of loneliness and despair. I did want to go back home. I could see that the struggle was continuing and that this assassination was deepening the crisis of America. I wanted to be part of the solution.
League: What’s been going on in the US, is that a factor in my move? Absolutely, 100 percent. I moved here during the Trump presidency. I bought the house right at the beginning of it. Even before he won, you could feel the political ugliness spreading throughout the country. It’s not to say that Spain is a place without problems, but the issues in the U.S. are more visible and I think more robust. Even when I go to visit, I feel the division. Like when I landed in LAX after being gone for two years, I could feel it as soon as I stepped off the plane. I have to say it was surreal experiencing all of the COVID and racial tensions from Spain. I was watching from the outside and that, in itself, makes you see things differently. It crystallized this feeling I've had my whole life of never really feeling at home in the U.S. or connecting with its culture in many respects — especially pertaining to family, community, and personal fulfillment.
Sanders: It wasn’t about jazz or a musically based decision to move here. It was about what the state of society in the United States was at that moment I moved here in 2014. Seeing that climate reminded me I had always told myself I’m not going to raise children in the United States, the politics there are corrupt, and everything is kind of strange. It’s a weird place to grow up, as we all know. There are differences here, to have grown up in a place where people walk across the street to avoid me, to a place where people don’t do that is comforting, you know.
McHenry: I was horrified by the horrifying things, just like anyone was. I don’t like living somewhere where there’s gun violence, you know. But I also don’t really feel like that you can run away from things like that. I cry over injustices that I find about whether I’m living here [in Barcelona] or in New York or with my parents in Maine.
Hutchinson: And New York? New York is going backwards now. I go back to ’77 and the early ‘80s — the Central Park jogger case and all that [the publicly divisive “Central Park 5” case in which five black youths were wrongfully accused and prosecuted for the rape of a jogger.] That’s crazy. Man, my attorney was the great Michael Warren, who defended those kids, and I lived with him [in the ‘90s] when I was playing with Betty Carter. In the last few years I’ve watched the States just fall apart because one man was in office who was really bringing in all this hatred talk, and people really bought into it. Watching what was going on in the States made me understand that being at peace with yourself is so huge, man.
Richardson: Watching from Europe, all the hate in America and the framework that supports it became much clearer with Trump. It also made people much more uncomfortable because you had to take a stand, in a way. Not many here people spoke about it but how they reacted — their looks and actions — were louder than any words. The positive side from this direct ugliness was that we all able to find a way to be better musicians, better people, at least I hope we do. But the Capitol building rundown and all that? I was talking to my lady the other day, and said if those had been Black folks on the steps…are you kidding? They would have never made it. There would have been people murdered on the lawn before they ever got up to a door. What scares me the most is what we didn’t see happen from here in Europe. I think honestly with Trump’s administration, no matter how pointed and sharp all his words were, it was just a distraction. What laws did they pass to control us and take away our power and freedoms? I cringe to think of what happened on that side of things.
Gardot: I always have this question, and I’m sure the NRA wouldn’t like it. If other countries don’t need to make guns available to the public, why do we need them in America? I don’t have a television and I spent seven years without a phone — just letters and a landline. But I knew what was happening back home, and my heart breaks every day, all the way back to Emmett [Till] and long before. Violence without cause is something I don’t understand. But I knew about it in South Philly. We had problems and you learn things. I knew not to walk on the west side of Broad [Street] and if you cross South Street into Grey’s Ferry, you couldn’t go anywhere. I don’t miss having to run two blocks and walk one. Violence comes from injustice — anywhere and anytime. No system is perfect, and 20 years from now the thing you felt was right is probably wrong. When I look at what’s going on here in France, I don’t think that it’s necessarily better. There was a car the other day in Paris that tried to run into some cops, and they shot the driver. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye. I’m a Buddhist. More and more, I feel it’s about what people do on a daily basis to support each other and make these communities better and brighter. I don’t mean to go too ‘60s beatnik on you, but I just think one man or one party cannot do it all. What I’m concerned about is the four-block radius around me where I live, and the places where I record and play. We have to pave the way for each other, and I think as humans, it’s a live-by-example, every-day process.
Shepp: People here have been very shocked by the Trump years and we talked about it quite a bit, mostly it was a matter of rejecting his openly racist stance. But actually what’s going on now in the States has always been going on. There’s never been a time when there wasn’t arbitrary violence committed on people of color. Even white people — Jews and at one point, Italians and Irish — have all been victims of ethnic problems. America has never lived up to its proclamations, and ironically, that’s one of the reasons why I feel like an American because when I’m there I’m on terra firma. I know what to expect and what to do.
BLACK & WHITE IN EUROPE
Shepp: It’s different here. Black French people look at themselves ultimately as French, and there are rules against racism here. It’s technically not permitted, and when an African American becomes French, his or her identity becomes primarily that. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, according to their logic. There was a journalist back in the ‘70s who was doing an article about me, probably for a jazz magazine. He was what they call metisse, mixed — Black and white. I remember we got into quite a discussion about minstrelsy. He was rejecting the general idea of cultural identity and was very much invested in being French, whereas my identity was much less determined in being an American. To him I guess it was less important because he was a citizen of a country — and it’s true of other people of color, like Arabs in France — who enjoy a certain sense of participation in their country that we don’t in the United States. But based on reality, there’s no mistaking that racism exists here and that many people harbor racist feelings everywhere.
Richardson: Coming from the United States, I find even the way you breathe somehow feels better here. This is not to say that racial profiling among police officers doesn’t exist here, but I can tell you when I’m driving down the highway in Italy, not speeding, I’m not apprehensive if I pass a cop car. In the U.S., I would never do that. Over here there’s not that same cat-and-mouse mental game going on, you’re not looking in your rearview mirror every time you’re driving down the street. In terms of how you feel you exist in society, that changes a lot. It may seem small but it’s actually very big. The one exception I’ve noticed is when you’re traveling in the airports because as a musician, I do it so much. I’ll be carrying my gold card and the band and I, we’re the only African Americans in the priority lane or in the lounge, and we’re always asked if we’re aware where we are. Or worse, someone will push you aside and get in front of you because they know you don’t belong. It’s really weird, man. I was raised with a sense of couth and etiquette. How do you deal with hostility like that? You get it in different forms and different levels and of course your skin has to be thicker.
Hutchinson: Let’s be really honest. Europe’s got the same problems too. They’re throwing brothers off the train in Germany, they’re doing all kinds of stuff everywhere to people of color. I’m a fighter and when I say fight, I mean stand up for what’s right — for our rights as African Americans. People of African heritage. We matter, we really do. Everybody matters — that’s the whole point. But it seems like we’re always getting the short end of the stick here.
Sanders: This s--t is worldwide, and it’s not that it doesn’t happen in France or that it’s nonexistent in Europe. Racism is everywhere. About a month after George Floyd was killed, my family and I were still living in Paris in the 18th [arrondisement] and there was a big trial going on in a courthouse just a few blocks away. The nearest Metro station was right by our house. Some cops had shot and killed Adam Traore, this young, first-generation Frenchman whose family came from Africa, and the cops were put on trial. There had been protests surrounding the trial but that night the cops were acquitted things got very, very hot, as they say. People were going through the streets, screaming “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” in English. I had just put my son down to sleep and there was this angry crowd right in front of our apartment building. I remember looking at this and thinking, “Wow, it’s inescapable.” I thought what I’d left in America had all come rushing back. Of course, my son woke up and he was asking, “Papa, what’s happening?” OK, so I’m going to have to have the conversation with him right now. Whether my children look like me or are lighter skinned — which they are — we’re still going to have to have the talk every Black parent has to have with their offspring: “If the police come up to you, you have to be respectful no matter what they say.” Why couldn’t I find a society I can live in where I don’t have to have this conversation?
TEACHING BLACK MUSIC IN EUROPE
Hutchinson: Black American music — or jazz, or whatever you want to call it — comes with our culture. So if you’re going to study our music, you have to really study it. Do you build a house from the first floor? No. Where do you start from? The foundation. Same thing with music. You don’t have to be an historian, but with this music called jazz, you have to know the history. I just left the last place I was teaching at because of this very same thing. I was looking at them like, “Man, wait a minute. I grew up in this. I grew up around [Art] Blakey, Elvin [Jones], Max [Roach]. These were guys I would talk to.” For me that’s a huge thing, and trying to get them to understand that, that their struggle in life itself was different, you know what I’m saying? Then we talk about stuff that was happening with the Black Lives Matter, with George Floyd, all that stuff. I’m still trying to process what that means and what that is for me. These students didn’t grow up in that and so you got to be fair. You can’t be, “Well you should know this shit because…” But at the same time if you really want to play this music then you have to do the work and you have to investigate.
League: When I talk to European students I’ll say, “Look at me. I’m a tourist in this music. This is Black American music.” It was foreign music to me at a certain point and then it became something that I was consciously studying and participating in, and then, at another moment, I became a part of the community that’s responsible for this music’s origin and evolution. I think that analogies, while never great, can sometimes serve very efficient purposes. I tell students here in Catalonia, “Imagine being a Texan from Houston who wants to learn how to play Flamenco. That is how you are wanting to play jazz or R&B or soul. Now what would you tell that Texan to do in order to engage with the style not just in a satisfactory way, but how to become a major contributor to the evolution of that genre of music? Do you think they can just sit at home watching YouTube and really engage?” I think you have to work five times harder.
McHenry: I think it’s important that the musicians who are studying this music understand where it comes from the same way that if you studied Flamenco, you’d understand that it came from Andalucía, and that just because it doesn’t come from the culture of your skin color doesn’t mean that it’s not as important to absorb the history, learn about it. Nobody is stopping people of lighter skin color from participating in it. No one has ever told me I didn’t have the right to play this music. I have had students tell me that they never thought of it in those terms before because it just doesn’t cross their mind. I just think if you’re in another continent you’re seeing things from so far away you could be looking at these artists like they’re movie characters, and that their stories aren’t real. One thing about that issue that I do notice is that there’s very few African American musicians in Barcelona and even fewer who play jazz. In the conservatory where I teach you don’t see pictures of Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker. But then you also don’t see pictures of Beethoven.
Richardson: I don’t get it. In some schools and programs I’ve seen, they think they can slap up photos of Charlie Parker, get some pianos, put together a roster, but students can’t even play a B flat blues. It’s a waste of time. They’ve never listened to Count Basie and they’re in a masters program? They need to filter. With too many students in Europe there’s no actual knowledge about the history of the music and the social structure of what was happening. People don’t think about the fact that when John Coltrane was starting out, he had to enter through the backdoor or basement where he played. You have to reach out to the lineage and the history and be curious because you’re in school to learn. They need to be dreaming about the album cover. I think it’s very important. If there’s no fantasy in the education process, then what is your mind searching for? When I teach, I run it like a drill sergeant does to a point, and I give freedom to search for your heart and find your identity. I’ve had several students who actually were really, really great.
Sanders: One program I teach at is in Italy, the masters program at the Siena Jazz school, and I feel there’s so much love there and I feel I can pass down the wisdom that I have, and the students are there and eager to learn. But that’s not always the case with other European programs, to be honest. Some are very cookie cutter, very formulaic in the training, like a traditional classical conservatory program, which is why when I hear jazz being called America’s classical music I say, “Yeah, OK. But are you going to teach it like this?” I’m a product of fellowship programs at the Brubeck and Monk Institutes where it’s very tailored to who you are and how you develop. It’s a tradition that is taught ear-to-ear, and then you have to teach yourself the history of the music and where it is today. You have to reach an understanding of who Duke Ellington was and who Steve Lehman is, for example, and then figure out all the crazy connections between those two histories. One of my greatest teachers was John Clayton, and he would say, “I’m not your teacher, I’m just a guide.” I take that to heart and tell my students, “I’m guiding you to the points you need to be at to be a better musician, a better person.”
Gardot: I don’t have any experience teaching but my buddy who I’m doing my next record with, Phillipe Powell [pianist/composer and son of Brazilian guitar legend Baden-Powell], teaches at a place called The Bill Evans Piano Academy. That’s pretty out, that they have an academy named for Bill here in Paris rather than the U.S. I heard one thing the other night that’s weird: here in Paris, if you’re studying to be a musician in an orchestra, it’s a separate school altogether. They don’t have music in school, it’s not part of the general educational program so if you really want traditional training, you have to go to a conservatory. I think the academic nature of learning in each country has its pros and cons. One of the reasons I never felt qualified to teach is because I started in music therapy. I didn’t learn how to play or how to sing. I can’t read and Charlie [Haden] was the only guy to tell me I didn’t need to. I could talk about writing certain tunes, what it’s like to change an idea, how to trust a band. I could tell all the lessons I learned from Charnett Moffett, God rest his soul. The first time I played with ‘Nett I felt like my neck grew like 6 feet. It was a lesson just listening to the man and then playing with, and against, that energy that he had. His way of teaching honestly and directly that’s what a lot of these kids here, or anywhere, are going to need if they want to find their way into this music business.
THINKING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK
Gardot: Here in Europe and in France especially, jazz is still as cool as it ever was. I don’t consider myself being only in that category because, let’s face it, if I change the bass and the drums it changes the music altogether. But what I love is the line-through — jazz is a connection to other music and arts. For any musician to experience this way of thinking, it’s an education. I see it in the young cats now in their 20s; it’s unbelievable how quick they learn things. I would say, “Yeah, come on over to Europe. Check it out.” But do a lot of things, don’t just come to Paris. You got to go to Verona and see the culture in Italy, and go to Germany and hear the excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic. Go to North Africa and see the way that people play drums. Hear how Moroccan musicians are playing instruments with two strings, the music of the Berbers in the desert. If you do wind up staying here in Paris, get some fantastic food and really good wine and sit your butt down by the river Seine and dream.
Shepp: Looking back on it, I have mixed emotions. I think it was my ambition to be a writer that made me think I could live here. And now I’ve traveled and experienced just about the entire continent of Europe, and sometimes it’s been a bit lonely but in general I think I profited from my experience here. But if I had my druthers, I’d probably have established myself more in the United States.
McHenry: I found that the most satisfaction I get here musically now comes from the youngest musicians that I ended up teaching last year when I didn’t have any gigs and everything was closed up because of COVID. One of my students, Estefania Chamorro, a drummer, said something that really stuck with me, that learning is a two-way street and it’s really proven true to me, and not just in theory. I’m still learning from them and with some, I ended up in close relationships with them musically. I like to get together with her and some other musicians outside of school just to practice dynamics, song forms, tempos. We’ll find a specific tempo we like, and we’ll play 10 different songs with that tempo. I’m at the point of my life where it’s time for me to give these things to other people. I don’t need to be absorbing things from the masters on a regular basis like I needed to 20 years ago.
League: I think COVID showed the whole world that things don’t have to be the way that we all thought they had to be. Everyone thought you had to go into the office five days a week to have a job. Everyone thought you needed to live in a major city to have any kind of prospect for your career. COVID shook up people’s sense of priority and made them ask themselves, “What is more important: for me to have this career that I imagined when I was 18 at jazz school, or is to live a life that provides daily fulfillment?”
Sanders: I come from the hood, man, and I’ve really just been figuring out things as I go along, leaning from the right places, the wrong places, from mistakes, and trying to become a better person as a man, as a husband and as a father. Walking in the footsteps of the masters but also trying to tread my own path. It’s very difficult but I feel like Europe was the best place to do all of this. I’ve had this challenge with myself that I need to learn five languages before I’m 55. I’m 38 and I have maybe three under my belt. I’m learning Italian and teaching in Italy definitely helps.
Hutchinson: I think for me the biggest lesson I’ve learned was about being in a space where I could just stop for a while. I’ve always liked hanging out, and I always liked going out to the clubs and all that stuff, but I'm 52 years old now. I needed a break, I needed to not be on the road for a while. I was really able to think about what I wanted to do. I’m different now from when I first came here to Italy. So I’m telling students now, “A) make sure that you save your money, make sure that you’re prepared for the things like this that can happen, and B) figure out what you want to be.”
Shepp: In ‘63 when I returned, I was determined to go back by boat, which was this freighter, ironically called The Florida because I was born in Florida. The trip was anticipated to take seven days but actually it took 15, with 10 of those days in stormy weather. For a while it looked kind of shaky — I remember praying just about every day. When I was in Europe, I had these photos of my two sons and sometimes I would get so lonely I’d look at them and I’d cry. We arrived in New York harbor on Christmas Day. I remember I picked my two sons up and I kissed them. I was so happy to be back in the world that I knew, that I had sought to escape.