“The word ‘jazz’ was created as a slang word as a gesture for sex in whore houses located in New Orleans.” – Saxophonist, Gary Bartz
Last year, trumpeter and New Orleans native Nicholas Payton started a heated and confrontational debate about the word “jazz” and its place in the cultural and historical lexicon of music. He argued vehemently that his music was not “jazz” but “Black American Music”. This debate pitted artists on two proverbial sides of the coin; one side was in favor of Payton’s thoughts, which denounced the earliest origins of the word, while the other side celebrated the popularity of its base meaning, which by many accounts does little to diminish the value of the art form. Saxophonist and composer, Gary Bartz has seen the evolution of jazz. He is part of the very history that the accepted definition seems to devalue. In a short interview, Gary Bartz said, “Most of the great musicians I’ve been around believe it also. The term “jazz” is really a negative term to most musicians I know, but it happens to be a popular word in the public’s eye.” Bartz is far more interested in playing music and celebrating its merits as a composition. As this topic continues to swirl and resonate, Gary Bartz makes his message clear: No matter how the critics would like to slice it, musicians play music.
Early into his stewardship, Gary Bartz left his native Baltimore, to study jazz at the prestigious Julliard Conservatory School of music. When Bartz arrived there, he found himself feeling musically isolated. By his account, many of his instructors were invariably “trapped in the box” of classical music. Oftentimes, they could not relate to the syntax, variations or “feel” of jazz music. Julliard’s European curriculum was a lesson in music theory, forcing him to hone his craft with an open mind. He was simply a musician who played music. He rejected the notion that he was confined to a single musical category. As a visiting professor at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, Gary Bartz speaks openly about fighting the urge to singularly conform. He once stated that, “If I’m locked into a category, that means I can’t grow. I’m in a corral; I’m in a room with walls around me….But to me, music is the universe. And so that’s what I want to do. I want to play music.”
At the age of 6, Gary Bartz was drawn to the saxophone. He would visit his grandmother’s house where she would allow him to listen to his uncle’s record collection featuring Charlie Parker. He describes the experience as one “that continues to fascinate him today.” At the age of 16, Bartz began to perform professionally. At about age 23, he joined Max Roach and the Abbey Lincoln band. He quickly developed a reputation for stylistic playing. In 1965, he would join Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers with Lee Morgan, filling in for a saxophonist who left the group at his father’s night club. He was hired after the gig and would make his recording debut on Blakey’s Soulfinger album. He would also work closely with McCoy Tyner; a relationship that he credits for deepening his appreciation for John Coltrane. His career would take him beyond jazz; eventually working with the likes of the late Donald Byrd, Phyllis Hyman and Chaka Khan. He has won two Grammys and recorded over 40 solo albums.
Since his earliest recordings, Gary Bartz has worked with some of the best musicians in the world. He credits artists like Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington for showing him how great musicians addressed social problems through their music. To him, the “world didn’t need just another musician. What the world needed was a music activist.” He has vowed to “create music the world could relate to and not segregate his way of delivering music.” He is truly dedicated to creating music for everyone to hear. Humble and motivated, Gary Bartz continues to inspire and be inspired by his craft.
But he doesn’t play jazz. Gary Bartz plays music.