August 21, 1999 — New York, New York 2000 © Cadence Magazine
Taken and transcribed by Robert Spencer
Robert Spencer: When and where were you born?
Joe Fonda: Amsterdam, New York, 12/16/54. Amsterdam, New York, is between Albany and Utica. Upstate New York, Mohawk Valley region.
Robert: Was your family musical?
Joe: Actually, I had a very talented father and a very talented mother. My father was a trumpet player, a very good trumpet player, and my mother was a singer, and it just so happens that they fell in love on the bandstand! They were in the same band, it was during the World War II, and it was a swing band called the Joe Sanders Orchestra. They met on the bandstand, stayed in the band for a few years, and then I think my mother got pregnant, and they decided that it was time to get off the road. They moved to upstate New York, where my father was from — he was from Cherry Valley, so they moved up there. Yeah, my father and mother were both very musical people.
Robert: So what kind of music did you hear growing up?
Joe: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I was into the usual stuff of that age, the Allman Brothers, you know, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull and Jeff Beck, blah blah blah. But my parents still at that point were playing some Billie Holiday and those records, but we were so hard on them as kids! My mother used to go around singing these beautiful tunes. I still remember her singing [sings], "There Will Never Be Another You." She’d go around the house, but we would say, "Ma! Shut up! I can’t stand it!" And we were on her case so much, she eventually stopped singing. Isn’t that awful? You know, there she was, giving me my early musical education, and I was shutting it down, being a young child, not knowing the value of that. And my kids do the same thing to me today, and I tell ’em, "Forget it. You ain’t stopping me from singing or playing in this house, ’cause I did it to my parents."
Robert: Are you singing, like, Trillium R [Anthony Braxton’s opera]?
Joe: [Laughs] I’ll be singing Trillium R, or "Stella by Starlight." So my advice to all the people who got kids: don’t let ’em stop you. Yeah, my parents were very musical.
Robert: So when you were growing up, what was the first music you heard that really made you sit up and think, "This is what I’m going to do!"?
Joe: This is a good question. You mean, in terms of moving into the creative music, or jazz, or just in general?
Joe: During the pop period, I can’t think of one thing, but then after that, when I was ready to move out of that scene, after high school, I think it was — I heard Gary Burton.
Robert: Was that what made you want to move out of that scene, and think there’s more to life than pop music?
Joe: That’s a good question! You know what it was? At this point I can say that my destiny wasn’t — there was a seed that was planted maybe long before I even got here. There are certain people on the planet that are meant to pursue creative activity. And even if they’re not channeled in that way, as a child, sooner or later they’re gonna bust out and follow that creative impulse.
Robert: There’s a trigger, isn’t there? I mean, I remember distinctly the time I first heard jazz.
Joe: For me, I’d say it wasn’t just hearing one thing, it was more of a gradual transformation. There were different triggers at different points. There wasn’t just one particular one. But it could happen either way. You also, like myself, are meant to pursue or be involved in something that has to do with creative activity, and something much more powerful and positive for the planet. That’s why we left the so-called pop scene that we were spoon-fed as children.
Robert: All right. So when did you get an instrument?
Joe: By the time I was ten, I had a guitar, or a bass, I think. I had started taking lessons, so I had an instrument at an early age, I don’t know. Eight, nine, or ten. Even as a child I knew that music was what I was going to do. I always knew it. I didn’t know I’d end up here, involved with this particular aspect of the music then, but I understand why I’m here now.
Joe: [Laughs] Why am I here now? Getting back to that point: there are certain people on the planet that are meant to be involved with creative activity — or activity that has a higher purpose than the so-called spoon-fed pop scene. I mean, I came up with a lot of people that stayed in that scene. Some of them are still there, and some of them are washing dishes or working in a factory now. But that wasn’t something I was meant to do. I was meant to be involved in the kind of activity I’m involved in now. So that’s why — I guess I had that inside me strong enough to follow that path. And I’ve never, never, never stepped off the path. It’s always been straight ahead. All through the years, you know?
Robert: It seems as if it takes a lot of twists and turns.
Joe: It does! Like, my way back to the blues. That was a twist. That was like a reversal in a certain way that enriched my whole musical life, but it was like going backwards because I sort of came from something that was rooted in that. Actually all the music is connected to that. So yes: it does take twists and turns. But it’s still — you’re still focused on moving straight ahead and doing something that has purpose.
Robert: What did you think of that review of one of your records in Cadence? I think it was Parallel Lines. The reviewer quoted you from the liner notes: "My hope is that this music will contribute to the change that is happening on this planet." Then he basically said, "Come on. How is one record going to change the planet?" Did you see that?
Joe: No! I’m glad I didn’t! I might have called him up!
Robert: You didn’t see that?
Robert: What do you think of it? What do you think you’re doing, when you’re playing music, that will really make a difference for the planet? And what kind of a difference does it make?
Joe: Well, you know, the man may be right in a certain way. It may not have some major impact, but it’s like every little piece of the puzzle plays its part. And it’s not strictly idealism, I mean, in order to stay on this path and stay involved in this music. Because it’s not about, it’s never about money. Most of us struggle our entire lives to meet our financial needs. But I believe that most of us understand that it is powerful and purposeful. And whatever creative stuff we put out there — recordings, music — it will have some impact if it just touches one person. It helps keep the continuum alive! To keep this kind of activity alive, I mean, that in itself is a large contribution. We don’t try to change the whole planet, but it will make a contribution that keeps creative thinking and creative activity alive. And the world — the universe — needs this. So you can send this to that man. We’re not gonna save the world, if that’s what he’s thinking, but there’s an undercurrent of positive stuff that will result from every one of us who continues on this sort of path with this music, I believe.
Robert: All right. Let’s get back to the beginning of the path. You started on guitar at age ten.
Joe: Yeah, around ten. And they needed a bass player in the band. They didn’t have a bass player, so I said, "OK, I’ll take the job." So I took my forty bucks and went down to Montgomery Ward’s, and got myself a little electric bass, and started being the bass player in the band. Best move I ever made. So I played electric bass all through high school, and even into my first year of college. I didn’t start playing upright until the second year of college. Actually, I left college. I was in Berklee. I went to college for two years. I learned a lot of stuff there, but it was time to move on —
Robert: When were you at Berklee?
Joe: ’73 to ’74 and ’74 to ’75. But I left, ’cause it wasn’t a place I could stay in, you know? And then I started playing upright, after I left Berklee. And I think it was primarily that I was moving out of — during college I guess I moved into a fusion thing. Weather Report, and that Chick Corea fusion thing with Return to Forever, and, you know, Chuck Mangione, this kind of stuff. Then all of a sudden Ornette Coleman popped into the picture, and Charlie Parker, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton.
Robert: How did they pop in? Where did you hear these guys?
Joe: Actually, some people I was living with were already into this, so the records were in the house. So I remember the first time I put on the Double Quartet record [Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz], it blew my mind. It took me — it was so new for me, it took, I don’t know, at least a half a dozen listenings or more to start to get it, you know? That was sort of a trigger point, you might say! That might have been an early record that triggered something: Ornette’s Double Quartet record. Yes! That was a trigger point. When I put that record on, something stirred me deeply, and it shook me up. And I pursued trying to find some way of understanding what was going on there. And then — that was like ’74. That was around the time I started really checking out the upright bass.
Robert: Because of that record?
Joe: Because of the music, I think, partly. I think the people I was playing with, also were trying to move in that direction. So the bass — acoustic bass — fit in. And it’s interesting how, actually, I let the electric bass go completely. I didn’t come back to the electric bass until ten years later.
Robert: So you heard the Double Quartet, and started playing the upright bass. Where did that lead you?
Joe: It led me through the continuum. I started to go back. I remember, I found my way to the public library. I got all my Sonny Rollins records I could find, I got all my Thelonious Monk, and I started to go through the music. And at the same time as I was backtracking through the history, the Seventies also was a real fruitful time for the creative music, for the new music. Anthony was popping on the scene, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill. Sam Rivers had the loft scene in New York. There was that thing in the air, so I was checking out the past and the present at the same time, which really was stimulating. So that also just took me deep into the tradition of the music. I just went in, head first into the jazz thing. Went back, and got into the new movement. And I needed the upright bass to be a part of that. ’Cause that’s what was happening in that music.
Robert: Then you made your first record in ’76.
Joe: Yeah, and it’s a nice record. I still like it to this day. That was a record called Looking for the Lake.
Robert: Oliver Lake?
Joe: You know, I was a little nervous that folks would think that’s what it was about, but it wasn’t! As a matter of fact, I’m still looking for that lake! [laughs] That I was looking for back in ’76, just so everybody knows. I may have a record come out soon called Still Looking for the Lake! That was one of my early groups. That was with Claire Arenius on drums. She’s a great drummer who I still play with to this day and who I still study with. Claire’s become somebody who I actually study bass with. She’s an incredible musician who hears bass playing on a high level. She should have been a bass player! But she plays drums like a bass player, and I’ve learned so much from her, and periodically I get together with her for some bass lessons. Conceptual stuff. She’s an amazing person in the sense of how she hears bass. And Clifford White played saxophone, and Tim Moran played saxophone. It was a quartet. It was my early group dealing with my own musical ideas. I wanted to be a part of the New Thing as well as be connected to the tradition, so I was reaching out. I was always writing my own tunes. I put a band together to play them, and we were doing gigs around Northampton and that area, where we were living, and we did this recording. There are ideas on that record that I still hear me still utilizing to this day. So even at that age I was ready to do my own thing.
Robert: Are you still in touch with those other players?
Joe: Yeah, Clifford, he’s still playing saxophone and he’s a repairman. And by the way, he’s become Anthony Braxton’s personal repairman. He just finished Braxton’s contrabass saxophone! It’s been in the shop for a couple of years. Clifford also does stuff with the Latin scene in Springfield and that area. Timmy is also an instrument repairman and lives in New Haven and plays around. But the one person who I still play with is Claire. And still study with. I have a good relationship with her that I think will last through this lifetime, and probably on into other lifetimes.
Robert: You gonna keep playing bass?
Joe: Yeah, I don’t see me leaving the bass for anything else.
Robert: Even in other lifetimes?
Joe: That’s a good question! Let me think about that! [Laughs] That’s a hard one to answer! At this point, the bass is such a challenge, I think I would need another lifetime or two to actually do what I want to do on it. So if you meet in the next time around, I may still be playing the bass! Quite possibly we’ll have a band together! In this life, and the next life!
Robert: By the next lifetime I’ll be ready!
Joe: Yeah, you’ll be a Sonny Rollins by that time. And I’ll be an Oscar Pettiford! I like that! Sonny meets Oscar!
Robert: All right. Where did you go from Looking for the Lake?
Joe: Then I was doing gigs around Connecticut and stuff, playing the tradition. The second record that came out was a — I don’t know how many years later — a record with Tony Perrone and Steve McCraven. It was when LP’s were still happening. I started playing with another great drummer that I’d gone to school with, Steve McCraven, who’s another person that’s had a strong influence on me. You know, drummers and I — a lot of my musical associates have become drummers. It’s interesting — I’ve gravitated towards the drummers, and developed my relationship with the drummers, more so than with piano players, saxophone players, or any other instrument. I have more drummers that are buddies and musical companions. Steve is one of them, who I met in college and who I’ve played with through the years, and he’s been a great influence. His groove and sense of time will be a part of me forever. Claire’s another one. Kenny Johnson, who I studied the blues with, and then there’s people I play with now like Harvey Sorgen, Grisha Alexiev, Kevin Norton. I mean, I’m a drummer’s bass player. I belong with the drummers. It may have to do with the fact that I’m so rhythmical in my approach, and thinking. I’m sure that’s what it is. With Steve, we used to get together and just play time. For hours! Just the two of us! Man, we’d stay in the room for two hours. We just played groove after groove. We were young! We had the time to do that. And I’m grateful to have the drummer thing inside me. For me the part of the music that affects me the most — one of the elements is the physical aspect of the music. I like it when it’s a body music. And the drummers give you that, you know? They put it in your body. Even the ones that play light. So I’ll take the drummers! Give me the drummers! So yeah, there was a record, soon after Looking for the Lake. It was called Up from the Sky, and it was with Tony Perrone and Steve McCraven.
Robert: What did Tony Perrone play?
Joe: Guitar. And also during that period — this was also when I started hanging out with an organization in Connecticut that Leo Smith and Bobby Naughton started called the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum. They were a great organization. They did a lot of stuff in Connecticut. A lot of great stuff.
Robert: How’d you get involved with them?
Joe: They were putting out flyers in the community, saying, "Looking for people." I knew of Bobby, I knew of Leo, so I just went down and said I’d like to be a part of it, and started hanging out and became a part of the organization.
Robert: So you had a long association with Leo Smith.
Joe: With Leo and Bobby. As a matter of fact, I should mention that Leo, to this day he’s been a great influence. For me, and for a lot of people. For myself, his musical concepts and ideas, his sense of things will be a part of me forever. I am so grateful for the time I had with Leo! In my opinion, he’s one of our unsung heroes. Nobody played trumpet like Leo. Nobody plays trumpet like Leo. Nobody’s music was like Leo’s. I’m really grateful for the time I spent with him. And there’s a record I did during that period, and it’s still one of my favorites, called Procession of the Great Ancestry. It came out on Chief Records. It was with Bobby Naughton, Kahlil El Zabar, Leo Smith and myself. And Leo had written these pieces dedicated to trumpet players. And actually, what I was doing was going to Leo’s house and studying these pieces with him, because he knew he was going to record them. I wasn’t supposed to do the record — it was an accident. But I learned these pieces, and I went to Chicago on a trip with him. I said, "Ah, they’re going out, I’ll hang out, I’ll learn something." Malachi Favors was supposed to do it. So Malachi came into the first rehearsal, something wasn’t right, and he just split. He didn’t want anything to do with it. So Leo looked at me and said, "You got it, Fonda." So man, I jumped right in. And I was ready! ’Cause I had been studying this stuff for months! And it was difficult. Really difficult! He wrote stuff for a bass player that bass players would never play. And I still do things on my bass that came from Leo. These kind of harmonics, and intervals in places that you would never, never learn if it was a bass player or somebody that thought about what’s easy for a bass player. Leo didn’t think about that. He heard this music and wrote it, and you had to figure out how to deal with it. And I learned so much. He changed my bass playing! So I’m really grateful for that association. And Bobby Naughton, too, was another one that I played with during that period that I learned a lot from. And the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum had a nice period, where they did a lot of great music. We had a nice string quartet concert with Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Akeem Chambers. This had never happened; we sponsored this. Someplace in Hartford. And we had some nice concerts where we invited — we had some orchestra concerts in that period. They were with Braxton, and Muhal brought pieces. Carla Bley brought a piece. Slide Hampton. So it was a fruitful time for a few years. And there is a great recording that was a documentation of that activity. I wish it was rereleased. It was called — we put it out on our own label, on the CMIF label — it was called The Sky Cries the Blues. Leo’s title.
Robert: What year was that?
Joe: Boy, you got me. Let’s see. I want to say mid-Eighties somewhere. It was an orchestra! It was the Creative Musicians Improvisers Orchestra. Leo wrote a piece, Bobby Naughton wrote a piece, and Gerry Hemingway wrote a piece. Some beautiful music. It was still during the LP period, just before CD’s came out. Wonderful music. Somebody could put that out on CD. So from there — that’s when I started to come to New York, after CMIF was over.
Robert: You had moved to Connecticut from Northampton in the early Eighties?
Joe: Yeah, early Eighties.
Robert: And Leo was in Connecticut.
Joe: Yeah, New Haven. It was a nice scene there for a long time. There was them, Mark Helias, George Lewis. A lot of great people went through New Haven, and Leo was a catalyst. Michael Gregory Jackson. Leo made something happen. Then that kind of came to a close, and that’s when I started coming to New York. ’87 maybe.
Robert: Before that, I wanted to ask you about the Sonomama Dance Company, that you played bass and danced with from 1982 to 1985.
Joe: Sonomama? Oh, that was interesting.
Robert: It’s been a part of your music all the way through — this connection of music and dance. Like From the Source.
Joe: Yeah, you know, actually one of the first interviews I did was with a guy in Belgium who looked through my stuff and said, "You know, Joe, there’s a thread here." He said, "Man, you’ve been involved with interdisciplinary activity from way back." You know, I hadn’t thought about it. I was just doing it, ’cause it was natural for me. But it’s really true. I’ve been involved with dancers and — I’d also been taking tap dance lessons, way back around then. For some reason I was interested in tap dancing.
Robert: You were dancing.
Joe: I was taking tap dancing lessons then! Back at Jackie McLean’s school. Jackie McLean had an artist’s collective in Hartford. I remember going by and watching all these young girls dancing. I said, "Man, I want to check that out!" For some reason. So I asked the teacher if I could come in. I got my shoes and she let me do that. And then with Sonomama, I was a musician, but they also at one point let the musicians start to dance. It was an improvisational dance company, and it was really interesting, where I could start to leave my little spot on the stage where the music came from and move to the dance floor and create something! I really dug it. And soon after that I formed a group for a couple of years where I had some dancers from Sonomama. I had a dancer, a painter, a sculptor, an actor, a cook, and five musicians, all in the same band. And we would do concerts in the summer around Connecticut. Everything would happen simultaneously. I’d have an hour and a half with nonstop music, and the guy was cooking, and the guy was painting, and the sculptor was sculpting, and the dancer was dancing, and sometimes they’d intertwine. Sometimes I’d put my bass down and go over to the kitchen and cook — I mean, I dug this! It was like, a wonderful place for me to do the things I wanted to do. I could go and paint if I needed to, and sometimes the painter would come over and start painting the musicians, and we had a great audience. We fed them at the end! It was beautiful. I did that for two years.
Robert: What did the man cook?
Joe: He had vegetables, and he had — we had a kitchen for him, and he was making some stir-fried sort of things, and throwing — you know, he was a very visual chef, so he’d be throwing his stuff up in the air, and we had a mirror so the people could see what was happening. And he would be trying to connect to the creative — to the music, and doing things in time or out of time. So we were trying to show there was a connection, I guess. This was very early! But the point is that there’s a thread in the way I’ve been thinking, nonstop. Interdisciplinary activity is something I’ve always been interested in, and still am to this day.
Robert: Because that’s a lot like From the Source.
Joe: It’s coming from the same place. So for one of my latest projects I got a tap dancer, a body healer, and musicians. So it’s all interconnected. And I still believe this is the direction I want to go in and that we need to mix things still more. In my opinion there’s still too much isolation. I think some of the most fruitful stuff is when you mix the blood. Even with the people on the planet. The most beautiful, intelligent people are where the blood’s been mixed. You need to mix the blood on the planet! Then you get this incredible new intelligence, and beautiful people. I’m into mixing the blood. No matter where it is, you know? So that’s really part of who I am. I’m an interdisciplinarian. I’m looking forward to what it is I might come up with next, that’ll be in that vein. I’m actually waiting and looking for the next step.
Robert: Let’s talk about your return to the blues, which would be ’84?
Joe: Maybe even ’85 or ’86, when I started playing the blues again. I totally let the electric bass go to pursue the upright.
Robert: What made you want, after ten years of playing improvised music, to go back to playing the blues and the electric bass?
Joe: This gets back to your trigger. There was a trigger! I’ll never forget it. I walked into a record store, and they were playing Robert Cray’s new record. It was one of his early ones. And the music just grabbed me, and I asked the guy, "What is that?" He said, "Man, it’s Robert Cray." And I said, "Man, it’s time for me to get back into this music." It was a trigger. And from then on — that day, I knew I wanted to get back to the blues somehow. So I had some friends I knew were into the music, I made some calls, I said, "Man, are you playing this music? I want to play it with you." Some folks had told me about a jam session — not a jam session, a Monday night blues session that was happening in Northampton at — the place was called Theodore’s. In Northampton, Massachusetts. There was a drummer named Kenny Johnson. He was doing a Monday night thing with a band and I had been playing some blues and getting my electric bass going for maybe a few weeks, and I went up. I really didn’t have it together yet, but I went up and I sat in, and Kenny, somehow Kenny heard something he liked, and he let me join the band. So I played every Monday night for two years in this club with Kenny and these guys, trying to get it together. And it took me two years, really! It took me two years to really get that stuff inside me where I thought I was playing it, and to get the feeling of the electric bass back. I used to tape every gig. I didn’t miss a night. I’d tape it and go home, like I did with my jazz studies also. I’d go home and I’d listen and I’d say, "Man, it just ain’t it." And I’d go back the next week and try to adjust, and it wasn’t until two years that I finally heard. One night I played the tape and I said, "Man! I’m starting to get it!" The groove was there, the relationship between me and the drums was coming together, and that’s when the seed, once I got it, the blues seed was planted so deep that I’ll never be able to live without the blues again. There’s something so deep and special in that music, and the groove, the shuffle — I learned how to play the shuffle in a way that’s like, really special. So that’s sort of how that transpired.
Robert: And now you have Sweet Daddy Cool Breeze.
Joe: Yeah, Sweet Daddy was a shoot-off from the Kenny Johnson thing. It’s become a great blues band. We still play to this day. Right now they’re my connection to the blues. They’re the one group I have that’s active that I’m playing with. Wally [Greaney]’s a great harp player. It’s an ongoing blues project, and I’m glad to have it. I’m going to keep playing with Sweet Daddy until B. B. King gives me a call! When B. B. calls, then I’ll let Sweet Daddy go! [Laughs]
Robert: When B. B. calls, you should take, like, Composition 193, and say, "Let’s play this."
Joe: I got a feeling B. B. would really dig it! I tell you, I got some Howlin’ Wolf records that remind me of that particular composition. I can hear the blues in Anthony’s music. And I can hear Anthony in the blues! You know, I can hear it. There’s a really organic connection. This Howlin’ Wolf stuff, man, it’s unbelievable. Man, it’s so out! So out!
Robert: Could you play the electric bass, and more blues-oriented things, in the context of the more "outside" music you play?
Joe: Yeah! That’s happening! I think the Fonda-Stevens Group is a good outlet for this. If you listen close, I bring all my stuff in there. That’s a group that will do anything. On the last tour I brought a piece in that was a vocal piece. I’ve always been into folk music. You know, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, they’re some of my favorites. That kind of guitar-picking folk music is in me. So I came up with something in that vein. This piece was right out of that. And everybody had to sing. And these cats, these guys were down! It’ll be on the next CD. It’s called, "Oh Lord, It’s Nice to Sit on Your Porch Today." And man, I said, "Can you sing?" I was a little nervous. But I knew this was part of me! And they said they were in! So the Fonda-Stevens Group is good for that. I can bring all of my stuff to them. And I also want to do that with all my other projects. This group works really well for that, ’cause they’re wide open, they’re not stuck in some fixed system. And that’s something we need to continue to do: always bring everything in, and see what you can do to make it new, you know? Some new way of playing the blues. Actually, on From the Source, there is a place where I brought the blues right in there. It was on the piece called "High Tech #1," which is a Mark Whitecage piece. At the very end of that I wrote a vamp for Brenda [Bufalino] to dance over. It’s a shuffle, and the stuff that’s coming from the horns comes right out of the blues. I was a little nervous at first about doing it, but I had Anthony and Herb [Robertson] do it, and they were really cool, and it’s really coming right from my blues background and understanding. So I did it then and I’m going to continue to do it.
Robert: So not long after you returned to the electric bass, you moved to New York. In the late Eighties. Is that when the Fonda-Stevens Group got started?
Joe: Well, it’s funny. Michael Stevens was one of the first people I met when I came to New York. Him and I started a band called the Mosaic Sextet, around that time, with Mark Feldman and Dave Douglas and Harvey Sorgen, and Mike Rabinowitz on bassoon. It was a very interesting band. That lasted for a few years, but Michael and I have stayed in touch and done projects nonstop. Now we do the Fonda-Stevens Group, which is doing quite well. And Michael’s a great person to have as a friend, and as a — I mean, I wouldn’t want to work with too many people in a partnership on co-running a band. But with Michael, it’s possible. It takes a certain kind of willingness to give and bend to co-run a band. So I’m really grateful I ran into Michael when I got here. And Mark Whitecage was another one of the first people.
Robert: I understand he’s left the group?
Joe: Mark has left the band to do his own thing, and he’s doing quite well. We’re gonna miss him, but he made some great contributions during that period. I started playing with Mark when I first came to New York, and I also learned a lot from playing with Mark. Mark was a teacher in a lot of ways.
Robert: You all have a similar vision: you all play well both "inside" and "outside."
Joe: Yeah, I think there’s a similarity. I think all of us approach the entire continuum of the music. Some cats pick a particular area of the continuum and say, "Okay, this is what I want to do." Michael and I both have a strong connection to the tradition — a relationship with it! As well as with what’s going on now. That’s an interesting point. And Herb is the same way. So is Harvey Sorgen. That’s another reason that group works. ’Cause everybody’s approach is the same. And we have similar relationships. It’s quite complete in terms of the continuum. Everybody knows all of the stuff and utilizes all of that in the vocabulary of the music.
Robert: Do you have any plans to replace Mark Whitecage at this point?
Joe: No, we’re going to leave it as a quartet. It’ll be easier for the business at this time to do it as a quartet, and it’ll change the music up for awhile. So when it’s time we’ll be back as a quintet, I’m sure.
Robert: There aren’t that many trumpet quartets.
Joe: No, that’s an interesting thing, too. Well, we did one tour so far, as a quartet, and we liked it. We weren’t sure, we said, "Ah, let’s go in there," just like Braxton says, "Let’s roll the dice," and see what happens, you know?
Robert: Not only the Fonda-Stevens Group, but a lot of the people you’ve played with — Braxton, Archie Shepp, Ken McIntyre — they all straddle the divide.
Joe: So it makes sense I would be there ’cause I straddle the divide too. That’s where I belong: with those who straddle the divide.
Robert: How did you meet Anthony Braxton?
Joe: I’d met him years ago with Leo, when we had done some things with him, but we didn’t make a strong connection until he came to Wesleyan. I was still hanging in Middletown because of my family. So one day I was with Bobby Naughton and Mario Pavone, and we were in a restaurant, and Braxton came in. One of those little diners. And we all sat down, and we were talking, hanging out, and he had remembered I sent him a record. I think I had sent him Looking for the Lake, and he had remembered, and he said, "Man, let’s get together sometime." So I said, "Yeah, sure. I’ll do that." So I think I took his number, and I called him up, and he was starting to play piano. Getting into his piano. He said, "Come on over." So I went over to his office, we played duo. Piano and bass. And we hit it off right away. So that was the beginning. A week later I went to Europe with the Fonda-Stevens Group and he had called my wife, called my house, and he wanted me to do this Charlie Parker Project with him. I was honored. Flabbergasted. So I called him up right away and said, "Yeah, I’m in." So that’s when the relationship started to really come together. It was during the Charlie Parker Project. That was a great project he asked me to do. I learned so much!
Robert: What did you learn?
Joe: The Charlie Parker music — Anthony made it open up. I had never experienced opening up the standard repertoire quite that way. So what I learned was something about his concept. I’ve always listened to his music and studied it, but being right in it was like another vision. I saw deeper into it, because he put me right in his world. And so things happened inside the music that would only happen if it was Anthony Braxton. It was his concept, his power, that made things evolve the way they did. So what I learned was something to do with the way he opens things up. The way they evolve, and they way they breathe. I had learned something about that particular thing of his, that he brings to the music. I mean, that opened me up. I’d played music, we’d opened up the standards, but they opened up in a Braxton way.
Robert: How does he approach these songs? Does he play changes?
Joe: Yes, he plays changes! He don’t play them like Charlie Parker played them. He plays them like Anthony Braxton plays them. His sense of form is unbelievable. And that lesson was ongoing, through my relationship with Anthony. Each time I was with him on the bandstand, I could have a deeper insight into how he organizes music, and how it evolves. It’s his personal thing. A priceless lesson! All the Piano Quartet records, from the Knitting Factory [Vol.1, Vol.2] — without Anthony playing piano, the music would never sound that way. That’s him, and his concept, that made it evolve and open up the way it does. So that’s what I was learning during the Charlie Parker Project, through all the Ghost Trance musics.
Robert: Did he take a standard tune, and say, "I want to do it this way"?
Joe: No. There was nothing verbal. We just took the tunes, and it was something that happened on another level. Anthony’s way of approaching things would just permeate the music, and it go wherever it would go.
Robert: So you would just follow his lead.
Joe: Yeah, but not in the literal sense. In a higher sense. The lead isn’t always something you play. It’s something much higher than that, you know? It’s a whole man and his whole being. So there’s a much higher level of something going on that makes his music do what it does. It doesn’t matter what instrument the man plays. Whatever he brought to the music, it would do certain things. He knows how to do this, you know? That’s his power! And he’ll take you there! That’s why it’s so beautiful to see him with all his students, using all his students. ’Cause he opens up a world to them that they would never be opened up to unless they had that opportunity to be right with him. And he gives that to people! You know, it’s really wonderful how he passes that on. Selflessly. I’m one of the fortunate people that have had that chance too, like everybody else.
Robert: Didn’t you also have a somewhat similar experience — although more briefly — working with Bill Dixon?
Joe: I really enjoyed that experience. I had two concerts with him, through Mario Pavone. Bill was into that double bass thing, and we did two concerts. That was also an eye-opening thing, ’cause again, like Anthony, Bill is a strong individual. The music went where he took it. Almost like he brought you there. He just came, set up, and Mr. Dixon took you where he wanted to go. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s another person that we need to see even more of.
Robert: Tell us about the duo disc you did with Braxton.
Joe: That was a great thing, too. Fifty percent it was my compositions, fifty percent it was his. It’s funny: he always said he enjoyed mine, and I always said I enjoyed his pieces! But I’m honored that he did that, and that we have a documentation of it, ’cause he’s a busy man. There are a lot of people who want to do duo recordings. I was fortunate that he could squeeze it in, you know? It’s a great disc.
Robert: Do you have plans to continue with his Tri-Centric Ensemble?
Joe: Our last thing was six months or so ago. That’s still ongoing. I’m sure we’ll see some Tri-Centric activity.
Robert: And are you still the President of the Tri-Centric Foundation?
Joe: At this point, I’m still the President, yeah.
Robert: What does it mean to be President?
Joe: It just means that I take responsibility as the President. That’s all.
Robert: What are they?
Joe: It had to be set up like a board, ’cause it functioned that way. I would oversee things. You know, we had a project, I’m responsible to make sure it comes together. But I did that when I wasn’t the President, too. It was more about just keeping the structure. Someone had to be the President when the guy who formed it left. I was sort of the next in line, ’cause I’ve been there the longest. So I just took the job. What I did before that is pretty much the same stuff I did as the President.
Robert: So in short, you’re still associated with Braxton?
Joe: Yeah. Yeah, I hope to be associated with Anthony for the rest of my life, in one way or another. I hope the Tri-Centric Foundation goes on forever, because the concept was to bring Anthony’s large works to the public. And that’s what we did. And then we also did a festival for our members. So I’m hoping this will be an ongoing thing for — for the next twenty years.
Robert: How did From the Source come about?
Joe: I’d been working with Brenda and tap dancers in New York for years. And I was hearing all of that stuff. And I kept thinking, I want to do something with all this information. And I really dug Brenda. I wanted to do something with Brenda. So we talked about it, but it just didn’t happen. I tried it once and it petered out. Then I told Anthony. I told him about it. Man, he was so supportive! He said, "Do that, Fonda! Do that!" And I said, "Okay. All right." And his enthusiasm is so powerful and so true, it pushed me a little bit. So I went for it. And he said he would be a part of it. That was another catalyst. He said, "I would love to play on it." So I took some money, I kind of borrowed some money to do it. Not "kind of": I borrowed some money to do it. And it’s funny, the woman, the woman who’s a body healer —
Robert: Vicki Dodd.
Joe: Vicki Dodd. I had met her through my sister a year before, and I’d heard she does this stuff where she touches you and vocalizes what’s going on in your body. I’d never heard any music like it and I knew that I wanted to do something with her. So it kind of was a little bit of a vision and I followed it, and it worked out superbly. I had a sense that Anthony, Brenda, and Vicki were on the same level in a certain way — that they would connect immediately. And they did. I mean, it was so obvious that the three of them — the three of their work — has a similar purpose. It’s for a higher purpose. And they connected immediately, all three of them. And I was kind of trying to get in with them, you know? I wanted to be with them cats! [Laughs] I had the concept, but I knew I wasn’t quite where they were, and I was really honored to have them. I kind of was the force that brought them together, which was really extra special. And now I have a relationship with all three of them, so, yeah, it came about from having worked with so many tap dancers and then Anthony giving me a little spark, you know? And Herb fit in like a glove. And it was funny: him and Anthony had played together before, like he had said, but never in a small group. And the two of them played together so well. As a matter of fact, Herb is coming from a similar place as Anthony in terms of how he hears music. Both of them are people really into sound concept, and Herb’s a true sound concept person.
Robert: Who was the drummer on that?
Joe: Grisha Alexiev, who also played fantastic. I couldn’t have found a better person to do it with than him. And Herb. Him and Anthony were fantastic together. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done to this day. It was worth every penny I borrowed. I’m still paying back that money. I’ve spent it ten times over! I gotta thank all those people for doing that.
Robert: And I understand that this is an ongoing project?
Joe: Yeah, well, I’ve been trying to find some work for it. We have one gig coming up here in New York in Roulette in November with this group.
Robert: You have the same personnel?
Joe: I’m gonna try — well, I can’t have Anthony. Anthony doesn’t do that — Anthony was just for the recording date. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll have Gebhard Ullmann, if I can get him, to take Anthony’s place. I just did a duo tour with Brenda. We were in Austria just doing duets. That’s a shoot-off from this. We did some of the same music in the duet concept. So yeah, I want to keep my relationship with these people alive, and when I can find work for the group, I’ll do it. If not, maybe I’ll do trios or duos from inside it. ’Cause I like the concept, you know, of working with Brenda and Vicki. It changes stuff up completely. Completely.
Robert: What are some of your new projects?
Joe: I just did a solo bass recording [When It’s Time]. I did it for a Belgian record label called Jazz Halo, for a gentleman named Jos Demol. And Emile Clemens. They had heard a concert of mine in Belgium and they had suggested that, and you know, it’s interesting because it was something I had thought about for quite awhile. I was preparing for about six months to pull it off, and I was a little nervous, I must say! But it came out quite well. I’m very fortunate that they gave me the opportunity to go into the studio have to make it happen all by myself. They gave me the chance to go inside myself enough to do this. There was no one to rely on. I had never done that before. I had never even done a solo concert. I’d taken many solos for ten, fifteen minutes, but to sustain that kind of activity by yourself for many hours was a real challenge. And it was a real learning experience. I really have to thank Jos and Emile for letting me do it. It’s going to be out in September. I really like the way it came out. And then another new project I’m pursuing is that I met a woman from Shanghai, Xu Fengxia. In Germany. We’ve done a couple of duo concerts. She plays a Chinese instrument, the guzheng. It’s kind of like a koto. But she’s an improviser! A very creative improviser. So we started doing some duo performances, and the music’s really exciting me. Shanghai meets New York! We have some stuff coming up in November. The other day I was listening to the CD [Distance] from a concert we did. It was some really fresh music! She brings the East, as she’s improvising, she brings all that stuff from the East. And it really changes your way of playing. It’s a real fresh thing for me to play with someone who has those sounds. And authentically has them! It’s not someone trying to play stuff from the East. That’s who she is. So that’s an ongoing project now. And I mentioned this last tour I did with Brenda, where we did the duo. This is something else I want to pursue: tap and bass was a radical departure in terms of what a duet can be. There were a lot of people who came to our performances who were quite taken. Brenda and I were moving her stuff into a zone that people haven’t been dealing with in tap. I think a lot of folks came to these concerts, thought they were going to see Fred Astaire stuff! And Brenda and I were doing things from Mingus, and stuff from From the Source. So it excites me that I’m with a dancer who wants to move into some new zones and stretch the potential of what is. So that’s another thing I want to keep pursuing: doing duos with her. Also I’ve been working with a clarinet player who has a nice group. His name is Kunle Mwanga. Kunle is a great clarinet player. He used to manage Anthony for years. We have a nice group with him, myself, Mike Musillami and Leroy Williams playing drums. So that’s a group that I’m interested in continuing playing with and seeing how that develops.
Robert: Do you find it hard to make a living?
Joe: Yes, it’s hard. But thanks to the generous European market, it makes it much easier to survive. I have a lot of things I’m doing, but Europe has become a big source of my work.
Robert: Are you going to move there?
Joe: No, I have no plans to move there. It’s a beautiful place, but I’m staying here in America. But it is difficult! I don’t recommend it to anybody! [Laughs] Unless you really can’t live without it!
August 21, 1999 — New York, New York
2000 © Cadence Magazine