Q&A: Matthew Shipp On His Early New York Days, Getting Shit For Playing Electronics, And Black Music Disaster


When AUM Fidelity head Steven Joerg told the Voice that “Giants walk among us and you got to fucking pay attention,” it was absolute that avant-garde jazz pianist Matthew Shipp was in his canon. Alongside the likes of William Parker, David S. Ware, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell, Joe Morris, and Sabir Mateen, Shipp is an ideal example of a musician who not only lives and breathes the music, but does so with New York City’s vim and vigor as well.

The bespectacled pianist arrived here in 1984, met kindred spirit Parker shortly thereafter and immediately cemented himself into the scene. But while Shipp is renowned across the globe as avant-garde royalty, he exudes a sensibility of punk and independent ideology. One of his earliest LPs—a duo record with Parker called Zo—was originally released on a tiny punk rock label before being reissued by Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 imprint in the mid-’90s. His trajectory then led him to another seminal underground label notorious for Amerindie noise-rock—Homestead Records, where his rapport with Joerg, then the label’s manager, took shape.

Recently, Shipp hit his 50th year and in his “old fogey” years (as he calls them), he’s still tacking the unconventional, and unapologetically so. He’s gotten shit in the past from jazz extremists who rag on his use of electronics, but Shipp has retorted with the intrepid collaboration called Black Music Disaster, the name taken from a negative review of a concert Parker had performed with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton in Italy in which the reviewer referred to the concert as a “black arts disaster.” Recorded in a café amidst a residency in London, Shipp (playing Farfisa organ) is joined by Spiritualized’s J Spaceman, Spring Heel Jack sound manipulator John Coxon and drummer Steve Noble for an epic 38 minutes of Metal Machine Music-like cataclysmic noise squalor and psych-drone damage. Meanwhile, Shipp’s other new LP proves the antitheses to Black Music Disaster‘s cacophonous dystopia. Elastic Aspects features Shipp on piano with regulars Michael Bisio (bass) and Whit Dickey (drums), in albeit slightly more controlled environs, yet punctuated by the trio’s titillating experimentalism, adventurous phraseology and stunning cohesion.

Sound of the City spoke to Shipp to talk his early days in New York, Black Music Disaster, his imminent “greatest hits” record and the “big surprise” he has in store.

I wanted to talk about your early days here in New York. When did you move here?

September of ’84.

When you arrived in New York, did you know other musicians here you hooked up with?

Yeah. There was a drummer. Frank Bambarra is his name. I had known him from Boston years before I lived here so I moved in with him right away.

Where were you living?

Ludlow Street. [Laughing]

What did you think of the Lower East side back then? You were in your early 20s, right?

You know, it was what it was. I wanted to move to New York and be a jazz musician so probably more than like what I thought the lower east side…actually, I loved it. There was so much history in the neighborhood. I ended up a few months later actually living with Judy Sneed in Charlie Parker’s old apartment on 10th Street, his old house. I lived there for a couple of months. But it was cool. There was lot of energy in the neighborhood. When I moved there, Basquiat and people like that were around and it was just a very energetic and open scene in a way in the Lower East side.

Were you immediately engulfed in that scene, such as knowing and hanging with people like Basquiat?

Not exactly, but I was around a bunch of scenes.

Did any remnants of the jazz loft scene exist by the time you got to New York?

That was dead. That was the ’70s.

What was happening here as far as a jazz scene goes in the mid-’80s?

I’m not sure. I just came here ready to experience New York, so I was excited for anything. I knew I wanted to get into the scene I’m into—I guess what’s now known as the Vision Fest scene and William Parker, that whole world, the Lower East side. I hate the word free jazz but for lack of a better word, the Lower East side free jazz scene. I definitely came here with an agenda to get involved with that scene.

When did you feel you first got involved in that scene?

Probably day one [laughing]. I think a day or two after I moved here, I met Denis Charles on the street and talked to him. Then I met Frank Lowe and I met Billy Bang, who I had met before when I lived in Delaware and I had come up to New York for a couple of concerts. But I was meeting people from day one.

When did you meet William Parker? Were there gigs you played or went to that proved vital to your trajectory?

I don’t remember exactly but it would have been within the first week I was here. I met William pretty early on and I just started talking to him and we actually hit it off pretty early. Sometime in the first year that I was in New York I probably did a performance with him. But I also had a producer. There’s a community center [5C Cultural Center] on the Lower East side and it’s run by a guy named Bruce Morris. Back then, he wasn’t running [5C], but I had met him before I moved here and he was kind of a patron of mine when I moved here and he used to produce concerts for me. SO he would bring in [people]. I played with the great cellist Abdul Wadud with Leo Smith and Steve McCall They were all concerts that Bruce Morris had organized.

At what point did you feel there was a scene developing that would make an impact? I know the Knitting Factory didn’t come until later.

There was a bunch of performance spaces. There was a place on 5th Street and a bunch of places around then. There was a scene around, but in the early ’80s there wasn’t one central performing place like the Knitting Factory. But there were things happening. You just had to search them out. [laughing]

Did it get easier when the Knit arrived and served as a sort of central destination for musicians like yourself?

It’s never easy and it’s never been easy [laughs]. I think what made things easier was when people started getting recorded. There was a label—Silkheart Records, the Swedish label—and they recorded Charles Gayle, David Ware and Other Dimensions in Music. When that started happening, that was the first time anybody kinda was taking that scene seriously and it was interesting that there was a label that took that scene as a central thing—let alone seriously.

If you look at the history, when I moved to New York in ’84, there’s a few things going on: first of all, the whole Marsalis thing was at its full blast and as far as modern and kinda newer music goes. It seemed that critics kinda liked, at the time, a more kinda white thing, for lack of a better term. [Critics] were kinda not really into black people that lived in the Lower East Side and just played their instrument. There seemed to be something in the general air that said sitting down in an organic approach and just playing your instrument was wrong. And then David Murray was kind of coming off his big period in the late ’70s. Murray, even though he was an avant-gardist of sorts, was talking a lot of stuff about tradition and playing standards and things like that. It really didn’t leave much air for the kind of the Lower East Side scene. It really was just a trivialized scene and people like William Parker, Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter—people who have been really doing their own music and concentrating on their own voice on their instrument in an organic way for years, they were completely trivialized and taken for granted and then just not taken seriously. When Silkheart came around, that was one of the first breath of fresh air, as far as people really taking that scene seriously.

In the early ’90s, when the punk rock invasion happened between Homestead Records and Henry Rollins and when Sonic Youth started talking about the music, that kinda changed everything, too. Then when we had all that happen, the regular jazz world, the Downbeats and all that, started paying attention to us. It was a long haul. The ’80s were kind of really difficult. Another thing that happened was, after all that, then the Vision Festival became an established brand—I hate to use that term in reference to this—that also helped galvanize attention to that particular scene. All that happened kind of together.

Were you OK with punk and rock people like Rollins and Sonic Youth embracing the jazz scene you were in?

Yeah, yeah. To me, music is music. There’s a historical precedent for that type of thing. In the ’70s, Sun Ra did bills with the MC5 and Don Cherry is on a Lou Reed album. So it was no surprise that the punk or alternative world got juiced from the energy that exists in free jazz. But it was just really cool when you see it happening, you see young kids reacting to the music in a positive way, just because they’re there and they’re open—that’s a great thing.

Would you listen to that type of stuff, like a Sonic Youth record?

I don’t really keep up much now, becoming an old fogey in my 50s [laughing]. But back then, I was pretty aware of everything. I’ve always never been a person like a jazz snob so I’ve always listened, or been aware, of everything. I generally like a lot of alternative rock so I was very aware of that world.

Speaking of those days, when the Voice interviewed AUM Fidelity main man Steven Joerg, he recalled the days working at Homestead and you coming into the office, kind of “hustling” for gigs and stuff.

Well, OK. Are you familiar with my album Zo? It’s my first duo album I did with William Parker. It was originally on a label called Rise run out of Austin, Texas and it was a punk rock label. It was such a punk rock label that the actual logo on the label was Charles Manson’s eyes—so I always make a joke that that’s the only jazz album with the Manson’s eyes logo laughing]. But [Rise] were distributed by Dutch East India, which is the parent company for Homestead. When that happened, I would go to Dutch East—and, you know, that’s what I do—and even though I had a label, it’s still kind of a DIY situation. So I would go up there and introduce myself to the distributors and Steven had his office up there with Homestead because Homestead is part of it so I met him. At the time, Steven actually was on his own, produced that album with William Hooker [Radiation] so I was just like “Oh, wow. This is interesting. You’re doing a jazz drummer I’m hearing and Homestead’s a rock label and I am on this punk rock label our of Austin, Rise Records, and it’s the same distributor.” So Steven and I became friends. I guess you can call it hustling [laughing]. I call it doing what anybody does who’s involved with the business—just keeping it on top of it. Coltrane was on top of his business, Miles Davis was on top of his business. Nothin’ wrong with that [laughing]. Everybody’s a hustler is in it; if you’re not, you’re just gonna die.

So you sort of followed Joerg from Homestead to AUM Fidelity?

We became really good friends and after awhile he thought he was gonna make the break and go on his own and start a jazz label. He did [David S. Ware Quartet’s] Wisdom of Uncertainty; that Ware album was the first [AUM] release. That was a big move for [Joerg].

And you’ve been doing records with him ever since, the most recent one being your collaboration with Darius Jones, Cosmic Lieder.

Well, yeah, we’re friends. I’ve gone my own way as far as my own work goes. But that’s the last thing I did with Steven.

What was your take on the scene that formed when the Knit, the Cooler and Tonic became vital spots?

What’s cool about all those places you mentioned is they all have a common theme that it’s modern music, and they all are very inclusive about including black and white musicians together because that was kind of the problem in the ’80s, that the avant-garde scene was—not because of the musicians, because people like Elliot Sharp and John Zorn love black musicians [laughs] and they’re as open human beings as you can possibly be—had a lot of other politics of the scene that had things split. There were a lot of complaints from certain people about Michael Dorf and the Knitting Factory. But the reality is, at the end of the day, he gave Charles Gayle a regular gig there every weekend. So it was really cool when the fact that there was finally places where you had the black and more of the white scene interacting and performing in the same space regularly, and that’s always a good thing. I’m just saying that in reference to the fact in the early ’80s the scene you’re asking me about in the Lower East Side was trivialized by the media, so it was just really cool most of these venues really tried to open things up.

With The Cooler and Tonic gone for a long time now and the current Knit not relevant in the avant-garde jazz scene, what’s your impressions now with The Stone and the avant-garde/experimental venues and DIY places in Brooklyn?

Well, I don’t really go to any of the places in Brooklyn but it seems to me like it’s a very healthy scene. I played in ISSUE Project Room once and they were really cool. I liked the vibe there. I played with Ivo Perelman there, the sax player. I really, really liked the vibe there a lot. There’s a community of people really developing in music and that’s what’s cool that people have regular place to really let the music grow.

And there’s Roulette, not far from ISSUE Project Room.

I just played there for Vision Fest. There’s a really, really, just a great piano there.

I was at Roulette for AUM’s 15th Anniversary concert night as part of Vision Fest and Eri Yamamoto dedicated one of her compositions to you and told a story about you.

[laughs] She did? No one told me that.

She said you gave her advice one night that if she dropped her wrist a bit on the piano, it would open up a whole new world.


Do you go out of your way to help other players?

Oh, no [laughing]. With Eri, a friend of mine used to own a bar—the Avenue B Social Club—and Jim Marshall, he was known as “The Hound” and was a DJ on WFMU. He used to own that bar and I went in one time and there was this woman playing and I just started listening and it was really beautiful. There were a lot of yuppies in the bar and they were basically doing what people do in bars on a weekend—getting drunk and trying to get laid [laughs]. But Eri had made all these people quiet and they were actually listening. She was actually just playing straight-ahead jazz. But the bar got quiet and people were actually listening so I go “Wow. She actually won a crowd like that over.” So I befriended her. She knew me and said she actually would come out and hear me. I became friends with her and I introduced her to William Parker and he started using her in some projects.

Black Music Disaster is a new collaboration you’re involved with where you play Farfisa organ. On David S. Ware Quartet’s Corridors & Parallels from 2001, you played synthesizer. Do you get shit from the hardcore jazz fanatics for playing organs and synths and doing stuff like that?

Oh, yes! [laughing] There’s always somebody who much rather hear me on the piano or whatever and that’s cool. From time to time, you do something different. With Black Music Disaster, I actually was doing a residency at Café Oto. For four nights, I was doing all different projects every night. For that one, that was the only one that was electronic-oriented of all of that so it was just, you know [laughing], gimme a break! [laughing] I’m predominately an acoustic pianist but occasionally you step out and do another project for fun, just to switch things up.

So Black Music Disaster was an experiment that came out as a result of that residency?

It was actually three nights at Café Oto and every set was different. I did a duo with John Butcher, the English tenor player, I did a group with Paul Dunmall, the same guy I just played with at the Vision Fest, and I think I did a solo [set]. Every set was different and that [Black Music Disaster], the electric one, was just one of them.

Did you know Darius Jones before you did the Cosmic Lieder record?

Yeah, yeah. I met Darius a few years before that. I met him at the Vision Fest the year; it was at The Clemente Soto Vélez building. He was playing with someone—I don’t remember. I knew who he was but I never heard him. I was sitting in the audience with Hamid Drake and Darius started soloing and Hamid and I kept looking at each other and smiling. I [said to Hamid] “Do you know anything about this guy, man?” and Hamid was like “Yeah, I know who he is.” So I went backstage after and I talked to Darius. I was talking about his phrasing and what I got out of it and we just said “Yeah, we should do something together sometime.” But it was still a few years before we even played [together]. That’s actually happened a lot. I can’t remember the first album I ever played on that Daniel Carter was on. It might be Strata. Whatever album it is, I have been talking to Daniel for twelve or fifteen years before we ever played a note of music together. That happens sometimes. [laughing]

You, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell, William Parker and all the players you’ve mentioned, are all still going at it.

Those guys are troupers. They just get up every morning and do what they do and they don’t complain or look back. They’re gonna do it until they drop dead. What’s so pure and strong about any of those guys is they’re utterly committed to language.

You’re playing the two sets at The Stone with your trio, the group you recorded your latest record, Elastic Aspects, with. Do you enjoy playing at The Stone?

Yes, I do. I do it a couple of times a year. The best thing about it, on one level, is it’s a block and a half away from my house [laughing]. It’s not too hard to get there. The place I’ve lived now, we moved there in 1990 right after we got married. A friend of my wife’s was able to secure it for us and we’ve been there—with rent control—ever since so we don’t have any plans on moving out because it’s very affordable rent.

You’ve seen New York City change big time since ’84 when you moved here. What are your thoughts on that?

When I moved here, I actually got involved with a really good situation. I moved in with someone in the fourth place I lived and because I was around a lot the first year but then I settled in a place I lived in until 1990. The guy who had lived there, it was very cheap rent and that was cool. But rents had started going up in the early ’80s actually and that was attributed to once Reagan got into office. There was a time when people could find places to live in the city for 90 dollars a month. It was in the Reagan years where it started becoming all about yuppies and New York really started becoming about money. I guess it’s always been about money. But there’s always been a strong underground scene and rents that allow a strong underground scene to happen. But it was around the time that I moved here that rents started being extravagant even though I got lucky. So I think it sucks that you have a situation where you have to have rich parents to live here. What’s that about? What’s the use of that? I think that actually hurts the music and it hurts all art forms when a situation is of that and therefore it ultimately hurts the culture, in general.

The Stone shows are part of the Northern Spy Fest. How do you know [label owner] Tom Abbs?

Well, Tom, everybody knows. Tom’s been around and playing with people and hangin’ for years. Tom’s an icon on the scene. Everybody knows Tom. Plus I also think he’s tight with Mike Bisio, my bass player also.

Do you keep up with what Abbs puts out on N-Spy?

I know some of it, yeah. I’m a big fan of the Joe Morris project with Jamie Saft and Mike Pride—Spanish Donkey. In a funny way, they go for a similar thing we got for in Black Music Disaster—not in sound but just spirit-wise. It just feels that way. I don’t even know if Joe knows like I did this album. That [Spanish Donkey] is the one album I’m really familiar with on the label.

For the two Stone shows, will you play material from Elastic Aspects?

I’ll be playing stuff from Elastic Aspects and maybe some other stuff. It might be kind of really open, too. I do my material from the albums in concerts but I’ve been wanting to do some completely open concerts where I don’t use any of the [album] material.

What do you have in the works now besides Elastic Aspects and Black Music Disaster?

I’m going to be putting out a greatest hits album on Thirsty Ear—like cuts from all my Thirsty Ear albums. [laughing]

Is it going to be a double album?

No, it’s gonna be a single album. I don’t know what it will be called—maybe The Matthew Shipp Series Essentials or something like that. It’ll be a greatest hits. Apart from that, my major project is a performance art project. It involves a CD release of sorts but it involves another aspect of it, too. I have a big surprise for everybody next year—let’s just leave it at that, but that’s not on Thirsty Ear. [As for a new release on AUM Fidelity], we’re planning on a second album with Darius, which will be a live concert from a gig we did at the Jazz Standard.

Matthew Shipp Trio plays two sets at The Stone tonight.

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