by Christopher Hess
photograph by Kenny Braun
The most important element in any community of jazz musicians is its elder statesmen, players who have seen the world and who have been around the significant minds of their own generation before returning home to pass on those experiences to the next ones in line. The forerunners' presence makes for a rich historical backdrop necessary to the innovations of a scene's young lions; their absence makes for a weak or inconstant connection to a music as inexorably entwined in history as jazz.
For large metropoli rich in jazz tradition -- cities such as New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, New York -- the presence of these elder statesmen is what makes the scene thrive and continue to develop while attracting new players. Students in search of teachers will seek them out in these cultural centers as long as there is something to learn. Of course, with each pilgrimage, the place left behind by the aspiring pupil is deprived of another source of creativity. The cycle can be vicious, but without it, the flow of ideas is cut off, leaving the overall jazz world disconnected and fragmented into numerous stagnant outposts.
"Martin Banks told me I had to leave town, because here, you can't go down the street and hear Ron Carter any day of the week," says local bass player Edwin Livingston, referring to Austin's senior jazz trumpet player. "And that's a good point -- you can't. [Banks] is the only guy in town who has been around and who has played with people, and who really can play, as opposed to some guy saying, 'Well I've done this and I've done that,' and he hasn't done jack. There's nobody here to learn from, nobody to be an apprentice to. Therefore, I gotta leave."
Sitting comfortably in a Hyde Park coffee shop, Edwin Livingston, the picture of the consummate jazz bass player, relaxes. Slight of build, with long thin arms, his angles meet with those of his instrument in a graceful ease, and whether on stage ripping out electric funk for Hot Buttered Rhythm or bowing through a quiet solo in a small jazz combo, the music flows out of Livingston's 120-year-old bass as if his thickly curved, square-ended fingers were channeling an invisible presence. Cool -- that's what it is.
Quiet and unassuming, entirely intent upon his playing, though not at the expense of being aware of everything happening around him, the 28-year-old Livingston exudes a sense of knowing, that sleepy-eyed bemusement, which is the hallmark of a person who's sure of himself and his place in the wonderful and ridiculous spectacle in which he finds himself. Though a member of the back line, Livingston can step up for a raging solo at any time, and while soft-spoken, he's not hesitant to put his observations into words; in his thoughtful, halting manner, he expresses his disdain for the general tendency of people to swallow whatever is fed them and his contempt for unoriginal music.
"I have a big problem with people that go through life blind, believing everything that they hear," states Livingston unequivocally. "Folks who don't think for themselves, I have a problem with that. You don't think for yourself, you're gonna listen to what everybody tells you and believe it. Therefore, you're gonna have a bunch of folks who are not even receptive to this thing called jazz; folks who say it's too relaxing or too erratic or whatever. I don't buy it.
"I do feel that jazz will never be totally acceptable. It's never gonna be what we call popular music, even though jazz back in the day was a form of popular music, in the Thirties and Forties mainly. That's what the kids listened to, that's what the folks listened to back then. But this isn't then. There's always gonna be this odd-person-out type of feeling with this form of music, and that's really too bad. Since I did play jazz from early on, I'm pretty biased as to how people perceive this, and the same thing goes for the art world, too. There are a lot of things people wouldn't call art. A lot of folks wouldn't call Jackson Pollock art, and they said the same thing about Ornette Coleman."
The strength of the sentiment comes not from contempt, but from a consuming passion for his craft and for originality and creativity in music, and from a recently discovered need to get his voice heard. Born in Texarkana, Texas in 1970, and growing up in the north Dallas suburb of Garland, Livingston started developing said voice on the saxophone in the sixth grade, because there were too many drummers in his school's band program. With some indefinable connection to the arrival of MTV at his house, however, he got an itching to play bass. Getting his hands on an old Gibson SG that his late uncle played in a gospel band, he began taking lessons.
Making long strides in the mastery of his new instrument, Livingston's early skills prompted the band director at Lakeview Centennial High School to ask the young musician to take up string bass so he could play in the symphonic orchestra -- the top band in the school. His instructor at the time, Roger Fratena, was the assistant principal double bass in the Dallas Symphony.
"I told him I needed to play string bass and he was like, 'Good,' because that's what he played," remembers Livingston. "He's an amazing bassist -- killer. So I started playing that, and it just changed my whole concept of music. Having that kind of quality instruction and that kind of discipline, that's what a person needs at that young age.
"He was very serious, very disciplined. There were several times that I'd go to a lesson and I hadn't been practicing, and he knew it. He would say, 'If you're not gonna practice don't bother showing up. I'm not doing this for the money ...' That's something folks need to hear. Let them know that this isn't about just playing casually. This is your life. If you're not going to get into it, man, don't do it. That gave me a really good sense of where he was coming from. I was like, 'This guy's serious, so I should be the same way.'"
By the time Livingston graduated high school, he knew that making music was his calling. Though he was accepted into the music program at the prestigious and expensive University of Miami, financial restraints led him out to the wide-open plains of Kansas, Wichita State University, where Livingston studied, played, and worked on his formal music training under the tutelage of Mark Foley, another person credited for a good part of Livingston's development.
After earning his degree, Livingston made what seemed like a strange decision: to stay in Kansas -- out in the middle of nowhere, between Dodge City and the Colorado border, where the land stretches flat and empty for days. There, he performed the duties of Artist in Residence at Garden City Community College.
"There's nothing out there," he confirms. "Gets real cold. I spent a year there as part of the World Residency Act. I had an audition for that, it was a paid position. A thousand dollars a month, all bills paid, a place to live, and the NEA had a deal with Yamaha, so we got some real nice gear too. ... It was a good gig. We taught kids, and the townspeople learned about jazz and the creative elements of music. But there's not a whole lot in west Kansas."
After a short stint in Denver, which Livingston says has "no music scene at all," he moved to Austin. Knowing that the only way to get gigs is by making connections, he decided to heed the advice of another player who grew up in the Dallas area, piano player Fred Sanders, whom he had met, oddly enough, in Wichita -- at the university's jazz festival.
"Fred knows everybody," asserts Livingston. "I met half the guys I know in town from Fred. He and Ephraim [Owens, local trumpet player] told me to come here in the first place. After I left Denver, I was gonna move to Dallas and start gigging, but they said come to Austin, we need bass players. Fred hyped me up and let everyone know that I was coming."
In a short time, Livingston was enrolled in the Southwest Texas State University music program (to get an unfinished algebra credit and some additional musical training) and playing in some of the best jazz groups Austin had to offer; he was a regular member of saxophonist Elias Haslanger's combos, as well as Tina Marsh's Creative Opportunity Orchestra, and keeping busy playing also in various configurations with Owens, Sanders, and frequent partner in rhythm, drummer J.J. Johnson. The first to admit that he's gained a lot of experience in Austin, Livingston also recognizes the inherent limits to the local scene.
"It's a struggle to find jazz in this town, period," says Livingston, not mincing words. "The Elephant Room, they don't play what I would call jazz there. I was looking at the calendar and saw a bunch of blues bands, a swing band, some cajun stuff. Which is cool, but if you want to hear jazz, you shouldn't come on those nights. If you do want to hear jazz you shouldn't come on most other nights either, 'cause they don't really play jazz at the Elephant Room. They don't play anything I want to hear. I don't want to hear somebody play cheesy jazz renditions of pop tunes from the Sixties. That's not where I'd say, 'Wow, I want to check that out and listen to it over and over again.' You know? It sounds like bullshit to me."
Though organizations like UT's Performing Arts Center, DiverseArts, and Epistrophy Arts bring quality touring acts to Austin, it's not enough. The lack of jazz in local jazz clubs is a sore point with most of the genre's local practitioners -- especially as it becomes obvious that to many, "Jazz" is more a marketing strategy than an art form. Cedar Street, home to the straight-ahead jazz of Elias Haslanger's combo for three years, now boasts a nearly jazz-free weekly schedule.
"How are you gonna have John Coltrane and Billie Holiday in the basement when they're playing ambient pop tunes upstairs?" asks Livingston, mocking the club's radio commercials. "How are you gonna have all these photos of all these great jazz musicians on the wall, kind of idolizing those people, and then have this mess out in the courtyard? I'm not dogging those forms of music. I'm dogging on whose idea it was to come up with the concept and then not stick to it. If you're gonna have jazz, have jazz -- and that's it."
The stigma attached to jazz by contemporary marketing is enough to cause some serious players to blur musical boundaries. Not Livingston. The bassist's eponymous debut, recently self-released, is all jazz, from the free-form expressionism of "Shytown" and "Still the Struggle?" to the syncopated, 13-bar blues of "AKA Fiddy Jones (for Eric Dolphy)" and the lowdown swing of "Hattie-n-James," a song Livingston wrote about his parents. All jazz, all the time.
"I'm trying to get away from using the word 'jazz,' mainly because 'jazz' is such a catchall [phrase] nowadays. Everything is called jazz. I want to be more specific and say, 'improvised, creative music' -- 'thought-provoking music.' It's listener's music. ... This music, I feel, is meant to be listened to and thought about. Thought on and meditated with. Like, 'What does it do to you? How does it make you feel? What do you think about when you're hearing it? Does it please you when you're upset? Does it make you angry when you hear it? I feel that's why music is here in the first place, to do these things, to keep humans from killing themselves. ...
"And I think artists in general are here for that reason -- in all forms of art, be it theatrical, performance, anything. We can all kind of relate to it and understand it to a certain degree. You know, the universal language thing. We can all have sort of a human kinship to it, as opposed to climbing the corporate ladder and your whole goal in life is to make as much money as you can and then be stingy with it until you die."
Starting in post-war America of the Forties, jazz players responded to the restrictiveness of big bands and the commercialism of jazz music at the time, as well as to racial injustices within the professional world, by coming up with a new jazz: bop. Now, as the neo-bop movement is overshadowed by jazz's numerous commercial offshoots, many artists are working outside the lines, avoiding the obvious in their music often to the point of incomprehensibility to all but the most avid listener. Though his compositions do reflect a movement to free-form exploration, there are limits. Livingston's playing, as well as his compositions, reflect a contemplative nature shrouding the potential to be wild that made his idol Charles Mingus one of the most influential bass players in jazz history.
"The whole reason I did [the CD] was I felt that I wasn't getting my voice heard as a musician and a composer," explains Livingston, crediting his parents with instilling in him a sense of self-sufficiency that drives him. "I feel I have some very good compositions, and I think I had some things people need to hear. "
In addition to putting out his debut, Livingston has been focusing his energies on another another major project: moving. For the past few months, the bassist has been visiting Louisiana often, playing in New Orleans and Baton Rouge with renowned alto sax player Wessel "Warmdaddy" Anderson. This weekend, he'll play with another Leaning House artist, drummer Donald Edwards, at a show in Baton Rouge.
Close behind his friend Fred Sanders, who recently relocated to the tiny town of Gonzales between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Livingston will be moving to the Crescent City. Earlier this year, Livingston said he was planning a move to New York, but opportunities, whenever they present themselves, should not be ignored. Like the Austin he moved to three years ago, New Orleans has a shortage of bass players.
"Supply and demand is really off," he says. "There are lots of gigs and no bass players, only three that I know of and they get all the work. Three guys can't do all the work, so I'm gonna go and pick up the slack. I still am going to New York, but going to New Orleans right now is more financially feasible. And the contacts I'll make down there are always playing in New York, so I'll be going there anyways. Once I do leave New Orleans, then I should already be in the mix, so to speak -- a New York via New Orleans type thing. New York is the ultimate for me, because there's a whole different vibe up there, and that's what I want to be around."
The enthusiasm with which he speaks of the very idea of New York City belies both a wide-eyed naiveté and a wholehearted passion for pursuing his vocation. He has seen the city twice, playing the Knitting Factory once with Hot Buttered Rhythm and sitting in once at Small's for a late-night jam session. When asked what he expects to find there, he pauses. "I don't know. I know it's gonna be hard, but ... I've always been attracted to big cities, and the fact that you can only go out certain times of day to do something doesn't really appeal to me. Here in Austin, you go out and then you go home again at the end of the night. I want to go out if I want to and find something happening. If I want to go and play at five in the morning I want to be able to do that. You can't do that in Austin. You can't do that in New Orleans either, but the players in New Orleans are what I'm going for, and the cats down there can really play. I need that sort of refinement now in my music. I want to get an 'always ready' kind of mentality. They have no problem showing up on a gig and just killing; it's an everyday thing down there, and I want to go down there and be a part of that."
Weighing down these ambitions are real-life responsibilities, of course, including the costs from a court case with the city of Austin involving his wrongful arrest in March of this year while loading in for a gig at the Mercury (those charges have been dropped), hospital bills from a recent bout with pneumonia, instrument insurance (which supersedes health insurance), and perhaps above all other things, support for his five-year-old daughter who lives in Phoenix with her mother, Monica, who Livingston met at Wichita State.
"I feel like I'm missing out," he says. "She just started school, going to a performing arts school and taking dance and singing and martial arts. It makes me want to get to a point in my life where I can make some money so I can go see her and she can come see me. I buy her savings bonds every month, but it won't make up for my not being there. I want to be there."
But the money route is not always the right one. When a jazz musician speaks of a "money gig," he's rarely referring to anything creative or personally satisfying, rather he's usually talking about something unoriginal (i.e., for mass public consumption). For Livingston, the "day gig" is an almost unspeakable non-option.
"A lot of people go through life with boring nine to five gigs, all pissed off and bitter 'cause they never did what they really wanted to do. I'm not gonna do that. I'd rather struggle and make some sort of lasting contribution in my lifetime than help some corporation get their money. I want to have a voice in my lifetime and have people respect me for what I was or what I am, more than just some dude getting paid for wearing a coat and tie -- getting money for some corporation that doesn't care about him.
"In the near future, and from here on out, I plan to get my stuff recorded and to get it out there. That's what I gotta do. You gotta do what you gotta do, and I gotta do that."