Saturday, 13 April 2013

Never Look Back: Brownman Ali and jazz life in Toronto

Brownman relaxing at his studio in Toronto. Photo by Monika Godomska
A couple months ago, I reached out to Brownman Ali, Trinidad-born trumpeter working out of Toronto, and here for a couple dates with Sean Thomas and BJ Saunders, to discuss Toronto and its jazz scene. I got no response until just yesterday evening, Friday 12 April. Coincidentally, my column on the subject came out in the Trinidad Guardian on that morning titled "Canada a haven for Caribbean musicians."

I've tried to gauge the impact Caribbean artists have had in and on the Toronto music scene. I interviewed a number of artists from Trinidad resident in Toronto over a year in a number of genres including jazz. Brownman would have been the last. The conclusion arrived at, before this new interview, was that T&T artists and their native music were having a difficult time manoeuvring the Canadian music scene to a threshold that revenue streams were sustainable. In other words, a lot of them were not making that critical impact via radio airplay and CD sales—important for global exposure—beyond anything they had when they were here, relatively speaking. Toronto is no mecca for success for the few who have gone, as implied otherwise by the newspaper headline. Shazelle, singing pop is intriguing as a case study for what is now a new phenomenon by international talent scouts and labels: come to the Caribbean, find a beautiful girl and market them as pop singers (or rappers) leaving their exotic accent to tell their story. Worked for Rihanna!

I choose today to let Brownman's statement stand by itself to allow us to understand the perspective of this immigrant—or more correctly the child of an immigrant—who has not followed the path of official multiculturalism, but like Neil Bissoondath, who on the advice of his uncle VS Naipaul, chose to "go beyond the confines of cultural heritage." One senses that Brownman, who also migrated more than half a lifetime ago, has a similar sentiment regarding Trinidad to that written in Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada by Bissoondath : "I have no emotional attachment left...I miss nothing, am prey to no nostalgia."

Many thanks to Andrew "Nickel" Nicholson, Brownman's publicist and logistics manager for getting this to me and clarifying, from his perspective, some opinions drawn from the text and previous article. To get a context, I asked Brownman some questions on the Toronto jazz scene and how Caribbean musicians are viewed, as well as how is the idea of "Caribbean jazz" (improvisation with elements of native Caribbean rhythms) received there: "I want to get your perspective as a working musician in North America who markets himself as being born in Trinidad, do you get a different expectation as a musician. Are you expected to play Sonny Rollins' "St Thomas" or are your electric Miles explorations accepted as just another Canadian musician exploring the wider spaces in the genre of jazz?"

Yo Nig[el]!

Brownman trading licks with Colleen Allen of Kalabash at Jazz Artists on the Greens 2010
Hiya man! And sorry this has taken so long brother... It's been a total zoo of late. This might hit you too late for your article, but the topic creates a springboard for interesting discussion, so I wanted to take a second to speak on some of what you've asked... but first let me clear a few things up -- we (my team) don't "market me as being born in Trinidad" -- I'm marketed as a Brooklyn trumpet player who lives in Toronto -- who was born in Trinidad. It's the last thing on the list. Why? Because Brooklyn defined me as an artist. All my creative energies flow out from the seminal experiences I had while in New York and all my formative training came from that city. Toronto is where I live, and am integrated into, so that's the next most defining characteristic in my artistic being. And Trinidad is where I was born... but have no real ties to (until very recently -- catalyzed by your having brought me down in 2010). It's only lately I've felt any kind of "pull" from Trinidad (and why none of the island's influences show up in my music).

So you ask how the idea of Caribbean jazz is received here in Toronto. In short -- it isn't. It doesn't really exist. And if you're asking me my opinion as to why -- I think it's a simple numbers game. There aren't any highly trained Caribbean musicians who embrace their Caribbean-ness enough to pursue it as a jazz sub-genre (i.e. - Caribbean jazz). I certainly don't fit that bill, given my background and training in New York with Brecker. Most of the Caribbean musicians I know up here are weekend musicians... not pros... mostly ear players, with little to no actual training. And those that get that training, seem to end up in other jazz sub-genre deeply pursing creative output in those varied forms -- be it bebop (like Archie Alleyne) or jazz-R'n'B (like Mike Shand) or a bit of everything (like Larnell Lewis). My own choices are a direct result of my own artistic interests (which were a directly result of my environments). My 7 groups span 4 sub-genres -- Latin-jazz (specifically Cuban & Brazilian), mainstream jazz (the traditions of swing, bebop, hard-bop & standards), electric-jazz (à la late Miles, Steve Coleman, Weather Report, John Scofield, Wayne Krantz, Adam Rogers, Cuong Vu, Elastic Band -- that ilk of flavours) and Salsa (which I've loved since I was a kid).  My interests were a by-product of my growth environment, my musical interests and what I found stimulating creatively. And thankfully, my output has been appreciated on it's own terms for what it -- my own creative explorations of jazz sub-genres. So to answer your question -- no -- I'm never expected to play "St. Thomas" because I'm from the Caribbean... and yes, my explorations (all of them - not just the stuff that tastes like electric Miles) are accepted as a musician (not a Canadian one - but as an artist period) exploring sub-genre cross-pollinations of the jazz lineage.

I think that's simply a matter of there not a critical mass of Caribbean descendants with the right training, who's impassioned about the island's music enough to explore that sub-genre and push HARD to evolve it - as a community. There are lots of dudes who dabble, but few are really pushing HARD. Like how Etienne Charles does in New York. I think he's deeply invested in his roots and his music speaks to that. But he's in a minority. Mark Mosca here in Canada is a pan-genius -- but he's a sideman... never a leader. And a Caribbean-jazz movement needs LEADERS. Jeremy Ledbetter from Canefire is quite competent, but also isn't a leader in the Caribbean-jazz community yet (and I personally find him better suited in the sideman chair, like with Rudder). Kalabash isn't pursing anything terribly ambitious either. Andy Narell has been the best thing to happen to Caribbean-jazz, but he's just one man. There needs to be a community. And me? Clearly I'm not part of the Caribbean-jazz experience. It's not what I do. Though that might be a "not what I do - yet". These last few visits have me interested in modern soca and calypso. While in Trinidad last, I went to see both 3Canal & Machel Montano, went to Panorama, visited 6 pan-yards & bought a stack of CDs while there recently. I'm pretty fascinated by the distance Calypso has come from the classic artists like Sparrow. When I listen to "Float" back to back with "Jean & Dinah" the distance of evolution isn't so different as listening to Louis Armstrong back to back with Alex Sipiagin. But the thing with me is that I've got my hands full with creative ideas based on my own musical interests (jazz, latin, urban), and I'm invested in finding new and interesting ways to combine them. To do a study of Trinidad's music and then put that knowledge into practice would be a huge undertaking for me (because I don't like to dabble -- I need to immerse myself FULLY in a genre for years before I feel ready to create inside it). What Caribbean jazz needs is a critical mass of Caribbeans (not just a few guys) who all burn with desire about their homeland's music and wants to push it's envelope via a jazz sub-genre. When THOSE guys appear en masse -- the scene will change on the global stage. What can be done in the meantime? I see the problem as 2-sided:
  1. Training! Honestly Nigel -- I'm startled by what Caribbean musicians don't know (in general). I met so many (big hearted, genuine, earnest musicians) who don't know all their basic scales and even more who couldn't build chord structures (i.e. tell me all the notes in a C7#11 chord. That's FUNDAMENTAL BASICS for being a jazz musician). And even more who aren't listening to jazz actively... but want to play jazz! (huh? how do you expect to be a jazz musician, if you aren't listening and studying the lineage?). Thank God for men like Sean Thomas and BJ Saunders -- they're uncommonly high abilities were the reason I could even do a Trinidad permutation of Electryc Trio (and even then I had to push BJ quite hard to get the results I wanted... but they were spectacular -- "Nickel" is about to post some video of us in Trinidad burning through my funkified arrangement of Miles Davis' "Four"... I think Trinis will be proud to see how impressive Sean and BJ are in it!). My point is --> I think that if a higher degree of knowledge and training could somehow be provided, we'd see a change in Trinidad. In my limited time there I saw a lack of mentorship in Trinidad (like how Charlie Parker took Miles under his wing in '47) in the instrumental community... lots of in-fighting and bickering, and very little comradeship between musicians. Coming from Brooklyn where everyone links arms in order to survive, I found that weird. Dudes need to be hanging out, sharing records, talking about who's hot, watching YouTube videos together, playing each other's music, exchanging ideas and engaging in discourse. I didn't see any of that when I was there. I saw jazz musicians just trying to survive... and when you're struggling to survive, it's hard to be creative and take the risks necessary to create music of tomorrow. I think a dedicated jazz program at the University level would go a long way to creating an environment for that kind of thing to flourish.
  2. Education for the public. People don't know what good jazz is. They're so inundated by smooth jazz, soul-less, risk-free schlock, that they now have no concept of where jazz ACTUALLY is today. The Tobago Jazz fest [THA hosted Tobago Jazz Experience] is a joke now, with their jazz-less hiring practices. It's a music festival -- NOT a jazz festival. People don't know what real jazz is, and certainly not what exciting new explorations are happening in some of the sub-genres (like jazz-hip-hop, latin-jazz, indo-jazz, jungle-jazz, jazz-folk, chamber-jazz, etc, etc, etc.) If that could change -- there would be a paradigm shift. How to do that? Radio and TV are powerful. Clubs that provide such programming are powerful.

So lemme bring this back full circle. This discussion was supposed to be about Toronto, not Trinidad -- so lemme talk about why I love Toronto in general. As conservative as the country often is -- Toronto is a multi-cultural city where your cultural heritage doesn't have to shackle you. Where an Indian woman be an opera singer [Meher Parvi]. Where a Trinidadian man can be a jazz trumpet player [Brownman]. Where a Scottish dude can be a reggae force of nature [Jason Wilson]. Where a Barbados cat can rise to being the Artistic Director for the Toronto International Film Fest [Cameron Bailey]. Where one of our most significant political leaders in Toronto is Chinese [Olivia Chow]. And that's a good thing. That's a great thing. The multi-culturalism of the city allows for true cross-pollination of cultures, assuming other cultures are aptly represented. There is a HUGE Cuban contingent here in Toronto, and hundreds of highly trained Cuban musicians. As a result there's been a 10 year shift in the Salsa community towards Salsa-Cubano... these days, in the clubs, most salsa bands are Cuban-led, and most of the sounds you hear are Cuban derived. You'd hard pressed to find a Puerto-Rican salsa band in the city these days (whereas 15 years ago, that's all there was). As the Cuban population and culture infected the city, the music was also affected.

So for a Caribbean-jazz scene to flourish in Toronto (or even exist) -- there would need to be an influx of highly trained Caribbean artists to push the boundaries of creativity in that sub-genre. AND they would have to be savvy enough to market and promote it accordingly. And Canada's ready for that. Every other form of sub-genre jazz is here and has a home... if a group of dedicated creative people were to push the development of Caribbean-jazz here in Canada -- Canada would eat it up. I have no doubt about that.

Lastly -- some of your questions seem to include an undercurrent of wondering about motivation for music-making, i.e. do I get asked to play St. Thomas cuz I'm from Trinidad. So something I wanted to mention -- as myself as a jazz musician -- is that my own music creation process has zero to do with anything external. Not finances, not treads, not popularity, not crowd demand -- only my own artistic interests (often driven by literature because I read a lot... averaging about 3 books a week). The only way I create -- is from what I burn with desire about. That's the only way the music stays genuine. None of my groups "take requests"... That's not the place I'm creating from. I create -- and if they like the creation, awesome. But if they don't -- too bad... it's getting made anyway. That's the greatest lesson we can all take from Miles --> that artists need to create on their own terms... and no one else's. That's why I think as soon as a critical mass of trained Caribbean musicians can create a culture & community to support Caribbean-jazz -- it'll happen internationally... but it has to be done from a place of burning desire. A deep need to create... but not by dabblers... not by trend-watchers... but by real deal artists who care deeply about their lineage and the Caribbean music that influenced and shaped their lives (like Etienne Charles). Perhaps one day I'll be bitten harder by the Caribbean-jazz bug... but until then -- I'll continue to (unapologetically) explore the sub-genres of jazz that set my own heart ablaze.

Thanks for listening homeboy!  See you soon!

A'ight... I'm out.  Peace.

- Brown

© 2013, Nigel A. Campbell

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