Story – The Contemplation behind the Random Acts

by Asia Burris | published: Oct 12, 2018

Random Acts of Flyness is, in no uncertain terms, a trip. A newcomer to the left-field Black media arena to which it undoubtedly belongs to, Random Acts is a show that elicits emotion, even if which emotions, exactly, are yet to be determined. With it, specific questions come to light: what makes a show subversive? What is the aesthetic that determines a subversive something or other — television show, movie, celebrity, or otherwise? What is the power of aesthetic in non-linear, more-than-meets-the-eye storytelling? Plainly: what does it mean to attempt chronicling contemporary Black life?

Delivered in six half-hour-long episodes, creator Terence Nance and director-writer Naima Ramos-Chapman utilize format as though uninhibited by obvious, weighty inhibitions. Story arcs are, at first glance, often scattered, told in disjointed time and unclear theme. Yet, intimate in pleasure and pain alike. Dreamily constructed as if they are free in glaringly unfree circumstance. Ranging from subjects like “bad” hair to fluidity in gender and sexual expressions to a tech-bro riff on reparations, Random Acts of Flyness is smart without being self-serious or too light-hearted, impactful without impulsivity.

One season in, it is a show that positions itself a quiet contender in the realm of experimental Black television, opting out of reliance on a ready-made cultural fluency or relatability to get by. That alone is a welcome release. Saint Heron recently chopped it up with Terence Nance and Naima Ramos-Chapman — catch our chat on the maps that led to a show like Random Acts, and the ones that lead us through its journey.

The Contemplation Behind the Random Acts

By Amani Bin Shikhan | Published: October 12, 2018

Photography By: Alex Ashe

Can you tell me a little bit about how you two linked up? How did you meet?

Terence and Naima: [laugh]

Terence: Oh, that’s a great story!

Naima: So the funny thing is I used to write for Saint Heron, ‘cause I was trying to figure out a way to blend my desire to be in the arts with my journalism. I had just come back from D.C., started an acting class. I wrote a few things: a J.C. Reynolds piece, maybe a film review. And then I was like, “OK, well, now I wanna interview artists.” I knew Wangechi Mutu at the time and her assistant at the time, Alexandra Giniger — who now works at Jack Shainman Gallery — was like, “I wanna do this Proust type of interview, [where I ask] two artists who are in very different places in their careers weird questions. And I think Terence Nance and Wangechi would be good.” I had weirdly heard about Terence before through some friends of his, and they were like, “you should really meet this person.” I was like, “OK… I don’t know why you’re recommending that, but cool.” So I show up at his door [for the interview]. And we talked for four hours. We got along really well and I don’t know… You wanna tell the rest of the story?

Terence: Uh… that’s the whole story. [both laugh]

Naima: We got along really well, but the funny thing is this: somehow, I never wrote the article? [laughs] And so Terence likes to joke that there was never any article and it was all a rouse to, like, get close to him and be with him. But that’s not true. [laughs] I was making a lot of complaints about acting — not about acting itself, but the roles that women would get or the roles that I seemed to be getting which were very two-dimensional and not interesting. And Terence was like, “maybe your complaining is more about wanting to be an artist and make your own films.” And so he sort of inspired me to write, direct and edit. And since then, we’ve been working together.

What a story! Was Random Acts an extension of your already existing relationship, or a different conversation entirely?

Terence: It was the same in that it was an extension of us working together on lots of different things. I think that in general, when I was trying to figure out how to make the show, I knew that everybody who was in the writer’s room would need to be both writer-directors, kind of conceptualists, as opposed to traditional T.V. writers. But [they were] also people I had close relationships with. So, you know: Naima, Nuotama, my brother Nelson [Bandela], Shaka [King], Darius [Clark Monroe], Mariama [Diallo], Morgan [Parker]. All people who I have, in some situations, decades of work with. Just really important. Because it had to be done fast and it had to be done in a way where people were really emotionally available in the room and knew each other. To start with a baseline of intimacy. That’s how that worked out.

How quickly did it all come together? What’s the timeline for the show?

Terence: We wrote the show in, I believe, October of last year. So it took about a year. A little less than a year, actually. Came out in August, so I guess 9 or 10 months. But the pilot was done in the year before that — essentially, a year before the rest of the series.

Can you speak to how the pilot was made? What made it possible?

Terence: The first iteration of the show I wrote was in 2006, so I was in college still. In 2014, Tamir [Muhammad] called me. He’s an executive producer on the show. At the time, he was one of the people who started this program at Time-Warner called 150, which is just like, a mini-studio where he tries to develop projects by people that don’t usually find their way in mainstream film and TV. And, you know, we went back a long way, had been in kind of deep conversation for a long time. He was like, “what is your take on the news?” And I said I would never do a news show, but I have this project I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I even have some segments for it. Because I had already shot a lot of short films, so a lot of stuff from those films ended up in the pilot. So basically, through 150, they gave us a little bit of money just to kind of present it as a show or a proof-of-concept. That proof-of-concept was what we showed to a lot of different networks, but HBO decided to see what we could do to flesh out the pilot. At that point, we’d had about like, 15 minutes worth of segments. What we ended up turning in was kind of an extension of that.

Cool. And you both write, edit, direct, act?

Terence: Both Naima and I, yeah.

Why do you choose to wear so many hats in the show? Why are you intimately involved in these various aspects of it?

Terence: I think part of it is that that’s just what I’m used to doing in all of my work. [laughs] I think Naima’s used to that as well. But I think, on some level, you know, that question in general is a way of seeing the filmmaking process as having discreet disciplines. “Divisions of labour.” I think that’s one way of seeing it or feeling through it. I think there are, in some ways, divisions of labour in the way that mainstream TV and movies are made. Unions very much legislate those divisions of labour. But, you know, when you’re coming up in the art world, none of that really exists. That line between producing and directing? I didn’t even know what that was! I’ve slowly had to learn that, you know? Definitely the line between writing and directing, composing and directing. Editing and directing. All those things, I think, are more about how capitalism existed before movies and how the process of making movies had to retrofit themselves into the idea of what making a product was, which is an assembly line. And I think that when you’re approaching it from an art-first perspective, the assembly line aspect only has so much utility. So, it’s not so much “choosing to wear different hats,” it’s more like, the hat I happen to have on when viewing from a capitalistic context seems like a lot of hats, but it’s really just one hat.

I feel you, I feel you. So, I was reading this one interview with Mariama Diallo, one of the writer-directors on the show. There’s an interesting quote where the writer of the article says that “[Diallo] didn’t didn’t realize until fairly late in the process how unusual the genesis of the writing room was. Almost none of the writers had worked on another show before; there wasn’t any hierarchy in place; it was nontraditional in the best way possible…” Can you talk to me a little bit about why that was a choice that you made? We can tie in your earlier point too, about conceptualists versus traditional writer-directors. Why was that necessary to create the show?

Naima: I wouldn’t necessarily say that there was no hierarchy, ‘cause I mean, we still definitely in a loose way have to produce a show that is recognizable to other people. But I think in a lot of ways, there was no ego in making the show. It was very much like, we’re trying to create something special. I think the show is definitely unique because unlike other rooms where it’s like, you’re a writer and only a writer, everyone [on Random Acts] had their own thing on the side that they’re also trying to accomplish. And what makes them great doing that is also what made them great in bringing certain ideas [to the table]. And everyone was super generous in bringing ideas and thinking of how we can all play on each other’s strengths through different perspectives of looking at the world. That’s what created the show. And I think a lot to Terence’s credit, he said it very early like, on day one: “you do not have to make a segment that at all is your idea of what a Terence Nance segment would be.” It was like, what would you make — no holds barred? What would it look like, what would it feel like? What are the questions that make you feel most alive in the moment?

Terence: I think, to add to that, the idea was also that there’s no value in having single authorship on any one thing because really, everything is about the filtration process of the idea from like, the nugget of it to the final thing through all of our sensibilities. Any of the segments, it’s hard to say whose idea that was or who wrote it or who directed it because all the segments of all the episodes went through so many hands and really, all of them are kind of really individually us in specific ways, but they’re also all of us, you know? That’s something, to Mariama’s point, you don’t realize how weird it is until it’s happening. I do think, on some level, the expectation is that, OK, I’ma come in and do my thing. And it’s easier to just do your thing and that’s it. [But] first of all, we didn’t really have time to do that. It became clear that the most effective show was the thing that was our thing [collectively] as opposed to just more segmented.

In that same vein, Terence, I’d like to bring up something you’ve said in a past interview. You’ve described part of your creative process as necessitating a kind of temporary “turning away” from news cycles before you’d eventually have to “turn back.” In creating this kind of show, which in all its abstraction is still very much a show about Black people and by extension, Black issues, how do you create art that’s bigger than responsive knee-jerk reactions to news?

Terence: When I say news cycles, I’m thinking of it very literally. Mainstream 24-hour news cycles and how those channels — like the literal, actual channels, CNN, NBC, whatever — most often and consistently frame Black people. Which is usually the Mos Def line: “we either niggas or kings, we either bitches or queens.” Just the idea that there’s only extremities at play, whether it’s from an achievement perspective or a suffering perspective or any kind of perspective. I think that that missing of the in-between is what I’m speaking to. I think I was saying that because there’s so much common language in media now for “news” and media that responds to news to satirize it. So that “turning away” process is like, really necessary to establish a new language. And so there’s that element of it.

But the other element of it is a personal thing. Because of that sort of extremity and that binary of how Black people are on the news everyday, I think that there is a threshold after which it can become unhelpful to internalize that way of seeing yourself or your culture. And I think that that threshold will get reached everyday, you know what I mean? And I think [everyone] should set a quota about how much news consumption is good for them on a daily or weekly basis and find like, a rhythm. [One] where they find a balance between being informed and being propagandized towards a specific idea of what the world is. It’s a mental health issue, you know? I’ve arrived, I’m informed. Now I can turn away and do my work. Like Toni Morrison says: “the main [function] of white supremacy is to distract you from your work.” I think rationing [the amount] of white supremacy you internalize through the news is important so that you can do your work. So we can do our work. It is a daily process. It’s not something you can do once. When I say there’s only so much I can do, it’s because you gotta do it everyday. You gotta get informed everyday and then stop and just do your work.

In watching the show, there’s such particular usage of archival materials. How do they help tell the story that’s told in a non-linear way? How does the archival add gravity?

Terence: Well first, shoutout to Yvonne Shirley, our archival supervisor. Worked with her for a very long time and a writer-director herself. Also, our associate producers who worked really hard on that. When any kind of historical document is invoked, there’s this sort of revalidation process that can come up. It’s a lie. We’re not really revalidating [anything], we’re not telling any more truth by showing you footage of this thing happening. We could’ve omitted that. We’re playing with [archival] too; some of the stuff may seem like archival, but we just shot it, you know what I mean? I think there’s a lot of… the strategy of using that footage is feeling out a subjective truth that doesn’t have to be journalistically true, but adds a tonality of journalistic truth. To me, it’s like an affectation, like saying something with an exclamation point. The emotional subjectivity of the show is like, the show is workin’ it’s neck while it’s talkin’ to you, you know what I mean? In those moments, it’s workin’ it’s neck at you, rollin’ it’s eyes at you while it’s droppin’ a statistic on you, or something like that. Like any kind of creative decision in the show, it’s about embodying an emotion, you know? It’s about finding a way to say something in a way that mirrors how we would actually say it to you in conversation.

Naima: There’s definitely this departure from looking at an image and being like, just because a journalist said that this happened at this time, doesn’t make it real. As a former journalist, seeing how Terence and some of the other editors have played with archival kind of like, throws it in some people’s faces about, like, not everything they tell you is true, and not everything they don’t tell you is validating. Even conspiracy theories; our news isn’t documented enough, we create theories as evidence of things not seen. I think there’s an element of that theme circling around, as well — using archival and mixing that in. Archival has so much embedded memory in it. You can see Black Panthers walking through a hall and it vibrates way more than a recreation of that [same image] would. A part of being free or having a sense of freedom comes with having our own stories and making sure that they’re retold and maybe, in some ways, made to be iconic, not in a this is a documentary or this is fictive. Sometimes in a way, they’re a little bit of both.

I’m a Black woman, right? And my sort of test for anything I consume is to talk to other Black women about it, see how they feel. Something a friend said to me yesterday about Random Acts of Flyness really stuck with me: she said that the show felt like a “visual, sensory assault.” A few other people have voiced similar thoughts — “sensory overload”, “visually overwhelming.” What do you make of that observation or critique? Is that an intentional effect, or something that you chalk up to being a byproduct of the subject matter?

Naima: That’s interesting. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard that, although someone definitely asked what our decision was in not providing trigger warnings, which I thought was an interesting question to pose. I find a lot of television and film outside of Random Acts of Flyness to be a lot more triggering. But in terms of sensory overload… I mean, I think definitely there are some questions asked in Randoms Acts of Flyness that I think are hard for people to hear, especially if they’re looking for a show that’s simply supposed to entertain them. I definitely don’t think it’s trying to entertain. I think there’s definitely an element of getting you to feel jarred and ask questions. Sometimes that can feel triggering. But there’s also very explicit choices — not to re-enact a hyper-violent scene for no reason. There’s definitely care taken in making these images and scenes and things happen, and perhaps what the triggering thing is is more of the questions. Maybe people feel more assaulted by the ideas. I wonder what images they were talking about.

So, we were talking about the show, period, but more specifically, we were talking about the Ripa the Reaper piece. Which is one of, if not my favourite of the whole show.

Naima and Terence: [laugh]

Naima: Yeah, I think that’s the only piece in the whole season anybody’s ever talking about in terms of—

In terms of it being difficult, right?

Naima: Yeah, in terms of it being difficult! But I think the reason why it’s difficult is because in some ways, we’re projecting images that the news cycle feeds us about trauma to Black and brown bodies. Most of it, you don’t really see anyone get hurt or hit. There is the body bag scene, which I think is really hard, but I think, emotionally, it’s difficult and hard to watch because Tonya’s performance is so good. Tonya Pikins, you know, she don’t even wanna be there hosting the show. And that’s a credit to Mariama and Nuotama’s work on it. But I think, to me, it’s not brutality for brutality’s sake. There’s a point to be made. There’s nothing on the show that’s made for shock value. I think it has more to do with people who watch understanding what we don’t show. We don’t show any kids getting killed and murdered by the police. It’s just evoking this character Ripa the Reaper. It’s really seeing the pain emoting in her eyes of doing this job of having to collect young Black and brown bodies that society has discarded and decided is not worth their time in this way that is hard to watch because it rings true. And I think that’s definitely to Mariama [Diallo] and Nuotama Budomo’s credit for making that. That works so well.

Terence: Two big things I would say about that is that, one, I feel like every time I’ve heard that response, it’s only about the Ripa the Reaper segment and Nuotama and Mariama have kind of fielded that line of questioning a lot in the press, so I would definitely encourage hearing from them about how they are in conversation with people who’s reaction is that because I think it’s important that their perspective is known more in that than Naima and I’s. But at the same time, the way that piece makes me feel — and why I was so adamant and excited about including it in the pilot — [is informed by being] clued in to Nuotama’s emotional state while making it. We’re friends, we talked about it while she was making it, all that kind of stuff. I think that it represents in a hyper-meta-textual way the layers of the emotional state that has arisen for me and for a lot of people when we are confronted with the state and white supremacy murdering Black people. The layers are all present there. The horror when you can’t do anything about the horror transmogrifying into absurdity, the absurdity transmogrifying into hilarity or delirium, the delirium transmogrifying into despair, the despair transmogrifying into quitting. And the quitting transmogrifying into futility because you can’t quit, you know? You can’t stop living. And I think that that is very clear in terms of a painting. She’s painting this extremely complex emotional state that resonated with me.

There is an emphasis on Black children throughout the episodes that’s very interesting to me, whether you’re working through topics of complications during childbirth, disproportionate and cruel abuse, PTSD. Why are children a focus point throughout the season?

Terence: I think, literally, children are important to me. My mother’s an educator, I was a teacher for a while, I have lots of nieces and nephews that are never far from my mind. Considering the experience of a child, that subjectivity is just very literally in my life. But I think there’s a symbology because no one really outgrows the pleasure and pain of the first 5 years. From a neuroplasticity standpoint, it’s impossible to beat how you experienced the world in those first 5 years. You can kind of only do your best with what happened then. I think in some ways, childhood represents plasticity and elasticity and potentiality, and I think, hopefully, the show is about the potential of media and images and sound affecting that. Affecting you in a way that’s pushing you more towards something that’s helpful for you. Something that’s sustainable for you. I think assuming that plasticity and that elasticity in your own consciousness is most embodied in the image of a child, the performance of a child.

Let’s get into the “Sexual Proclivities of the Black Community,” my second favourite piece of the season. I know it’s been written about a lot especially in terms of the interview with Yeleen Cohen, but I’m interested in the narrative switch. When do you know to step back and let the narrative propel itself?

Terence: I think it’s intuitive, [based on] why or how my character is in the show. But I think it’s also knowing my physical presence in the show is not really a barometer for my actual presence, if that makes sense. I think we are all in the show no matter [if] there’s a segment that seems to more directly connect to us or to me. We’ve definitely been playing with subjectivity like, whose perspective is the show from? Literally, in the show, there’s a character named Terence, making the show. You see him talking about the show and shit like that. It’s from my perspective sometimes, but it’s also from Najja’s perspective, who’s my partner in the show. At some point, you’re aware that she can take over, somehow. [laughs] It’s kind of intentionally fractal and maybe blurry and liquid about whose perspective we’re embodying. And I think that’s trying to, as directly as possible, represent the reality that the show is from — to kind of bring up vacillation again — a subjectivity that is both singular and wide and diverse and multi, a multiplicity of points. All the writers are Black, but we have a bunch of different gender identities, you know? All the writers are from different parts of the country, but we all live in New York, you know what I’m saying? [Both] single points of subjectivity and all these multiple points of subjectivity.

Naima, how do you know when to make space for gazes other than your own? When do you know how to allow for multiplicity in that aspect?

Naima: Gender and sexuality are a strong note [in the show], and at least for me, in my experience, I think that has a lot to do with my identity. In some ways, I feel like I’m gender non-conforming but I choose to identify as a woman because politically, it’s very important to me. The topics that I write about have a lot to do with the way the world has told me they need to perceive me as female. Feeling that restriction on what that means as I move through the world with Terence. Some of that informs my work.

Some of that does play out or get channelled in the Najja character, when I’m writing for “Nuncaland” and stuff like that. It’s also just not about an individual’s experience; it’s also about how our friends — like Yeleen — are talking about their identity and fluidity and how it gets expressed and sometimes rejected in a world that’s so consumed by heteronormativity or mononormativity or all the normativities that there are! [laughs] You bring yourself into the work, but it’s also not just about you. You bring your sister and your cousins and your baby daddy’s best friend and what they have to think about how it is they get to express who they are.

Onto some lighter stuff! The music. The music on the show is fire.

Naima: Yesssssss. You have good taste!

Listen! Norvis, serpentwithfeet, Moses on a couple episodes. I was sitting there like, they know what they’re doing. I heard a lilbbymutha. Saw Solange. Junglepussy acting in the all green. This is fire. How did you curate that?

Naima: Well, everyone who works on the show has good taste in the show, that’s one. Honestly, a lot of those folks are in community. Norvis Jr., who now goes by Nelson Bandela, is Terence’s brother. Junglepussy’s from Brooklyn. We were a fan of hers from day one, EP and know people who know her. Nick Hakim, you know, Terence knew him from way back when. It’s just family. We’re fortunate to just know family and they happen to be dope as fuck. Some people record at the house. Terence is making music right now, some of them have worked on those endeavours. Moses and him have had a relationship for a while now. We’re true fans of the work, but also have worked together and have worked together in circumstances where it’s like, all you have is a living room with no sound equipment, you know what I mean? The come up is community and mutual and we’re very excited about it. How important sound is and sound design… Random Acts is a cool playground to hang out on.

Terence: I would say JON BAP is another one of those, I go way back with, work with a lot. He’s really amazing. All those people I either work with or know or are good friends with. We worked on music together. It’s just all family in that way. I definitely approach it as music-first in terms of editing and stuff. That was my first thing that I knew how to do. Everything comes out of that process.

Even the Badu, “I stay woke.” Perfect.

Terence: I’m glad you picked up on that! [laughs]

So in that same vein of sound, when watching episode 6, I was surprised to hear the narration in Amharic. In a show that’s mostly English, why was that choice made?

Terence: I wanted it to feel like East African, in general. [laughs] There was the idea that the void was speaking, this sort of ancient presence that contains all things. It’s kind of a free associative thing, but it related to the idea of, like, what Western ancientness is, and how that kind of the world — North/East Africa — and what it means in terms of like… the etymology of “Western culture,” but especially Western religions. The pretense of religiosity. I think the sound of Amharic is just so… suggestive of that. The music of it, in a way. That was why we went with it as opposed to, like, Swahili or something.

Naima: I think, also, it’s important to think about Ethiopia and its history of not being colonized.

Terence: Yeah, that was a lot of it.

Naima: Having cultural retention and that being a source of pride. That note is also nice to bring in it.

Terence: Yeah.

I mean, Ethiopia has a complicated history in other ways, but I can respect that.

Naima: True, true! [laughs]

So season two. Congratulations! Exciting news. What are you bringing into season two? What have you learned from season one that you’re trying to make better in season two?

Both: I have no idea! [laugh]

Great answer. Last thing, what are your astrological signs?

Naima: Oooh, I’m a Capricorn with a Taurus rising.

Stop. Are you serious? I’m also—

Naima: Yoooooo. Same?

Same! What’s your sign, Terence?

Terence: Aquarius sun, what’s my rising?

Naima: Taurus rising.

Amazing. Great note to end on.

Photography By: Alex Ashe


Multi-Instrumentalist Cooper-Moore Eschews Genre Conformities

by Asia Burris | published: Nov 06, 2018

The Virginia-raised, New York City-based musician Cooper-Moore eschews labels. He refers to himself as a jazz artist, taking measures to use “jazz” in quotations. He is a musician who both plays and creates his own instruments. His resume stretches five decades in which he has released dozens of projects—either solo or with other artists. In addition to his own music, Cooper-Moore has scored the work of writers including poet Rita Dove and playwright Laurie Carlos. Cooper-Moore plays the piano with the entirety of his body and his music is electrifying, otherworldly, and urgent. Each performance is unlike the last—if you have the luck to see him live, you better pay attention before the moment passes forever.

Saint Heron sat down with Cooper-Moore to discuss the meaning behind his name, the future of jazz, and what he’s working on next.

Multi-Instrumentalist Cooper-Moore Eschews Genre Conformities

By Diamond Sharp | Published: October 2, 2018

Videography/Photography By: Alex Ashe

Diamond Sharp: Your artist name is composed of your grandmothers’ surnames. Can you talk about the journey to your name?

Cooper-Moore: I tell people now that Cooper and Moore are my grandmothers’ names–it’s hyphenated–because I was not a good person as a young man. As a child, I was good, but as an adult, I realized I wasn’t good to women. I was ignorant and I was troubled. I thought about my grandmothers, Granny Cooper and Granny Moore, and about how you’re not bad in front of your grandmothers. I took the name Cooper-Moore to keep me on track.

As a kid, you were the town musician. Can you talk about that experience?

When I was seven-years old, the preacher and Sunday school teacher came to my house one Saturday morning. These (church and teacher) were the highest people in our community, in Virginia, in apartheid-America. My mother took them into the kitchen. She called me downstairs and asked me, “Do you want to play piano?” I looked around and it was all of the authorities looking at me and smiling and I said, “Yes ma’am.” A couple weeks later, I turned eight and I started taking piano lessons. Partially, it’s because there weren’t many children studying music and music was important to the community. They wanted someone who would play music in school and at church and that’s what I did. I never searched for who I was going to be. The elders chose me to be who I am and they chose me to serve the community. That’s what I’ve done and that’s who I am now.

Why Berklee? How did your time in Boston shape your early career?

Because in the advertisements in DownBeat, it was the place to go. I went there and stayed for one semester and saw that for me, it was not the place. I did meet people who became important to me personally and to my career. Among those include David S. Ware who was a lifelong friend.

You design and build instruments? When did you begin doing that and why?

We came to New York and lived at 501 Canal Street. This was the 1970s and New York City was broke. I was walking down Canal and I saw a bundle of wood and I took it back to my studio. Jimmy Hops (the musician) walked by and pointed to it and said, “That’s your future!” That day, I built my first instrument.

Do you build the instruments based off of feeling, like the sound doesn’t exist?

Nothing that previously existed, existed. When you create something, it has a quality. Instruments have a sound quality and the objective is to accept the sound quality that comes out of the instrument and not try to manipulate it and make it sound like something else. Learn what the language of the instrument is—it becomes a meditative thing. You put energy into it, you listen to it, and then take that sound and it becomes your palette. With your intelligence, you take that sound and you create.

What kind of frequency are you hoping to build with each new instrument?

I don’t think about anything when I build. I’ll explain like this: When you buy a computer, you buy the hardware of the computer and the software comes with it. When I build an instrument, that’s how I feel about that thing. It’s a thing—it has a quality and it will make music if you put energy into it. I don’t think about any sounds. I think about it [the instrument] as a structure. Often, the vision of [the instrument] will inspire me to use certain motions to create different sounds. I have an urge to create and I create and then once the creation is there, I help give it life with my energy.

Is there one specific instrument that you’re proud of?

That’s like asking me about my children. I’d say the first instrument. I’ve built many instruments that I’ve kept, some I’ve sold, and some I’ve given away. The first one, a xylophone with eleven bars. I’d feel badly if it didn’t exist. This instrument brought me out of a depression when I was living on Canal Street and I don’t think I’d be able to replace it. It speaks to me.

Your piano playing is expressive, percussive and charged, can you speak to how you developed your style and who you’re trying to reach when you’re playing?

I played a certain way today because there was a certain expectation— I’m playing to a particular audience. That’s what I am usually doing. If I’m at a Black church up in Harlem, I’d play, “Blessed Assurance” because they’d understand. That’s typically what I do. If it’s my audience, I look at people. For example, I once played “Dixie’s Land” on fife but gave it a New Orleans bent. Those white people cried. I spoke to the audience and said, “No white man ever created “Dixie’s Land”—you took it and you turned it into something. “Dixie’s Land” is an old slave song—it’s a truth telling tale. There’s an example: I have an audience, I know what’s going to move them, and I give them commentary.

Who were your biggest influences and why?

My mother and my father. In apartheid America, you had your place. How do you function? How do you feel good about yourself when people tell you that you’re lesser than? I saw my mother and father do things and they became my heroes. Two weeks before my mother died, this white woman that I worked for came to the house because she wanted me to work for her instead of going to a summer program at Norfolk University. My mother had my father and brother wrap her blankets and sit her on the front porch so she’d be there when the woman arrived. My mother said, “He doesn’t have to work for you. He’s a good boy and he’s always been respectful.” That woman left. So, my parents were my heroes. There was Malcolm and Martin as well, but I saw my parents deal with overt racism.

My musical heros were Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, all the great horn players. There was a tradition of great jazz musicians that I’d see in DownBeat dressed and when I would hear their music, it was the highest music I’ve ever heard. I didn’t understand it. What was it about? Why did it make me feel this way? Wow! I want to do that!

Do you consider yourself ‘jazz’? Who do you feel jazz belongs to?

[Laughs] Two years ago, I had a dinner at my house and invited two musicians to speak together across the dinner table. One musician was Christian Søgaard from Copenhagen who is conservatory trained and the other was William Parker, who is street jazz. Christian said to William, “You think you own the music, don’t you?” and William said, “Yeah, I own the music. I don’t own your music but what I play, I own. I own [the music] like I own these hands.” I own what I play but that’s like saying who owns God, who owns beauty, who owns life? Music is all of it, actually, it is.

Where do you see jazz going? Do you have a message to the younger generation of jazz?

There are many things I can say to young players. First, with any creative artist, you have to go on the edge. That edge is the feeling of, I’m in the world and I’m out of the world. I have control and I don’t have control. When you’re on the edge, you’re probably the most creative. Being on that edge, you need safety, you need a community that understands what you’re doing and will give you support and most of all, you need love in your life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a painter, writer or musician, you need those things to survive.

The word jazz is not one I typically use and when I do, I use quotations. I don’t know where [jazz] is going to go. No one knows where the creative energy will be at any one time. I don’t know where [jazz] is right now except that it’s in me being a creative, enterprising musician.

Can you talk about your process scoring the works of other artists? Do you approach that work differently than creating for yourself?

Yes. When you’re doing the work of another, you’re in service to the work. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Black sisters in theater is that it’s about the work. It’s not about your egos or whether you like the actor or singer, it’s about the work. You’re putting your energy into the work. You are indebted to the words on the page. When I write for myself, I do what I want to do.

Can you talk a bit about the people you worked with? Are there any contemporaries (or elders) of yours that you feel have been unsung?

William Parker, the bass player downtown. I don’t think he gets what he should get.

How has your music changed over time? Who are you listening to right now?

As piano player it hasn’t changed except that I use more clusters. I don’t think of the piano as the melodic instrument that I used to. I think of it as a vocal chord. When I do the smears [on the piano], I’m not thinking of [musical notes], I’m thinking about how we speak. I think about being more emotionally expressive, not intellectually expressive.

I realize I am at age where I can understand scores. I can read and hear the whole score. This week, I’m listening to Puccini’s “La Bohème” and reading the score everyday. I’ve been listening to James Brown because I think he had one of the hardest grooves ever and I never want to lose the groove.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned during your career? If you can pick out a single thing, what would that be?

Say yes to the gig, show up on time, don’t complain, be nice. You don’t have to be the best player if you follow those rules and you’ll work and work and work.

You received a lifetime achievement award last year. What’s next? What are you current projects?

I played more piano this year than in the last thirty years. I don’t feel like I have many more years to play the piano — it’s brutal. So, I want to spend the next few years playing the piano. I want to give it my all. When you see me acting wild and crazy on the piano, I’m just giving it my all. It’s all going to shut down one day and I’ll be out of here and I’ll never look back and say, “I didn’t play as hard as I wanted to play.”