Saxophonist David S. (Spencer) Ware was a towering presence on the New York free jazz scene, an artist of compelling gravity and musical intensity. Even after health problems that culminated in a 2009 kidney transplant, he came back strong, his post-operation return coming in a completely solo concert that was a strong statement. This year, the kidney problems returned, and he passed away last night after being hospitalized.
As I once wrote here, Ware united two strands of free jazz: the powerfully full-toned tenor sax blower, and the intellectual craftsman. Although Ware was classified as a free jazz player, he was mentored by Sonny Rollins (who among other things taught him circular breathing), and Ware's music looked back to some earlier jazz styles, though almost always in a fully assimilated way that had no revivalism about it.
Ware started playing around age 11. Oddly, while he played alto and baritone saxes plus bass in school, he played tenor sax only in non-school contexts. He moved to Boston in 1967 for college, studying with Charlie Mariano and Joe Viola, and performing with Michael Brecker, Herb Pomeroy's big band, and Bob Neloms. He moved to New York City in 1973 and in 1974 played with Cecil Taylor for the first time. He was a regular member of Taylor's band for a year and a half in 1976-77, and is heard with it on Taylor's album Dark to Themselves (Enja). His time with Taylor influenced Ware's future development when he later realized that, young and bursting with energy, he hadn't fully exploited the potential of Taylor's compositions -- he had been improvising over them rather than from within them, using the materials they contained. This realization helped make him a more melodic player and writer, which is not to say his intense free jazz outlook was compromised -- just deepened.
It was in the 1970s that Ware, who had met Sonny Rollins in the mid-'60s while still in his teens, began practicing regularly with him at Rollins's apartment. After leaving Taylor's group, Ware joined drummer Andrew Cyrille's Maono and can be heard on the Cyrille LPs Metamusician's Stomp (Black Saint), Special People (Soul Note), and the rarer Junction (Institute of Percussive Studies). In the same period he also played in the groups of two other drummers, Milford Graves and Beaver Harris, and performed as a leader on the loft scene. Other early work can be heard on Cooper-Moore's Outtakes 1978 (Hopscotch), William Parker's Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987 (No Business), and the self-titled 1987 album by Ahmed Abdullah and the Solomonic Quintet (Silkheart), his last studio recording as a sideman.
Ware's first album as a leader was recorded in 1977. Birth of a Being, a trio album with pianist Gene Ashton AKA Cooper-Moore and drummer Mark Edwards (they also performed under the name Apogee), was issued by the Swiss label Hat Hut two years later, and is long out of print. (The Wikipedia article on Ware lists a private pressing LP from 1971 as his debut, but 1) despite Wikipedia listing it under Ware's leadership, it is in fact led by Abdul Hannan; 2) Ware's own website calls Birth of a Being his debut as a leader.) In 1978 Ware recorded another LP, From Silence to Music, for the French label Palm (someday I hope to track down a copy), accompanied only by a cellist.
Come the CD era, his albums began to circulate in more readily found releases thanks initially to the Swedish label Silkheart, which issued the 1988 recording Passage to Music, a trio with Edwards and bassist William Parker. When pianist Matthew Shipp was added in 1989, it was the start of a long-running and much-praised group that lasted into 2007, with changes of drummer: Whit Dickey (1992-95), Susie Ibarra (1996-98), and Guillermo E. Brown (1999-2007). Ware recorded steadily: twenty albums from 1990 to 2007, all but two of them with the Quartet. It was one of the most cohesive and exciting units on the scene. It even made it onto a major label for two releases when Branford Marsalis signed the group to Columbia/Sony in 1997. After that ended in 2000 with the dissolution of Columbia's jazz program, AUM Fidelity owner Steven Joerg, who had produced some Ware albums on the rock label Homestead in the '90s, gave Ware a home base from which he rarely strayed for the rest of his life.
After the Quartet breakup, Ware formed the "new quartet" with guitarist Joe Morris, Parker, and drummer Warren Smith. Following his health hiatus, he returned with the aforementioned solo concert, issued as the first of two solo sax albums, and reunited for two albums with Cooper-Moore in a quartet named Planetary Unknown that also featured Parker and drummer Muhammad Ali.
I chose the photo above, an uncredited picture on Rick Lopez's superb discography website, because it is the only one I've ever seen in which Ware is smiling. He was a man of dignified mien, but his music overflows with joy, and that is what I see in this seemingly casual snapshot.
I interviewed David on January 12, 1995 at his home in New Jersey for British magazine The Wire; can't lay my hands on the print version right now, but I'm pretty sure that not all of this transcript was used in that article. Here it is.
Let's start at the beginning. When and where were you born? Where raised?
November 7, 1949 in Plainfield. I lived in Boston from like 1967 until '73, on and off, mostly on, though, basically about 6 or 7 years. And I lived in NY, I had a couple places in NY, from '73 til '76 and then from 81 into 85.
Who or what inspired you to play music?
Basically, man, coming up as a kid, my father had all these 78 records, and I heard all this music as a kid. I feel that music is something that you're born with, even though your...if your environment is such that you're lucky enough to develop it. It's that way basically, something that I was born in that I would've gotten to sooner or later.
Did you start on saxophone?
I started on the alto sax, and went straight to the baritone, because they needed a baritone player in the school. I developed my tenor playing outside of my school situation, basically on my own. I played string bass a little bit in high school.
Did playing baritone and having the wind to do that help develop your tenor style?
I've been asked that question before. I'm sure it didn't hurt me, because it certainly takes more wind to play a baritone than most horns, but I think that everybody's body has a different shape. My lungs are not shaped like someone else's lungs. It's the individual's own makeup. My vital energy is a certain thing, my lung power is a certain thing, that's what makes the sound I have, whatever that is. It's physical, it's metaphysical.
I think there's an obvious spiritual basis in your music. I don't know how explicit it is for you.
It's very explicit for me. That is my entire approach to the situation. I do what I do because of my feelings about how life should be lived and what we're here for and where we should be going, the purpose of being here, having a physical body and all that that implies, and the development of that and your mind and spirit and to have a certain perspective on everything that comes. Basically a spiritual approach to the whole situation. I feel that music carries a message. My music carries a message of--I don't have to get into specifics, but just suffice it to say that there's knowledge in the music. There's knowledge in all music! Some more than others. People can listen to it and not hear it. It's very easy to listen to it and not hear it. People can dismiss it or they're not getting inside the music and traveling with it, they're not really opening themselves up and flow with the music or in the music.
Is that maybe why people who don't like the music misinterpret it as being angry or painful?
I think so, because I have never ever perceived this music as being angry, myself. It was talking about all this stuff back in the '60s. It was about a spiritual search for me. As a teenager, listening to Coltrane and Rollins and these people, it solidified in me that music was a vehicle to try to reach something that was a little bit beyond this five-senses, everyday awareness. It was a vehicle for transcending, man, for trying to reach a place where you could have a clearer view of your everyday reality so you could put the world in a proper perspective.
What did you learn from playing with Cecil Taylor and Andrew Cyrille?
What I learned from Cecil...that music that he was writing was meant to be dealt with, was meant as a vehicle, again, for your improvisation, was meant to set up certain things. The music was structured so you could work with this, work with that, take your choice. You build upon what's written. Which I didn't do at the time. What I did was basically just skim over top of his music. I was not really getting involved in the compositions. Not that I couldn't have. I had the talent to do that, but at the time I was young, and my energies were such that I just wanted to blow. I didn't want to pay attention to what had been written, what had been given, and therefore I just skimmed over top of it, not dealing with the music, really internalizing his music. That's the great lesson I learned with Cecil, about written music, things about form, things about distinction and how to play music and vary it as you go. An intelligent approach to improvisation. I'm not saying that's the only method. There are other methods of improvised music. The method that I had at the time I went with him, we were into no music and just intuitively hooking up and going through the music like that. We never had any written music. We had very heavily developed that. Of course, there's always an intuitive side to any kind of music you're playing, written [or] unwritten. I've learned that it's basically all the same thing. When you sit down and write down music on a piece of paper, that's improvisation. That's no different from standing up and just blowing. That's spontaneous improvisation, at least the way I'm working on it, it is. You have to try to find a method so that you don't repeat yourself, just like you do when you play. It's just a slightly different form.
And how about Andrew?
Working with Andrew, I got musical things to. I loved playing with Andrew, I love drums, I've always been close with drummers for some reason. I wanted to play drums. It was always very inspiring for me to play in groups with Andrew, 'cause I had a rapport with drummers--Beaver Harris, Milford Graves--but I got a sense of business also from Andrew, 'cause he would set up his own tours. What to do and what not to do. I saw things, how it could be dealing with things on your own. Andrew was really into that. You have to be. If nobody else is gonna do it, you have to do it yourself.
And you do it for yourself now?
Yeah, sure, somewhat, but not the way Andrew was doing it. There are certain things we do ourselves, like sending out promo materials and contact radio stations, set up interviews, get your records out to radio stations, contact certain places for gigs. But I think it's no way one musician can take care of all of that, all of the time, and still develop the music, not unless you don't have to sleep. It works best if you can find somebody that has an expertise in every area.
You have to be as creative off the bandstand as on. What we do do is come up with strategies, how to move through.
The three DIW albums had covers of standards and Rollins's "East Broadway Run Down." Were those all your choice?
Yes, they were, absolutely. I have never been made to do anything I didn't want to do. I listened to cats play standard tunes as a young boy, but my situation was, in this particular environment, there were no piano players, man, and bass players, just drummers. There's a drummer who used to live next door, during seventh grade, we used to practice all day in the summertime, every day, just horn and drums. That's how I developed, through rhythm and horn. I heard the standards, but a young ear needs to hear chords and them basslines behind you if you're gonna seriously play standards. I didn't have that. This is suburbia here, there was only two or three of us in my town that was interested in jazz. One of them happened to be a drummer and the rest were horn players. That's how I developed. From listening to recordings, I knew the way standards were supposed to be done, listening to Sonny Rollins, so I was familiar with certain tunes, but never really had a chance to explore them, so here comes along DIW and says, 'put together 10 pieces of music, and in that perhaps a couple of standards.' So fine, I got no problem with that, I'm not no so-called avant-garde purist, where I can't play something from this repertoire or from this period or that period or this person or that person. I'm into music. If I like something, a Charlie Parker melody or a Cole Porter melody, what's the difference? It's all music. It came to them in some kind of creative way, so I don't care who played it before or what it's called--standard, or Broadway--I don't care. If I like it, I deal with it; if I don't, I won't.
The fact that you aren't stuck in the bebop harmonies means that on "Autumn Leaves," for instance--a lot of guys play that song like, okay, push the tempo up, how fast can we get through the changes, and that's not what it's about. It's about heartbreak, and somebody with your kind of tonal palette, all the different sounds you have at your disposal, can bring out the true character of that song a lot better than a guy who can just make the changes. I though it was really interesting that all of the standards you chose are ballads.
Um-hm, um-hm. I had never gotten a chance to do it, so if you get a chance to do it, why not? I thought it would be interesting to choose a tune that I love the melody to and try to make it our own. Let's try to do it our own way. I don't care how it's been done before.... I'm not hung up on harmony. I'm hung up on melody. I want everyone to know the melody and be able to place it however they want to place it.
Did you have more rehearsal time for the DIW sessions? The music's more complex, there's more interaction
Yeah, those DIW records were rehearsed a lot, we had a chance to take our time. The dates were set months in advance.... We took our time and went through the material very thoroughly.
Cryptology seems to be completely improvised.
Lemme say this, that certainly it's improvised, it's all improvised, but what is there is [are] certain little formulas here and there and here and there, that off of those formulas, whole directions develop. I find this very interesting, to write a simple little melody, sometimes no more than 10 or 12 notes, and off of that a whole stream of music comes. To me, right now, it's more interesting to do that than just start playing and make happen--which of course we can do. We did it. That's a method in itself too. Ain't no one way of doing it. Right now I'm into writing these little formulas, and putting this formula with that formula. Once we get to the studio, it changes. I may think of something I never thought of before. In that sense, it's spontaneous.
What made you choose to record for Homestead, a rock label?
Because they showed the interest. They're very enthusiastic, and it's a chance to get involved with the production at every level. I did all the artwork, all the so-called liner notes--because they're not in the form of traditional liner notes, you'll see--which I like, it was a bit of a challenge to come up with something that I felt was appropriate in that work and creative and not just mediocre. You can't do that with other labels. They seem to have a vision of what the music is about. They wanna work with it and develop it. There's advertising involved. They're covering all areas--radio promotion, a fair amount.
Do you think the alternative rock audience might be more open-minded than the jazz audience?
I would like to see people who have not got involved with this music get involved with it, and through maybe going through this channel, that might happen. It should certainly turn people's attention who may not have been aware of it, or have heard about it but might not've given it a listen. Maybe that'll happen.
The music you've done for the three labels you've been on has distinct characteristics for each company. The Silkheart albums are the only ones where you play stritch and saxello. The DIW albums are the only ones where you cover standards, and even the originals follow an extremely logical structural development that makes them sound like they were at least partly worked out in advance. And now Homestead is a real integration of the free improvisation and the compositional aspects. Was there anything specific that led to these patterns?
Those were my intentions, to have it like that. I'm very aware of that. I think it's a good thing to do, and intelligent thing to do. Why give everybody the same thing? And at different times, we're in different places with the music. That alone can account for that. I want to do a different thing. What we're trying to do is build a body of work, and why not, if we have three different avenues to travel down, why not do it a little different here. It's a balance, man, it's not the same thing no matter where you're doing. Why not be creative? One thing that creativity means is variety, man, to come up with different things.
I've seen you do a duo performance with Matt Shipp (Firewall at P.S. 122) that sounded fantastic. Would you ever do a record like that?
Yeah, possibly. I'm open for a solo too. The only thing about that is that it may be a certain period you're going through that you're working on something that may be a group sound, a group concept, so maybe in that period you may not want to go over here and start working on a whole other stream. I find that I'm open to anything.... It's the same thing with instruments. I'm exclusively on the tenor now, have been for the past four years, haven't touched the other horns. I almost feel like I'm cheating if I pick up one of the other horns--for right now, because I don't want to share my approach that I'm working on now, I just want to keep that pure for the time being. I don't really hear anything else, or I don't want to.
How does changing drummers affect the music?
Whoever is capable of entering into this sound, we work with them and make the adjustment. We familiarize ourself with who they are. It's more about who that person is than just--anybody who enters this particular band, I know before etc.
Whenever you're talking about your music, you're always talking about it using "we" and "us."
Let me say that I have always been into having a steady band and working exclusively with those guys. I'm not into freelancing, and every time that I do it, it's the pits for me. My music, I see I need a band to really develop what it is I'm concerned about. I could get out here and do it the other way, but it's not fulfilling to me.
William [Parker] modifies his style more with your group.
I give cats, like I put those formulas out and whatever they wanna do with it, wherever they want to take it, is fine with me. One of my things is to--let's say there's a set of music in front of you and you don't really like it, or the way that it falls on your instrument is not comfortable to you. What I say to that is, approach the music as a problem to be solved. You've gotta work with it enough until you overcome it and you're able to play what you wanna play. You've gotta be intelligent enough, intuitive enough, sensitive enough, musical enough, creative enough to find a way to play what you want to play. Say it's a standard tune. Say you feel restricted. I want the restriction. That makes it more interesting. That means you're gonna come up with something. Overcome the restriction. The only way is, you've got to know it well enough, internalize it, that you don't have to think about what comes next and all of that basic stuff. Get down to it. You can be so-called as avant-garde with a standard or with almost any piece of music as you are creative. The only restriction is your own creativity. When I say internalize it, I don't mean memorize it. Of course, that goes with the territory. I mean something different. It's like developing a relationship with someone. You've got to develop an intimate relationship with the music to really deal with it like it's supposed to be dealt with. That's what I was saying about playing with Cecil. I didn't develop a relationship with the composition.
Do you think the demands of the music and having to internalize it are what narrows the audience? That the people who don't get into avant-garde/complex jazz can't because they don't have the time to internalize it that way?
That's part of it. The music carries something, it's not just 'oh yeah, that's nice.' The message that it carries is one of 180 degrees. To turn your attention in the opposite direction that you're doing everything else. Everything is outside--I want this, I want to achieve this, I have to go there. I don't like this one, I like that one. The first message the music the music carries is, 'turn around.' Instead of the arrow going outside, turn around the opposite direction, internalizing your awareness. Stop what you're doing. Stop what you're doing. Stop everything. Just stop. Have some silence. Slow everything down. Just be here right now. Forget about the future, forget about the past, just be in the now. Have your attention turn within. Pay attention to this, because this is how you're going to get to this. The only way to pay attention to it and really hear it is to just stop in your tracks. When your attention is still and everything stops going here and there and here and there, then you get the inverse situation. The music is like a gateway to themselves, their own being. If they're not willing to do that, they ain't gonna dig it. Which is fine, 'cause there's enough people ready to do that. We have to get to them, they have to know the music exists.
Do you have much time to listen to other music?
Right now I don't have time. I don't listen to the radio now. I'd rather listen to rhythm & blues from about 20 years ago. That music sounded so good. I get more ideas from that. I don't listen close to my own genre. It frustrates me. I can relax when I'm digging something that's far away from me. You should try to play everything that's within you, that's true to you.
Do you ever hear music in your head that you can't get out into the physical world?
Everything comes from the melody. The harmony is right there in the melody. I have a piece of music that's going to be a composition. I present it to the band. Nothing is ever said about harmony, about key, about rhythm. Nothing is said on that level. It's just, play the melody. They get a grip on it, how they hear it, and then, lotta times, what it'll do is, what I'm starting to move deeper into, is multiple melodies. On Cryptology, for example, "Panoramic" is a composition of seven or eight melodies, being played simultaneously one against the other. This playing of multiple melodies, jumping from one melody to the next and having that against other melodies, creates something that moves differently. When you write something down and then play it, you're using a different part of your nervous system than if you were just to pick up your instrument and play. If you were the greatest spontaneous improviser in the world, you could still expand yourself, you could play something you're not going to play like that if you were to write something and then play it. You're gonna come up with something that you're not gonna be playing. 'Cause it's coming through a different channel. It's a different stream of development.
David had something else he wanted included in the interview:
I'd like people to know about a documentary film that was made about me in 1994. The filmmaker is Coco Schreiber. The name of the film is In Motion. It's about 25 minutes. It's in Europe now. This experience of making this film, I felt like I had come full circle, could make me reflect on my own life. I have been lucky enough, come far enough, for someone to see fit to ask me questions about my life, my experiences. That's an achievement in itself. I was asked meaningful questions. I got a chance to express certain things in a situation that was challenging. Most of the film was done with me driving a cab around Manhattan at nighttime. The crew was in the cab with me, the cameraman, the soundman, the director. It's an encapsulation of your development in a half an hour. It was almost the epitome of--it was something like a test. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, editor, and music critic. Some sections of this obituary are adapted from his entry on Ware in MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide (Visible Ink/Gale Press).