Oliver Jackson: Have you – first time you heard one? This is where I got it. Okay. I’m gonna turn it up. Listen. [Piano music playing.] That’s amazing there. I made this one like Tuesday. ___ ____ this radio too.
[Break in recording.]
OJ: — CD in it. You don’t have to have all those speakers because the speakers are really – because see how it pumps out. Kinda hard to believe that something that little is doing that in the room, right?
[Break in recording.]
OJ: I can live with me and not have regrets that don’t belong to me. I want to have regrets that belong to me and not regrets that belonged to other people that I joined and with some shit that really wasn’t about what I was really about.
So it takes a minute to – you know it was just living. It takes a minute to sort it out and – but I always knew I wanted to be authentic, to be able to – you know, I live alone but not lonely at all. I’m not alone. You say that because everybody expects you to be married and shit. This is part of the silliness of the culture. It’s a silly culture.
Of course the culture is silly not because people are married but because their general expectations is that if you ain’t, something is amiss. It’s the nature of the culture. You have to serve it out and to be able to be outside of the mainstream expectations. You have to be able to live with yourself because they are very demanding. They’re all around us.
And behind, like in the art schools, young people fancy that they are ___ ______ getting out of here. They fancy that they are – young people do, that they are let’s say avant garde to use a kind of silly art term but generally they’re conservatives and they don’t know it. The conservativeness is that they’re following what they’re supposed to follow no matter what the term is. To me to be authentic is to follow your heart and find out what the hell that is. To find out what that is, your heart.
Most people who are trying to naturally make a place for themselves in society but making is really not part of that social structure. It’s not understood well by a society like this. It’s art but not really. It’s making things for me. It’s art for them. Do you follow me?
So then I, very early, I have to deal with this need and it’s not a lot of – there are not a lot out there in the general society or the schools that help you do this. That – let’s – people talk about it as a spiritual sort of – you don’t think about it in those terms as a young person at all and it’s a good thing you don’t because the spiritual realm has been given over to theology and that is a prescribed social route, already predictable.
What I’m trying to do is figure out what is it I need to do to satisfy this drive. Let’s put it like that. So you know that takes a minute but it starts very young, and the art wasn’t in it. I mean I didn’t understand what that was. I understood it only insofar as how people use it in reference to what they call pictures of art. Because that’s not what I was really about so much even though it was appealing, the idea of being the artist. It’s a mentally appealing idea but making something much more extraordinary. Much more extraordinary because you have to find how it is you do this thing. See, that’s not art. Do you understand?
Wesleyan? It was a private college, basically, and I ended up there because it was an alternative to kind of break down in my trying to make my way by working and after high school. So then all that kind of broke down for a lot of reasons. I had jobs and things and it was a lot of different kind of work, see, real work. Not college work. Living out of boxcars, stealing meals, you know, I mean it’s hard labor, and I just knew that wasn’t it, not because it was hard labor but because it didn’t satisfy me.
And then I would get into difficulty because I had an attitude I was supposed to be treated a certain way and didn’t like to be yelled at. You know, I was a good worker but don’t yell at me. I had a big sense of being important. You know they don’t play that when you’re a laborer and shit, you have to go up and get on with it, you know.
So then I was a young man so then – but I could see it was kind of like a dead end. So there was a group of as partners decided, “Let’s try college.” So then I go and I went on the basis of playing football. I was not playing football in high school. I was much too small but at that time I picked up enough weight and, you know, some time and this was a private school. Their football team was not very much.
So you get these black guys going to an all-white school. This was in the 50’s – no, none of that Affirmative Action. So we could get on with that. We could get in that way. So there I was playing football. I was a halfback. I was pretty good. I made the team but it didn’t last long because we used to get free meals. That’s the reason that – you know – a football team, you came out in August and played, you ate free. Soon as September came, you had to pay. I didn’t know that.
Well these were basically upper middle class whites, so here we were, “We’re gonna get free meals. We’re gonna eat, play football and then go to school.” And when they said you had to pay I dropped football. You know and I could get a job. I had a job, you know, going to school, so anyway, that’s an interesting little saga. I don’t want to make too much out of it because it sounds too much like the American story, Up From The Ape and Go West Young Man, all that, but it was a life.
When I look at it, it was – it’s like it’s difficult then and look at your parents and there are difficulties and then difficulties. Do you know what I’m trying to say? So I don’t take a lot of – I don’t want to get into I had a hard time. It was what it was but I know what a hard time is and it was – I was born into it, what I was doing.
I look at my father and grandfather and they had a rough time and I mean very, very difficult, and they were quite wonderful people. I mean our humanity was attacked, I mean they were getting beat up. America doesn’t play around. It’s a rough place, talks a lot of talk, but people pay, generations pay, but I get really for – really pay. That’s a fact. That is not being wimpy. 300 years here and one person out of a family goes to school. I mean it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.
Yes, I did – oh, very aware. Out in St. Louis it is a very racist apartheid town, oh absolutely. That’s rough. So you had to. It’s not a question of like being in South Africa exactly. I mean a town divided exactly like that.
I used to go to the museum very early. It’s strange in the family my father painted before me. Well, the one that some finished with the goal, that’s just that he did it. It’s quite – never could consummate his – oh he was a – and he didn’t talk about it. He didn’t say one word about it and I was kind of like – because I started drawing, my sister before me. Something in the family, you know, it just – it truly is you see it later.
And I used to – she was going to school. She was older than I and she would bring her drawings home from kindergarten and I’d copy them and I was always copying before I had a broken nose, before I was in school, very early.
But my parents, mother, they just loved it and so they would get paper and pencils and keep my little drawing because I was – at that very early age they tell me I was very protective. I made something I would take it to – you know – you’d take it to your mom. You always give your mom gifts, and then she would keep them and I would go look at them and she’d be like that. So it was very interesting, my family.
And when I learned about my father, it was much later. I learned about his own very private – not able to realize abilities. He was struggling with supportive, not like a stage mom. Never mentioned art, anything like that. He’d just watch me and aided and abetted by – you know, like he had his own crayons, things like that.
No, nothing about, “Oh, you ought to be an artist,” none of that, and it was the best thing in the world and the reason why I wasn’t saddled with my abilities, I think. I was already a self-conscious child. I didn’t need to be saddled with expectations that I hadn’t yet understood myself.
I was just – well, I think – I think it’s like this. It’s like when you were a child like that confidence is what life force is, trying everything, running your legs, your arms, and this thing was for me just part of that, right, but very important to me. It was private. It was only for my family, my sister, you know, like a child, “Look mom, what I did,” and I was carving wax a little, all that stuff.
Well, I’m glad I kept it private. I needed to not be made into an entertainer. When I was younger I had to find myself and take some – so they really protected my let’s say interior growth in that way. Does that make any sense, what I’m saying?
Yeah. Perform, exactly. Also, I learned very early – a child concentrates. You know, when they play, they concentrate. They play fiercely. They do everything fierce, their life force so strong, if they’re healthy, you know, that they move their legs.
Well, the same is true when they are looking at TV or drawing. But I didn’t have a TV. TV wasn’t even – wasn’t out then, wasn’t invented. The point is that I was allowed to concentrate for long hours and when I would be drawing. I always had bad eyes. I didn’t know it. I had to be right in front of the material. You know, a kid, you can’t tell because all kids always are right into the material.
So I had a sense of privacy without knowing what it was, being left alone to do and stay with something, apparently to quite an extreme. I’d be locked up doing something like that for hours, then go out and play and then play for hours, just mad, just a little mad child. You get away with that because all the other kids are mad too. That’s the nice thing about children. They’re not making distinctions about passion or where passion is supposed to go; baseball, football, they don’t care, as long as you are into what you’re doing when they are all together.
And it’s an extraordinary confidence in your capacity to do while learning because children don’t have experience. They learn as they go but they are fierce about getting it. That’s why they break their legs and stuff and, “Let me jump off to – let’s jump off the –” of course, yes, then they learn about ice but they do it. So you have –
Well, I was – no. I was copying from books. We had books, my books like books, music. We had an interesting family. They were all workers and not middle class people in any way, but we had – my family had extraordinary aspirations in the strangest way; books, I took music lessons, so really interesting that in the family the kinds of things that are impractical for poor people and therefore we were involved in as a part of what the family was about.
So my sister and I had to learn the piano and drawing, and all those things. She drew too before me, as my older sister, and my younger sister wasn’t yet born, and so it was accepted. There was ease, there was always music and they are great lovers of music, you know, and so we – and I – and I look – when you look at it, it was so normal when you look at it, I look at it now, I realize that they had these wonderful aspirations – I guess you could call it for personal development, because they were not pushed to entertain or perform. None of that was about – all those things were not about that. They were not about the outside world at all.
So that gave me – I have a deep sense of privacy and of course in this culture, that’s a no no, and I learned very early that I had to live with my own thoughts and not be frightened of them. So I think that’s it, you know, I think that is real useful to me like that, and you know now so – I also learned in my family to be clear in what you like, be clear why you like it, and you don’t have to justify it to anybody but you must be clear. If you do something, you must be clear, your motives, and so that was brought on to me in a very strong way because the child hasn’t sorted that out but they – in my family, we wanted, myself, my sisters, to sort out, “You did what you did.” So you have to think as a child because you do many things out of desire and impulse and haven’t sorted out the motive. So, very early.
Oh yeah, for a long time when we could, yeah. Oh yeah, we used to have great conversations.
Well, that’s because everybody is on the run. This society has made everybody runners. The society did that. People didn’t do that to themselves. They talk a good game about family but they beat family to death because if you don’t allow a family time to be family, how can they be family?
And then all the talk. All the talk on TV about family this, family that, and yet everybody is so locked into trying to survive economically or to realize themselves publicly, publicly to be all they can be publicly, to be recognized, all that. Well then that – well, time for family? Emphasis on individually and a kind of privacy within the family that doesn’t allow the family to be cohesive or – you know, it’s strange. It’s just strange.
So when I was coming up that was family time for not just me, everybody. People worked very hard, like eight hours when – they were working 12 and all that, but the neighborhoods were neighborhoods, and when you have neighborhoods you have families, and also they were extended families. Well, that’s amazing, the input with the extended family, grandpa, grandma. So they all love the arts and they were encouraging and it gives you a confidence internally.
Everything now is external. There’s an internal confidence that your – if there is such a thing as inward being, if there is such a thing, we talk a good game but it has to be developed. What is this thing called the inward being? It’s like the same question, “Who am I?”
See, I’m in this family. So I know my name. They’ve given to me and I accept it but who am I? So my family didn’t get a chance to find out, “Who am I?” Not individually. It’s uniqueness. Individuality is about the world. Uniqueness is about, “Who am I?” Like every blade of grass is different, “Who am I?”
But every blade of grass among grass, among grass, looks like grass, looks like a generality, but each blade is different. Nature does that all the time. Human beings are the same way. So who am I?
So I got a chance because of the interesting family to have to settle into figuring that one out, and there was a demand at least from their mother, father, grandparents, aunts, is, “Why did you do that?”
See the question, why you would do something, forces to think about what you have done, what you have – and I became more and more clear about my motives; when I liked something, when I didn’t, what I wanted to do. And I was an unruly child in many ways but I knew if I wanted to go play, I knew I wanted to go play and I knew why.
See, you understand as to why. That’s – now the thing is, it’s humorous, is that I’d forsake my little chores and everything and get punished for it but they knew and I knew that my priority was playing. I was clear on it, so I learned that I couldn’t lie about it because it was very clear. See, that’s how they got me about lying.
“Why do you want to go play?” “I don’t know, go, go, go.” And he can’t make it like what did he have to do, see it was always – we’re not talking about who came for you. We want to know what it is you wanted to do. That really – boy, it helped. That make sense to you?
Well, I came a lot later. I came a lot later. I had all the rights. I had it all.
Well, it’s really in some ways that answer is simple but you come by it through the complexity of society, but the right, you’ve got it – well, you take it, you pay for it. Payment is the real point. It doesn’t matter what social so-called strata you come from. You choose something, you pay. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be prostitution. You pay. It doesn’t mean it’s bad or good. It means that the whole thing requires something of you. That’s payment, energy. Will you bring your force to bear and back what you chose? That’s paying.
“Oh, that’s – we know that.” So the answer is really simple, “Will you get behind your passion?” Will you? “Well, I did when I was – when we were making skate trucks. I’ll be – I’m behind it.” You know, so if I crashed, that was part of it.
Get right back. See, that’s getting behind it. I could fall off the bike when I was learning to ride and get right back on it even if I cried or whatever because I wanted to ride the bike. So I brought my body to bear. I paid. The scrapes and nicks, that’s paying. You sacrifice some meat. Meat is energy.
You sacrifice something all the time; the scrapes and bruises, that’s it. Is it worth it? The answer is “absolutely” for bike riding, not will it be worth it for those more things that are not group things or they’re not social things. Will you pay the price? You have to come to it.
The price is not what people think it is. It’s, “Is it worth your time? Is it worth your energy and do you have the heart?” And the heart is really simple. I’m working on a – among other things, I’m working with a piece of wood that’s so hard and I chose it. Now do I have the heart to see it through, win, lose or draw?
The heart is will I bring just the energy? It don’t matter what the energy is, tap, tap, tap or fast or slow. Will I stay? And the answer is, “Yeah.” That’s no problem. I wanted that years ago. I got the heart for it. People think that that’s public. It’s private. It’s like every athlete knows that the game must be made every time it’s played. You make it with your body and then you make it with your heart and you give everything because that’s where you want to be. So you say, “Well, you could break your neck.” They go, “Like a boxer you could become addled in the brain.” They go, “That’s what I want to do and that’s the risk. I accept it.”
And that’s the warrior in everybody, male or female. It takes heart. It doesn’t take – it takes just heart. You get behind what it is, you give and use yourself up. I say to use yourself up. You’re in here to use this body, this mind. It’s a total thing. So what will you use it on? Well, I’m using a lot of things but you know, but I mean that’s what it’s for.
But the point is that this particular making thing is demanding of me. Right? Requires a private act, that is I’ve got to do it. Right? Nobody asked me in the street. They’ve got this strange thing in the society, what does this work mean to – they’ll ask this question always about your work. Well, what’s in it for me? What – what are you – who will you do it for? Like that. It’s a presumptuous question on their part.
They’re really curious about the making process but they want to obligate you with their needs. My point is really simple but one thing I’m doing that’s available to anybody that got eyes. So don’t ask me who it’s for. Eyes. It’s for eyes. And it ain’t racist. Any eyes will do. The painting doesn’t care, this culture doesn’t care. All the other forms, it’s, “They don’t care.”
So to ask me that question is to ask me if I’m obligated to them and the answer is, “Absolutely not.” You’re not obligated to me. You go and buy materials, I’m here working, you’re gonna come over and give me a commission. So, why now? They’re arrogant. The public has been trained to be arrogant. They have eyes.
Now let me say this. If they’ll let you in a museum or look at work your eyes, if you’ll let them be fair, they know how to see. Do you know how to receive what has been seen? Most people let perception step in between them and what they see. See, then they want to talk to me. I already made the work. Don’t talk to me. Let’s talk about something else because they don’t really want to talk about making. They want to talk about art.
Art is, “What does it mean culturally, this and that.” Hey, I’m not really into that. I’m associated with it. I’m not in that. I don’t determine any of that. I do determine the marks I make. They determine that they in the art field determine whether it is art, or whether it is good, or whether it is bad. They make judgments. Okay. That’s their job but they want to believe that their judgments are intimate. They’re not.
The intimacy is me and that hard piece of wood that I’m dealing with, you see. Once I understood that then I am very clear in the stance and I will not have it interfered with by critics and curators and all. They don’t make anything and they don’t really want to know about making. They could talk if they did. They would be connoisseurs. Very few are. They would honor making because it brings them the things that they so enjoy. That’s on them. I’m making things. They don’t have to like them. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m giving that position because you’re constantly put in that.
I like – you know. Now don’t be giving my house up. There’d be crooks in there coming in. Don’t be giving up my house. They want much. This is not – this is not a – what do you call it – Better House and Gardens. I ain’t living to be published.
You’re being nice. You’re being nice. When I came out in the 70’s it was still a little bit. California style is different from that and it’s good. I don’t think it’s – I don’t think it’s – I’m interjecting. I don’t think it’s bad. I think that even in its racism, the United States was born inside racism and finds it very difficult to give it up. We know that but there are different places. As this country moves West, it’s not as tight with blacks and the others. Right.
And we are the measure, blacks. We’re the measure, that is, for the others. So what’s interesting to me is because many of the East Coast restrictions and traditional conformities lessen as people move west. The society is more open economically. It’s more open in terms of engagement economically, and that opens up a kind of integration. I’m not talking about that so-called civil rights integration. A kind of knowing that happens on the West Coast.
For instance in St. Louis, apartheid is so strict, black and white will stay in this neighborhood. I mean it still suffers greatly from that. Well, when I came to California what was always interesting to me is that when we hit Chinatown, we were with the Chinese. It was exciting. I knew Chinese, a few Chinese people in St. Louis. It was very few, very few. They lived among black people because there was no place for them. They were considered the others, so they lived with blacks at the low end of things. Right.
We got along well but it was only – what, I knew of three people, four, five, ten at best, and they could not express their fullness because they didn’t have enough of a community to express their fullness so that we got a real flavor of who they were. We got a flavor. We used to play with friends. You know when you’re a child you don’t care about any of that. I just liked the guy, you know, he liked me, but I had no idea of his traditions in any real sense because there wasn’t enough of them to assert themselves, and they weren’t allowed to assert themselves as a people with a viewpoint. So they were stereotyped.
Children don’t do it very much because they don’t care when they’re playing together. They do it as they get older because it’s beneficial. So when I got out here it was a relief. But I had traveled before. I had traveled long before I got here, so I was not tight-butt in that way but I just was not surrounded by Asians and then the feeling was, “Is it okay with me?” It really was, and many of my friends, well they just – the people that can’t cut it, they go back.
And what it is, it’s very simple. It’s that the fullness of a group of people is it just gets around stereotypes immediately and you have to deal in a larger way. I like that. And then there is they have a chance to see all the beautiful things that they’ve made. I’m not talking about just museums. I’m thinking of the trinkets. The reason people love to go into Chinatown and Japan Town — I used to hang in Japan Town. Just, I loved all the things that they made; the bowls, the paper works, ramen, the knives, the tools. It was really serious, so it was very exciting.
Then, of course, for years I used to go down and play pool. You remember the pool hall that was on – Kerdy? Kady? Kearny Street, and right across from the hotel but I used to – I used to go down there regularly and shoot pool, and they hung out, like blacks, Filipinos – this is my opinion — a lot of the stylish characteristics that are very familiar for African people, right, and we used to go down and shoot pool with them, and I mean it was interesting about how exciting it was. It was very exciting to come here; the Samoans. I mean it was – Zeke and them, it was just — it was just – well it was nice to just meet them.
And my friend, Miyamoto, we used to go to check out – we used to go to the movies all the time. My first time introduced to Chinese and Japanese, I went nuts and then I – I would eat the food and talk, and at that time the Japanese community was very, very open to blacks. There was – the relationship between Filmore and the Japanese were very quite close at the time. We changed, a yuppie period, but we had a thing. I used to buy things, wonderful man.
Back – well back – to his – our guys.
Okay. Well, because the community was so separate, when the strife came that was a result of the 50’s and 40’s – the 60’s was a result of that. So harsh were the 40’s and 50’s. They were harsh. Just when they were making some money during the war years because they were hired in factories because they needed them, then the laying off that came in the 50’s and the harshness.
It was a depression for them. Everybody else called it a recession. We were – and the job thing shut down, the plants closed. Well, that’s where it works. It’s like Hunter’s Point, the way it folded and then that community becomes a crime-laden community; no work, no nothing, everybody accuses them of their own malaise where they’ll say there’s no way to make a living and they expect those young people to be content with nothing and the world is wealthy.
Well, in St. Louis it’s very similar and then like anyplace else people get filled up, and it happens in the strangest ways. So there was this thing that was happening in the 50’s, Charlie Parker and it was – and it awakened the spirit. It was an extraordinary thing; Coltrane and all these people and their refusal – this was the music – refusal to entertain but to play the music from your heart, that which you wanted or were hearing in your ears.
It was very, very important and their attitudes, Miles and those guys, and that was a simple attitude that, “I choose this and I’ll pay for it,” and they paid drastically. It is a kind of resistance to the demands on you. Well now, the non-working and new working people, the adjustment is really harsh; the fighting, the unions, I mean the whole nine yards.
So as a young person when the 60’s hit it just started to grow and then I was involved politically then it – with no other way to put it but I think it was politics. I was involved in the struggle that had to do with whites oppressing and messing with your livelihood in a way for you that was absolutely personal and impersonal for them, and it was just war. It wasn’t quiet war. It was a stand-up war. War.
So the police and their stop-gap measures and we’re in confrontation at that point. The – all the makers come together because all the black people would come together, and as makers and the musicians and the different people who were painting in different places, they’d come together because this thrust – everybody needs all the help they can get, right.
They were strategizing and so the artists come out of the woodworks. We see each other. We see each other, and when we see each other, we have so much in common and we’re working together and we start to understand each other, and the thrust of this so-called movement makes us understand each other artistically too.
So you don’t – what this person is trying to do, what that person is trying to do, and then the collaborations. We were doing a lot of things in the community, putting theater together, so they would need somebody like myself to make the sets and I understood the piece, you know, and we’d just relax.
And so I understood the piece and you’re working with musicians and that’s how it began. So then there was a period working with organizers, so all the black arts got together to make a place for themselves in the community to share the products that we were making, and also to inform, poetry, music, painting, dance, et cetera, those forms.
So then the whites responded to all the upheaval, the bodies started to flow a bit, and they could hire artists. So they brought in about three or four people from New York; Cruz, great painter – he’s dead now – you know Emilio from New York — and you’re a New York guy yourself, you and your brother — and he was quite an extraordinary guy and a hell of a painter. He had been recognized. You know, he used to be with Martha Jackson’s gallery, quite young.
He had associated, of course, with all the New York dudes. It was the first day and I was introduced to so-called abstract expression. Notice I put that word in, “so-called.” It was painting and it was not well-understood, not by the professors, and still I don’t know. I don’t think they understand it well but it was a – it was a development of visual vocabulary, and there were things that were part of what it was.
It was a style but there were construction things. You didn’t do it this way, it’s like Impressionism as opposed to a Romantic plotting out a painting, there are just two different ways of going about making a thing. So this new way looked slap-dash. That was how it was talked about. It wasn’t. These artists were extremely thorough, and they needed to be studied, and we were studying very hard because it was part of our time.
It’s not like with DeCooney. He was older than I but we were in the same era. We overlap by 30 years. See, I’m right there and I rejected it because I didn’t understand it but I was interested. So in my rejection of the look of it my eyes didn’t. It kept bringing me back. My head – see it’s only a perception, “Well you can’t paint it like that,” but that was stupid because there it was. You could because there was the painting. You see the eyes.
I know that the eyes were really interested. See the head was arguing but the eyes were interested. When I finally acquiesced it was like, “I’d better try not to stare because I can’t stay away from this.” Now simultaneously the music for this, since I was much more open – well, one of the reasons is it is not a language that has to explain itself in terms of what does it mean?
The ears have not been saddled with a dictionary meaning, and so the ears bring it on the inside and the spirit sorts it out. Well, my eyes do the same thing but the interruption culturally is what does it mean? Now when these painters, basically sculptors and makers, I know their names, I know their work.
The eyes didn’t ask what it meant. The eyes drew me back because the work was above all significant to me and that’s what you know about music. You don’t ask what it means. You listen for the significance to you, hence, music is generally free from the cultural clap-trap of does it serve the society.
So Charlie Parker and Coltrane, and Julius Hemphill and Oliver Blake, and Andrew Hill and Thelonius Monk, they were all contemporaries, and I mean really contemporaries. It’s not linear. It’s literally horizontal. They’re overlapping horizontality.
And so there I was, very available. I’m listening to Ayler. I’m open to the Ayler Brothers and – see, simultaneous, Charlie Parker, and all that’s to me making very good musical sense and here I am arguing with the development of a vocabulary in my field because I’m saddled with a perceptual viewpoint that was given in the universities.
Always in school. You’re always trying to sum things up. This is what it is. It’s why I made that pun about – or the statement about young people think they’re avant garde. If it’s in the school, you can bet it ain’t. They know nothing cutting edge, you know, that the magazines, they’ll write that, you know, all of that is for them. It is. There’s a whole marketplace now.
All right. We were not involved in that. That wasn’t happening at that time. It gave us a real chance to sort it out from a personal standpoint of whether or not it really got to you, and it got to me, and my development was really racing and then we were talking. The question you asked me, blacks, we were talking. Talking about it and discussing it the way makers do from a musical standpoint, a dance standpoint.
You see, so it was extremely exciting because you began to take apart a particular vocabulary that spreads itself off on attitude and ambience, and spreads itself across all the making processes, dance, et cetera, poetry, and you began to understand the real building blocks, you know, what it is that has been pushed aside because we don’t want to build it that way. It’s not that what’s been pushed aside is bad. It’s not bad at all.
Sometimes later in life you’ll come right back and use the very same thing that you were not using then. So it’s not a throwing away really. It’s a pushing aside because you want to build like this in this new way because it permits. It permits some possibilities that have been haunting you.
And you step into the vocabulary and try to learn it, and that’s why I’m hard on teachers. They talk, maybe too soon, before they themselves understood it but all the working teachers that were hired, who themselves were professional and who learned it that way, they understood. You see?
See, and all the clap trap about spontaneity and da, da, da, da and personal, you had to learn this thing. It was just like musicians have to learn this Coleman, this Hemphill, this way of playing where you’re going to use this set of relationships, not that set. Now that took you someplace else and you had to accommodate that. So that’s where that – and that’s what we got together and so we were making a lot of things; a lot of theater because it incorporated all of us.
Cruz is making sets, I’m making sets. Now I was like more of a consultant in a bag. In St. Louis they didn’t hire me and there was some political flack about, after the continuum was the understanding that it has not been broken, that this thing called slavery was simply a condition but not a defining thing, and therefore the making process that we saw in Charlie Parker and the Monks had bypassed this rather narrow venue that whites had laid on us, “This is what you’re supposed to be doing. You should be expressing yourself like this, speaking to this in this way.”
Well, Bird and these guys, they just – they didn’t argue with that. They just didn’t do it, and so you speak of things that may be foreign to other peoples, like me going to Chinatown. It may be foreign but it ain’t unreal and there’s tons of it. The foreignness is my problem. That simply means I’m far away from it.
All I had to do was step up to it and it became clear to me; Mahjong, what a game! What a game that deals with the idea of change and dynamism, a game that is not locked in like chess, a game that really includes possibilities and probabilities in a way that makes the player always on edge, that is not simply a game of opponent but the cosmic forces at play.
Where chess is basically your opponent and you strategizing to win territory, Mahjong goes way past that. You are in the universe and all the modalities of change are taking place and you have opponents too, so what a game! And it requires an openness to possibilities.
Now I learned all that by being exposed. I’m no longer a foreigner in the sense that this is not foreign to me, the sensibility; Chinese sensibility, now that African sensibility is quite foreign to many people even — the United States, even though they have participated in all the forums that African people have created here, that they take it to heart, but the sensibility they find difficult. It doesn’t have a European base.
We’re in it but as to the Chinese, I’m using them as an example here, they’re still Chinese. It’s not denied and you bring a hit to it. Well, culturally that one is laughed at but the cultural product is used by everybody. So that’s a contradiction. So you have to over it.
No – you don’t want to start arguing with it because it becomes sociological, you try to – you waste time. You won’t get anything made because you’re still in tow. It’s still going on. You wouldn’t make anything arguing with them trying to justify your existence.
So, St. Louis was like that and we were about our business, and we were fierce about it because it was a struggle that was really correct. To win your rights to eat and have a job is to win your rights to make also. Also, they run hand in hand.
Yeah, but you know why. Well, with all this migration of people from plantations going to Northern plantations and being in the South you simply have a medieval plantation system still in Mississippi and those places, agrarian places in which people are held like in Guatemala to a place, and the lettuce pickers, without the unions that held in place, well their labor is not worth anything and therefore they can’t raise themselves up as human beings through their own labor.
So the Mississippi Delta is full of that, and then as you move into the great cities in Detroit and Chicago and these manufacturing their, their modus operandi is the same way; is it the cheapest labor we can get? Well see, that make sense to you? And so that same process, these are just technological plantations. Unless broken by coming together called unions, and there’s always a war against poor people coming together to get better wages to live, then that – and then the apartheid on top of it because basically your workforce is black. Right?
Now that doesn’t include poor whites but they don’t side with us. Their poverty they see is Americana. They don’t see themselves as being against it, so they’re angry with us because we’re a reference of them doing better than us and there ain’t nobody doing good. It’s stupidity, but that’s stupidity you have to fight with. You have to – I said, “Fine.” I don’t need – I mean that’s the problem. It comes to violence. The people get stuck in roles and that work against them. They get stuck.
You get poor whites angry with them as though you’re infringing on their right to live and your ass is hanging out. Theirs is too. The people on the hill, their’s ain’t. In a country, and I mean this, that is so wealthy it’s off the Richter scale. This country is so wealthy. It’s hard to believe. It is difficult.
In the name of patriotism. Of course, in the name of patriotism. Diversity is the same thing. It looks like it ain’t, but it is. You know, everybody admits, “Yes, yes, you’re a Filipino, yes, your culture, yeah, but it has no political effect. There you go, it’s a game. All words, all words, and it deflects people who should think.
All you gotta do is look around you. Just look at it. Let your eyes tell the story and don’t listen to what somebody has poured into your head unless it agrees with what your eyes see. There’s gotta be some agreement. At least scientists do that. They have all kind of theories but they want to check it against the actual world and that’s what makes them pretty good truth tellers. This checks out, it will happen. Blood to – you understand my point.
Anyway, so it was extremely exciting. We did a great deal of theoretical and conceptual talking of really an extraordinary amount, and it was the kind of thing that I realize – and I do mean it like this. It happened in Paris at a given time when ours were able, whatever the conditions, get together and once they get together that way they can talk to each other from just different disciplines.
You learn so much about what it is you’re trying to do and the many directions that it can be approached from, and then you’re being taught in the conversations, even though you don’t understand at first where a person is coming from, but they’re so strong in it that you begin to get it, and it may be available to you much later in life.
But what you do know is that the territory you marked out for yourself is only part of the territory and it’ll get – and so you learn from being with these people how large it is because the validity of their work tells you that, so that later in life you are enriched so that when you are in change you know they’re possibilities. You don’t have to look. You know that they are and you know the ideas behind it.
Of course when we were extremely sincere with each other – when we were drinking and all that and talking, everybody is really sincere in what they’re talking about. You understand?
So in many ways – and this is an irony – there were restrictions that were placed in the apartheid. They allowed a growth that was not so interfered with by whites who interfere all the time casually. Casually, because they can be casual. Now our seriousness, we took seriously. They didn’t take us serious. They took the bombing serious, the burning, the shooting serious. Okay. That’s their business. We were allowed in a strange circumstance, strange – it’s strange in the way that allowed this and I grew so much.
Many of the people who – Julius just had a degree in music, a Master’s degree in music. You could leave behind the cultural thrust of that training but not leave the training behind, and then work on the thrust you were going to make, whether it was cultural or not, your thrust, but you had gained in training. Training is crucial if you want to be a professional. You can have all kind of talent. It’s like athletics. There are tons of people with athletic talent. There are very few professionals because it takes ass to be a professional.
Talent is an understood thing. That’s your inclination towards something and ability to achieve it, but at this level, we’re not talking about talent. One of the things that they ought to talk about in college is people having talent in the arts. They wouldn’t be there. That one’s bull, we don’t care about it. Now we’re talking about training for a level of making where it’s the considerations are extraordinary, and the requirements are extraordinary of you. It ain’t casual any longer.
So for somebody to say in college, “Well these people with talent, they’ll become wrestlers.” So? See, it’s like saying about athletes, they tell you, “No, we’re going to sort this out, they’ve got a team full of people, I want to make this point strong.” They’ve got a team full of people the 49ers put on the field every year and they’re gonna pair it down to 22. They may have 40, 100 out there. They’re all talented. They’ll go to other places to get a job. They’re that good but they’d better be up to professional standards though. Nobody’s questioning it. They’re down there. They wouldn’t be out there. You see what I’m saying?
So you can see we flog a dead horse. The schools always flog a dead horse talking this, instead of getting down to the business or the rigor of making a person who is inclined toward and has the ability too to bring them to a level that they can be brought to by training. I didn’t say nothing about art.
If I’m gonna train you and talk to you about abstract expression, I’m gonna talk about art. I’m gonna tell you what DeCooney is doing and why it is he uses the paint this way. Why he prefers this kind of thing, why the scale of the canvass, the way he sets the space up. It is not casual. He is a super master at it. Right?
How he uses the figure and why he uses it like that. If you’re gonna paint like this you can’t paint in representation, so they rethought it entirely. Then you get a guy – and this is really important – you get a guy like Jackson Pollock and he’s making these discoveries. He’s a figurative artist. That’s what he is.
He doesn’t stop being one because you don’t see recognizable figures. If anybody understands his compositions they are figuratives when he set up; the spatial relationships, the verticalities, the depth of space, and what’s interesting is that the feeling comes across. They’re not landscapers at all. You see my point?
Now what’s interesting about Pollock is that he tosses away the obvious representation – by the way you know later in life he comes back around to it, not around to it because he’s good, because now he’s advancing and he sees the figure in a different way in his later life before he died. The point is this, and he develops his way of painting. He’s an extraordinary _______. Now that’s there but you must study and you can’t simply psychologize him and get to painting. Am I making any sense?
We taught for years and you get people throwing paint around and young people telling you that this is the style it looks like it and then you’re shaking your head, and they don’t understand because they don’t think you got it. And you say this is not a good painting, this is not composed well, the colors are terrible, but he’s a hell of a colorist. He chooses quite sharply. Not about money. He chooses his colors quite sharply of what relationships while moving the paint like this.
And he confines his color scheme quite tidily. He doesn’t put in the kitchen sink, and if anybody understands why in that method, it’s perfectly obvious you’ll lose control of the effects if the paint is so bright that it’ll effuse in a way and you’ll lose structure. So he confines the range of his colors quite much; tertiaries, all those strong value set of relationships. He’s very, very sharp.
Now DeCooney paints differently and what’s interesting that we learned is that they all – they are not clones. Klein does not structure in the same way that DeCooney – DeCooney doesn’t structure like Guston and Guston doesn’t structure like Pollock. And the woman that I’m leaving out – everybody does and I don’t mean to. She was their peer and more powerful in many ways than them and that’s – what’s her name? Why am I blocking? I really like her work too.
No, no, no, no. She went to France – Mitchell. Oh, what a painter! What a painter! And more powerful. When you put Pollock and she together, in terms of force, it’ll be her. In terms of poetry, it’ll be him. “Oh no, she’s out there.” “But of course they couldn’t use a woman, that’s politics.” That is politics. That’s prejudice against women. They’re not supposed to be that monumental – “Oh, that’s just – it’s painting, it’s painting.” Once you get past it yourself you just see that this is ridiculous but the culture loves ridiculousness.
Well, they do. They want you to paint Filipino. What is that? I mean what is that? What? You put a Filipino thing in there or what? What, what? What is that? So that – what, white people could recognize, “Oh, that’s Filipino.” But, please man, but please, you can see how it gets stupid. See, it’ll get really – how do you say? How do you say? It’ll get infantile almost.
It’s painting, it’s painting, it’s painting. Now it originates in different places and it has an ambience. Don’t try to pin it down. Just let it have the ambience. Just let it have the ambience. Don’t try to make anything out of it. It already did it. It already did it. It doesn’t need a flag. The Italians will know that came from the United States, “I can feel it, I can see the way they approach, ba, ba, ba.”
It’s real obvious. It doesn’t need somebody to wave a flag, and the waving of the flag tries to codify it and that’s the one thing that he was accused of, not painting in the codified manner. See, it’s ironic. Anyway listen, I got drifting. You know, I drift all the time. Don’t drift.
So anyway, in St. Louis it was an extraordinary – it was an extraordinary time and the friendship was really quite deep, and when I say “deep” it was that we were doing a lot of political stuff that was dangerous for us, and but at the same time in those – in that period of time, the fullness of what we were dealing with was really important because you could exploit yourself.
You could exploit yourself with your own intentions, and so what – we were active and not reactive and that was crucial, and St. Louis did that, and the confines made it explosive which made it rich because the very apartheid made one have to really work and get beneath.
Now it wasn’t racism. We had – from the very beginning in that organization we had whites — Whitey Erlich — who were intimate, not peripheral people, and it was a political time when whites were quite separate. There were people backing, so I’m not trying to put this forward like it was some kind of racist thing on our part. What it was is that we meant to run it. It was black run because whites always try to when they take over a black organization make it look like a white organization with black face. That’s what they do. So our sensibility ran it. That’s not racist. That’s the way it’s supposed to be because when they run their operations they have that flavor.
Right. Okay. So it was – but the whites that were involved, there were musicians, poets, filmmakers, and they were bringing to the table expertise and we were just learning – poets — I mean it just was amazing and they were of course those artists themselves who had no barriers because, finally, it’s like musicians all over, once you start playing, all that other stuff is not in it. It’s music.
Well, the same thing is true for the visual arts. When you are serious and you see a great work, it’s just what it is. It’s so you don’t have those kinds of cultural prejudices if you let your eyes. So that’s – that was really wonderful too and in a time when it was hot between blacks and whites. You got it?
So I brought all that to bear down. It was all happening in a very short really space of time, let’s say a good – not more than seven years. Not more, see, but it was so compact you think of it like 20. So much was going on. You know and I want to – talking like this, this is on the record – I would like to try not to miss people and give credit, and not be talking about myself like I was at the center of it. I was not. I was part of the center. It was a bunch of people in the center. It was lucky for me that it was one of the times that I could collaborate and it was honest.
You know, when I say “honest,” it wasn’t made up. I was needed. My craft was needed, Julius’ craft was needed. So normally Julius Hemphill and the musicians, they play together. So they’re used to making music with each other. I was – what I do is private. Unless I get a joint commission which — rare – come on. So it’s just the nature of the visual arts as they are now apart from filmmaking which is a collaborative thing, and they do have a different attitude about presentation. See?
But I simply am here making a one-man factory. Right? And it puts me in a strange place when it comes to collaboration because I’m used to making all the decisions, and so this learning was really wonderful in terms of real collaborations and respecting for clear reasons why I was subordinate of the theater. It was the theater piece, and that everybody was subordinate to that production, theater do that, and that was really wonderful.
Or when we do something that needed any kind of props we would go out and play, and the musicians would go – we would make them, paint them. It was to be used in that way, collaborative, and know that your place was crucial but it wasn’t about you in the role of the chief manufacturer of that happening. Right?
You give your best too. So it was a really good experience and that one, I’ve retained and I think it may – when I met you and we team taught, it was just easy. I was used to working with another artist in the field and I didn’t feel threatened in any way.
We had more than a good time. We had a good, good, good time. That’s more than a good time. Yeah. I did too. And you don’t think so, but I did too. I wanted to give up. One of the things I learned most of all is, coming to the West Coast, is because it was not in the kind of pressure cooker — you had a different kind.
There was an openness and a willingness to entertain visions and viewpoints coming from other sources, and that’s a good term and I just mentioned now this was the Samoans, the Asians, the Chicanos, the Mexicans. I mean we had to admit that was very important. My preparation was the group thing I told you about but this other thing made one see more possibilities, more harmonies, more visual dynamics, more ways of approaching that are useful. I mean really useful.
So I would listen to you when you critiqued, and I’d listen. I always would listen, and the way you would come at it, I wouldn’t have come at it that way, and now I do. You know, so one of the things I incorporate. There’s a way of coming at it that’s different than the way I come at it and it’s loyal and valid because it shows it to me. I see exactly what it is that inspired that approach, and that approach is more appropriate for the critique. It’s more appropriate for the seeing. You understand? I mean that seriously.
And it’s articulated differently too, and that’s important. There’s no one way of articulating this information. We want different people because whatever the visual language is, it’s huge, and it can accommodate all those that take it up and there’s still more than that because there’s more to come. There’s gonna be a lot to come, right?
Now the musicians always knew that. They always knew that. They have not been, like I said, made into a dictionary in the way that the visual arts have. This means that they’re similar things. You understand? So they, they’re much more freed from and it was being with you and being here on the coast, and I’ll tell you honestly somebody asked me the other day, “Would you have rather have been in New York?” I thought I would at one time, but for my kind of personality, much too much energy. I would have been too distracted in New York, wasted time from my standpoint.
And this place called the West Coast, California, basically Northern California afforded me a time to introspect without being hassled with New York arguments about nothing with a lot of brew ha-ha. You know, they can be arguing about nothing, man, and be on the front page of the New York Times when you swear it’s about something, and they just have to have material to deal with, and so you could become very distracted.
And I suggest to you that when makers quote-unquote “make it,” they all move out of New York and try to go someplace where they can concentrate, DeCooney and everybody, but everybody. DeCooney was – listen, listen, New York likes to be a pressure cooker all the time. I mean I don’t still want to be in being in that pressure cooker. I’ve gotta do work. When you’re in a pressure cooker you have to rend it down and get an understanding so you can go and do work.
It’s not to stay in a pressure cooker. That’s for San Francisco style. That’s for – that’s something else entirely. You understand? So, I think I got lucky. I mean I really mean it. Well, I got lucky just the way I happened to get out here. I mean it was just like stumbled, you know, life living me more than I’m directing it. See, listen, do you want to go into the studio? Man, cut that camera off. You camera people never stop rolling.
[Break in recording.]
OJ: That’s right which means it’s just strictly business. I love it.
[Break in recording.]
OJ: We’ll close up and ____ back here.
[Break in recording.]
OJ: If you have, you know, the time that you’re able to use a lot of the stuff that belongs to you, you know someone asked me, I don’t mess with music too much. I’ve got business to do. I’m trying to do work, you know. It kills me how much time just to get this stuff done in the studio.
By the time I get the paintings up ___ ______ and then all this talk about the Japanese gotta sell and he’s – because he’s the bad guy, trying to sound tough or something and then I’m going like this, “You can do what you want to do.”
[Break in recording.]
OJ: And he’s the head of – he’s the head of everything, isn’t he? Nice guy. Isn’t he running something?
Really? ___ _______.
Yeah, but I ____ _____.
[End of audio.]