Patty Waters Sings


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Patty waters speaks

Interview by larry j. nai
from halana, issue number two, January 1997

Such is the reputation of singer/composer Patty Waters that, when her name is mentioned in the music press, it's usually preceded with the words “… the legendary.” In the mid ... sixties, Patty was ushered into the office of Bernard Stollman, head of the ESP~Disk record label, by Albert Ayler, who urged Stollman to record her. He did, and everyone who heard her has reeled from the impact ever since. Her first album, Patty Waters Sings, begins with the eerie, desolate, voice-and-piano landscape of “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight,” its stark mood relatively grounded by Patty's warm-breath-on-the-back-of-your-neck vocal, so soft as to be almost a cry. She continues in this vein for the remaining six songs of the side (remember sides?), and then comes the track that her reputation rests on: The side-long version of the traditional “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair." Here, Patty applies the extended techniques of horn-players and label-mates such as Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Giuseppi Logan, and Frank Wright, to her voice- caressing, twisting, and distending the politically /socia11y charged word "Black" (this was 1965) for some 13 and a half minutes, from a whisper to a scream, to borrow a phrase. Her slow ascent on the word at the 8 minute mark is one of the most thrilling moments of sixties Free Jazz, and she repeats this approach to particularly Ayleresq.ue effect on her next album, College Tour, most notably on “Song of the One I Love.” In a particularly felicitous effort on the part of ESP's design department, Patty is photographed on the cover of her first album as if she has just emerged from mysterious darkness.

In a way, Patty led a charmed life in those days: Recording for the ESP label, the first, and still one of the best, bodies of documentation of Free Music; dating Lenny Bruce, the hugely influential comedian/performance artist; club--hopping and socializing with the likes of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, the Fugs, anyone and everyone who was a part of the amazingly fertile ground that was New York at the time. Her influence and lineage, from Yoko Ono to Diamanda Galas and beyond, continues to this day, with the current round of ESP reissues-finally on compact disc-domestically available courtesy of the German ZYX Music Company. On CD, Patty’s albums are a revelation if you've only heard the vinyl; her supple voice, and the pointed contributions of accompanists such as Burton Greene, Ran Blake, Giuseppi Logan, and Dave Burrell, are now revealed in ideal clarity. What is missing, as you read her words, is that voice-the cadences of her thinking, the rich, womanly breath that forms her sentences, the girlishly sexy laugh that she has. Patty still sings today, and hopes to record again in circumstances that will bring out the music that she hears in her head. For now, do yourself a favor, and get to know an essential chunk of recorded history. -LJN

LJN: What do you feel is the function of Art?

PW: It seems to me that the culture of humanity is shaped, for better or worse, by Art. Art is very important to reaching the higher self-people need it in their lives. It can be the most beautiful part of a person's goals, and their appreciation of living and relating to each other.

LJN: "When did you first develop this notion?

PW: In childhood. There were always people around who would appreciate the beautiful things in the world, or would be performing music or dance or poetry. As a child, I learned to appreciate these things-and continued to all my life.

LJN: What were some of the really magical experiences you had with the arts as a child?

PW: Well, I had a neighbor lady who loved her flowers, and she also played the harp, a really beautiful instrument. I used to stand outside the window of her house just to see it-it was so pretty, even when she wasn't playing it. Also, seeing the ballet Swan Lake as a little girl was a treat; I remember being thrilled sitting next to the prima donna in the car afterwards. Even circuses were an influence: Being delighted by the glamour of performers, and the magical, whimsical side of the entire event. Living life in more creative ways, you know?

LJN: At what age did you start to produce your own artistic efforts?

PW: Well, I think all children do these things, don I t they? Things like drawing, painting, singing songs.... I can recall Sunday School activities where we combined all of these things. I'd say those little classes were a very creative time for me; playing with toys and listening to music and pretending I was a ballerina.

LJN: How about when you became an adolescent?

PW: My grandfather bought a bicycle and a music case for me; I used to ride my bicycle to piano lessons, and the woman who taught me used to give recitals. I enjoyed listening to her play very much. I also played in a recital myself, that my grandfather attended-he was a sweet man, very proud of me-that was nice. I think that if children could take just one year of piano lessons, it would help them in many ways. A year of lessons gave me a very firm foundation.

LJN: Do you play piano still?

PW: A little but-not in public.

LJN: On your first album, Patty Waters Sings, you accompany yourself on piano. I've always been struck at how evocative your playing is on these songs, how well it supports the mood of the lyrics; there's this kind of late-night, ghostly atmosphere.

PW:  Thanks, I'm glad. They were all composed at night. And I love the sound of a piano. For slower-tempoed songs, the instrument has to be a very fine one, and the better the piano, the more I like it.

LJN: One of your frequent accompanists in the sixties was Burton Greene, who also recorded for ESP, and continues to perform currently. How did you feel about his playing?.

PW: Oh, it was fun, wonderful! I always enjoyed singing with him. We had a nice back-and-forth communication, inspiring each other. I've been thinking of asking him if he'd like to do it again. We've stayed in touch through the years.

LJN: When you started performing in public, do you remember the first time you felt you were really doing what you were aiming for?

PW: That's hard to say; it's such a struggle to get to what you're really aiming for. I think I felt more of myself on that first album - that may have been the most satisfied I've been with my music. It was also a little frightening, as well, taking that courageous step.

LJN: Meaning what?

PW: The type of music I was doing; I felt that there might be a lot of people who would hate it. I hoped that people would understand the music, but I knew that not everybody would. But it was worth the risk, and I was happy about that.

LJN: Which of your approaches on that album are you talking about here? The shorter, more conservative songs, or the avant-garde approach in the long version of "Black is the Color of My True Love' s Hair? It

PW: I was more hesitant about the avant-garde approach of the long piece. I think that both approaches were valid and real, and close to whom I really was, so I have no apologies about that. Actually, the shorter pieces broke lots of traditional rules of composition.

LJN: Even though the two sides of your work on that album were very different, there's a strong unity to it-you can tell that it's all coming from the same woman, that there's a single mind at work.

PW: I'm happy that you heard about them. That’s great.

LJN: What was the reception to the album at the time?

PW: I was interviewed for Rolling Stone and reviewed in downbeat and some other magazines. I was ·also asked to go on a tour of New York State colleges soon afterwards, which was recorded. Then came my second album. I did a few more concerts. One I did at Woodstock, with Burton Greene and his group, was extremely successful-Burton and I both wish it had been recorded. There was another successful concert at Tompkins Square Park, with a huge amount of people in the audience, and another success at the Cellar Cafe in Toronto, with Marion Brown and his band. And I did clubs in New York, art galleries, lofts … After that period, I left the states, and spent some time in. Europe and Canada. I really enjoyed that European vacation. I've been back since, but I think one's first time in Europe is the best. I went all over, even spent a month in Morocco. Just walking down the streets of Rome, going through the museums and streets of Paris and Florence-everything was· beautiful, the taxicabs in London, the different types of architecture, the landscape. Morocco was very exotic. When I came back to New York, I got pregnant, and, after I had my baby boy, I moved to Mill Valley, California.

LJN:  What year was that?

PW: That was 1970. At that point, I was unaware of what was happening with my albums. Tower Records in San Francisco was still selling them, and a few people knew who I was. They’d come up to me and say: "Are you Patty Waters? I love your records. And I'd get letters with articles about my music enclosed. I've saved all that, but I pretty much made those two recordings, and disappeared.

LJN: Can you talk more about your perception of the music scene you were involved in around "65-'66?

PW: Well, in '65-actually all through the years I spent in New York-I was just out every night, going to clubs, parties.... It was just being out and about in New York City, for a 3-and-a-half year period. I worked little jobs here and there, like I had one job as a hotel waitress on Wall Street. So I would sleep late in the morning, then go out at night. I loved listening to the music being played in the clubs; there was so much happening, between the traditional jazz and the avant-garde. I feel fortunate that I got to hear so much great music!

LJN: Did you feel there was a movement among the avant-garde musicians toward a more socially & politically aware approach to the music?

PW: I think so. There was a group of musicians who organized themselves into a Guild, to work out ways that they could play and make more money, I think it was Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Burton Greene, Roswell Rudd ....

LJN: The Jazz Composers' Guild?

PW: Yeah, that's it. They were just trying to figure out some things and support each other, somehow find the strength to continue. The traditional jazz artists, of course, were still appearing everywhere throughout that period, at the Vanguard, the Village Gate, the Half Note. But, as I see it, in the sixties, the country was excited about the possibility that dreams could become reality. Music and art becoming experimental, after being so thoroughly well done by traditional standards, may have been the next logical step. People, also, had been calm and patient for long enough. The air was filled with hopes and anticipation. I love and respect traditional things, including music, but exploring new ideas, finding new meanings ... not discarding the traditional, but extending it, you know? It creates something altogether new. The flower children and the sciences were both breaking with tradition; the South was breaking with tradition. Avant-garde musicians felt an urge to make new music.

LJN: In retrospect, what do you think the avant-garde movement brought to jazz?

PW: Harmonic innovations, rhythmic innovations-speaking for the times.

LJN: You've said that Albert Ayler introduced you to Bernard Stollman, who founded the ESP label.

PW: That's true, yes.

LJN: What was your familiarity with Ayler's music at that point?

PW: He had played his recordings for me, and we became friends; I remember taking long walks and talking, meeting his brother Donald.... They would come by my apartment and talk about what they'd been doing, what work they were trying to find, concerts they were doing, things like that.

LJN: Some of the very soft vocalizations you did on your College Tour album remind me of some of Ayler's playing, and also of Norman Howard's trumpet work on Ayler's Witches and Devils album, from 1964. Did these people have an influence on your


PW: I'm sure they did. At the time, I was also dating Clifford Jarvis, who was Sun Ra's drummer; he was also working a lot with people like Thelonious Monk, Jackie McLean, Freddy Hubbard, Grant Green .... I was just listening to all the people that I could. I always tried to see Sun Ra when he was playing-I even went to rehearsals. My biggest pleasure was going to hear people perform.

LJN: Where did your extended vocal techniques come from? Did you study, or were they instinctive?

PW: I'd say they came out instinctively. My teachers have always been the musicians that I've listened to; I never really had lessons.

LJN: What type of music were you doing in your New York and Toronto gigs? Was it a mixture of the traditional and the avant-garde, or full-on avant-garde?

PW: It was all the avant-garde approach, with those musicians. I did a few conservative kinds of things at an upper east-side club with Richard Wyands on piano; I was also very fortunate to be able to sit in with a lot of people. I sat in with Bill Evans, Chick Corea, John Hicks, Walter Davis Jr., Roland Hanna, Kirk Lightsey, and sang with Herbi Haricock at his home. I just enjoyed the company of musicians: Keith Jarret, Joe Henderson, Charles Lloyd, Joe Chambers, Kenny Dorham. It was a very pleasant part of living in New York.

LJN: Were you aware of other people who had established precedents for the type of singing you were doing?

PW: I don't think anybody else was doing that kind of thing, no.

LJN: Many people see you as a big influence on singers like Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galas. How do you feel about that?

PW: I think Yoko Ono thanked me on the back of one of her album covers. Diamanda Galas may have said something similar in an interview, that I was an influence, I'm not sure.

LJN: Patti Smith mentioned you in a poem of hers once, and you saw her perform a few months ago. What interests you about her?

PW: I think she has a wonderful energy and stage presence. She's a very generous performer, always moving in an interesting way. I don't know her personally, but she seems to be a very kindhearted person.

LJN: There is a perception about Patti that many writers have attributed to you as well, of being a sort of shamaness, who draws her music from a higher consciousness. How do you feel about this type of discourse about music, in which the musician in question is dealt with in very conceptual terms? When you were developing your music in the sixties, did you think about it in similar ways?

PW: Yes. I was trying to be as deep into my consciousness as I could be, trying to be as real and honest as I could. I think it's great that people receive that from the music, that it can reach people in that way.

LJN: But do you think that this tendency to mythologize musicians is accurate, or does it do a disservice to musicians?

PW: I think that writers would not write that way about people if they didn’t feel that way about them. In other words, I don't think that a writer would put anyone who he didn't feel touched him deeply into that higher kind of category. Norman Weinstein wrote an article about me called "Moving Through the Length of Voice" in which he referred to me as a shamaness, and I think that he must have felt something special about my singing to write like he did about it. And I've gotten things from other people-there's a poet in London, David Miller, who wrote some beautiful things about my voice being a "fierce wind, " for example-and I think that, if I can inspire poets to write, that's all the better! (laughs.)

LJN: Having recorded for ESP, and living in New York during the period you did, you were in the circle of a lot of musicians who were on the cutting edge of the avant-garde jazz scene. After you moved to California in 1970, what were your observations on how the music had changed from that very rich period?

PW: A lot of musicians from New York were coming out here on tour, so I still continued to see a lot of them. There were some wonderful things that came out to the west coast. I did feel that there were some musicians who stayed very traditional in their playing-Bill Evans, for example-but there were others who incorporated the avant-garde into their approach. It's up to the musician; if he or she feels a particular movement is strong, they might want to see how they enjoy playing in a different style. A musician who wants to be thorough in his experience generally wants to try a lot of different things.

LJN: Did you hear any native music when you were in Europe, like when you stayed in Morocco?

PW: Yeah, that was fun! I went into the Casbah, and places where they would have male belly dancers-l didn’t see any female belly dancers-and they played music over the city of Tangier at night, sort of like a lullaby. It was very beautiful, very peaceful.

LJN: In terms of differences between Europe and America, what kinds of observations were you making when you were traveling overseas?

PW: I felt it was terrific to be over there. It was exciting for me to see the uniqueness of each country. I knew that I was very American, but that it would be easy for me to live there as well. People seem more serious in Europe, more respectful toward their art and architecture, and their elders. More responsible, somehow. They appreciate their

history, their home. Italy was my favorite country.

LJN: Why so?

PW: There's an abundance of beauty everywhere, beautiful architecture, wonderful people, wonderful food.... Italy is so rich in architecture, landscape, works of art. For some reason, there seemed to be more beautiful things there than in any other country. And France-Monaco, the Riviera, the Pyrenees in southern France-it was a treat to be able to see all of that.

LJN: Let's get back to your return to the States in 1970. What else were you doing at that point?

PW: I immediately went to Canada, to Montreal and Toronto. Returned to New York; nine months later, had my son, then started a new life in Mill Valley, California. When be was six, I started taking classes at the Community College and got three degrees: One in Art, one in Humanities, and one in Liberal Arts. It was sort of a challenge that I set for myself. I went on to receive an Art/Expressive Arts BA degree.

LJN: Were you doing any performing or recording at the time?

PW: No, I wasn't; I was going to hear other people. I wrote a little music then, but mostly just listened to other people-I've always enjoyed that very much.

LJN: Who are some of your favorite musicians to listen to?

PW: I love Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis-through all of his stages-but there's still so much I haven’t heard. I'd like to hear every Ellington recording, all the old Blue Note and Riverside recordings. I wish I could go back and listen to all of the recorded music of the sixties, because I was going out to hear live music all the time, and visiting with people in the music. I have to live a long life to be able to hear everything I want to hear! (laughs)

LJN: Do you listen to your own recordings?

PW: Very rarely. Although, with the passage of time, it's a little easier to hear them now.

LJN: Why is that?

PW: Well-it doesn't seem as closely connected to me now as it did then. I'm a different person now, and I can be a little more detached.

LJN: How is the Patty Waters of today different from the Patty Waters of thirty years ago?

PW: (Long pause.) I'm not sure. Probably a little more patient now. I've worked out some ways for me to enjoy life, where it was a little more of a struggle before. I'm better at knowing now what kinds of things I enjoy, and what things I'd rather avoid.

LJN: What occupies your time these days?

PW: I'd like to say travel. However, I love libraries, especially the music departments in libraries. I'd like to read all the classics of literature. I love flowers, eating good food. With my son, I've traveled to Mexico, Canada and Hawaii. I'd love to go to Brazil-I've been listening to more Brazilian music lately. But I love jazz, and I think if I moved to Hawaii, for example, I'd miss it, because there’s not much jazz there.

LJN: What is it about jazz that is such a consuming passion for you?

PW: It just gives me great pleasure; it has unlimited possibilities. I would assume that people who love classical music with a passion, are the same way; I love It too-but- I'm· not passionately in love with classical music. I love Bach and Puccini, the history of it. .... But jazz has that edge, and there's a heartbeat that's stronger in me with jazz and improvisational music, that is not there with people reading the notes off of a page that someone else has written. I like the rough edges of jazz, the earthiness of it. Although there's this Russian composer, Sofia Gubaidulina. Have you heard "Offertorium," on Deutsche Grammophon? She writes the way that "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" from my first album sounds. She's amazing.

LJN: Any last comments before we close?

PW: I'd just like to say that I wish that all humans in the world (laughs as she senses the platitude coming out) could have the time to appreciate art, appreciate music, appreciate literature....and not have to be so stressed. It sounds corny, but I really feel that way! It would be so nice if we could live on a higher plane, and exploit our potential. It almost seems like the Greeks did it better-we just don't seem to have the time for it. Every child has a desire to become a creative artist; wouldn’t it be nice if we could all live like that?

©.J. Nai

Patty Waters' stunning new collection of duets with Jessica Williams, Love Songs, was recently released on the Jazz Focus label and is available through Cadence (Cadence Building, Redwood, NY 13679).

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