Defender of Freedom

Associate Professor of Ensemble and saxophonist George Garzone leads students on journeys of musical self-discovery.
August 18, 2003

George Garzone leans back in his chair, fingering his soprano sax. "You guys know 'Bye Bye Blackbird?' " He gets affirmative nods from the quintet of students in his Avant-Garde Ensemble class. "All right. 'Bye Bye Blackbird,' but at a minimum tempo," he emphasizes in a soft Boston rasp, "and we'll just trip off it."

The drummer laughs, "That's just a tempo recommendation, right?" "Yeah, start here," Garzone says counting off a snail's-pace tempo, "but that doesn't mean anything."

As the student ensemble explores the old Dixon and Henderson chestnut in a sprawling 45-minute improvisation, the tempo changes several times. The band speeds up, then slows down again, and changes the beat, too, flowing in and out of African grooves, odd meters, and free pulse. The freewheeling jam is hardly aimless; everyone listens to each other and responds with ideas that advance the music in one direction or another. Garzone, wearing rose-tinted sunglasses and black tee shirt and jeans, occasionally interjects a riff or a harmonically adventurous line that also gives the band something new to work with.

Garzone, a Berklee alum with more than 25 years teaching experience, may be easygoing with this ensemble when it comes to the tempo, but he takes a no-nonsense stance when it comes to good musicianship, creativity, and the jazz tradition. His goal as a teacher is to get students to think and play outside the boundaries of traditional jazz, he says, but that doesn't mean playing without discipline or a sense of history.

"I think tradition is something I learned here at Berklee when I was a student," he says. "I think the tradition is responsible for how you play, no matter how far out you go. But at the same time, my job is to get the kids to stretch out. I want to take them away from the tradition."

Tradition and experimentation are not only united in the way Garzone teaches, they are bound up in his own career as a creative artist as well. Growing up in a musical family, Garzone started playing at an early age, and by his mid-teens, it was clear he had a special talent. His uncle, Rocco Spada, contacted the legendary Berklee woodwind teacher Joe Viola, with whom he'd worked in local dance orchestras, to see if he'd take his nephew as a student. The late Viola, who was the first person Berklee founder Lawrence Berk hired to teach at his music school in 1945, took the teenaged Garzone under his wing.

"I stayed with him from high school until I graduated," he says, "and I really want people to know that he's responsible for the way I play. He was really magic. What I learned from him the most, was how to be natural."

After graduating from Berklee, where his classmates included saxophonist Joe Lovano (currently the Gary Burton Professor of Jazz Studies at Berklee) and pianist Kenny Werner, Garzone spent time on the road briefly with Woody Herman as well as pop singer Tom Jones, before settling down in Boston. In 1975, he cofounded The Fringe, an avant-garde jazz trio that today includes founding drummer Bob Guilotti and bassist John Lockwood. The band's Monday night gigs at a succession of Boston-area clubs (most recently at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge) are part of the city's jazz lore. The gigs have also been a real world learning and listening experience for countless Berklee students.

Although best known for his work in The Fringe, Garzone prides himself on being able to fit into any musical setting. "It's not like I just play free. I can play bebop; I'm just not into it as my own thing. I've played with Lovano's nonet and The Fringe. I love doing the free thing because that's an area that will never reach the end."

Garzone has been passing along his passion for the boundless possibilities of free jazz ever since he started teaching at Berklee in 1975. "Avant-garde is still a dirty word among a lot of academics," Garzone says, "Their attitude is, 'How can you teach the kids all the crazy stuff, when they don't even know bebop?' Well, I give them the tunes sometimes, but then I ask them to go beyond that. I also expose them to something that's a little different."

Playing free also puts a lot of additional responsibility on the performers, since there are no chords to rely on to guide the improvising. Garzone makes sure the students learn to deal with the full weight of that responsibility.

"If you're going to play free, it's up to you. You got it," he says, using one of his favorite expressions. "I'm not going to yell directions to the ensemble or the soloists as they play. You got it. If the music stops and you're flailing, that's your problem. It's up to you to pick it up and make it happen. That happens to everyone; the music comes to a settling point and now it's up to someone to pick the ball up and go with it. You can't leave it there. So one thing they're learning is how to keep the momentum going. They're learning how to keep the music in motion, and it doesn't have to be with a lot of notes, either. It's something that transcends paper, the staff, the lines, the key. It's stuff that a lot of people don't learn in school. My ensemble gives them an opportunity to do that."

In 1978, he hit upon a technique to liberate his students' creativity for which his class is still known. It's simple, but effective; he turns out the lights in the room when the band starts to play.

"Some people call it the Lights Out Ensemble," Garzone says. "When you get down to play, a lot of kids are inhibited. So I cut the light, and they're a little more experimental, a little more creative. There's just a lot more freedom because you're not under the white light. They're dealing strictly with sound and they can go for it. It's like a blind person listening to music; the hearing is more sensitive. It's intense, but that's good."

"Oh yeah, the lights were out," remembers keyboardist Dave Bryant, who was in the Avant Garde Ensemble in 1981-82 and is now keyboardist in Prime Time, the avant-funk band led by free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. "I remember one time, around Halloween, he hung up a light-up witch's head that cackled when you turned it on. He turned off the lights, turned on the witch, and started playing. That's what we had to improvise off of, in the dark. It was freaky.

"But George isn't just about that. One time, he called a tune, I don't remember which one now, and my hand slipped and I hit a wrong note in the chord. Immediately, George played that note in his solo and kept hammering at it, just to let me know he'd heard it. That's the thing about George, he's a great musician on every level, you could always take it for granted that he knew what he was doing."

On another occasion, Bryant says, Garzone demonstrated a surprising approach to writing compositions.

"He played a phrase, wrote it on the blackboard, then played another, wrote it down, and played a final phrase. That was the tune we played that day. What it did was show me that my composing can come from the same place as my improvising, that I can trust my creative instinct, trust that relaxed outpouring of music.

"But even though he's at this very high level, he isn't intimidating; he acted as a catalyst for your best playing, he knew how to bring out your best. I always thought his class was really therapeutic, really healthy, because I could just be myself."

And that is exactly Garzone's point. When asked for his own definition of avant-garde, Garzone doesn't hesitate with his answer. "Yourself," he says with vehemence. "Playing yourself with no restrictions, no cliché, no repetition. Being yourself with total freedom."