American bassist James Cammack is a frequent guest at many jazz festivals around the world. His track record includes collaborations with prominent musicians from different countries, including singers such as Nancy Wilson and Darlene Love, and almost 40 years of joint work with legendary jazz pianist, Ahmad Jamal. In summer 2021, James visited Baku for the first time and performed several concerts together with famous Azerbaijani musicians. In between concerts, he found some time for an exclusive interview for the Azeri Observer magazine, in which he spoke about his creative path, his vision of modern jazz and cooperation with Azerbaijani musicians.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: How did your journey into the music world begin? What made you choose jazz as a profession?
Answer: Back in the 1950s, when I was a small child, living in Birmingham, Alabama, we had much more art and music on a black and white television and radio. I watched classical music concerts, rock performances, jazz orchestras, for example. As a three-four year-old child, I was mesmerized by all the music, art, movies, and culture. It just drew me in, and was very inspiring. Besides, a big influence on me becoming a bass player was my uncle, who played in an R&B band. I watched him, and again was mesmerized by what he did, and wanted to perform just like him. When I was about 10 years old, I persuaded my father to buy me a little bass, and that’s when I started practicing. First, I played everything I listened to on the radio, and television, but as I grew older, I started getting closer to jazz. I listened to many great jazz musicians, tried to find out more about it, learned how it works, how to improvise, and became strongly influenced by this genre.
Q.: Did you attend any professional music school or are you a self-made man?
A.: When I was nine years old, I received a scholarship to go to the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. That was the only main music training I ever had. It was basically classical, and exposed me to a lot of classical music. I had brass ensemble lessons, music theory and harmony lessons, and that was fantastic. After graduation, I was accepted to a renowned military band called The West Point Band, where I played both in the HellCats drum and bugles and the Jazz Knights big band. During that time in the army I really grew as a jazz musician as I listened to a lot of great jazz recordings, studied on my own, played a lot of jazz gigs, and practiced, practiced, practiced…
Q.: If you initially studied classical music, why then did you choose jazz? What attracted you to it?
A.: Because of the freedom it gives. Classical music is extraordinary to listen to, but jazz is a whole different adventure for me. You take a piece and just improvise on it, spontaneously creating on the spot. To me that’s fun, I like doing that. Instead of sitting in front of the piano and writing the notes, you are challenged to create a spontaneous composition. I love improvising, especially with great musicians, for example [Azerbaijani jazz pianist] Shahin Novrasli.
Q.: You have been playing jazz for more than 50 years. How different is the jazz we have now from the one 40-50 years ago?
A.: Both jazz itself and the people who listen to it have changed. The scope of the music industry has changed in a way that has allowed other types of music to invade the genre of jazz. So, many different things that may not be jazz are being called jazz now. The result is that sometimes people have a misconception of what jazz really is. They think that a pop song is jazz, but it is not.
Pop music doesn’t have the same element of improvisation; it doesn’t have the same vocabulary as real jazz does. When people cannot differentiate, it becomes a mishmash. Thus, musicians and artists who truly play jazz, are kind of thrown by the wayside. It is very sad to me that there is very-very little exposure to jazz music on the radio and television now. When I was growing up, jazz and other types of music were much more widespread on air than now. I think this causes great suffering of the art form. Many people don’t see and don’t understand it, or misconceive what it really is.
Q.: On the other hand, the audience is broader now. People who have never listened to jazz, started to show interest in this genre thanks to its combination with other styles…
A.: To some degree, yes. Many Jazz Festivals are doing a good job at mixing jazz with pop music, etc. They have to do so, since this is the way things are going now in our society. However, I think it is important for promoters and artists to differentiate between different genres. From my experience, I see that without differentiation many people get misconceptions. It is very important to always refer back to the history, to know the ground roots of the music. Besides, it is useful to listen to great musicians like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, etc…
Q.: What was the biggest challenge in your career? Did you have any?
A.: Not really. I mean, we all have our trials and tribulations through our lives, but those are the things we go through. If I go through trouble, I get on my knees and look for God. That is all I can do. I was extremely fortunate to be able to do what I wanted to do. God gave me the gift of playing, I have to give him credit for everything I have. I have been blessed in a way I have been able to play, perform and have enough money to live. I was fortunate to work with Mr. Jamal, who is one of the greatest jazz piano players on the planet. I had been his bass player for most of my career – almost 40 years. I cannot take any credit for that. Now I am retired and I have retirement and social security in America, so I am financially stable. Even if I don’t go on a stage for the rest of my life, it is kind of OK. I don’t have to do it for money, I can stay at home, but I want to play!
Q.: There is one good American film called Green Book. It is inspired by the true story of the talented African American pianist Don Shirley and demonstrates the problems he went through in the US just because of his skin color. Have you ever faced any similar problems in America?
A.: I have watched Green Book, the movie was fantastic. No, such things have never happened to me. Never ever. Even if they did, I didn’t see it, didn’t pay attention because it didn’t affect me. It could happen in those days in the southern states. However, I didn’t see anything like that as an obstacle. If someone doesn’t want me, I don’t need it. I go where people want me. For example, I came to Azerbaijan, and I am happy to be here, I love it. I think there has been a big change in society since. People started understanding the necessity for respect across all the spectrum of races. Of course, there will always be people from every side – black, white, yellow, brown – who do not. There will always be conflict between people. It is human nature. However, for the most part, people understand that every person has the same level of value, no matter who you are. God created us all differently, and we, as human beings, have to learn to do this together.
Q.: Let’s speak about the pandemic. I think the musicians were among the most affected, because there were no audiences, no concerts. How did you survive this period?
A.: I was more fortunate than 20-30-year-old musicians, who are just starting out. As I already said, I’m in retirement and don’t worry about money. However, the current situation is very sad. Personally, I was used to performing in Jazz Festivals all over the world, going to Germany, Italy, France, Scandinavia, Russia. I played with musicians from different countries – from Holland, Italy, France. I wasn’t a big star, but as a professional freelance bass player I had total freedom. When the pandemic hit, it flatlined everything, and was very sad to see the devastation. I think there are some people who don’t realize the level of loss we have suffered, especially artists and musicians. Musicians have a special relationship with their audience. We make statements, we speak to our audience in a way that no politician or lecturer can, and the audience loves this. Very few artists can do that now. The pandemic has choked the culture, our social interaction – the things that I feel are very important. All the paperwork, PCRs, vaccinations, certificates, immunity, which are required now, made it too difficult to travel and perform. I cannot go to France, Italy, where I have friends, to see them and play with them. Therefore, I am happy that in the midst of the pandemic that has destroyed, I would say 80% of our lives, I got an opportunity to perform in Azerbaijan. I am very thankful to my dear friend Shahin (Novrasli), his wife Natavan, Rain (Sultanov), and all the people that were involved in getting me here as an American musician. I am thankful to the owner of the Hilton Hotel; they are treating me here like a star, which I am not used to. I am really happy to be here, to be a part of this project, and I hope this is not the last time I come here. Big stars who have promotion and production may get their chance to return to a big stage, because they are stars. Meanwhile, in my case it may be a while before I can perform nationally or internationally again.
Q.: It is your first visit to Azerbaijan. However, it is not the first time performing together with Azerbaijani musicians. What do you think about Azerbaijani jazz? How different is it from the American one?
A.: Yes, I have worked a lot together with Shahin Novrasli. Several years back I contributed to his Emanation album. It was thrilling for me. Shahin is an extraordinary pianist; he is very good in classical music, though at the same time he plays with a lot of improvisation in a very technical and broad way. He and I have a very strong understanding, and I enjoy working with him very much. We performed joint concerts in the US, Switzerland, Paris… I have also played together with Amina Figarova. She is a great composer. Working with Shahin and Rain (Sultanov) I undoubtedly see the impact of Azerbaijan – in their tonal choice of notes, in a harmonic sense. In Azerbaijan, musicians have their own style of playing; it is a part of the culture. I hear the influence of the country, but I also hear jazz influence, which is a great combination. Besides, they have a strong sense of improvisation, which I like very much.
Q.: Don’t you find it complicated to play Azerbaijani tunes, which are quite unusual for you?
A.: I open my ears and adjust to it. Because this is my functionality as a musician, and especially as a bass player who accompanies a soloist. He can do whatever he wants to do, and I catch it. Though, that requires listening with big ears, not little ears. We never discuss the music we play. There is nothing written down. So, I have to figure it out myself, and I do.
Q.: You don’t just play music, but write music as well. What does the process of creating music look like?
A.: It is not very easy at times. I get ideas, but their development is a difficult task. I think about many things, have various emotions, but it is hard to put them down in a form. It really takes time. Since music is an expression of emotions, thoughts, and whatever you are observing, I think that is how it works for great composers. I don’t consider myself a great composer. I have written some pieces, but not much.
Q.: In your opinion, what is the recipe of success for a musician now? Many people say that nowadays talent doesn’t matter, the thing that matters is good PR.
A.: I don’t think I am very qualified to make that identification, although I can give my opinion. I believe it depends on the specific cultural and social environment you are in as a musician. Each country – the US, Azerbaijan, Canada, European countries – has its cultural and social mindset, and many artists have to adjust to the mainstream of the market they are in. I think it also depends on the promotion. The problem is that producers and PR specialists have something in their mind. They say, “OK, we want a singer or a band that looks like this and sounds like this” and then try to mold a performer the way they want. Some artists go for that, others don’t. I think it is extremely difficult in today’s market for artists to make a living. Because it really depends on what producers want, how they program that, and how they support it. I am kind of looking in from the outside, because I have never been a part of a big promotion. I self-produce my CDs, though I don’t consider myself a very good businessman. I am much more interested in just playing than focusing on business.