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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Positive, pure and powerful: Saxophonist Bartz keeps his music free of labels

Positive, pure and powerful: Saxophonist Bartz keeps his music free of labelsPositive, pure and powerful: Saxophonist Bartz keeps his music free of labels

Sunday, July 31, 2005
By Nate Guidry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gary Bartz will take you to task for calling him a jazz musician. For him, it's practically an epithet.

Gary Bartz doesn't answer to "jazz musician." He's a musician, pure and simple.

Gary Bartz Quartet
Where: Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.
When: 2:30 p.m. next Sunday.
Tickets: $35 and $45 ($10 for music students); 412-361-3022.

Related coverage
Film puts spotlight back on Gammage case
Duke Ellington didn't think of himself as a jazz musician.

And neither did Miles Davis.

The volatile Charles Mingus would have gone to blows with anyone who addressed him that way.

"It's a negative word, and negative words bring negative energies," said Bartz from his home in southern New Jersey. "People like to pigeonhole you because it makes them comfortable. I don't think Beethoven considered himself a classical musician.

"I'm a musician, and we play music -- all kinds of music."

And that's exactly what Bartz and his quartet will be doing next Sunday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. The band features pianist Barney McCall, bassist James King and drummer Greg Bandy.

The concert, co-presented by the Thomas Merton Center, is a fund-raiser to help support the completion of a documentary titled "Enough Is Enough: The Death of Jonny Gammage."

Gammage was killed in a struggle with five police officers during a routine traffic stop in Brentwood on Oct. 12, 1995.

Producer and director Billy Jackson said the documentary examines the Gammage incident as well as other cases of alleged police misuse of force and racial profiling, and related problems in criminal justice, law enforcement and police-community relations.

Jackson said his goal is to have the documentary ready to premiere on Oct. 12.

"We want this documentary to be part of the solution, to stimulate dialogue and inspire audiences to get involved in positive changes."

Bartz grew up in Baltimore and started playing saxophone by the time he turned 11.

"Charlie Parker was the one who did it for me," recalled Bartz. "I heard his records, and I fell in love with that sound. I made up my mind that's what I'd like to do."

After graduating from high school, he moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School. While there, he developed friendships with fellow students Andrew Cyrille, Addison Farmer, Sir Roland Hanna and others.

"It was a very educational period," said Bartz. "As young musicians, we were all heading in the same direction of music."

After he left Juilliard, one of the first groups Bartz joined was a band led by drummer Max Roach and former wife Abbey Lincoln. He had met Roach years earlier at a club in Baltimore. Bartz sat in with Roach and they played Charlie Parker's "Cherokee" and a few other songs.

Roach was so impressed that he gave Bartz his phone number and told him if he was ever in New York to look him up.

Which Bartz did.

"I used to go over to his house and have dinner with him and Abbey Lincoln," laughs Bartz. "Sometimes, I see Abbey and I remind her of that and she laughs and says, 'I used to cook.' "

In 1964, Bartz joined Roach's band. The association lasted for about six years.

"Max was very influential in developing my outlook on life," said Bartz. "He taught me about business and nationalism and chess."

After leaving Roach's band, he performed in groups led by McCoy Tyner, Blue Mitchell, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Blakey was performing a weeklong engagement at Baltimore's North End Lounge, a jazz club owned by Bartz's father. Bartz got word from his dad that saxophonist John Gilmore was leaving the band, so he went to Baltimore, sat in one night and was hired.

"John Hicks and Lee Morgan were in the band and were my friends, so they vouched for me," said Bartz, who made his recording debut on Blakey's "Soul Finger" album.

In the early 1960s, Bartz joined Charles Mingus' Workshop, regularly rehearsing with other members of the group, including Rashaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy.

"Mingus was very interesting," said Bartz. "He was all about making and performing high-quality music."

But Bartz's best and most enduring apprenticeship occurred in 1970 when he joined Miles Davis Sextet, performing in the historic Isle of Wight Festival in England.

"Miles was the best bandleader I ever worked for," Bartz said. "He cared about you. If you were in his band it was like you were part of his family. I am so grateful for what Miles did for me."

When Bartz received the call from Davis to join his band, there was no rehearsal or drawn-out interview.

"He just called and asked if I wanted to join his band," Bartz said. "He didn't give me an audition, and I think the entire time I was with him the band had one rehearsal.

"When Miles picked musicians, he already knew what you were about. I had worked with Max and Art and the other musicians, so he knew I was ready to join his group."

In between working with Davis, Bartz was busy recording "Another Earth," "Music Is My Sanctuary" and other albums, as well as forming a group called NTU Troop. The group took its name from the Bantu language. NTU means "unity in all things, time and space, living and dead, seen and unseen."

In the mid 1990s, he released several critically received recordings, including "The Red and Orange Poems" and "I've Known Rivers" an album based on the poems of Langston Hughes.

Still, Bartz feels his recordings over the years haven't been promoted well. He's grown increasingly weary of record executives.

"Record labels want to tell you what and who to put on the records, then they don't sell them," Bartz said. "They have decided that it's counterproductive to release material while an artist is still alive. Once a musician passes they open the vaults."

To counteract that, Bartz has started his own label. He now has creative control of his music and, most importantly, he owns the master tapes.

"Record labels are like plantations," said Bartz. "It's like the rapper Chuck D used to say, 'If you don't own the master, the master owns you.' Ninety-nine percent of the musicians in history don't own their masters. A lot of people talk about rap artists, but many of them own their masters. They have learned from our mistakes."

Now, in between tours with his own band and groups led by McCoy Tyner and others, Bartz finds time to teach. Since 2001, he has been helping to shape young musicians as a faculty member at the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio.

"One lifetime isn't long enough to do everything you want to do and learn how to play all this music," Bartz said. "So you do the best you can."

(Nate Guidry can be reached at or 412-263-3865.)

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