Dr. Charles Sharp. Photo by Sander Roscoe Wolff
Dr. Charles Sharp is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, improviser, band leader, side-man, educator, radio host, and Bixby Knolls resident. He’ll be performing on the southwest corner of Atlantic and Carson this Friday, with Dave Williams’ band MBT (MajicBulletTheory), as part of the February First Fridays Long Beach art walk.
Long Beach Post: What is it that you do these days?
Charles Sharp: These days, like all the days for the past decade, I teach music history at CSU Fullerton—jazz, American popular music, folk music, the sociology of music, ethnomusicology and, occasionally, Western art music. Also, I play the saxophone and pretty much whatever else they will let me. I co-lead The Decisive Instant with Jeff Schwartz, and play with a small cadre of like minded jazzers. I get called by Dave Williams for his various groups, too. And BAAST—a somewhat inexplicable jazz funk group.
I also co-host Trilogy on KXLU, one hour of experimental, improvised and new music every Wednesday from 9:00 to 10:00PM. The other hosts are local hero Bonnie Barnett and Kid Methuselah, who you probably have seen in the audience of out jazz shows in LA. I think Bonnie and I are the only ones who don’t use aliases on KXLU.
As a child, was there music making in your home?
Yes. My father was jazz musician—piano and drums—I’ve been around jazz, soul and reggae my whole life. He played semi-professionally I guess you would say. He also was a psychologist.
He played every day at home, actively listened to and bought music, and encouraged/forced me to take up piano, which, by the fourth grade, migrated to clarinet so I could play in the band at school. I suppose, on the other hand, I was somewhat discouraged from pursuing music as a profession—wisely, I think. Music is not a good way to earn a living. It’s not an easy way to earn a living, especially if you want to be creative.
I started college as a philosophy major, then art, and then finished as a double major: music and anthropology—so I pretty much hit most of the unprofitable degree options.
The idea of being a musician, but not necessarily having to get paid as a musician, has been very productive for me. I suppose music academics is a pretty standard “career” since the 1980s for folks like me. It works well.
How did you go from playing in marching band to becoming attracted to the rarefied fringes of music?
The short answer is punk. I was always kind of into the fringes—the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s was huge for me in grade school. I used to spend hours listening to it on repeat on an eight-track tape! The White Album—before high school—like really listening to “Revolution #9” again and again.
[Those early experiences] opened me up for pretty much anything by the time the ’80s hit, and punk rock gave an outlet. Punk, at that time, was more inclusive—pretty much anything that wasn’t top 40 somehow had a place in the punk scene. It fit perfectly with my love of bebop, Tom Waits, The Clash, Black Flag, Eric Dolphy, etc. All those artists were directly influenced by ‘out’ jazz in one way or another.
There were elements of subversiveness in both jazz and punk.
Subversiveness is good word for it. I am not sure if I have always been subversive, or if my subversive character was fostered by the music I listened to (and art I appreciated). Probably both ways.
I was in a number of not particularly distinguished punk bands. Some were very experimental and odd—one that included a guitar player, drum machine, turntables and whatever I was doing. It’s best that it exists only in memory.
Not long after I first moved to LA—I was working at the Long Beach Museum of Art, I was interested in video art—I met and started playing with Lynn Johnston, who was an excellent bridge between punk and jazz worlds for me and lot of folks in LA.
Lynn led Cruel Frederick, which released two albums on SST during its heyday, and are often referred to as the worst SST albums by certain fans of Black Flag. He also played sax on the Slovenly records and the first, maybe the second, Universal Congress Of record. Those records, along with Saccharine Trust were really major for me when they were coming out. Those were the way I was defining punk at that time.
Lynn introduced to me a lot of “out” jazz folks in town—Vinny Golia, Alex and Nels Cline. Tony Atherton was playing in Cruel Frederick at the time too. Bazooka was a kind of revelation for me at this time, and John Carter and Bobby Bradford were kind of the other side of it.
You mentioned the phrase “‘out’ jazz” several times. What does that mean?
What I mean is post-bebop jazz which is more experimental and less tied to traditional harmony, structures and timbres. Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane’s work after 1959 are the key figures.
If you eliminate harmony, structure, and timbre, what’s left?
You don’t eliminate them. You just don’t have to use the traditional harmonies, structures and timbres. Up until bebop, the harmony and structures were rooted in Tin Pan Alley pop songs, which were derived from light classical music.
Post bebop, maybe you want to structure it to just one chord, or maybe no chord, or structure it on a tree or your emotion or a bird song. Who cares? But it is still structured. Timbre has always been more open in jazz than other genres, but maybe you want to scream to play wildly out of tune. That is acceptable in “out” jazz, or at least it is not a reason to dismiss it, as it might be in bebop.
Were you playing with all of these legendary LA jazz cats?
I did on occasion, but not that much—I was pretty content listening to those folks, back then. I also played some in a couple of interesting groups. [I did] a bunch of gigs and a recording with a metal band called Grindstone. I also played with the Cambridge Pipers for a few gigs—subbing for Vince Meghrouni of Bazooka and currently the Atomic Sherpas.
I am pretty sure Cruel Frederick played at one of the very first avant shows at the Alligator on a split bill with Nels—the owner then invited Nels to curate the Monday nights.
Right around the time Nels started up the series at the Alligator Lounge, I moved to the Bay Area—I was leading my own trio then—and played with a lot of the Bay Area improv folks—and still do when I go back to visit.
The Bay Area was a pretty great scene—a bit more open than LA at the time, which was and still can be a bit insular—everyone off doing there own thing without much interaction. There were more jam sessions and opportunities to play with different folks there. I really appreciated that. There is a sense of that in Long Beach, which I moved to 2 years ago— Dave Williams has been great in facilitating that—just creating these situations where different people can play — that is really productive, artistically, for me.
Since avant, or ‘out,’ jazz exists as a small tributary in the world of music, what is the relationship between the creators and the audience?
In terms of my own music, I am not too concerned about it. Not so much in the “Who Cares If You Listen” vein, but I am only really interested in an audience that is willing to go on the ride, or try to follow me. I am not too interested in playing down to an audience, and that means that sometimes what I do will alienate some people. That’s the case with all art.
For me, art is supposed to be challenging, which means sometimes you will not be able to follow it. This is even more so for improvised art—sometimes it is not supposed to work perfectly. I am interested in an audience that is interested in it not working. The rest of them can go fuck themselves.
I’ll also say that people are capable and interested in a lot stranger and more challenging art than most people give them credit for—than they give themselves credit for. And of course, as an academic, I am working on that constantly, but that is different than being an artist.
What is the nexus between being an artist and being an academic?
That’s a pretty complicated subject. They are obviously related, but creating and analyzing are two different mental processes that can’t really be done at the same time. That’s not to say that you aren’t analyzing while you are creating, but it’s of a different order, on a different level. Same with the opposite side — you have to be creative when you are academically analyzing, but its of a whole different order and level. My approach to art is much more mystical and metaphysical than my academic work, which is rigorously philosophical, though still “about” metaphysics.
I’ll often have the germ of an idea for one in the other level — a germ of an idea for a piece of music might come from thinking philosophically, and quite often a philosophical idea might come from playing music—but the course of thought is different in each field.
What are the mystical and metaphysical aspects of your work?
Well, by nature, it’s not something to be put into words. I am very interested in the intuitive—acting “without thinking” so to speak—following impulse, and then later figuring out (or not) why that impulse occurred—as opposed to logically and epistemologically figuring out what makes sense first and then acting on it. I am interested in ambiguity aesthetically, of creating acts that resonate with multiple and various meanings, as opposed to single clear statements.
I had the good fortune to interview the English avant garde musician Fred Frith, who is known for his unique improvisational style. He rejected my suggestion that improvisation is a form of self expression and, instead, called it a form of play. What do you think about that?
I suppose I would have asked if play wasn’t a form of self-expression as well. Or ultimately, what’s meant of “self.” Most people think of the self as a simple, single thing. I would definitely agree with him—creativity, improvised or not, is not simply an expression of your singular, constructed self. That sort of things leads us into the idea that the creator of a piece of art is the master not only of their selves but the meaning of their creation (as well as the meaning of their selves).
We are never fully aware of self—we don’t even consciously make most of our biological functions occur, right? Not only that, we rely on, willingly or by force, others. So while we might be expressing ourselves, our selves are much more complicated—and moreover, we can’t really fully know or control how our actions (creative or otherwise) will be interpreted.
Even if we’re playing solo, by ourselves, is always “about” not only our selves but about other people. So, for me, this philosophical reflection leads me to be fascinated by the moments where I mean much more than I was aware of trying to mean. Embracing the intuition, of inviting a search for the rules as opposed to creating by following an a priori rule. Play is great model for the understanding of art—I use that a lot in my academic writing.
When I perform, I often see it as an opportunity to quiet my mind, and to become fully present in the moment. It is a spiritual practice for me. Does that come into what you do?
As a spiritual practice? Sure. Why not? There are lots of similarities between spiritual and aesthetic experiences. However, I would not want to confuse one for the other — the setting and function of each, in terms of my being human, are fundamentally different. Related, though.
Music, for me, is supposed to fun and is often funny, which aren’t really characteristics of a quiet mind—kind of the opposite. And a lot of what I am saying about intuition and searching for meaning I don’t think I would characterize as quiet mindfulness. However, I do think that it requires something similar to that to be open to go on the journey—the journey itself may be quite noisy. A lot spiritual practices can be quite funny—zen Koans or Sufism’s use of humor, for example.
You’ve been involved in some interesting projects, recently. Can you tell me about BAAST, for example?
Scott Dibble asked me to record some tracks. I think he got my name from Scott Heustis, who played in an early incarnation of the Decisive Instant. Anyway, BAAST is a project of John Basil and Scott Dibble, kind of inspired by jazz-rock fusion. Basil is a space man, totally from another dimension. We just finished recording a second album. When it comes out, on Ubiquity Records, we’ll probably be playing the clubs. It’s pretty fun playing in these rock clubs at rock volumes — totally free form, no tunes, no set lists.
You also mentioned The Decisive Instant. Tell me about that.
Decisive Instant is a large ensemble that is co-lead by Jeff Schwartz—and originally a third leader Robert Leng, who passed away a few years ago. The three of us got the idea of starting a large ensemble to compose new tunes as well as play tunes already written for improvising large ensembles. We’ve played music by Sun Ra, Bill Dixon, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry and others.
I really liked the idea of a big band that drew a lot of players from different scenes in together—jazz, new contemporary concert music, rock, etc.—a few groups/gigs emerged from people meeting in the band, which is great. The big band, in the history of jazz, was always an important meeting place and breeding ground, so that has been great. It’s also fun being able to write and arrange tunes for a large group.
We’ll be playing at Open Gate at the Eagle Rock Cultural Center on March 6th in collaboration with Renee Baker, a really interesting composer and conductor who is a member of the AACM—a collective that was really inspirational to us.
Tell me about your radio show. KXLU is a rather small, and low power, station, but it has a long and respected history as a bastion of the outside. How did you get involved, there, and what have you been doing, specifically, on your show?
Bonnie Barnett started Trilogy many years ago with the idea of having three rotating hosts of one weekly show — the other two folks have changed over the years. I came in as a replacement for Emily Hay, a great flutist and vocalist. It’s been great fun—mostly I just play whatever is on my mind. I’ve done a few interviews with local musicians—Jonathan Rowden, a sax player and composer, and Daniel Rosenboom, a trumpet player and record label owner.
I also had one live performance/interview with the Sean Sonderegger band. Sean was a student at UCLA while I was there — I had him in a jazz history class — he’s gone on to grad school at Wesleyan and is living in New York, playing with all kinds of great musicians in addition to his own interesting work.
I try to be supportive of the local scene with the show. Sean brought in a band of local players from different scenes: Areni Agbabian, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, who’s worked with Kamasi Washington, Peter Valsamis, whose worked with Dana Reason and others, and so forth. Kind of an all- star band really. Great fun.
I always include local or at least semi-local musicians in some way. Its great fun, very old-fashioned, and totally ephemeral. The shows aren’t podcast or archived. They stream the station online, but only live, so you are either there or recording in one way or another. I can get the station at my house in Bixby Knolls if the moon and clouds are just right.
BAAST has a new double LP coming out soon. You can check out their work on Bandcamp.