The Groningen Report
In September 2016, the 22nd I had the great pleasure to meet New York jazz singer, composer, educator and producer JD Walter in Groningen/The Netherlands. JD Walter has shared the stage with many legendary artists including: Dave Liebman, Bob Dorough, Eddie Gomez, Nicholas Payton, Bill Evans, Mark Murphy, Ari Hoenig, Randy Brecker, Orrin Evans, Seamus Blake, Nasheet Waits, Boris Kozlov and so on. He is an educator and very busy all over the world, in Groningen he’s teaching at the Prins Claus Conservatorium (PCC) since many years. Please, enjoy the vibe around our fantastic conversation and get a bigger picture about living in New York City, notes from teaching, 9/11, Larry Fink, german ethics, vocal training, how to get a gig in NYC, One Step Away, Betty Carter, Dave Liebman and all about African-American-classical-music and its personal stories, with beautiful pictures by Zoltan Acs!
JD Walter: One of my best friends is 92 years old and he is a famous american jazz singer, the only singer who ever sang with Miles Davis. And Miles was crazy about him. But he also played piano for Sugar Ray Robinson (1921 – 1989), the boxer and Nina Simone loved him, he opened up for Nina on tour, he was a white guy and he was good friends with Louis Armstrong, a good friend with all the famous people. It’s kind of a crazy story. Like the Woody Allen movie Zelig. Anyway, I would stay in his house when I played in a certain jazz club, because the club was maybe an hour or so from the city. So I stayed in his house and he would tell me these stories, like I was a child. So he told me amazing stories, I couldn’t even believe him!
Bernd I. Eilts: Do you remember some of them?
JD Walter: I’m getting there. So, I finally said to him, after maybe five years: you know Bob, these stories are so important, someone needs to report them, write them down. I said: May I please come to your house and record our conversation? And he said: No, not right now, because I’m doing a documentary on me.
Actually, what happened was, I had a friend of mine, he was a professor at Harvard Law School. I told him about this and he said: You should really get in touch with this friend of mine, who wrote screenplays for some very famous movies.
That’s what I told my friend Bob. Maybe someone wants to write a screenplay from this interview I did. He said: No, they are doing a documentary on me right now, I don’t want to conflict that interest. And I said: Okay. Fine.
And so there is one jazz magazine that I really like, it’s not famous at all, but what’s amazing about it is, they leave complete interviews, they don’t take out any bad words, anything you say about anybody they write it down, they don’t edit anything out. And these are loooong interviews. Usually the whole magazine is the interview. So, I happen to find myself at a jazz club and the owner of that magazine was there and he said: JD man, sound great blablabla, thanks man, it’s nice meeting you and I said: Hey man.He said: I’m looking for a new interview, a famous person, and I said: I can get you an interview from this guy! Right? Which I knew was a lie, but I said it and he said: Really? If you can get me an interview from him I would love to print it. Of course, no pay. But, that’s not why I was doing it. I was doing it, because I wanted these stories to be heard. So, then I went to him, the artist and I said: Hey, this magazine wants me to do an article on you and he said: Oh, they do? Wow, of course then! Let’s do it! So, we both liked it and I got the article, I just finished it like two weeks ago. Sixteen thousand words. Which is about 35 pages I think it will be. Yeah! We might do some editing just for making it more a flow, but we’re not taking anything out, that we don’t like. Because they always print the disclaimer: Any opinions or statements in this article are not the opinions of the magazine and we are not responsible and so on. They have a disclaimer there.
Bernd I. Eilts: When I had my first interview with Nels Cline and Julian Lage in february 16, they told me: We give you 40 minutes. But even after one hour we were still talking like crazy! With Adam Nussbaum I talked 2 and a half hours, even with Matt Wilson, I met him last week for the second time, and last week we met three times!
JD Walter: Right, okay.
Bernd I. Eilts: And we will meet again next year in May. He told me: I have so much to say! I have so many memories! I want you to write that all! Stories, you know? We love and need stories!
Zoltan Acs: Just one question: Do you mind if I take a cigarette on the picture?
(We all are laughing!)
JD Walter: When I smoke, put it over here.
Bernd I. Eilts: So, my interviews are also very long. And my publisher in Berlin complained a lot in the beginning. He said: Oh, it’s too much! People don’t read it! But you know, I really love it. Because then you can really delve into something. It’s big, it’s nice. Of course, when people don’t like it, they stop reading, but mostly people like it.
JD Walter: Right. Well, when it’s not some pop magazine and people ask real questions, then people become more interested. Because, it’s real. There is so little of that.
Bernd I. Eilts: Thank you for this nice introduction and for your time, making this conversation possible.
JD Walter: My pleasure, my pleasure.
Bernd I. Eilts: It was so nice, we had already a great conversation through the mail when making this appointment. That was so relaxed and open. Before we met, I checked your last album “One Step Away” on Amazon, where you can listen only 30 seconds per song. But that was amazing.
The drinks came in and the bartender brought us de-kaf cappucchino with some small cookies. But JD Walter didn’t want them. He also asked for some non-sugar sweetener for the cappuccino.
JD Walter: I quit sugar and carbohydrates. I lost 24 kilos since last year January. I was overweight and also stopped with exercises, because I had some heart procedures done.
Bernd I. Eilts: OMG! What happened in your life?
JD Walter: I was undiagnosed for twelve years, I felt terrible for twelve years. And no doctor diagnosed it. Until I went to have a vocal operation and the doctor said: Something’s wrong with your heart. You have xxxxx, but very bad. You need to take care of this very well. Then I had three procedures last fall, I wasn’t on tour. And because I wasn’t on tour, I also didn’t do my exercises, because of my heart. Then I gained a lot of weight. I already don’t eat meat, I became a vegan, but you can still get carbohydrates and sugar and whatever. So, I gained a lot of weight and I got 94, 95 kilos. After the heart operations I slowly felt better and changed my diet, no sugar, no carbohydrates.
Bernd I. Eilts: How do you stay fit and healthy now?
JD Walter: I swim 5 days a week. And here in Groningen I run. But in times like now, just getting over the jetlag, it’s just too much. Because students also want to have extra lessons, I have my days of work. Monday afternoon I did a performance at school, a masterclass performance and I had to be prepared for that. Then on Tuesday no rest after school I went to have that gig at the Smederij, tried to make some music there. It was too loud.
Bernd I. Eilts: It was the first time you played with these people out there?
JD Walter: Yes. I don’t know them.
Bernd I. Eilts: And how did the concert go for you with people you don’t know like that?
JD Walter: Well, I find it hard to say what level they are. They are for sure fine musicians, but, you know, it’s a crap-shoot. I send the music to them, I send mp3’s to them, hopefully they’ll do their job and learn the music, and you never know. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. And you perform and you just can’t have too high expectations. Sometimes things are going well, sometimes you have to start getting in, start conducting the band, which is not my favorite thing to do, I like to not worry, I like them to be able to do their own thing, and I like me to be able to do my thing without having to worry.
Bernd I. Eilts: Relax and enjoy.
JD Walter: Right. And it will be too much work for me. The musicianship was fine, but me having to conduct them and say, no, we are here, we are there, you have the wrong spot, you know… .
Bernd I. Eilts: You did that in between, I saw that.
JD Walter: Yes. That’s not fun for me. Then the acoustic in the room was not so good. But whatever, that’s life. I don’t get upset by it, it’s just that’s what happened. And that’s what happened. For me, I would have preferred to play there with a bass player and a guitarist and maybe no drums. Or, something that is more acoustically right for that situation. But, the gig was organised by Diederik, so you play with whatever. I’m not complaining. I’m grateful. It’s nice. And it’s all a learning experience too. I mean, if you can be good at situations, that aren’t the most optimal situations, then that makes you stronger.
Bernd I. Eilts: Now you are here in small Groningen, from New York. You are here twice the year for teaching at the Prins Claus Conservatorium (PCC)?
JD Walter: Twice a year. Usually four times a year. I think I’ve been the seventeenth teacher here at the school right now who came from New York. I think I’ve been here the third longest. So, I’ve been here for six or seven years. And it just changed two years ago. Before two years ago, or a year ago, we’d to come four times the year. What was great. Because then we really could develop a personal relationship with the students. Now it’s more superficial and I don’t enjoy that as much, because I like having relationships with students, to get to know all their names, therefore four times a year I actually would spend approx. forty hours a year with the singers alone. Now you’re giving them a proper education that they deserve. The money that they pay to go to a conservatoire in Europe compared to the costs of American universities is irrelevant to me, when I can give them a good education. Everyone knows that, education in the United States costs like 60.000 or 50.000 dollars a year to go to school, and here it’s maybe 3.000 to 5.000 or something like that a year.
Bernd I. Eilts: It’s even less for Europeans.
JD Walter: Yes. So, but that’s irrelevant, the amount of the money that the students are paying doesn’t give me anymore impetus to want to get my message across to them.
Bernd I. Eilts: How is the situation when you come here? You are here for five days, maybe sometimes seven days, when you have some gigs beside.
JD Walter: Yes.
Bernd I. Eilts: What is your feeling here? You come from New York, of course, it’s totally different here, but what is the biggest difference here for you? Are you thinking about your dog maybe when you’re here? He is now in good hands, of course. What does your life look like in New York?
JD Walter: Now my life is different in New York than it was five years ago or ten years ago. Now my life in New York is pretty much about preparing for the next trip. To Europe or Asia or South America or the Middle East. I teach in New York, at Universities and I have private students as well. And I play in New York, I used to play in NY more, I play there less, I play there monthly, generally, depending. It’s not as important for me to play in NY as I used to be. I love being in NY because any night of the week I can go see amazing music, I can go see ten shows in a night that are blowing my mind. Any night of the week. Classical, jazz, whatever. You don’t get that many places in the world. You have to go to major cities, you have to go to Berlin, to Paris, to London, you have to go to major cities to have that type of thing happen. But I think I become more domestic, my life is becoming more steady, I like more reading, I value my personal time more, I don’t drink anymore, I don’t party, I don’t go to bars unless I’m watching music. My life is about being a craftsman now. My days evolve around the piano, I’m taking care of the dog and I like cooking, I like maybe having a glass of wine at home, I have a garden at home that’s maybe the size of this balcony here (outside Martinus Brouwerij, Groningen), what is surprising for New York, but I got lucky, a little smaller than this here. I like tending in my garden at least five months a year, when it’s possible. I like simple things in life.
Bernd I. Eilts: What do you grow in your garden?
JD Walter: What do I grow? I used to grow potatoes, but since I stopped with carbohydrates I didn’t cultivate them anymore. Well, I have strawberries, a bunch of different kinds of kale, Russian kale, regular kale, a lot of herbs and spices, I’m growing cucumbers and squash pumpkins, a lot of tomatoes, usually about 150 to 200 tomatoes a season. That’s what’s happening in my garden.
Bernd I. Eilts: How is the air in New York?
JD Walter: The air? Well, it’s not as bad as people would think. It is a noticeable difference when you leave the city, but it’s not like Los Angeles or something. We are on the coast. So, it gets blown out. The only thing that’s really causing air pollution are the cars. There is not much industry in New York. There are not much factories over there. The factories are in New Jersey or somewhere else. It’s pretty good air. Surprisingly. It’s not like Hong Kong, or Beijing or Los Angeles. New York is a pretty clean city and NY is very green. We have big community groups that are always up planting trees, constantly. We have lots of roof top gardens, we have big farmers markets, I shop at a farmers market to buy food that farmers bring in from outside of the city, not only for me but for my dog. It’s kind of pathetic maybe.
Bernd I. Eilts: What’s the name of your dog?
JD Walter: Blue. Has nothing to do with music.
Zoltan Acs: He eats meat, right?
JD Walter: Yes, he does. But I cook every meal for him, he eats free range chicken, free range turkey, free range rabbit, or free range water buffalo. Grass fed water buffalo. And then rice and zucchini, carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, celery and what else does he get, lot of vegetables and rice. It’s funny, I was living with my girlfriend for eight years and we actually broke up. She didn’t live far away and she said: Oh, I’m not cooking for the dog. He had cancer. I tried to get very healthy food for him, so it wouldn’t come back. You know, he’s my boy. This is very pathetic and I know, we are really far away from that. When I clean up his dirt when he goes to the bathroom, I’m very aware of it. Hyper aware, because I want him to be in the best condition. My girlfriend didn’t feel like cooking his food, so I cooked all his food, froze it and then I gave it to her for the time when I was gone. I was gone for a two week long tour. I’m doing all the work, you know? So, I did this and then I come home and I pick him up and I’m taking him for a walk and he goes to the bathroom and I’m like: something is not right here. I call her up at the phone and asked: What did you’ve been feeding up the dog? She said: I’ve been feeding the dog the food you gave me. I said: Tell me the truth Eileen! I’ve been feeding him the food you gave me. Me: No, no, come on, just be honest with me. Eileen: How do you know? How do you know? I’m like: Come on man, you know, I made you enough food. She said: Well, I was cooking his food one night and it smelled so good, I ate it myself!
JD Walter, Zoltan Acs and myself laughing out loud!!
JD Walter: I said, oh man, but thank you for being honest with me. But still, you know? I’m sorry.
Bernd I. Eilts: No no no!
JD Walter: But yeah, you know? I don’t have any kids, that I know of. I had some girlfriends, you know. But it’s a difficult life to have with normal activities, when you are traveling so much. It’s a little depressing. And I will be fifty years old next year.
Bernd I. Eilts: Oh, you look pretty young!
JD Walter: If you say so, yeah okay. But I’ve been doing it for a long time. I started playing in Clubs when I was thirteen years old and I was singing professionally at the age of six. I went off to a music boarding school at age eleven or twelve where I lived and I toured the world and so on.
Bernd I. Eilts: So, you started really early!
JD Walter: Yeah, my mother was a musician. I had a very ‘kind of’ heavy father, ex-military, jurist. Fortunately my mother saved me, because she was sensitive. And I was sensitive. And she taught me to sing, because she was a musician, a great singer, a great piano player and she taught me to sing as a child and this was my escape. I found a lot in classical music and while I was supposed to be doing all the manly things in life, being a soldier and everything else, I was rocking with my headphone’s in my room to Franz Liszt or whatever it was. I also had three sisters, they are all musicians too. I don’t know, if this was it. Growing up with four women in the house opened me up to a more feminine side of things, I guess. Or maybe not.
Bernd I. Eilts: That special home environment pushed you more towards your real nature.
JD Walter: Yes, but you know, we are so conditioned, men are conditioned in society. You must be this way, you must be strong, you must be tough. The whole testosterone thing, right? I don’t buy it, I don’t buy it, you know? We all have a masculine side, we have a feminine side and it’s okay.
Bernd I. Eilts: Both sides together are totally okay.
JD Walter: Yeah. I’m very not only open to that but what’s also interesting is when you start talking about it and when you start looking at how Jazz musicians talk to each other. They are talking to each other in ways that most men in society will not speak to each other. They will say things to each other like, for example, the biggest most muscular man will come up to you and say: What you did tonight really moved me. Or: Man, I love what you do.
You’re not gonna find people in another location in life where people come up and say: Man, you really moved me, you got inside my heart, you touched me. Men don’t talk that way to each other. But in music they do. And it’s a beautiful thing! Why can’t we talk to each other this way? Why can’t I say to Zoltan: Man, the photographs that you took brought me to tears!
Most men aren’t gonna speak this way, right? But then again we are artists too. It opens you up to be a real human being I think. Sometimes being an artist is one, and then, number two, as I said, my environment opened me up. Just being an artist and being involved in environments with different types of people open you up to different perspectives in life periods and ideally it makes you more accepting of human beings as they are. Now, I’m adopted. I was an orphan and I was adopted at age six months.
Bernd I. Eilts: That’s really early.
JD Walter: Yeah, it’s good, even perfect. But I have a mother and a father those who wanted to adopt me, anybody can’t plant a seed. But, I did meet my biological mother, when I was twenty-six. She found me.
Bernd I. Eilts: She was searching for you!
JD Walter: Yeah! And I was passively searching for her. When I found her she was explaining her situation that time and she said: Oh, I was married, twice, I don’t have any other children but I left my second husband for a woman. And I was like: Okay!
You know, I’ve been in the arts for a long time and I don’t care how other people wanna live their life, I’m open and nothing bothers me. This whole thing of not looking at human beings as a man or a woman. I tell you what really bothers me on gigs sometimes. When I’m on a gig and maybe a woman walks by and is very beautiful and another guy on the gig goes: Check that out!
That offends me! Not only because it’s objectifying. But also because I’m thinking to myself: Why am I on a stage? To look at women? Or to get women? I’m not here because I wanna bare my soul, those hours I spend in the practice room are not all about me trying to get a woman. Or a partner in life. I’m doing this because I have something that I want to express, that I want to get out. And that you would not also be concentrated and would not be thinking about the same thing when you’re there disturbs me. And you know, I need to know this, what are you doing, why are you here. Are you here for that? I’m not interested in playing with you, you know? Are you here for the music? Does this make sense?
Bernd I. Eilts: But this is always playing between women and men in these situations.
JD Walter: Yes, but you know? There is a saying and this is very true to me: If you have to choose, you can never have sex again in your life or you can never have music again in your life. Which one would you choose? I probably would take the music. I want the music. That feeds me. And there is a saying that says, I think it might have been Duke Ellington or Count Basie, one of them said this: Music is my mistress. And she plays second fiddle to no one.
I always found that to be kind of, yeah, you can get a partner in life, but music’s gonna be number one. Always, you know? In my life. I might get married some day but if I get divorced, music’s still gonna be there. It’s always gonna be there. Anyway.
Bernd I. Eilts: I saw this very nice video, the making of your last album “One Step Away”. I saw your fellow musicians laughing a lot. The atmosphere is really interesting because you don’t often see moments like those in a making of-video.
JD Walter: Right.
Bernd I. Eilts: When you see videos from recording sessions, it’s always such a serious thing. You hear the music in a very good quality and the musicians all look very serious, maybe some smile, but they don’t laugh like in your video. I was asking myself, what was going on there? That’s really special. I was thinking, when your musical life looks like that, it’s about music but also about happiness.
JD Walter: Right.
Bernd I. Eilts: I wanted to ask you, when you’re teaching, are you teaching also happiness?
JD Walter: Absolutely. You know, I let the students free about it, it’s about playing music, not working music. There is a lot of work to be done to have that play. The harder you work, the more fun it is to play. When I’m teaching though, yeah, there is laughter in the room. But most of the time I think I’m trying to captivate them. And to get them beyond to understand certain concepts, like: Don’t let school get in the way of your education. The things that I’m showing you aren’t just because I’m being paid to show you them. I’m showing you them because these are tools that you’re gonna need. Then, of course, I’m trying to show them how they can use these tools practically. Not just some textbook thing of, you should understand how to do this and this is how you do that and blablabla. No, I wanna get them involved. There is a sense of satisfaction after class is over when a student comes up or when they applaud after the lessons are over. You know, I don’t care if they live for the applause, but at least maybe it’s a signal to me that I’ve gotten through it and them too. It’s kind of a rare thing to be done teaching a class and have students applaud. I’m not padding myself on the back, I’m just saying that, okay, maybe I got through them, maybe I wasn’t sure but, alright, they enjoy what I had to say. And then it’s affirmed with me trying to leave the class and all the students are coming up asking further questions.
Bernd I. Eilts: Great! It’s also a nice way just to show respect to what you offer.
JD Walter: Sure. Right.
Bernd I. Eilts: Maybe you can look at it like the situation when you are in the plane and just after landing, people applause for the captain, for the pilot, right?
JD Walter: Right.
Bernd I. Eilts: It’s so beautiful to have that! It’s not just an automatic moment. They are humans, serving this to us, and it’s absolutely beautiful! It’s a sign.
JD Walter: Right. I enjoy teaching as much as I dislike it. In the part I dislike it is that it takes my energy from me. I try to give as much energy when I teach as I do when I perform. I want to get a message across. I want to make an impact. I want to say things that these students are going to remember, I wanna sing a song so that people are gonna go back home and go: Yeah, that song. You know what I mean? That one thing that this guy did, that got me, that hurts me. Or that was really cool, I really liked it or not, you know what I mean? You wanna make an impact, you can’t decide what’s gonna happen or help people gonna interpret what you do. But you need to leave some sort of impact. When you are performing, when you get into ideal situations where you get a perfect symbiotic relationship with the audience, and you’re giving to them as much as they’re giving to you.
Bernd I. Eilts: You mentioned earlier that you are also interested in reading books. I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you are also interested in art. My question is, what kind of art inspires you, what kind of books do you read, what is feeding you next to music, to be what you are?
JD Walter: A lot of psychology. Of course I love art, and I love artists and I read biographies about artists but I’m also very much interested in not only Jungian writings and Freud, but even Abraham Maslow, because not only as a teacher but as a performer I’m trying to understand myself, to understand what makes a student’s mind work. It’s a puzzle. A student comes in, taking a private lesson, and you’ve got a puzzle to solve. You got to understand, what makes this person think, what motivates them, what scares them, what are their fears, what’s holding them back from doing certain things, how can I get them to do certain things without asking them to do them. How can I trick them into realizing certain concepts. It’s a little bit of a game, but it’s also fascinating to me, but I want to understand myself. I think any musician who’s worth anything not only is listening to the music that they’re performing, but also analyzing their mindset. Now, I don’t know if this needs to go into any interview, but I am a jazz musician and in my life I’ve done a lot of drugs. I’m clean for a long time now. But my use of drugs was never about escaping. My use of drugs was about self-exploration. Sometimes, because of a lot of the reading that I was doing, maybe it was Aldous Huxley or Timothy Leary or John Cunningham Lilly, who is the pioneer of the sensory deprivation tank, he is a triple PhD, his whole question was: what exists after our five senses are taken away from us? What is happening with the mind? He devised the tank full of saline solutions at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It was warm water with a lot of salts and soundproof and you get inside and you lay down. You heard nothing and after about half an hour people started to hallucinate. Because they were feeling nothing, they were seeing nothing, they were hearing nothing, they had no active senses working. What is left then of mind after all these things? I got interested in all these things. Not from the street value or the street perspective or my friends or parties. What is mind? And what is life? What is the afterlife and what is the before life? All these questions! Philosophy!
Bernd I. Eilts: You were experimenting with yourself!
JD Walter: Yes! I was never in a social situation. I was never interested in a social situation. But I guess, where I was going with this was that now, not being involved in any drugs anymore, that these things taught me lessons. Because, the thing is I wanted to get to those places in my mind without those things. Then of course these lessons drove me to study Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, the Bahia faith, Christianity and a lot of reading has evolved. I don’t subscribe to any organised religions, I have read pretty much all the religious major texts and I believe that there are a lot of truths there, of course we all know the interpretation is the problem. For me, music is a religious experience. There was even a time where a lot of these things came to self-examination. When I was a child I was singing in the church. I was kind of the golden boy, I had a good voice and I was getting higher and I wanted to move to Vienna.
Bernd I. Eilts: To sing with the ‘Domspatzen’?
JD Walter: Yeah! But my parents said: No. And I said: What about King’s College Camebridge Men & Boys Choir School in England? And they said: No. Then I found two or three boys choirs in Amerika, one was St. Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York, another one was the American Boy Choir School and another one was the National Cathedral Washington DC School for Boys. I auditioned for all three, I was accepted for all, my parents said, you might not live in New York. Washington DC I didn’t like their school, American Boy Choir School was great. I met presidents, sang in The White House, toured and recorded with the Metropoleitan Opera, recorded at the Smithonian Institution, traveled the world and so on. Great experiences that I wanted to do. It was from 1980 to 1982, until my voice changed. I auditioned, they only accepted forty boys around the world, I went to the school and you know, this was my escape.
Back to that time, I am singing in a church. It was easy for me to sing, because I wasn’t singing about myself, it was about something greater than myself. Then I became a jazz singer and I started to have a complex.
Bernd I. Eilts: How did this switch happen, to become a jazz singer?
JD Walter: Because my voice changed. And I was playing drums at the same time. I started playing drums in the clubs, I even studied tap dance earlier for six years and recently I started studying again, because it’s so much fun. But I was playing drums because I couldn’t sing anymore. Then, when my voice started to come back, people said: Why don’t you start singing at the same time you’re playing the drums? Now I felt this self-consciousness, because people were looking at me. I wasn’t singing about something else that could take them to a meditative place, I was singing a song they wanted to listen to, they were looking at me. Now I had a complex and I had to re-examine, what I was doing and why I was doing this. I had to re-understand the fact that this is also not about you. This is about something else. The true art, telling a beautiful untruth, the lie, you’re telling the picture that you’re painting, it’s not about you. There it started, the whole dive into psychology of that all. Me wanting to understand what makes me tick, what makes my students tick, their minds, and I’m still on that search, maybe even forever. Because I’m a verb, I’m changing. I’m not the same, I’m not static. Once I become static, I’m an old man.
Bernd I. Eilts: But you don’t know if it will be like that.
JD Walter: No. But I am saying, the image of the person who decided to stop learning, my mother is eighty years old now, when she was seventy-nine last year for Christmas she asked for an electric bass, she wanted to start learning the electric bass. These are the types of minds that I want to surround myself with. I want to learn with my mom starting to learn Spanish right now. Now she’s eighty. She’s studying Spanish.
Bernd I. Eilts: Be happy!
JD Walter: Yes! It’s wonderful. Once you stop living life, you’re done. That’s what I mean, that’s what I meant by that. Then I’m with my kids together in the front yard, that’s all I have to do all day long. Opposite of living life, you know?
Bernd I. Eilts: Are you also interested in art? Do you visit exhibitions?
JD Walter: Sure! A lot of photographers actually. Do you know Larry Fink? He’s probably like the American Henri Cartier-Bresson. He’s at the moment at the Guggenheim and with him I want to tell you a funny story. I was in a jazz club and this crazy guy comes up to me, man, I gotta take pictures of you, I gotta take pictures of you! And his wife’s coming up to me, she’s crazy too, she’s an artist, and she is like: “duende, duende”… it’s a Spanish word, it means the spirit is coming out of you, and I’m like: I go to the bar, excuse me. Then a beautiful classic old American bartender, like from the movies, his name is Lee and he is like seventy-eight years old and he says: JD, what can I get you? And me: Give me a scotch straight. He: Here we go. Something seems to be bothering you. A classic bartender on the right, and I said: The sky over here is bothering me, you know? This guy just keeps standing here and takes pictures of me and I just want kind of be left alone. I’m in between sets, you know, lot of times when I perform, I feel exhausted between sets. Like I give everything and in the little pause, in the little break, and then I’m ready to go again, okay? But this guy is bothering me, and Lee looks at me and he says: If that guy is bothering you, you should let him bother you. He is one of the greatest photographers in America. And maybe the world! Then I said: Okay. So, I went over and I said: I apologize, I just want to be alone for a little bit, and he said: Come to my farm. Later I went to his farm, he photographed me, he also did the photos of one of the albums I wanna give to you Bernd, he took photographs for it. It was crazy, he didn’t bring his big cameras, he brought his smaller cameras. He took some iconic photographs with me performing with a famous saxophonist that made some books actually, Phaidon Press honored him, he had some books with Phaidon Press. You can find him easily, Larry Fink. Unbelievable. Magic!
So, I was in the middle of a record and I was breaking up with somebody, and he said: Get out of the city, there is a recording studio near by here, come finish your record and live on my farm. So, I’m living on his farm and he starts introducing me to all these great photographers in the world who are alive. They were coming and visiting him. Also, after every shoot, he comes home and he knocks at my door and says: Let’s go smoke something and check out the negatives from today. So, we go down and start looking at this negatives and he wouldn’t even know half the people who he’s been taking shots of. He: I was talking to these two very funny guys today, who I was taking pictures of from on a rooftop in Manhattan, and I ask: Who were they? He: I don’t know. But they were really funny. And I start looking at the pictures and I see Jon Stewart and Bernie Mac, two very famous American comedians, political satirists as well. Everyday he just went out to shoot and later he told me: Oh, I was with Jimmy Carter all day today and Me: Where are you going? Him: Oh, I have to go, he got hired by the Democratic party to shoot Hillary on her last moment before the election. So, he got me involved in understanding photography, I didn’t know anything about dodging, I’m talking about real development of film, very special ways of doing this, specializes in black and white. So, he got me looking at a lot of the great photographers in history and then his wife was an artist and you know, I’ve been fascinated by art for periods. Anything that moves me inside is just having an effect on me. I like Hundertwasser a lot, I like Paul Klee and Jean Miro, a lot of people who are around on the surface of Picasso and Renoir and Monet and beyond that. The deeper thing. This stuff moves me! Do I spend time in the Guggenheim? Sure! Do I go to the Whitney? Sure! Do I go to the Rubin? Yeah! Do I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and check it out? Absolutely! I think the one art that I do not visit as I should is ballet and dance. But I do and see classical music, I go to Carnegie Hall, I’m a big classical fan.
Bernd I. Eilts: What classical music are you listening to at the moment?
JD Walter: Frans Liszt, Vladimir Horowitz, Benjamin Britten, if I find something new I’m checking it out and so it’s hard to say. When I was young there were definitely 25 years in my life all I listened to was jazz. All the time. But there is more out there. And when you start learning about the greats like John Coltrane that is really something. I want to tell you this: Coltrane comes home from a gig and he records every gig and he can identify a passage, a recording that he made of himself from a gig, and he says to his wife Alice, who was a classical harpist: What is that what I’m playing? And she says: Oh, that’s from the Bartok suite that we saw two weeks ago.
Then you go: Aha. Maybe I should be opening up my ears to other kinds of music too. There are two kinds of music, good and bad. And I’m not the person to say whether it’s good or bad. Each person has to figure that out. But I like the good. I get to decide what the good is.
Bernd I. Eilts: I have a question about living in the States.
JD Walter: I’m sorry for talking so much by the way.
Bernd I. Eilts: No no no! I’m happy we have all this time with each others. Please feel free to tell me what you like to share. But I really want to know, how you experienced that day, September 11. How did 9/11 impact your life? Where were you in that moment? At that moment I was working with a choreographer from Boston and she told me very clearly, where she was exactly that moment and how she experienced all that what happened. Many people have very strong memories about that day.
JD Walter: I was living in New York but I was out of town playing a gig in Philadelphia. I had a gig the night before and I remember hearing the construction workers playing their radio so loud outside listening to the news and that was strange because normally they were listening to music. Of course not that loud but that moment their radios were blaring. And I was, what’s going on? I opened the window and I was able to hear what they were saying about a plane hitting one of the towers. I immediately went down to the television set and I turned it on and I saw the second plane hit and I was: Oh my god! Now, when the second plane hit, everyone knew it wasn’t an accident. First one plane hit, no one was sure. But when the second one hit, we all knew: Now it’s a holy shit situation. The cities were all shutting down, everyone living or staying in Philadelphia had to stay, the whole area was just locked. I wasn’t effected except for fear of life. What’s happening, what’s gonna happen, I wanted to get out of the city, I wanted to get out of Philly, I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t go back into New York. It took me about five days before I was able to get back. When I got back the heaviest thing for me was, you couldn’t get close to downtown Manhattan, but when you first started to be able to go down in that area, still, as a couple of weeks later, the heaviest thing for me was, there were fences that were just covered with pictures that said: Missing. Missing. Missing. Have you seen. Missing. Have you seen. People couldn’t find their loved ones. That was probably the heaviest thing for me. There is a Austrian author, I think his name is Otto Rank. And he wrote a book called Art of Fear. Anyway, his main premise was that everyone operates and acts out of the fear of death. In talks about, you know, when do children first realise that this isn’t a short life. But that was a heavy reminder of that this is transitory, any minute can change. From that perspective I think it softened me to not be so angry about some of the bullshit little things in life.
Shortly after I find myself in Russia. And I’m on a train, I got down there with a gig, and I’m traveling to the next town, it was a common thing in Russia, you finish your concert late at night and they don’t have to pay for a hotel, they put you on the night train. But it’s eight hours to the next town, so you get there in the morning and they put you in a hotel for the day after the concert, same thing. But, yeah, I’m in Russia, one of the first times there, and I’m in that train drinking vodka and we were having a good time with the American musicians, I got a Yankee baseball hat on and there was a bunch of sailors on this train car. I was at that restaurant drinking and this Russian officer comes up to me and says: Man, I tell you I’m very sorry about 9/11. Shortly before that, other Russian sailors come up, and they say, oh you Americans, we are very sorry about 9/11. One thing about being a traveler which is a beautiful thing is that you start to become aware of that America is not the only place in the world. There is some sad statistic that says that 80% of all Americans don’t have a passport. It’s really horrifying, you know you wonder why we have somebody like Trump doing so well. But being able to travel is a wonderful opportunity in seeing other cultures, meeting other people, understanding that your country is not the center of the universe (laughing). And that America is not the greatest country in the world and all these sayings. So, I’m on this train and these Russian sailors are gathering around. One of them is really speaking English and translating to the rest of them. I was aware and I knew that the Russian submarine called the Kursk created such a tragedy for Russia, they tried to rescue everybody and everyone died. They said, we are very sorry about 9/11 and I said, thank you very much. I appreciate that, I lost some friends in 9/11 and I wanna extend my sorrow for you especially in the navy about the Kursk. Then they all got silent. And I was like, did I say something wrong? I started talking to the translating officer and I asked: Did I say something wrong? And he said: No, but one of the guys’ brother was on the Kursk. Oh, I said, I want to drink a toast and of course I bought a bottle. Then we all drank. We drank on the Kursk, we drank on 9/11 and so, being a musician really, I think there’s been an advantage to the fact that I have never, partly by choice, partly by fate, I haven’t become a house hold name in jazz. It’s not my goal. I’m not an entertainer. I don’t care to entertain. People love what I do and that’s great. But I have a thing that I’m trying to do, I don’t talk about great artists, I don’t think Picasso met someone and that person said: put more blue in your stuff and people will love you more! No man, he did what he did, that’s what he did. Right? You can’t be concerned about the fruits of your actions. You can only be concerned about right and proper action and if something good happens and wonderful. If nothing happens, you are still doing what you’re still doing what you love to do. So, anyway.
I’m getting to see the world, I’m getting to understand the fact that governments are governments and people are people. So, I’m meeting these Russians, these human beings, men, the people, they are just like me. There is no difference what they are. Maybe their conditions are a little rougher than mine and I’m luckier, because of whatever, whether by skincolor or by where I was born or whatever it is. We all have our advantages and a lot of luck goes into all that. Also it is a fact, that life sometimes lets us have to go through bullshit. That is heavy. It’s very unnecessary. It’s depressing! I think, those are the things that affect me after 9/11. It was the comedian Louis C.K. who said, Americans have to explain that their children hate those wars in the world. You should explain this to the kids in Aleppo. Hey, there are wars and people die and, no man, they’re living that thing!
Bernd I. Eilts: They are living in the middle of that all.
JD Walter: Exactly! It’s a very privileged life that many of us in the western world live in. The right to pursue this happiness is a very precious thing to be valued. And you start to realize this and just start to see the fragility of life. At any moment it can go and are we really enjoying the now. There’s one thing that I don’t like about New York. You have the artists and that is a beautiful thing but then you have the other part which is the rat race and they’re just like: Gotta have this, gotta have that. Gotta have to be insured for this, gotta have protection from that, gotta have this, what about the future? What about now, man? You are not happy! You are miserable! You get a miserable family, your kids are miserable, you are miserable, you hate your life, do I have a lot of money? No. I have books, that make me happy, I have a garden and my hands get in the dirt and I pet my dog and we go for a walk and he licks my face.
Bernd I. Eilts: He licks your face?
JD Walter: Yeah! And I had a cat I loved, whatever, just life! This thing what we consider here right now, the sun’s not shining but there are no bombs dropping while we are talking. We have a coffee. Life is a very precious thing! So, 9/11 affected me maybe in that way. I don’t want to get political and anything that I’m saying here but: What does America expect when they start behaving like the policemen of the world and getting involved in the business that’s not fair. It’s just that Americans in general are so ignorant geo-politically, that they don’t see these things happening as long as gasoline is cheap. As long as they don’t have to worry about XVNC and they can afford clothing and food and so on.
Bernd I. Eilts: And maybe guns.
JD Walter: And guns, and McDonalds. Then everything is okay, right? But it’s not okay. There is a lot of poverty in America. The statistics about America say, two percent of the wealth is greater than the rest of the wealth. Two percent of the population controls 98 percent of the wealth or something like that, that’s some crazy figure. I’m not a capitalist. Capitalism is the destructor of art. I’m a socialist. But then there is the downside of socialism. So I don’t know if I even subscribe to any definitive political system, because one thing that I find interesting is like for example, especially in Holland, not so much in Germany, but in Holland. You see more German jazz musicians in New York than you do see in all America. There is an interesting reason why. First of all the Germans have an amazing work ethic. They come from a Germanic background. My mother actually speaks a dialect called Pennsylvanyishe Deutsch. My grandmother didn’t speak English at all. And her family had been in the United States for 300 years. And my grandmother still didn’t speak English.
Bernd I. Eilts: It’s unbelievable!
JD Walter: Yeah! She didn’t have to. Because the whole community were she grew up was Germanic. It’s more Schwäbisch, but nonetheless, the German ethic is from my father Walter, my mother Lutz, and I biologically have Jewish and Christian roots and whatever that means, I don’t know.
Bernd I. Eilts: It’s an interesting mix!
JD Walter: Yeah, I’m a Mischling. You say that?
Bernd I. Eilts: I think they said it a while ago.
JD Walter: (Laughing).
Bernd I. Eilts: I think we are all Mischlinge.
JD Walter: Yeah, but even the Jews who speak Yiddish in New York call me Mischling. Anyway. The German musicians are more disciplined. A lot of the writers I’ve been influenced by have been Russian and German, like Herman Hesse, ‘Narziß und Goldmund’ and ‘Siddharta’ and ‘Steppenwolf’, Thomas Mann – ‘Death in Venice’, but these get down to heavy philosophical questions that we’re all asking ourselves and a lot relates to me a lot. Which also influenced authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, the whole South-American contingency, they were greatly influenced by the German and the Russian writers. But the Dutch system gives the artists too much. I remember twenty five years ago I was living here in Holland and I went to an art show. There were 250.000 pieces of art that were being sold by artists. The government needed the money because they had subsidized the artists. Now, in New York, no one is subsidizing us. You make it, because you fight, right? That is in the German ethos, that’s in the American ethos. I mean, come on, American is so German. It’s ridiculous. The Mexican music is influenced by the German music. Big German settlements in Texas, huge German settlements in the North, in the Middle-East, the German ethos is alive and well in America. This is a hard working type of ethic. You work hard, you will be rewarded. It’s different from the Dutch thing, where people are handing them the fish instead of teaching them to fish.
Bernd I. Eilts: But it’s changing. It’s not like that anymore.
JD Walter: I don’t know. I’m not saying subsidizing the art is bad. I’m saying it could be overdone. I’ve done a lot of different things in music. I used to sing commercials, jingles and I made amazing money. Amazing money! But I couldn’t do it anymore. It was killing me. I was waking up with this music in my head singing about Joe’s liquor store on road 35. You know, that’ll kill you after a while! That won’t get out of your head. My mind is a sponge. I hear music and it stays. In my mind it’s: Listen to good music, play good music. Man, if you want to be a great criminal, hang out with criminals. If you want to be a great musician, listen to great music. You know, in New York there is a funny thing: you can play in a wedding band and in New York you can make 3.000 Dollars a week or more. Working three days the week and making 3 or 4.000 Dollars a week. But your soul’s gonna die. Then there are the Jazz musicians who play for 75 to 200 Dollars on average in New York, which is lower than in the rest of the country, because of supply and demand and also rents. You don’t play in New York for money. Somebody calls me for a gig in New York, I don’t ask how much it pays. Because you know, it’s gonna be nothing. You don’t play for that money. One thing to get to New York is getting to that level of recognition, so you can leave New York and make the real money in the rest of the world. New York’s not gonna pay you a jack. Right? And, if you do play, which I do, which everybody at a certain level does, play the major clubs in New York, whether it’s Lincoln Center, whether it’s the Blue Note, you only play an engagement for maybe three to five nights. That’s the longest you’re gonna play. And you sign a contract that says: I will not play in New York the month before, the month during or the month after anywhere else in New York. Let’s say, you’re gonna make a thousand Dollars for that week. That’s three months of New York living, so you have to go somewhere else, another country to make your money. Or another city. And America is not really a very friendly place to travel. We don’t have a good train system, because of capitalism killing the trains, because they said everyone had to have their own car and etcetera. Well, 9/11.
Bernd I. Eilts: Sorry for this question!
JD Walter: No, it’s okay, it’s okay! There are a lot of mixed emotions too, because I have questions about the whole thing. First of all, why did it came about, because of policies that ignorant country allowed to happen. The American people cannot be blameless for this, when we live in a system where they supposed to be represented. How can you say, that was our government, who did that. We elected them to these positions.
Bernd I. Eilts: The people.
JD Walter: You did and if you don’t like it, get them out. You wonder why the planes fly into the buildings, well maybe you shouldn’t have been killing families indiscriminately.
Bernd I. Eilts: I want to come back very shortly to your music.
JD Walter: Laughing!
Bernd I. Eilts: And how that started.
JD Walter: Right! (Laughing)! Since we haven’t talked at all about it!
Bernd I. Eilts: Exactly! Now we will start! I read, you studied for one year in Amsterdam and your teacher and mentor was Deborah Brown. She teached a method by George Packham.
JD Walter: How do you know that?
Bernd I. Eilts: The one voice method. I read about that. I wanted to know, in which way this was special for you? It’s about the range of the voice.
JD Walter: Yes, not only that, but the thing is, it’s, you know, we’re born and no one teaches us how to breathe. We breathe naturally. No one teaches us how to see. No one teaches us many things. But, as far as the voices concern, we speak improperly because no one teaches us how to speak. Evolutionarily it’s not important to speak properly, who cares if you loose your voice because you speak too much, you know? A guy can go to work. But as a singer there are certain things we need to be concerned about. Because we speak improperly and because we sing improperly, we create this head voice and this chest voice. Two separate voices. Falsetto some people call it, but really there is one voice that we separated again by speaking and singing improperly by stretching too much the bottom and trying to sing higher. But if we go for this blend instead and train our voice to strengthen our head voice to sing as low as possible, versus the convention which is training our head, our chest voice to sing higher, then we get a blend and therefore we have one voice and now the quality of that voice from the bottom to the top is the same quality. Suddenly people are saying, ah, you are a tenor. No, I’m not. I’m a bass baritone. It’s just I have the same quality up and what you call a head voice is not a head voice, it’s one voice. That separation only occurs, that crack or break in the voice only occurs, when the voice is damaged or it’s not properly warmed up. I explain this to students a lot of times – they ignore it. But they can’t ignore it, because they are only singing once a week in a concert, maybe twice a week in a concert. But when you start going on, like I do and other professional singers, and you sing thirty concerts in a row in thirty-one days, you better have some technique down. Or even four or five nights the week.
Bernd I. Eilts: You also said, some singers don’t have beautiful voices, but instead their intention shines through their voice. That’s nice!
JD Walter: You never heard someone say something like that? It’s like looking at a person and judging the value of that person by the way they look. And when they could have great beauty inside them, and yet our society judges peoples beauty externally and I think, the analogy is, we are judging somebody’s voice by the aesthetic quality of that voice. But what does that person have to say? We can have Emerson or Rumi or any other great poets saying so many eloquent words, like I love you, and you can have a five year old child come in the room and in simple language, broken incorrect grammar, say I love you and it’s so much deeper. Right? The complexity of what’s being said has nothing to do with the intention. And neither does the beauty of the message being sent from the artist. There are some drummers where I play with they have a marvelous technique, but they hit a cymbal with a stick. And the depth of it, that sounds really strange for the layman to hear that. There was a man and he took a stick and he hit a piece of metal and it moved me. It seems so banal. It seems so strange. But there is that one drummer I play with, he hits the cymbal and the intention he means, he meant that. And what did he mean by that? It’s really incredible. So, there are a number of singers I can even mention off the top of my head who I think have voices, who are aesthetically very unappealing to me, who are some of my favourite singers, including Bob Dorough. Which is the one guy I was talking about. I told him: You have one of the ugliest voices I ever heard with more intention than I ever have in my life.
You know, this guy meant what he said. I saw him in a concert about a year ago, he is ninety-two years old, now he’s playing piano sloppy, his voice is sloppy and creaky and old and he killed me! Intention! Isn’t that the whole thing with all art? You mean what you say. Do you mean that photograph? Do you mean that stroke? Did you mean that or not? Did you mean to do this? Move while you’re dancing. Did you mean to sing that note and what did that note mean? What was the meaning behind it as well? So, I think intention is the key to all art. That’s THE thing. I can listen to Chopin and that’s wonderful, I can listen to Vladimir Horowitz play Liszt or I can hear a child come up and really play Mary had a little lamp and mean every note! That’s the same thing to me. It’s beautiful.
I was at a party one time in College and I’m sitting around with all my Jazz geek friends. You know, I’m studying music, I know some stuff. Proud of myself and everything and this hippie dude comes up and he says: Oh, what are you guys doing? And we go: We are musicians. And he: Right man! I wrote a song last week. Me: Yeah? He: Yeah, you wanna hear it? And we are like: Sure man. Whatever, right? There were some glasses on the table and some pieces of metal and he starts playing these rhythms on the glasses and he starts singing this song man! And I was thinking: What am I going to school for? Just some dude just came up and meant what he said and he hurt me. Who do I think I am? It was a humbling experience. You know, it sounds so ridiculous. That I’m on a party and some hippie stoners came up and started banging on glasses and sing a song. But it was really a point! I thought: Just get off of your high horse, you know? And stop thinking that you know something because you don’t know anything. It’s that Buddhist saying: If you meet a Buddha on the road, kill him. Meaning, if you think you have an idea of what it is, kill that idea, because you don’t. That can be said of any religion. If you think you have an idea what god is, kill that idea. Because you have no idea. Even in the bible they are telling you some truths, some eternal truths. That’s the same with music. Once you think that you understand what it’s all about, you have to kill that idea. Killing your ideas makes you open. Killing the idea of thinking you know everything leaves you open to new experiences and listening to students where you can learn so much.
Bernd I. Eilts: It’s like what Alina Engibaryan told me many times: Well, the teachers taught me to leave my comfort zone.
JD Walter: Yes!
Bernd I. Eilts: And she was proud of that, all her life was about that fact. Leaving her comfort zone makes her rich.
JD Walter: Right. This video you were watching was the first one, I produced. (The making of “One Step Away”). As a real producer, I’m honest. The bass player from Branford Marsalis, Eric Revis and Orrin Evans, the pianist, we were all friends, and the drummer Nasheet Waits, all very famous people, and Marc Ducret, the guitarist, and Marvin Sewell who is on one tune, he’s Sandra Wilson’s musical director, these are all really accomplished musicians and I am very humbled to say they’re my friends. I’ve been playing with them for years. But when I asked them to produce this record, Orrin and Eric say, it’s okay, but there are conditions. Me: What are these conditions? They say: You have to do whatever we tell you to.
Their whole mission for this whole record was to make me feel uncomfortable. Or, better said: To be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Everything that I’ve planned, got hidden away.
Bernd I. Eilts: To be open for anything, that might come up.
JD Walter: I’m telling you, I can tell you stories about that record that freaked me out in the studio but then I had to go and what? Like one of the things they said to me was: Write lyrics. Me: Write lyrics for what? They: Don’t worry about it, just write lyrics and get used to the rhythm. Me: Okay.
So, I get in the studio the next day and they are like: Go in there. Me: Okay? What am I going to do? They: The music’s gonna start playing and you’re gonna start singing the lyrics you wrote. Me: What melody? They: Don’t worry, just start singing the melody. Me: Okay! They: One take.
Then I sang the melody. They: Fine. And now we are playing it again and this time we don’t want you to harmonize necessarily with what you did, we want you to just sing other notes. With the same lyrics.
There were no mutual takes. I went in and I sang in once, sang the second part and they say: Okay, we’ve got it. Another time they said: Go in there and just start playing with the pedals. You will play with the guitarist and the drummer. Me: Okay.
Then we played for fifteen minutes and they say: Okay, that’s it. We got it.
Alright! I wrote an arrangement for the whole band, we get in the studio and they: Well, now you do it with the guitarist. Then I wrote another complete arrangement or something, I wanted to do very specific, that I was very excited about and they said: Your arrangement, we are throwing out your introduction, we are changing this and that, and that’s what’s gonna happen. I was completely unprepared. I had no idea what’s gonna happen. And then we do the next thing. Everything pretty much went that way except one song, but the last song of the recording session, I gave them a lecture. Because, they were living it up in the studio. We got to the last song, we had sunglasses on, we are inside the studio and we start playing the song and we get down with the song and I came out of the cabin and I said: That’s it, that’s what I’m getting. Because they have a band called Tarbaby, as a trio, Orrin Evans, Nasheet Waits and Eric Revis. I said: That’s what Tarbaby has for me? Is this what I’m paying for? And they were: Okay, allright. Then the second take. Bhamm! They gave it to me! That was it. Most of the songs we recorded two times and they don’t let me overdub anything.
If I wasn’t happy with something, we had to do the whole song again. They wanted it to be real, but of course, there were mistakes, things I wasn’t happy with. They didn’t want a perfect album. And that’s pretty much all my records, this is the only record I recorded in two days. Every other record I’ve done in one day. Because I was never trying to make a commercial record. I never was interested in having a perfect record. I wanted to have something that was a reflection of how I really did it.
Bernd I. Eilts: Pure. Authentic.
JD Walter: Yeah. Right. Maybe I would take a second take, but I would never overdub, take things out, makes things perfect. And there is a beauty in that, there is a purity in that and there is a disadvantage to that. Because my music is not wine and cheese music. No one’s gotta put my stuff on at a party. Maybe a couple of things here and there are nice. But it’s gonna irritate people, you know? I think, it would bother people. Am glad, you dig it! On a party are people maybe pretending to care about, whether it’s a ballad in the background, it wouldn’t really bother people so much. The first songs of my last album for sure will bother people.
Bernd I. Eilts: But the guitar on the first song is so amazing!
JD Walter: Yeah. Amazing, right? Incredible. If I knew it could be background music, the song “It’s raining today”, it wasn’t even a song I wanted to do. I didn’t even like it. But the bass player said, no, we’re doing this. And here is what’s gonna happen: You come in here, you sing this note, this note, this note, we’re gonna make this, and then, you know, they were crazy! They are practicing imagination in the studio with me, with my money. And we were making this record!
I talked with my mother, my father is dead and I’m close to my mother and my mom asked: How was it? And I said: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. So, I went home and I was visiting her and I just had to sit for a while, it was too close to it. I played it for her, she’s a great musician and she’s like: I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. And then, this was a beautiful thing, she called me a week later and she said: You know, I’ve been driving around in my car and I’ve been listening to your record a couple of times a day, I think you perhaps made something very special here. And I was like: Okay.
And then an interesting story, this is very disturbing. My first record I’ve ever made. I was so proud. I came home and my father was still alive. Dad, you wanna hear, what I did? I wanted to make my father proud! I wanted to please him. I played my record and my dad gets up and walks away and he starts doing something and I turned it off and I asked him, what are you doing? He said: Oh, I can still listen to it while I’m doing other things. And I was like: No, that’s not okay. And he said: What do you mean? I can do other things while I’m listening to your record. And I’m saying: Dad, you are a judge, right? He: Yeah. Me: Well, when you’re giving a sentence or giving a speech, is it okay for people to walk around and do other things? He: No, that’s different. I’m saying important things! And I was like: Aha! Okay. And he was like: Oh okay. He kind of caught himself. And me: Well, this is important to me. And what I say every single note is important to me. And so, this is music to listen to, or not to listen to. This isn’t some supermarket stuff that you listen to, going around shopping for cheese and meat and getting in the elevator and whistling along while you listen to the music. Do I want to hear Frans Liszt in the supermarket? Hell no! Do I want to hear Chopin or Skrjabin or Schubert or Webern and Berg in a restaurant? No! It’s music that has been bastardized. It’s used as a tool. Restaurants use it, okay, there’s not so many people here, so let’s play slower music and people will relax more and buy more food. Oh, there’s a lot of people, let’s turn over faster music, it’s a tool! The seventies ruined art for many reasons. The movie industry, everyone for the big money. They want the block-buster, they want the best selling record. Not that I’m not a Andy Warhol fan, but they want the Warhol. They want that and that and that. The thing that’s gonna sell!
Bernd I. Eilts: I have a question about your main influences. You mentioned earlier Betty Carter, Wilton Nascimento, Flora Purim. What about artists from now? Like for example Ed Motta, the Brazilian singer?
JD Walter: No, I’d like to say, more Rosa Passos. I don’t know, if you are familiar with her, I think she is one of the greatest Brazilian singers alive right now. I also had to plead a little ignorance, while I have a large Brazilian collection I don’t know as many people as I should. But Rosa has always done it for me. Ellis Regina I like as well, I like the arrangements of Sergio Mendez, a lot of what he’s done, although it goes to the pop side of things, I like the Brazilian more poppy jazz types of things a lot too. Like that 80’s sound, that is really appealing to me, there is a cheesiness to it, but I dig it. Yes, but there are a lot more influences than those than you mentioned. Eddie Jefferson and Babs Gonzales (1919 – 1980), King Pleasure (1922 – 1981) to some degree maybe too.
Bernd I. Eilts: You mentioned also Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin.
JD Walter: Sure. I got to hang out with Bobby and open up for him a few times and spend time with him and drive him around. I got to know him a bit. I don’t really consider him a jazz singer, I consider him an amazing artist but not a jazz singer necessarily. I think he is an incredible artist. But as far as a jazz singer there aren’t very many in this world. I think, Betty Carter is probably really the purest of all jazz artists that has lived. One of the purest. And never really received recognition until her last years.
Bernd I. Eilts: I saw her once on a festival here in Groningen many years ago.
JD Walter: Wow!
Bernd I. Eilts: I always liked her music. I had two of her records for a long time, bought them later again on CD.
JD Walter: Well, I was obsessed with her to the point where I played with 35, maybe 40 musicians who have been in her bands. Because I wanted those stories, I wanted to know how she treated her musicians, I wanted to know what she did. I became friends with and also played quite a bit with her drummer on a few of her records, Greg Hutchinson. One of the worlds greatest young drummers. And yes, my question was, how was she treating the band, what did she made the band do, and so I got so many stories.
Bernd I. Eilts: Did you ever meet her?
JD Walter: Yes, I met her after I did my first recording, because I was dropping Greg off at her house. And Greg said, come on, you’ve to meet Betty. And I said: No no no no no. And he: Come on, let’s get in. Then he put a tune on (of my last record) and I was like, ohhh, and she just looked at me from the sideway and I said: It was nice to meet you! And then I left. Then I called him the next day and was like: What did she say? What did she say? And he was: Man, she really dug it, she really dug it! And I’m like: Man, you don’t need to say this. And he: No man, she was thinking about it and she was asking me to hear a couple of more tunes then. But she was more curious than anything. And me: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know, if she dug it or not. He said she did.
I absolutely come from her tradition, even though I got into a lot of other things. The elasticity of what she does, the freedom that she has, I haven’t remained the purest like she has, but I remain true to myself.
Bernd I. Eilts: For me it was always interesting to listen to her, because she was very much in a very slow mode and played very long songs. And then, suddenly, she became extremely crazy and explosive! Just to get into another intro of another very long and very slow ballad. She was the owner of the time. With these qualities we had to listen to her! We couldn’t escape. I also noticed in your songs, you like ballads, you like to sing ballads.
JD Walter: I do. I do like ballads a lot.
Bernd I. Eilts: Why?
JD Walter: I think, because I can get more of the pain out. And I’ve had a lot of pain in my life. Even if I’m not in pain currently, I can re-conjure it up. There is a cleansing, that happens. It’s like going to a psychiatrist. You tell him your problems and it’s like singing the blues! I sing a song and I get it out.
I remember that relationship in my life, where the other person just seemed to be pretending to care about me, and I’m there again, I’m in pain again. And I’m able to get it out. I like faster songs too, you know? But ballads, they get me. There is a youtube video, I think you would like if you like the whole slow ones, where I’m playing with Orrin. I’m singing Body & Soul. It’s even on my website.
Bernd I. Eilts: Yes, I saw it already. It’s ten or eleven minutes long!
JD Walter: Yes! But I was just sitting in. I was not even on the gig. I was just in the audience and they said: Hey! Would you like to sing a song? Like that. And I didn’t know, what was going to happen. I didn’t know, the band was gonna drop out. I didn’t know at one point, he just stopped playing and expect me to go on. But Orrin is a great musician in the sense that he did some things to me, personally on the bandstand, when we started playing together that taught me some valuable lessons.
We were playing a gig in Philly and I was the only white person in the band. We were playing some funk but they wanted us to play not just background music. Then some white people said some stuff, that offended people in the band. And they were angry. And they were not talking, they were just not good. They just looked at me and said: JD, sing! And I was like: Sing what? And they were like: Sing! Me: So I just sing a song? They looked at me and they were like: Sing motherfucker, sing! They were not happy. They weren’t taking it out on me, but they were just kind of exasperated. So I started to sing. Then slowly the band started to play along with what I was doing, and it came into this hole I could see them just getting it out. They were like: Alright! This is what we’ve been given to work with, now we’re gonna play with you. Never again was I going to be confronted with a band dropping out and me being afraid. Or me singing by myself and being afraid. Or again, I put myself into a lot of situations on purpose, going up to try and expand myself, just singing with the bass player on gigs for example. I have a record called “2Bass, a Face and a little Skin”, which is just two bass players, drums and voice. It’s one of my favorite records, it’s actually one of my largest selling record, I don’t know why, but it is. It’s pretty esoteric. Two double bass players, a voice and drums. The Bass Player Magazine wrote a lot about it. Some other bass magazine’s wrote about it, nobody else wrote reviews, but then it turned up oddly one of the most selling records that I have. I sold maybe ten or fifteen thousand copies of it.
Bernd I. Eilts: You have a label for all your records?
JD Walter: All my records have a label and then I started to buy them back from the labels when they thought there wasn’t any money to be made. With my latest album I started my own record label, JWAL records and like this I get all the royalties. Betty Carter did the same thing, she started BetCar, I wonder if any of these records you have here are on the BetCar label? This is on Polygram and Verve, but the old vinyl she made were on BetCar. Original LP Betty Carter BetCar. For her it went the other way. After I made my first record, lots of record labels were suddenly interested, because they wanted a competitor with Kurt Elling. Who can we get, to compete against Kurt Elling. So, they started talking to me. And I started to see what it’s all about and it made me stronger. They started saying things like: Alright! Here’s what we see you’re doing – we see you performing this music, with these musicians and we see you singing these songs and in this style, and then maybe we can get you some jobs on a television show, and maybe we can get you in a movie, we need to get you clothing with a clothing fashion designer and I’m like: I’m a singer, man. That’s what I do. And my lawyers said: You are an idiot JD! These people are gonna make you rich! And I’m like: I don’t want to be rich, I want to sing. Why don’t you get this, I’m not an actor. I don’t want to act, I don’t want to be in a TV show. They: But it will help your career! Me: I don’t care. I don’t get it. Of course, Kurt does it, Harry Conninck did it, Norah Jones did it, they did that all, movies, commercials, all this. Kurt is a good friend of mine. Yeah, it’s like a dream for a record label, Michael Bubblee’, same story. Even getting soundtracks to movies, etcetera etcetera. If you see me in a movie, please shoot me. Just take me out. I’ll write it down.
Bernd I. Eilts: I want to ask you about composing. You compose music but also lyrics. What are your lyrics about, what do you like to write about the most? And then I would love to know how you compose. Do you use a piano, a computer program, do you sing in the subway and record something on your phone or during traveling, did you compose today, just let me know about your personal ritual please.
JD Walter: So, about composing. My lyrics are a lot about falling in love, falling out of love, I need some love, Gotta get some love, Where will love go to. I have written songs about love, because it’s something, that’s happened to me. I’ve also written songs about my life. And also other things, that happened to me that had nothing to do with love. There is a song, not on this album, but originally recorded on my album “Live in Portugal”, called ‘Inward’. That was all about my dis-tastes. Just before this question, I described to you the situation I had with record labels. So I described why this thing is sacred to me, Inward, where I call my home, where I’m searching for universal springs that are unknown. While lonely white men, on their thrones so high, make choices whether I may do or die, and thinking overtime, I hurt myself, over and over I’m bleeding from my mind cruel to be kind thats what they said in their eyes I know it well I’ve seen before, this kind of things. I’m talking about this experience of my dis-taste for capitalism and its industry. Another song that I wrote was about a personal experience if I knew, if it’s her, who is she, is that her walking. These are the feelings that an adopted child has. Is that my mother? Is that my mother? Is that my biological mother? Who is she? Is that her walking down the street almost complete? Do I look like her? Do I smell like her? What I recognize with my own eyes? I’m afraid of all this. Is this her that I just missed? Is she still even alive? Or was I the last to survive? Is she stupid? Or am I just a product of a fine wine and a very good time? Is he still on the picture? All these questions!
And then I finally get to the point that I probably wouldn’t care but if I only knew. So, that song is called ‘If I knew’. But that’s not about love, that’s about my own personal experiences. On the 2Bass and the Face record is a song called ‘Columbiana’. No lyrics. That was about a girl that I was dating but I wanted to capture a feeling, not a specific story. She’s a Latina, she’s from Colombia, I just wanted to catch that flavour. Then I write lyrics for other people. On another record, well, this is a funny story: I was playing with Dave Liebman and we decided to do this record. Of course, this is back before the internet. When we were writing, he lives a few hours away from Philly, I was living in Philly that time.
Bernd I. Eilts: He told you to go back to New York, right?
JD Walter: He did, yes, he did. Right after this record. He said: We’re gonna do some of your tunes and some of my tunes and then we will do some standards. Me: Right, fine. He: So, here is a cassette tape of a bunch of my tunes. Just pick out what you like, here’s some music, sent to me through snail mail. So, I’m playing with a piano, singing with the cassette tapes, there was no email to communicate really that time. That was 1990. I said, I really like this one song. It was deep, it was heavy and it was called ‘Across the Line’. So I said to Dave: Hey Dave, what is this song about, it would be nice to know, just some background. So that I can write lyrics that are appropriate. And he says: Well, this guy wants me to endorse this mouthpiece, and I checked it out and I thought this is a great mouthpiece! Yeah, I’ll endorse the mouthpiece. So, then I decided to write some letters but finally I come to find out that this guy stole the mould for this mouthpiece from somebody else. Then I wrote back and said, I can’t endorse this mouthpiece, because you stole this. Then the guy started doing things like calling up Carnegie Hall, telling them he was David’s agent, cancelling concerts, sending pictures in the mail of Dave and his family with his eyes burned out and a dead fish, like this Sicilian mafia thing, crazy stuff! Took the letter head off the letter, wrote a letter to Branford Marsalis, calling him a nigger. Dave had to call the FBI, death threats against him, he had to get a lawyer to contact Branford and say: Hey man, I didn’t do this. You know? And I am supposed to write lyrics about this!! So, I did. And now it’s gonna be in the real book! The song is kind of becoming something, with these lyrics. But yes, that was heavy. Then there is another song, which is just a philosophy of life song. Sometimes people are like: Why always writing songs that are heavy and philosophical. And I’m like: Why not? There is more to say than just love. I’m gonna look at my last record here, ‘One Step Away’. ‘Inside Outfluence’ is also a non love song, ‘Inward’ is a non love song, ‘How to die and where to fly’ is one of those. ’50 Ways to leave your Lover’ is a cover, ‘Pretending to Care’ is a cover too. ‘One Step Away’ is my own song, a suitable love song. One step away from you, one step behind, can I get close to you and so on. The concept of falling in love with somebody walking down the street. Or you just step one step away from them in life or whatever it is. I wasn’t so happy with how the cover got printed. I even don’t know how you can tell, what this image actually is.
Bernd I. Eilts: I looked at it many times, but yes, it looks like a silhouette.
JD Walter: The left side is my face, and the other one is the girls face. In the printing it didn’t come out, you can’t even control that, but it’s still not an ugly cover? It’s interesting.
Bernd I. Eilts: This woman on the cover is/was your girlfriend?
JD Walter: No no no. She’s a model. I hired her for the shoot.
Zoltan Acs: What was the concept of the photographs?
JD Walter: That I’m ‘One Step Away’ from meeting this girl, ‘One Step Away’ from getting to know her. That’s why we have it like that, she’s kind of like this way and I’m that way, we are facing here but, I’m facing my back and she’s here. She was an amazing and beautiful model. But in the end, the music is, what it’s all about.
Bernd I. Eilts: How do you compose music?
JD Walter: Composing music can come from, there is always some kind of nugget, different pieces I could have a melody, that’s just in my head. Then I try to see, if that’s working. Then I sit down and harmonize it.
Suddenly the waiter comes to bring us another round of decaf. I say thank you in Dutch and JD Walter asks, how I say it in Dutch. I tell him, I already live in Holland for more than 20 years. Suddenly JD Walter starts talking German in a very fast way. I’ll try to to give a sample here: Ich hatte einen alten Freund, der kommt aus München, ich hatte in Deutschland vielleicht mehr als 25 Jahre gewest, in München, und südlich von München, in Starnberger See. Aber mein Deutsch ist schlecht jetzt. Ich verstehe mehr.
Bernd I.Eilts: Ich kann nicht glauben, dass es schlecht ist. JD Walter: Naja, ich weiss. Ich weiss, was ich nicht weiss.
JD Walter: German is a great language to have, traveling around the world. German and Spanish. I don’t know if many people would guess that, but German is a very convenient language to have.
But coming back to composing, I sit at the piano and things can come different ways. First of all, anybody who is writing music, should be having a notebook. Writing thoughts down, writing ideas down. So, I have a notebook with many different ideas, many different thoughts and I have this place where I can go to. Every once in a while I be like I can sing something immediately with that. Other times I have a chord progression I like that I’m playing and I just start mumbling words on top of it. Then it’s a game. No I’ve got a word here, I’ve got a word here, how can I connect those two words. Because it feels good singing those words over these chords in this way. Now I’m creating the story around sounds that are fun to make over these chords. Other times, I specifically set out to write a song about something. Many things can happen, it can be a melody first, it can be the chords first, it can be the lyrics first, and sometimes I have pieces, lot’s of different pieces.
Bernd I. Eilts: Like a puzzle?
JD Walter: Yeah. And I can go where I have this box of pieces and I have this other box of pieces that I wrote, and then: You know what, actually this one goes with this one. And then I put them together. I always have maybe three or four songs that I’m in the middle of writing. And they could be about love or not.
Bernd I. Eilts: Also political situations?
JD Walter: Absolutely. Most people don’t really want to hear about political stuff. (Laughing). Especially Americans.
Bernd I. Eilts: But it’s part of our life!
JD Walter: It is. You know, Bob Dylan wrote that, with God on our side? You know that song? He is singing about the bombing and the blablabla and whatever is happening and the destruction and the end of each phrase is with ‘God on our side’. As I said, sometimes I sit down with books, that I really like and I find a phrase that I like in a book and then I compose a song based on that one phrase. Of what I think is a truth. A lot of philosophy, a lot of psychology, history I love too. I love biographies and I also love satire, quite a bit. Next to my bed there are probably at least 35 books and then I have another thousand books on my book shelves in the house.
Zoltan Acs: You don’t use that ebook reader?
JD Walter: I don’t like reading that, I can’t do it, I tried it. I can’t do it. I need to touch the pages. Books are as much an escape for me as music is. Really! I don’t know why I’m trying to escape. Again: I’m trying to get back to that enjoying the Now. I’m assuming, we three here are about the same age? The fourties? Early fifties? Are we?
Bernd I. Eilts: I think. At least one of us. Pause.
Bernd I. Eilts: Do you have a piano at home? You compose there? Or also on the road?
JD Walter: I can write but I do need a piano, that’s how I compose. I’m not a fantastic piano player but I’m functional. I teach theory and harmony from the piano, so I’m good enough to teach from that place. To come back to your question if I write on the computer – I have to say, that I’m an old fashioned person. I like writing my chords by hand and if someone complains about it, I pay a graduate student to put it in a computer in electronic form. But other than that, man, I can scan it and take a picture of my hand-written sheet, that’s good enough. I like writing things by hand. There is an art to it and I fall in love with pencils, that is strange. I fall in love with the sharpness and the softness of pencils. I really enjoy the patience, that writing a chord out. That is satisfaction. A sense of satisfaction. With computers you can transcribe things very quickly, by pressing a button. Otherwise you do it by hand but, you know, kids these days they don’t have to write a chord out. When I’m on a gig and someone says, I don’t know this song I’m like: Give me this piece of paper and I write a chord. And it’s very well written. They are like: It’s poorly written. They just don’t know.
Bernd I. Eilts: This is something interesting you say there. I want to talk a bit about the students from today. I talked with Matt Wilson about it, with Adam Nussbaum too. There is a new generation of students now and they change every year. It’s also a new way, how they learn music. It’s becoming faster and more and more. In the past learning music was more like digesting, to give it time. Now all is a big rush. What do you think about it?
JD Walter: It is a sensory overload.
Bernd I. Eilts: Is Jazz becoming intellectual? Because now people do their degree in Jazz!
JD Walter: I heard someone, who said, once an art form is taught at a university, it’s dead. There are even some Colleges, they teach rapping classes. If you can imagine. But, here is an example: Some of the skills that I have are because of the era that I was born in and my financial situation of the time. I was very poor. My family might have had money, but they didn’t give it to us. They were like: You want that nice pair of shoes? You get a job and you earn it. And then this made me be proud. Even if I was literally starving, maybe I didn’t eat for a couple of days, because I didn’t have money, that’s not starving, but just being realistic about the world. But going for a few days without food or really not having much money to get by, I found myself meeting and wanting to learn new songs. Well, we didn’t have the internet, I couldn’t look up songs on the internet, I couldn’t afford the books, they were too expensive, and there really weren’t that many books, there was like one book. And then everything else was on record. So, what I did have to do, I had to listen to the record and transcribe it. And sit down with the keyboard and figure it out. So now I’m listening to a record, and I check is that the chord, is that the chord, is that the chord, here is the melody, here is the chord, now I’m learning a skill, that students have to take a class to learn. They take a class called ‘Transcription’. In college it was an easy class for me, because I knew how to do it, because that’s what I did. To get this music that I wanted that was unavailable. Some music is not available. The only way to get it is, to transcribe it from the keyboard, from the record. Listen to the record over and over again, I’m learning, learning differently. My ears are learning, I’m getting writing skills, I’m getting hearing skills, and this is something that kids don’t have these days. As a result of that, because they can press buttons and they can find the chords for this song and even the lyrics! So, when I used to get lyrics from things I’m writing them down on long hand. That’s something about the memorization of learning something. When you’re writing something down, versus print press print, and you get it printed out, now I’m really learning Aha! Now the examination of the art of how this person actually wrote the poetry, of what’s being used is deeper to me, because I’m learning this by something that’s been done for thousands of years. Which is by repetition. Not by pressing a button. And now they have Youtube, and I have a student right now, it’s really disconcerting to me, a great singer, right? Something, and that is gonna be easy teaching her certain, I’m making assumptions. And I’m like: Alright, I want you to learn this song, this song, this song. And she: Why don’t I have my computer here? Me: What has this to do with it, here is the music, I give it to you. Can you play the piano? She: Yeah. Well, I can’t learn songs, I have to learn them by listening to somebody else singing. Me: I’m just thinking by myself: Wow, I never really thought about that. Yes! It’s nice to hear, I want to learn this song and you imitate, because we learn languages by imitating. And maybe we learn some stylistic things by imitating but at some point, and this is going a little bit down the line, I think imitation then can be detrimental, because then it’s not you anymore. You wanna get your own thing going and I stopped listening to singers for a long time, because I felt I was doing things that they were doing and I didn’t wanna do that. I wanted to find out what was really me.
But yes, when I learn a song, I want to learn what the melody is and then I want to make it my own, through whatever procedures that I go through. But we have Youtube, the internet, all these resources, and its very detrimental I think, in many aspects. They are not learning the old-fashioned way. When I have my own private students, sometimes I get the situations, that I have five students. When I teach lessons, I charge them for a lesson, but I don’t charge by the hour. I charge by the lesson. That lesson might be three hours long. Maybe one hour and fifteen minutes long. It’s the same price. It’s more an apprenticeship. I’m teaching them, because I want to teach them and they are eager to be taught. Versus, I’m coming from my lesson and the hour is up, ding-ding-ding, giving me my money, next student. I have an aversion with that.
Bernd I. Eilts: There was this thing, you called jazz African-American-classical music. The first musicians I was thinking about were Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. Because also, you love voice, singing and percussion. That’s really African-American-classical music.
JD Walter: And for me also going to Duke Ellington, which is very classical, and Count Basie. Even back to Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven records, or Bix Beiderbecke and those earlier players. And how things evolved. Those band’s like Sydney Bechet, it’s fascinating, the evolution of the music. This music came from tragedy, slavery and mixing and of course, one component I feel personally for sure had 100 percent to do with it, was we had hundreds of years of slavery. We had slave masters sleeping with slave women making children and those children were treated differently. Now, what started to happen was, because there were so many, they were given an education. And many times they were taught to take classical instruments and so these western classical music bands, that would accompanied the balls and parties for the white plantation owners developed down in the South. Then, at the end of the civil war, when the blacks were freed, the white people in the south were like: We don’t care if you have a little black in you, you are all over there. Now you have uneducated African musicians being forced to live with western classical trained musicians and you have this thing happening. They don’t talk about this so much in history books. But I think that plays a heavy role in it. You have people, who are schooled in Stravinsky and Ravel and Debussy, now they’re having to live with James P. Johnson types of players, who are raw and were singing more African types of rhythms and sensibilities and they are mixing. So, you have this beautiful mélange of western theory and instrumentation being mixed with African sensibilities. This development of music as I said came from tragedy, but it’s classical music mean. The Japanese call Jazz Black Music, right? The development of Jazz would not have happened without the Africans and the whole story, that we all know full well. But it’s a mistake to think, white people have not been involved in the very beginning of Jazz. There was also a seperation of that as well, the Glenn Millers and those Big Bands, they separated. A lot of times they were not allowed to play in the same clubs. Or black people had to be on the balcony or whatever it was. These racial structures in the country messed with the art form a little bit. But among players, they loved and respected each others for the most part and were sharing information. The evolution of it is a very interesting thing. So taught African-American-classical music is a very odd description. I think, sometimes white people are offended, when I say this. White jazz musicians. But I don’t care. You can’t take the black out of Jazz. Take the white out of Jazz and it would be different, but it is a weird thing.
Bernd I. Eilts: But it’s even more weird to say, that there are black and white people involved. I mean, we are all people.
JD Walter: Right. And then, if we really understand the history of…
Suddenly the waiter interrupts our chat. And JD Walter forgets how to continue.
Bernd I. Eilts: When I saw you in the Smederij Tuesday night, I didn’t know, what to expect from your performance. But then, when you started singing solo, it totally connected me with another universe, what I loved! Because it was just natural very strong. That reminded me of something, Alina Engibaryan told me. She said: Here in Groningen you are learning music and you have many choices, how to do it. But when you are in New York, it’s what it is. This is how I understood your performance. It was there, strong, clear, just like that. My next question is about your feelings, while you sing a concert. Then I also need to know where you are inside a song, when you’re not singing?
JD Walter: I’m truly interested in what my band is saying. I wanna be turned on too! When I’m singing, the place where I go to or like to go to is not to be the one singing, but I would like to be in the audience, in my mind. Now I’m singing what I like is to hear as if I was in the audience. If I can reach that place without the use of drugs, which used to be the case, but now I don’t need it anymore. I’m fine. I found that place that I can go to that allows me to have an experience, that it’s not me doing it anymore. I’m singing what I like to hear if I would sit in the audience. Then, when other people are playing, I just figure out I have the best seats in the house. I’m hoping that they’re taking me somewhere, maybe even inspire me, to do something, to go somewhere when I do come back in. That type of thing.
Bernd I. Eilts: What in general does interest you in music? Why did you choose music? You never thought about becoming a pilot or a baker?
JD Walter: Well, now that I’m older, life is short, you can’t do everything. I think, I would like to go to law school. I think, I wouldn’t mind being a psychologist. There are a number of things I would might love to do. But from the inception of giving you a brief description of like my childhood, of growing up in a rough neighborhood, having a very strict father, overbearing, my escape was music. It was always music. It was the place that I could go to no one else could touch me there. Whether I’m listening to it or whether I’m singing it. You can’t tell me what to do now. This is my time. And I’m listening to music and really, I was a sensitive and emotional child. Emotional! There was this pain, I can’t really describe to you exactly what it was. I started to notice that it wasn’t normal as it were, when I would be in love with maybe a passage from St. Matthew’s passion, by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. I was so driven to tears, I had one of these foldable record players and a big headphone on and I was in heaven. And I would really be rocking. I was listening to these things and it took me to places, it did something to me. And then my friends in the neighborhood would come over and I: Hey, you really have to check this out. And I played it for them. And they: What’s wrong with you? And I’m like: Check this out! Or Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. The lyrics were so sublime and the harmonies too. But then I learned to not do this anymore. Don’t play it for them, because they think you are weird. They are not getting what you’re getting and that’s okay. That’s your special thing. But it was my escape from my father, from my neighborhood. When your father becomes a public figure, later on I was beaten on the street because my father put someone into jail. But when you are a kid, other adults treat you differently because of that. They don’t know whether to be harder on you, because this is your father’s dad, to be nicer than you, or to be indifferent, which you feel is palpable, you can almost taste it. That these people are not treating you like a normal human being. Or, you are confused, because maybe they are and now you are paranoid, because it messed you up in your head. So, I felt mistreated sometimes and music was my escape. Also, I could get out of school a lot because I was winning competitions and I was being able to travel and do all these things. At one point they said: You missed too much school, we are not sure to let you graduate and I was even representing the school! But music was always my escape. I almost feel ill when I don’t sing for periods of time. I gotta get something out.
Bernd I. Eilts: So, it’s a deep love, that connects you with music?
JD Walter: I don’t know. I don’t know how to quantify it. I think, it sounds trite. But sometimes people say, people make art, not because they want to, but because they have to. You, as a photographer, you feel compelled to capture images, you feel compelled to do this. I don’t know how you feel if you don’t do it. You feel anxious? Then something is missing, right? It’s the same for me. I got to sing! I got to get it out! I have to be creative. This creativity is beautiful, because it can be a developing a film, it can be taking pictures, it can be coming up with a new concept for a subject matter, and it’s the same for me. A subject matter for a composition, me writing a song, me even teaching and getting an idea across the student or a bunch of students or the physical act of singing. All sorts of things.
Bernd I. Eilts: Are there also students who ask you general life advices?
JD Walter: Yes. You become a mentor in other ways. And having lived a harder life as a musician, you have more experience than somebody else who has a day job, where a steady income is coming in. You know, we are living on the edge of fragility all the time, the edge of uncertainty where the concept of nothing is certain is a live every single day. I don’t know how I will be eating from now on. Sometimes I think ecurity is a vice dulls the senses. We lived that before, or were close to the edge of disaster. Sometimes people in war say, they never felt more alive than they were closer to death. It’s not that extreme, but when I think back to some of the happiest times in my life, there I had nothing. I felt really alive. It’s a beautiful thing!
There is a u-curve in psychology, especially in raising children, so it’s an upside down view. If you have no money it’s not a good thing. But the more money you have, the more your children start to see and appreciate money. But then when you have too much money, then the way your children are being treated, they start seeing an unrealistic way of life and if you’re not doing things right and it comes down to the end where children have no idea about life, they’ve never had to struggle, they’ve never wanted for anything, they’ve never seen mom and dad in a financial crisis, they never had to deal with those things.
You know, all this is interesting. I don’t do weddings anymore. But when someone is calling me for a wedding, or a commercial, a concert, I try and price myself out of it. A couple of years ago I got a call from a publicist: Hey the vice president of this huge electronic firm from Korea is doing an exposition and he’s a fan of yours. They are showing all their new products to the press and reviewers in New York and they are doing it in Christie’s Auction house. He want’s you to play there for 30 minutes for two sets. They are going to set up a fake bar, make it like a club and you’re gonna play background music. And I: I don’t want to do that. Then they start saying this bullshit: We like you to hire all black people who play with you. And I’m like: Now you are offending me. I do it for 8.000 Dollars. And they said: Sure! I was like: Okay.
I didn’t do so well that time. 8.000 Dollars for one hour of music. And I said: No tuxedos, only black suits, that’s the most we’re gonna do. They: Fine, no problem. The band was really happy, I paid each guy 1.000 dollars and I kept 4 for myself. I got that thing, right? I got called for a wedding. We were big fans these years, would you like to play for our wedding in the Central Park in New York in a tavern and I’m like: 7.000 Dollars. And we get to eat the same food as the guests eat, we get this many breaks, there is no request unless they submitted so many months in advance and you have to pay 15 % down and they are like: Okay, Okay, Okay! And I was feeling good! I made some good money. I don’t want to do those things, so I try and price myself out. And still I was a prostitute. But I did it.
Zoltan Acs: At least an expensive one!
JD Walter: Yeah. That’s right. What was the last question again?
Bernd I. Eilts: Oh, this is cool too. I have two last questions. The first one is: Do you like to dance?
JD Walter: Like in a club? Or at home? I like moving, yeah! One of my friends is a lead tap dancer and I started tap dancing again from her, yes, I like moving. I like rhythm and I like moving around. But I don’t go to clubs and dance. Not that I would have a problem doing it, I just don’t do it. Dancing is good!
Bernd I. Eilts: And you do dance during your own performances?
JD Walter: Maybe I do, I don’t know. I was surprised when I took a girlfriend on tour with me one time and I was on a huge stage. There were 3.500 people indoor and it was a big stage and the band was all spread out. And she was: Man, you were dancing all over the place! Me: What are you talking about? I was not even thinking about it, but I was moving. I like to move. Sometimes. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like to talk to the audience, sometimes I don’t like to say a thing. All about how I’m feeling. I’m not gonna do the show. I just can’t do it. I have a hard time not being who I am at that moment.
Bernd I. Eilts: Who are you in private? When there is nothing around you connected to music? No recordings, just nothing. Does there exist for you some kind of vacation?
JD Walter: Well, as I said, you find me in my garden a lot. In the winter time probably with a book. Even in my garden with a book. The older I’ve gotten, the more domestic I’ve gotten, I like being home. I like cooking, I like find new recipes, I like hanging out with friends, but I find myself being more and more insular. More and more alone, and that’s okay. I’m okay. I’m content. I travel a lot, so it’s very draining. Even coming to Groningen is, you know, you come here and immediately you’re teaching, teaching all day long and there is a concert and master classes and you are basically giving a speech all day long. Or instructions. From ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. It doesn’t seem as a lot, but that’s six hours of talking. That you’re having to teach and solve people’s problems. And give! That’s heavy! And you’re tired. Then people want extra lessons, this is a pleasure to do, by no means, but yeah. It’s exhausting. And then I get home, I need to chill for a couple of days. Then I start to get back to routine, practicing again. It just so happens, when I get home, it’s not so bad, I teach at some conservatories around the world, if I’m in their country, I go there. If not, they want me monthly two hours a month I teach their teachers, and two hours a month I teach their students via Skype. So, I teach Skype lessons from home, and that’s comfortable to do. I can be at home and my dog Blue is there. Blue is my boy. It’s funny. Alina just sent me some pictures of him today. He is ten years old and he’s my boy. I like animals quite a bit. When I first graduated from college I lived on a farm with 250 horses and stopped eating meat and, you know, life has been interesting. You know, it seems like very ridiculous but I’m thinking okay! Now I’m almost fifty, how much more time do I have left, what do I want to get done. Maybe I want a child. How is that possible, do I want to stay in America? With this new situation I need to move to a place, where bombs will not go off.
Bernd I. Eilts: Thank you very much JD!!
JD Walter: Man, my pleasure!
Bernd I. Eilts: Thank you very much for this 2 and a half hour talk! Will see you back in 2017!
For more informations, please check: www.jdwalter.com
Interview: Bernd Ihno Eilts
Photography: Zoltan Acs