Who created Justus and Arson?
That would've been Bob Coleman, he was the keyboard player in Justus. I was in a 6th-Street cover band with Bob and had been playing with him for several years. When Deby was pregnant with Tana, I vowed I would never play cover music again - in other words, I gave up "sure money" for the rest of my life! To Deby's credit she said, "Great, fine, go do it!" So I'd been playing with Bob in this cover band, before the Vanguards, and we had stayed in touch, being musicians around town. So I knew Bob and Chris had a relationship with Bob, too, from hangin' out in nightclubs essentially. And Chris and I got to know each other because Jeff Hodges was bound and determined to get me into Junior Medlow & The Bad Boys. I was resisting it because I was busy, Deby and I had started a business and I was doing Vanguard gigs. I just didn't see how it was gonna' fit in because The Bad Boys were really busy at that time. I don't really remember the specifics, but Bob was hangin' around and he had this idea about a jazz band. We did the first gig at the Black Cat Lounge, more or less on a lark, with Bob on keyboards. We didn't have a saxophone player at all at those first gigs.
So it was you, Chris Duarte, Bob Coleman and Jeff Hodges?
No, it wasn't Jeff yet. At first it was Chris Massey on drums. He was out of Boston and was sort of a real jazz musician, and that was the group. Bob Coleman put it all together. And then I knew Alex Coke and John Mills. I had used both of those guys in little things I had done, so I was immediately trying to get them into the group. I had always done shows where it was a party gig or something and would just assemble a bunch of people to play. I was connected to them in a peripheral way, sort of the 3rd or 4th guy to call if you needed a jazz bass player. Earlier in my career I had been doing jazz before I started doing the cover thing. I was doing jazz all the time, getting experience, so I knew these guys from my days as a freelance jazz musician. By the way, I DO NOT consider myself a jazz musician. Alex Coke is a jazz musician, John Mills is a jazz musician, I consider myself a rhythm and blues musician. It's a whole different thing. A rhythm and blues player can play a little bit of jazz, but being a real jazz player is more of a lifelong commitment, like being a classical musician, developing a repertoire. The band was called Justus in the beginning. The more we played and the more we saw the word Justus on posters and stuff, the more that we thought that was just way too #@!!&*# cute, ya' know? Just-Us, ugh! It's just one of those bad band names! I think it was Chris Massey that said it was obvious we were trying to burn the house down, so let's call it Arson! We liked that a lot. So Alex Coke and John Mills came into the group and Bob kind of slid out of the group. It had become a quintet, with two saxophones. When that happened, it all just suddenly made this amazing sense. It was a really outrageous band. It was one of those things where everyone was sort of egging each other on.
After Bob Coleman left the group, did you guys get any other keyboard players, like Sandy Allen, to sit in?
No, after Bob left, we never replaced him. Keyboards were just the wrong texture for the group. The texture of the group was almost like a free-jazz thing, except that we were in this sort of rock thing. It's the kind of thing I think Hendrix might've gotten into, in my own humble opinion. Hendrix was getting more and more into sharing the spotlight instead of being the "Voodoo Child" out there by himself. And experimenting with horns. He was drifting in that direction when he died. Oh, an interesting side story: With Chris Massey being a jazz musician and Chris Duarte being such a demanding player to play with, in that he demands so much energy, Chris Massey would do everything just to keep up with him. Chris Massey, being sort of a frail, skinny jazz guy, would just give out. Completely. Just wear out! And being a jazz musician, what do you do? You stop playing! If you can't match the energy, then don't play! It's a jazz thing as opposed to a rock thing. And so he would just quit playing a lot of the time and suddenly Chris Duarte would be all by himself. Chris had never done that before. We would all be playing and then suddenly the drums would just stop! And then a lot of times it wouldn't make any sense for me to keep playing, so I would stop, too! And then Chris would suddenly be all by himself. So to keep things interesting he developed this ability to sustain interest and it became a hallmark of his style. It was a little frustrating to play with Chris Massey because we were still rhythm & blues guys (somewhere in there I had joined up with Junior Medlow & The Bad Boys). It was a little frustrating, even though he was a great player. We were still young and wanted more of that Keith Moon-type stuff goin' on! So we started using some different drummers and Jeff Hodges was one we used. It was a pretty short history for the band. We played rock clubs. I don't think we ever played in any jazz clubs. Actually the Chris Duarte Group trio kind of came out of all that because oftentimes we couldn't get either one of those busy, fabulous, saxophone players and we would go do a trio gig using the same material.
So Alex and John had their own side things goin' on, too?
Everybody did. I was playing with the Vanguards and with Chris and Jeff in Junior Medlow & The Bad Boys. So these trio things would come up and we would do a lot of the Arson material, stuff we had written. Then to supplement the night, to fill in the tunes that the horns normally did, the three of us would add Hendrix tunes. We would be thrust into these situations where we didn't have our two horn players, so we added material to fill up the night. So that's how the Chris Duarte Group sort of formed, before Chris went to New Hampshire in 1990. Word got around that we were doing Hendrix at the end of the night. That's usually what we did because we had run out of everything else, so we started playing Jimi tunes. And so the hippies, especially in San Marcos where there's a lot of refugees from the old-school Austin days, would come out. They would wait until there was no cover charge and then they would come in, trippin' on mushrooms, knowing that they were gonna' get their dose of Hendrix for the week! It was pretty funny!
Word must've gotten around for Arson to win Best Jazz Band in the Austin Chronicle's Readers Poll!
Well, we were playing in rock clubs - the Black Cat Lounge, rock clubs in College Station, we did some Steamboat gigs - and we never even tried to go into jazz clubs. We were hitting the population that doesn't know jazz, doesn't get jazz, doesn't care about jazz. What the people did get was the energy of the thing, because that's what it all boiled down to. It's not about genre, it's about getting off musically, which is the real secret of music in my opinion. I think that under the right circumstances, after we've developed awhile, you could take the John Jordan Trio to a biker gig and just hose them down with energy, the pure energy of the thing! But all those people vote and all those people read the Chronicle. The Rock People, the rock audiences, the ones hopping nightclubs, not the jazz people. They're seeing us around and going in and just having this screaming experience with us! We were raising the hackles on their necks!
Whatever happened with Arson? It only lasted a year or so.
Those were pretty desperate times for Chris, he was kind of sinking down pretty quickly at that point. That was a lot of it. He was going through those last desperate moments before moving to New Hampshire, a very dark period in his life. Also, people were sort of drifting off into more lucrative things. But we played that music in places where that kind of music never gets played and we got accepted. We had great crowds and they would just freak out! I'm hoping to find a similar dynamic with the John Jordan Trio.
Did you write much material while in Arson? I know there was an instrumental version of "Scrawl", any others?
The reason I called it "Scrawl" was I wrote this tune and I was trying to make copies for the saxophones and I couldn't read my own $##@ scrawl! That's literally true! And then Chris took the name and added lyrics and a bridge to it to make it a song instead of an instrumental. Our songs were so long and the other players had songs, too, so, no, I didn't bring in a lot of material to the group.
On an improv approach like Arson, where you really didn't know what's coming next, did you key off certain players or did you listen as a player?
I would say it was more of a song-by-song basis. There was nothing hard or fast about it. Each song tended to involve or feature a certain player in a certain way. How it came out would sort of be what the soloist dictated. So, as a bassist, it was more of a song-by-song basis, but some things were "set", relatively speaking. The unique thing about it was that it was me and Chris playing with three jazz musicians. It wasn't five jazz musicians. So we were bringing in this "rock" energy - with volume! It was this idea of having things arranged with real huge energy arcs that aren't typical to jazz and sort of forcing them to devise strategies to cope with the volume. But it also forced us, me and Chris, to learn to play very quietly, which we've used to great effect over the years in the Chris Duarte Group.
Well John, everyone is hoping that someday you and Chris Duarte's paths cross again. You had been working on a concerto piece for Chris where he's backed up by a symphony orchestra, how is that coming along?
Yeah, I'm still working on it. It's an orchestra piece for a full symphony orchestra and electric guitar. I wrote it with Chris in mind because I know his playing really well. But the idea is that any player with similar gifts and attributes can play it and make it their own. It's really a unique piece because usually a concerto is all written out and the soloist is also written out and they find an interpretation of a specific part. But the way I'm writing this one is the guitarist is literally improvising against orchestra textures. So if someone like Joe Satriani played it, it would be completely different. Chris would respond to those same tonalities and textures in his way, or Eric Johnson, or whatever guitarist wanted to play it. There's parts that are written out, he's gonna' know what the chords are, but mostly when the guitarist is playing he's gonna' be improvising as if the orchestra was a big-ass rhythm section that happens to have bassoons, tympani and french horns in it!
Sounds sort of like "Only One", but on a much grander scale!
It's a lot like it. Gil Evans was doing something like that with "Sketches of Spain". Miles Davis would be standing there, looking at like sixteen bars of a certain scale, that's what his chart looked like, and everyone else would be behind him, looking at their parts that Gil Evans wrote. Miles would just have modes to play and gaps to fill. What I'm interested in is odd juxtapositions of things. "Only One" was a power trio reflecting on John Coltrane - take a power trio and give them Coltrane and Miles Davis-like material and see what happens! That's one of the things I love about music, when you step outside of the box and say, "Well?". That's the idea of it.
Would you be part of the orchestra, too?
I'm hoping to sit out in the front row, wearing a tuxedo, and standing up and bowing when everybody yells, "Composer! Composer!" What I've discovered over the last few years is that writing music and then hearing someone else play it is the biggest thrill of all! Hearing Chris's bassist Robert Kearns play songs and notes I wrote was a gas! Or hearing that trio play the wedding piece that I wrote for Chris's wedding. I was getting such a rush out of that, much better than playing it! Chris and I were supposed to hold back while they were playing it and then go marching up to the front of the church, but I took off like an Olympic walker! Chris was shouting under his breath, "John! John! Come back!" because I had completely left him behind! So I sort of had to moonwalk back to him. But my heart was pounding, they were playing my song!
And you still have plans to include Chris in your Funk project?
Yes, absolutely! We've talked about doing "Big Funk Banquet" for a long time. He committed to it before I left the band, but I'm sure I can still whine and wheedle him into doing it! Chris could do whatever he wants on it, you might need a few drummers, but you only need one Chris!