Michael Mantler - The Accidental Trumpeter
(excerpts from an e-mail interview by Thomas Erdmann)

How did you come to play the trumpet and was it the first instrument you played?
      I came to it by accident. When I was twelve I meant to buy a clarinet, wanting to eventually play saxophone, but for some reason ended up buying a trumpet. It was my first instrument, but later on I also had some piano lessons, to generally broaden my musical background.

Did you take private instruction on the trumpet while a youth?
      Yes, a local dance band trumpeter taught me.

How did you come to decide to make music your life's work, or at least initially pursue music studies?
      I was fascinated by jazz. I first heard about it when Charlie Parker died, then quickly went through the whole of jazz history, from Louis Armstrong right up to Ornette Coleman. After that I decided to become a jazz musician.

Why did you choose to study at the Academy of Music in Austria?
      It was the obvious place for a basic music education at the time.

What was the experience like for you there?
      I didn't learn much that would be useful to me later.

Who did you study with and what did that experience bring to your playing?
      Helmut Wobisch and Franz Weiss were my teachers. They were both from the Vienna Philharmonic and didn't really make that much of an impact on my playing.

Why did you choose to study at Vienna University?
      For the same reason I chose to study at the Academy of Music, presumably for security. But that course of study also had no relevance whatsoever to what I wanted to do.

Why did you decide to come to the United States to study music at Berklee?
      It was the most interesting "jazz" school at the time. As a matter of fact, it was more or less the only one. It was very small back then, maybe 50 to 100 students.

Who was your trumpet teacher?
      I didn't have a trumpet teacher, per se. I studied with John Coffey, who was the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony. He taught me everything I know about trumpet playing, which isn't much. He said to, "Just blow from the stomach." That was basically it.

Why did you decide to leave after two years and move to New York?
      That's where all the music that I was interested in was happening. My formal musical education had by then become irrelevant to me.

How did you integrate yourself in the music scene in New York?
      It happened by accident. I just fell into it through originally appearing with Boston pianist Lowell Davidson at Bill Dixon's October Revolution in Jazz at the Cellar Cafe. Then I was immediately asked to participate in the foundation of the Jazz Composer's Guild with Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, Paul and Carla Bley, Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, Sun Ra, and Burton Greene. This led to the formation of, together with Carla, the Jazz Composer's Guild Orchestra, which eventually came to be continued and developed by me as the Jazz Composer's Orchestra.

As you found yourself becoming integrated into the music scene, how were you able to keep your trumpet chops up? Was there a special practice routine that helped?

How much did improvisation, if any, on the trumpet account in your practice time during your first years in New York?
      None. I never practiced improvising. To this day I cannot play changes. For me improvising was done as I played; I think that's why it is called "improvisation."

You worked with Charlie Haden on the historically important and musically influential Liberation Music Orchestra. What was that experience like?
      It was Charlie's political concept, which we of course adhered to at the time, but it was really Carla's musical conception that made it interesting to me, and influential if you will.

You once listed Don Ellis, as one among a few trumpeters, as being influential to you. When Don was alive he was quite often listed on trumpeters' lists of important inspirational figures, but since his passing, his name comes up much less often. I've always loved Don's music, but was wondering what there was in his playing and/or music that attracted you to him?
      I liked his sound and his early work, especially the New Ideas LP, as well as his playing in George Russell's band. I wasn't much interested in his music after that. If I had to list my influences, I'd rather say Booker Little and Don Cherry. With Don Cherry it was the imperfection and the absolute and infallible musicality he displayed. No matter what came out of his trumpet, and by this I mean in trumpet-technical terms ... it was always musical. Cherry played with a sense of freedom and was fearless in that he played without any safety net - in other words, he played without any preconceived notions of what he was going to do. All of that is what drew me to him. This resulted, more often than not, in the unexpected and beautiful. With regard to Booker Little, it was his tone and musical phrasing and the unexpected content of his ideas with regard to melody and harmony. But maybe the most important element to me, in the music of both Little and Cherry, was the strong emotional content. I don't think I really consciously draw on their music or am influenced by it as such. I just like their music, which isn't necessarily limited to just their trumpet playing, but also to their compositions: for example, Don's Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers and Booker Little's Out Front. In general terms, I like to be surprised by music, and I need to be touched by it emotionally. These are the points of reference for my own music, and that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with trumpet playing.

What was there about Don Cherry's trumpet playing that made you choose him, over yourself, to play trumpet on your No Answer recording?
      I don't feel the need to always hear my own trumpet; I've made plenty of records where I don't play at all, and Don was around at the time. I had already worked with him on The Jazz Composer's Orchestra and Escalator Over The Hill albums, and I thought he could bring something very special and unique to that music, which I think he did.

I love how powerful your trumpet playing is on the Movies recordings. How did you keep your chops fresh as you made that recording? Special warmups, warmdowns?
      Nothing, it was all overdubbed. I just worked on it as long as I could play and until it was as good as I could get it.

I hear an influence of the United States horn rock bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, and War in your Movies album as well. Were you at all listening to the rock music of the time, the mid-seventies, and if so, do you think it might have had an influence on your writing?
      I never even listened to Chicago or BS&T. I don't know who or what War is. I was listening to rock though, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Cream, Stevie Winwood, and guitar players like Hendrix, among others.

Your trumpet performance on the Live album is extremely powerful. The repeated notes on The Remember Visit are poignant and your solos on Slow Orchestral Piece No.3 and No. 7 are wonderfully moody. How do you view the trumpet and its use in your compositions?
      It's a voice that has a place in the music at certain times, and not at others.

When you go out to play live do you do any special practicing to prepare, and if so, what?
      I hardly ever play live. If there is a project that requires it, depending on the time that has passed since I last played - which can be as long as five or six years even - I start about three or four weeks before, playing mostly long tones and intervals to build up strength. I hardly ever play any actual music during these periods of preparation.

When you write for the trumpet, as on One Symphony, are you hearing your trumpet voice as you write, or an abstract trumpet conception?
      I was using the capability of classically trained trumpet players and what they can do; basically making them play stuff I couldn't really ever play myself

Can you describe your latest, as yet unreleased, Concertos Project, and what you've written for yourself on trumpet?
      In a way … they represent a return to the original concept of my work with the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, the soloists now from contemporary new music (non-improvising) as well as new jazz and rock (improvising/freely interpreting), supported by a musically flexible, classical chamber ensemble. My own trumpet parts appear on only one piece, entitled Trumpet, and are almost completely improvised, with the exception of a few quite freely played melodies.

We all know the physical demands the trumpet puts on the performers of the instrument, so I was wondering if you have the time to practice and if so, do you have a daily routine and what kind of things do you do when you practice?
      I have plenty of time. I never practice, except for a particular project.

With all of the work you've done in the business side of music, do you have a vision for where you think the music business side of the art might be in five to ten years with the rapidly expanding downloading issues the industry is currently facing?
      As far as I can see, the music business, and I mean "music," not what's generally considered as such in the "business," is finished and I see no hope. I'll be happy, though, to be proven wrong in this notion.