Off the Charts: Big Band Circa 2006

Darcy James Argue in conversation with Molly Sheridan
October 5, 2006—12:00 p.m.

To staff, rehearse, and book—not to mention pay—a big band in New York City takes a particularly focused commitment, and it’s a role that the Brooklyn-based composer Darcy James Argue has embraced full throttle. His music comes with plenty of academic pedigree (he holds a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory, where he studied with Bob Brookmeyer) and professional accolades (he has won the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize, the SOCAN Award for Composition, and a Down Beat Student Music Award), but the real key to his success can be observed first-hand at a any performance of his 18-piece band Secret Society. Argue arrived in New York City with some big ideas and a list of names and phone numbers, and used his music to attract players like trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and drummer Jon Wikan. Taking cues from contemporary big bands like the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, as well as indie rock groups like Tortoise and new music outfits like Anti-Social Music, he built his own band, which debuted in May 2005 and now entertains crowds at venues such as the Bowery Poetry Club, Union Hall, and Flux Factory.

Argue has clear goals for his music and demonstrates plenty of finesse wrangling his large group of musicians, yet off stage he’s disarmingly modest. Perhaps that’s just the Canadian upbringing.

—MS

Darcy James Argue
Darcy James Argue
Photo by Ben Anaman

Molly Sheridan: Secret Society is kind of a crazy name for a big band. It’s not your Jazz Composers Collective Consortium kind of thing. Where did that name come from? Are you a 1930s film noir buff or something?

Darcy James Argue: Well, I’d considered a few different names for the band—one of the ones I’d considered and rejected was Witness Protection Program. Jazz is such a strange subculture, you know, and I wanted something that made a virtue out of that—that made a virtue out of the fact that when we first started playing there might well be fewer people in the audience than in the band and that made the audience feel O.K. with that, too. I was also thinking about how ridiculously anachronistic it was to try and make modern music with this dance band lineup that emerged in the ’30s. A big band—that’s Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman! That’s people’s immediate association, and I was trying to think of a parallel situation. Around the time I was reading these comic books by Alan Moore. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is this kind of steam-punk comic book, really re-imagining history—taking this turn-of-the-century concept and putting it in a new context. I wanted to put big band music into a new context, to take this steam-punk approach to this old instrumentation, and I thought Secret Society had an aspect of that, of this shadowy cabal.

MS: You said the word anachronistic. What attracted you to this form and how do you bring it up to date to speak to your time?

DJA: First there’s the sheer practicality of it. There are big bands everywhere: every college has one, there are radio stations and towns in Europe that have them, so it makes it possible to disseminate the music and for me to go and conduct a band in Germany. The logistics of touring with that many musicians is simply impossible, but you can take the music to different groups and make it work. You can sell it to college groups and make it work.

[As far as] the aesthetics of it, I guess it’s the possibility of having a little bit more control over what goes on than in a small jazz group where the compositional material is really a jumping-off-point for an extended improvisation instead of using the improvisation as more of an accent or a contrast to more through-composed things. And when you have that many musicians working together, you can get all kinds of textural and coloristic effects, almost like recording studio-type effects. I would listen to a Beck record or something like that and say, well, I’d love to be able to do that in my own music, but you can’t do that in a jazz trio. But you can get something kind of similar with an 18-piece big band: With a lot of careful manipulation of mutes and woodwind doubles and the way you use the rhythm-section instruments, you can kind of get those sounds that I find so appealing in popular music, especially, and bring them into this jazz context with a big band.

MS: How do you figure that out? Is that something that you just know instinctively based on your experience working with this type of ensemble? I ask because I imagine trying things out and working off the cuff with eighteen people is sort of a nightmare.

DJA: Well, I first started getting into writing seriously for big band in grad school—that’s what I went to the New England conservatory to do. They had a jazz composer’s orchestra that every Wednesday night for three hours played exclusively student music. My teacher, Bob Brookmeyer, would come to most of the rehearsals and offer insight live in real time as you were rehearsing. It was really liberating because you got to experiment, you got to fail—you got to bring things in one week, and if it didn’t work it wasn’t the end of the world because you could scrap it and come in with something completely different next week. And you could consult with the players and get a sense of what would work for them and what wouldn’t, of how people respond to what’s on the printed page and what kind of instructions you can give people to try and prod them and provoke them in different ways.

When I finished doing that, I had the opportunity to continue in that vein with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in New York. I started doing that while I was still in Boston. I would get up early on Tuesday morning to take the bus in and bring in the music to discuss it with the other composers there and with the faculty—Jim McNeely and Michael Abene—and then hop on the bus, go back, and then write all night. Once a month we would have the readings. So before I put Secret Society together I had lots of opportunities to have my music read and played and performed and workshopped in kind of relatively stress-free environments. If I brought in something to the BMI workshop and it was terrible, it was not the end of the world.

Even before I put Secret Society together, I put together reading sessions for about a year with New York musicians before I even started to try and get gigs with the group, just to try out different people and get a sense of who would be interested. This was kind of terrifying for me initially because I’d just moved to New York; I didn’t know anyone. I’d got a list of names from a friend, but you make that first cold call, and it’s like, hey, do you want to come to the union and read my music? It’s really hard, and I can’t pay you anything. You don’t know who I am but…. And people were like, yeah, I would love to! The response was really overwhelming, and the response to the music once the musicians got a chance to read it was also incredibly gratifying for me. Because of that, I ended up putting the band together. The people were so enthusiastic, and it made me think that maybe it’s not so completely insane for me to try this.

MS: Looking at the list of people who’ve played with you—this is not a Craigslist cattle call—there are some big names in there.

DJA: I’m tremendously grateful. Ingrid Jensen was one of the people who was really kicking my ass at the beginning, saying you have to get gigs for this band. To have people like that really encouraging me and saying this is great, you’ve got to get this out there, that was obviously a huge incentive for me because I’m not going to say no to Ingrid.

MS: It’s New York City; most people can barely fit into their apartments. You decide to start a band with eighteen people and a lot of equipment. How do you do that logistically?

DJA: Well, that’s the hardest part about it. It’s hard enough to scare up gigs in New York as it is for a quartet. The situation is notoriously tight, and because of the size of our ensemble, we’re even more limited. There are very few rooms that we can actually play, which is why I feel incredibly lucky to have established this thing at the Bowery Poetry Club, because it’s one of the rooms where we can actually fit. It’s a relatively easy room to play, it’s got a high ceiling—we’re not cramped in. There’s a green room in the back where we can store the cases. And it’s great to be able to have that space, which is kind of home base for us. Obviously you want to branch out and play other rooms as well, but I have to kind of go and check out the space and say, can we actually do this? And some of the places we play—we’ve got our guitar player sandwiched in a corner here and the bass player way out in front of the band and the keyboard player practically in the men’s room. We do whatever we can to make it fit. Luckily the people who do these gigs are understanding enough that [if you ask], “Can you squeeze just a little bit more?” they’re O.K. with that.

MS: Where do you practice?

DJA: We rehearse at the union—good union solidarity and whatnot. That’s where the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop rehearsed, and so I knew the space and I knew they had equipment. The rehearsal rate is incredibly inexpensive for New York—if you do it during the day, it’s $10 an hour. Most places are around $50 an hour, so the union membership fee really very quickly pays for itself in terms of rehearsal costs.

MS: Do you have any staff or is it all you? Arranging schedules for eighteen people—many of the players tour and play with several projects—must be a special challenge in and of itself.

DJA: Yeah. That, in a nutshell, is why I don’t perform as a piano player any more. After moving to New York I really realized that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to pursue two separate careers. Just in terms of the logistics of organizing a big band, that leaves me basically no time to focus on practicing or organizing small group gigs as a pianist, so as a consequence of that I jettisoned my piano performance career, which was a very hard thing to do. But I just decided that my musical voice was coming through stronger as a composer than as a performer, so that’s where I decided to focus.

MS: Do you like being the conductor of the group? I ask because while you seem totally in control while you’re leading the group, when you turned around to acknowledge the audience, you seemed suddenly shy, like you were surprised we were all there. So is that a role you like having or is that something you would ultimately like to pass off to someone else?

DJA: No, I can’t imagine doing this if I couldn’t be involved in the performance in some way, at least as a conductor. I’m not the greatest conductor in the world, but I wouldn’t trust that job to anyone else, having conducted other people’s music. I’ve conducted Sherisse [Rogers]‘s music at the Jazz Gallery, which was an order of magnitude more nerve-wracking than doing my own conducting, so I know what that feels like, and that’s something that I would not wish on anyone else. Also, the way my music is structured, there’s a lot of room for me to contribute my own musical judgment live—there’s an element of improvisation from my point of just deciding how to structure things and how long things are going to last. I guess what I’m saying is my job as a composer doesn’t end with passing out the parts; that I’m still active as a composer shaping the music on stage, and that’s a role that I like.

MS: How much freedom do your players have when you are in a situation that big? Obviously, they’re communicating with you, they’re communicating with each other, but there are eighteen of them up there. It sounds like there’s some latitude, but how much do you allow for when you write?

DJA: It really depends on the piece. I feel like there’s less latitude in my music than there is in some big band music where it’s more open-ended and there’s more collective improvisation. But in terms of what I’m writing—there’s a specific story that I’m trying to tell with my music. I don’t want to sound like a control freak, but I can’t let that get derailed by someone else wanting to take it in a different direction or just not hearing the musical narrative in the same way that I’m hearing it. For me, the biggest thing about the music that I write is that it’s telling a story, it’s going from here to here, and it needs to hit certain points. Even the soloists who are improvising need to understand the ebb and flow of the piece, and when they play it’s not as much a pure improvised expression of themselves as it might be in a small group setting. It is much more like being an actor in a scripted play than being a freewheeling, improvising stand-up comedian.

MS: So do you write for the actor a little bit or are you just writing for the page and it doesn’t matter who plays it from gig to gig?

DJA: Oh no, it matters tremendously, and certainly there are pieces that I can only play with certain people. There’s a piece, Lizard Brain, that I originally wrote for baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, and I can’t do it with anyone else. He’s really the only player who can make that happen. And there are other pieces where they change very dramatically depending on who the soloist is, but they also support multiple interpretations. That’s actually one of the more enjoyable things about the big band is that it lets me hear a lot of different players and hear them in a context that may be different from what they do in a small group. I get to hear a lot of players in New York from their being willing to sub in my band—far more players than I hear just going out to clubs.

MS:If we didn’t all automatically have this Glenn Miller picture flash in our heads at the sound of the phrase “big band,” how would you talk about the music you write? What are you after?

DJA: Telling a story in music that develops and unfolds at a certain pace—for me, that’s the more important thing. I like being able to stretch things and take my time—really slowly transform ideas to the point that maybe six minutes into the piece it’s in a completely different world than where it started, but I’ve managed to manipulate it so seamlessly that someone might think, oh, wait a minute, how did we get here from here? And that feeling is something that I’ve been attracted to in all kinds of music, regardless of genre, and so those influences, I think, creep into the music that I do.

There’s the instrumental indie rock band Tortoise, who have pieces that do exactly that over sometimes a very long period of time, over 20 minutes. That, as much as my jazz studies, has informed what I do—that kind of thinking in seeing the big picture is something that I’m attracted to regardless of style, and it’s something that I don’t really hear a whole lot of in jazz necessarily. Jazz, because it is improvised, it’s hard to keep a 20-minute plan in your head and to decide O.K., well I’m going to start this improvisation here and be able to build something out of it in a structured way over an extremely long period of time. Some improvisers are able to do that; some improvisers don’t even think that way. And so it seemed like an opportunity for me to try to do something that not a lot of people are concentrating on in music: telling a long-term story.

MS: Let’s switch to the Internet. You have a blog. What was your intention when you started out with that and what did it become? How has it impacted the rest of this work?

DJA: To be perfectly honest, my intention when I started was to get a makeshift website up as quickly as possible. I was a blog reader, and my girlfriend is a political blogger, so I knew a little bit about the software and what it could do. It was very easy for someone who did not know much about HTML to construct something very quickly that would have the appropriate information on it so that when I handed out a press kit I could say, I do have a website. Look! But I also had in my mind that it would be fun to blog about the music scene in New York, especially my corner of the world because it was something that was relatively undiscussed. There are what seems like thousands of New York indie rock blogs, and a pretty healthy classical music blogosphere, but at the time there was very little in the way of jazz blogs. It seemed like an excellent opportunity to evangelize for some of the more exciting things happening in the contemporary jazz sphere that are going completely unnoticed otherwise.

The indie rock blogosphere is a whole trip in itself, and there are good aspects and bad aspects, but one of the things that I think is tremendously valuable about it is that things feel like events. The bloggers are passionate about going out to a club, and there may be ten people in the audience, but they’ll take pictures, and they’ll blog about it and get the ball rolling in terms of buzz. There are any number of bands who have come up through that kind of attention—through blogs. Some of them have been terrible, some of them have been great, but there’s a sense of excitement about new bands, about new projects, about new material that bands are presenting or just about the scene in general that is almost completely absent from the jazz scene, and it’s frustrating because the numbers aren’t that different. The number of people who are showing up at these gigs at Mercury Lounge are often not that many more people than are showing up for gigs at the 55 Bar or Tonic, but no one’s talking about the jazz gigs. This just seemed like an opportunity for me to at least communicate what I saw and to try and do a little bit of evangelizing on behalf of music that I think deserves a wider audience—and could find a wider, receptive audience if only people knew about it and if only there was some sense of “this is exciting; this is worth talking about. There’s drama here.”

MS: You have a lot of great show photography on your site, and you also have audio from many, if not most, of your shows, which people are free to download. A lot of people are pretty nervous about putting up their work on the Internet, worried that they shouldn’t just give it away like that. How does it work out for you?

DJA: That’s insane. I can’t understand why someone would not want to make their music as available as possible on the Internet. Especially since I don’t have a studio recording, in the meanwhile, if I can get people interested in downloading my music and sharing it with others, there’s no loss for me in that. It’s more of an attempt to try to get people to download your music.

Every single band has a MySpace page, and it’s an accepted part of promotion for any group now that at least some of their music is going to be freely available. If you’re trying to compete in that marketplace, with this glut of free music out there, and you’re trying to prevent people from hearing yours without paying for it, I just don’t see the logic in that. It’s hard enough to try and get people to actually listen to the music even when it is free, because there’s so much out there. It just seems really counterproductive to try to control it to that extent. I’m quite happy putting it out there and letting people do what they want with it. As long as my name remains attached to it, I really don’t care what happens to it; at this stage I just want as many people as possible to listen to the music.

MS: Lots of people talk about how new music shows are expensive to produce, but in your case that’s just amplified considering the number of players. How do you finance this? I saw you wandering around after your last show with an envelope of cash, so I know you’re paying your musicians.

DJA: Yeah, well, you’ll notice they were single bills. This is not a money-making enterprise by any means. I have come close to breaking even on one show, and that was great. That was a success, as far as I’m concerned. But most of the other shows we do I’m paying out of pocket, and I’m paying insultingly little. I am just lucky that I do have musicians who are willing to put in long hours of rehearsal for music that is not easy and is not always immediately rewarding to play. I have to go to extraordinary lengths to finance my big band habit, but luckily the people in the band, they understand that they’re not going to make as much on these gigs as they would make on a normal night. And not everyone is O.K. with that, and that’s fine, but that helps me, too, because I want people who play in the band to do the music because they are committed to it, because they believe in it as well. That’s the society aspect of it; that it’s a chance for people who share the same musical goals as I do to come together and make it work.

MS: It’s interesting that you mentioned that the music is not always immediately rewarding to players, because as an audience member, your shows seem easy to walk into and to take something away from right away. It didn’t feel like there were hurdles to jump before you could enjoy the music. Is that something you’re conscious of, what the audience is getting out of it?

DJA: That’s a hard question, and this is something that I think every composer and every musician wrestles with. How much do you take the audience into account when you write and when you perform. No one wants to pander; everyone wants to make music that is meaningful to them. And that’s what it comes down to for me. I’m very aware of my own preferences as an audience member. I go to concerts, and I hyper-analyze my own reactions: O.K., I can respect this, but it’s not working for me. Why isn’t it working for me? Why am I not responding emotionally, or when I do respond, what’s triggering this in me?

So I’m trying to write music that I would want to hear, that I would respond to. If other people have that same reaction, well, that’s terrific; I couldn’t ask for anything better. But I also feel that I can’t really second guess myself in that regard. I can’t predict what other people are going to respond to. Everyone else is an individual. I only know what I respond to in music. I mean, there are things that are fun to write and are fun to play that I hate hearing from other people, so I try to not write that stuff. But I try not to think, well, I’m not a typical audience member. Maybe I should tone this down. That way lies madness; I can’t do that either. So I feel like that’s the best solution: to envision yourself as an audience member and analyze really honestly what gets you off musically and try to write stuff that you would respond to.

MS: Originally the big band concept was entertainment, and people would have been dancing, not just sitting. Have you given any thought to that aspect of it?

DJA: I’ve thought of ways I could make it more entertaining and theatrical. I was just at this Sufjan Stevens show, and it’s very serious music and songwriting, but they’ve got these ridiculous fabric butterfly wings on, and it’s very theatrical. I’ve thought about really playing up the anachronistic aspect, of coming on in tails and maybe having a top hat or a cane or baton or that kind of thing. I’ve so far rejected that because it feels just a little bit too gimmicky for me, which is not to say that I won’t do that at some point. But for now, I feel that it’s alienating enough for an audience that isn’t used to seeing big jazz groups just to see that many music stands on the stage and to see a conductor in front of it. For me to sort of emphasize that cognitive dissonance may be taking it a step too far.

Going back to the blog for a minute. I had originally intended to blog in persona, to really emphasize the anachronistic aspect of it and to try and blog in kind of fake 19th century, pulp-fiction hyperbole. It took me about thirty seconds to realize that I’m not Alan Moore and that I could never pull that off, and it just seemed that the conceit would rapidly wear thin, and I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of advocacy blogging that I wanted to do if I had to keep up that persona all the time.

MS: So, a parting, silly question. We’ve heard over and over that jazz is America’s “classical music.” You’re originally from Canada. How does that work out for you?

DJA: Yes, I am. There are so many ways I could go with that question. Do you want me to seriously address the “jazz as America’s classical music” thing? That answer could go on a long time. And the Canadian thing could go on a long time, too. I have no witty prepared answer for that, but I have thought about identity as it pertains to jazz a lot. You can’t not think about that. This loops back into the Jazz at Lincoln Center/America’s classical music debate. You have a movement in jazz that really took on a lot of steam in the ’80s that was very conservative and preservationist and really sought to narrowly define jazz under certain limits. So people would say, well, progress is great, but you can’t advance the music by not playing jazz.

Listening to some of these players, it seemed very strange to me that these were guys, often really young players, who were trying to sound like they were seventy years old and born in Kansas City. That just seemed so alien, that someone would try to deny their musical experience. I knew that these were guys who grew up listening to the same popular music that I had listened to, but they had decided to excise all audible traces of that from their own music because in order to play jazz, your list of influences has to come from only approved sources, from jazz and possibly from classical music, also very narrowly defined. I had misgivings about this, but I did buy into it for a long time. I can’t remember if I had a precise Road to Damascus conversion moment or not; I think it was more a gradual wearing down. This is really kind of a weird way to try and make music—to try and second-guess my own set of influences and say, well, it’s O.K. to write a tune that has this swing beat that was old-fashioned thirty years before I was born, but it’s not O.K. for me to bring in this thrash beat that I loved when I was sixteen and still love, because, well, that’s not art; you can’t make art with a thrash beat. And it took a long time for me to just say well, who says? Let me try.

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