[Ed. Note: On October 18, 2012, saxophonist and composer David S. Ware died at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, following complications from his 2009 kidney transplant. We asked pianist and composer Matthew Shipp, a long-term member of the David S. Ware Quartet, to share his thoughts about Ware’s life, music, and legacy.—FJO]
Jazz maverick David S. Ware was a jazz conceptualist of unusual vision, determination, and scope. Was David of his time, ahead of his time, or born at the wrong time? Knowing him like I did and seeing how his whole thing unfolded, that’s a question I ask myself often and am not sure if there is a correct answer.
First, of his time…Well, yes, as a third generation jazz new thing cat, he brings to bear on the situation just what you think anyone who was around in the jazz loft scene of the ‘70s would. He had the influences and the worldview you would expect from someone of that era. But he had that something extra that you can’t quite put your hand on, which is why he had the impact he did with the quartet and why his group and sound could never be easily put just in the free jazz box. Yes it’s free jazz of sorts, but it is a very specific universe which adheres to very specific logics. I knew David well but never put my hand on what exactly gave him his independence and what exactly gave him the courage to trust his own instincts to such an extreme degree. Usually it’s something that happens in childhood that triggers this, often a mother that understands you and pushes you in the right way.
Ahead of his time…Well, yes, sort of. His music is so singular and focused in its aesthetic that it attracted a very strong underground following of devoted listeners. I would say that the Ware quartet in the 1990s generated an actual culture around it in a way. But David’s refusal to play anyone’s game—his refusal to let himself be used as a jazz waste product, his utter disdain for jazz culture per se, along with the striking strength of his music—made it impossible for the jazz establishment to see the value of his art. It was way too strong, singular, and illuminated for the jazz world of the ‘90s that was just starting to get over the headache of the young lions paradigm of the 1980s, as jazz was still under the oppressive weight of Wynton-like pomposity in the 1990s when the Ware quartet was in full stride.
Too late for his time…Well, no. He was when he was. But I often felt that if someone of his authenticity had hit the scene ten years before he did, life would have been a lot easier. Of course that is conjecture. Authenticity is a key word with Ware—he was his own man, with his own vision—but when he found a mentor that inspired him, he imbibed that person’s knowledge and spirit and put it through the Ware filter. A lot has been written about his relationship with the master Sonny Rollins. They were very close. Being that in with Sonny, who is possibly the greatest tenor sax player ever, obviously put Ware in a position to truly understand what it means to play tenor in this music. And make no mistake about it, David had internalized the whole “tenor sax stance” and way of being. But David also saw the great drummer Beaver Harris as a mentor. Ware was a lifelong student of rhythm: what it means in the context of a jazz solo, what it means in the context of composing, and what it means in the context of a group sound. David knew a lot about drums and always had some idea of how he wanted his groups to sound.
David composed constantly. He had loads of musical cells and musical structures in progress. He had notebooks of material and was always thinking his material through and always in a process of creating his universe. He meticulously worked his language through with the intent of generating a coherent universe, but one that allowed for formal and content surprises. David loved and respected the free jazz tradition, but was always conscious of making his music something else, whatever that something else was. He had thought through his role as a virtuoso and how that related to a group sound and how a compositional concept was the through line through all that. His genius allowed him to find conspirators who had their own language, but who could relate to his language through their language, such as William Parker and myself.
I knew of David before moving to New York from his work on Cecil Taylor’s album Dark to Themselves. Upon moving to New York, I had heard him perform a couple of times but did not know him personally. When he wanted to add a pianist to the band, I was recommended to him by both William Parker and Reggie Workman. He contacted me and we did a duo session together. I remember he looked at me afterwards and said, “Wow, I think we have known each other through many lifetimes.” The chemistry was instant, both musically and personally.
It’s kind of a blur now trying to remember; it all happened so fast. Our worldview is very similar so there arose a deep, deep understanding between the two of us. He had nicknames for everyone. William Parker he called the professor. He called me the doctor. He said I could take any piece of music and doctor it, do an operation on it.
The one thing we did not have in common was a love for speed in cars. I remember the first time I rode with him on the highway, he and his wife were in the front. I was in the back seat. He looked in the rear view mirror and saw the look of horror on my face as he had his foot all the way down on the pedal of his Mustang. He asked me, with a big smile on his face, “What’s wrong, you don’t like speed?”
David’s legacy is a body of work that almost defies analysis, that is strikingly original and that has complete and utter integrity. No doubt about it. The lifelong pursuit of an original vision and the stubborn doggedness of David’s stance yielded one of the most provocative musics, pregnant with various meanings and cryptic codes. He created a spiritual landscape that will give the modern music listening public a lot of food for thought for many, many years.