An interview with
Phillip Johnston
(The Microscopic Septet)

By Beppe Colli
Oct. 22, 2006

"Too smooth for the avant-garde, too knotty for the masses"? Whatever the reason, the Microscopic Septet seemed to spend the 80s on the verge of a commercial breakthrough that - alas! - never materialized. But the recent re-release of their back-catalogue - out of print for ages - will hopefully invite a better appreciation of their music.

I wrote to (soprano and alto saxophone player) Phillip Johnston - Micros co-leader, and the group's main composer together with pianist Joel Forrester - asking for an interview. I had already interviewed Johnston about Fast 'n' Bulbous, the Beefheartian project he co-leads with guitarist Gary Lucas. And I had talked with him at length when, earlier this year, his Transparent Quartet had played in my town.

Johnston had just met a deadline for a movie soundtrack. He agreed to do answer my questions. The interview - conducted by e-mail - took place last week.

I have to confess the only article about the Microscopic Septet I've ever read is one written by Francis Davis which appears in his second collection, Outcats, under the title Band Of Outsiders. In it, it's said you met Joel Forrester - the group's pianist, and other composer - in the Bowery in the early seventies, shortly after dropping out of New York University. You're quoted as saying "I accepted the scholarship because it got me out of Queens". Since my ideas about New York boroughs are pretty vague, with names like Bowery and Queens mostly reminding me of Patti Smith and the Ramones - well, would you mind filling in the blanks for me?

By the time I finished high school I was a fully formed rebellious teenager, loaded up on Abbie Hoffman, Antonin Artaud, The Fugs, Tristan Tzara, Frank Zappa, Jack Kerouac & Timothy Leary. I didn't feel much enthusiasm for college, but wasn't yet courageous enough to just chuck it all; as a compromise I went to NYU because I wanted to live in Manhattan. Within a semester, I realized I didn't need college to justify my being there, and soon stopped going to classes. (Ironically, years later I ended up teaching in NYU's Steinhardt School of Music in the Composition Department for five years.) I wanted to go to San Francisco, be a hippy, and play crazy music on the saxophone, and that is what I did.

How I Met Joel Forrester (mid-70s)

I was practicing the saxophone in my apartment on East 10th Street in the East Village. The door opened and a guy walked in and sat down. I assumed he was a friend of my roommate and kept on practicing. After a considerable length of time, I stopped and said "Nemo will be back in about a half an hour." The guy said, "Whos Nemo?" I said, "Aren't you waiting for Nemo?" He said, "No, I heard you playing a Monk tune and I thought I'd come up." We chatted for a while and decided we should play together. Unfortunately, I was moving to San Francisco the next day. That morning I got up early (not often done in those days), went over to Joel's apartment (he lived in the next block) and we played a great totally free session at 9AM in the morning, and then I took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco.

How I Met John Zorn (mid 70s)

In those days I used to just yo-yo around, mostly back and forth between New York and San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco sometime around 1975 or 1976, and I was walking through Golden Gate Park on my way to a Jefferson Starship concert (I think they had just mutated from "the Airplane" to "the Starship"). I heard someone playing incredible saxophone, kind of a free but very fast and intense bebop, in a tunnel under an overpass. I went and listened for a while, and when he took a break I went up and spoke to him. I said, "Great playing, man." He said, "I wasn't playing, I was practicing. Would you like to hear me play?" "Sure!" He then played his own music, somewhat closer in style to the playing of Roscoe Mitchell, but basically more or less the same way he plays today.

We started playing together right away, and would often play on the street on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, playing screaming free jazz (with a tip cup out) until the police came.

We both used to move back and forth across the country regularly, and we'd play together on both coasts. We did our first indoor concert at Richard Foreman's Ontological Hysteric Theater (I was in a couple of his early plays). During this time I also met and played with Wayne Horvitz in Santa Cruz, and Dave Sewelson tells me I picked him up hitchhiking on Berkeley, though I don't remember it.

In retrospect, both Joel and John were considerably more advanced than I was, and although they were kind enough to treat me as a colleague, I learned a great deal from both of them; they were both mentors to me in different ways.

At the time the Microscopic Septet played there, places like The Kitchen and Roulette enjoyed a fairly mythical status in the (international) press, which depicted "the scene" as a creative environment where artists like Robert Fripp, Laurie Anderson, George Lewis, Fred Frith and a whole lotta more "did their thing" in front of a highly educated, extremely receptive audience. "Avant-garde for the masses", so to speak. I'd like to do a reality check with you. Also - in which ways did the situation differ from the one in the early seventies, a time when you already attended concerts?

As far as I can recall, the Micros never played at either Roulette or the Kitchen (although later on, I would perform at both places, both as a sideman and a leader). We were part of a different scene at the beginning, one centered around a basement under a pet store on Morton Street called Studio Henry. It was a rehearsal space originally rented by Wayne Horvitz & Robin Holcomb, and their bandmates, which was then used as a performance space at night. Our peer group, those who rehearsed and performed there, included Wayne and Robin, John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte, Shelley Hirsch, Charley Noyes, Lisa Sokolov, Dana Vlcek; of those you mention above, Fred Frith was, I believe, part of that, and many, many other terrific musicians. The Micros had our first rehearsals there, and played our first gigs there. (I don't know if anyone has chronicled this time and place, but if not, there's some great material there.)

As far as a "highly educated, extremely receptive audience" (and I think the implication was that it was one of substantial size) - wow. If such a thing ever existed, I missed it. New York has always been a city that has served as a focal point for all of the arts; people come from all over the country, and the world, to participate in the scene and to make a name for themselves. It's an amazing place to develop as an artist - assuming you survive. If you just look at the population, that means there is a numerically larger committed, educated audience, it's simple arithmetic. But it's still a demographically tiny minority, and the competition for attention makes it just as hard, if not harder, than other places to draw and keep an audience. Within that, it has always seemed to me that there is a constant ebb and flow. At certain moments a very rich scene will develop around a venue like a Kitchen, a Knitting Factory, a Studio Rivbea, and it will have lifespan. A few places have several eras, and a very few have a long lifespan, like Roulette (or CBGB). But there is always amazing work going on somewhere.

What you refer to sounds like a bit of a romantic exaggeration. But where would we be without romance? It's part of the ongoing mythology of New York, which always has some element of truth to it.

I remember seeing a picture of the Microscopic Septet - maybe the cover of the Let's Flip! LP? - and thinking "Ha, a Lounge Lizards clone band". Were you aware of them? And: Didn't you fear that the way the Micros dressed could prove to be seen as a gimmick?

We knew the Lounge Lizards, but didn't really consider what we did very close to what they did. Sometimes we would be grouped with them in the press, but more often with Willem Breuker's Kollektief, whom I admired, but also didn't think we had much to do with. Bands that we were friends with, and I felt more musical kinship with were The Ordinaires, Kamikaze Ground Crew, The Jazz Passengers, Les Miserables Brass Band, and several us were very drawn to and involved with the scene around bands like Mofungo, Information, and their later offshoots.

When the Lounge Lizards wore suits and ties they looked cool and hip and aloof; when the Micros wore suits and ties, we looked like a bunch of unemployed vacuum cleaner salesmen.

As far as the ties being a gimmick, we didn't just wear ties, we wore fezzes, we had band fronts like old swing bands, we would do vocal features even though none of us could sing, we marched around the room, we were full of gimmicks. Dave Sewelson was always coming up with wild schemes, like doing a gig at the top of the Empire State Building, which inevitably never happened. If they did we probably would have been more commercially successful. We loved gimmicks. Another throwback to the early jazz bands, before jazz got all serious and self-conscious.

I'd really like you to talk about the instrumentalists/composers whose influence you regarded as decisive for your creative growth in the period up to the Micros.

This could really be a lengthy answer... There are so many great composers and instrumentalists that I love and contributed little bits to all of my music, including my part of the Micros.

I would say that the two biggest things at the very beginning were jazz of the 20s and 30s, and the music of the AACM, both of which I discovered while in high school. I heard Anthony Braxton's For Alto and the jungle music period of Duke Ellington, and in a way you could say the Micros was my misguided attempt to play both of these musics at the same time. Also while in high school I was exposed to Thelonious Monk (my high school girlfriend's mother had taken the crazy photo on the cover of Monk's LP Underground), and Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp.

I also used to drop acid pretty regularly and this was definitely a big influence. Listening to Fletcher Henderson & Duke Ellington on acid, and also I recall seeing Cecil Taylor while stoned on acid and lying under the piano as he played...

Later on as I gained more technical understanding, I got really into arrangers: Gil Evans, Tad Dameron, the John Kirby Sextet, Raymond Scott, Carl Stalling.

Top Ten possible influences on the music of Microscopic Septet

1. Jelly Roll Morton, for his sophisticated structures.
2. Thelonious Monk, for his unique world view.
3. Charles Mingus, for his tempo changes.
4. Duke Ellington, for his omnivorousness.
5. Charles Ives, for his love of Americana.
6. Steve Lacy, for his originality.
7. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Sun Ra, for their theatricality.
8. John Kirby for "jazzin' the classics."
9. Raymond Scott, for his musical non-sequiturs.
10. Carla Bley, for her omnivorousness.

All of the above for their humor.

Joel Forrester would undoubtedly give a different list of his own (though I imagine there would be some overlap).

I imagine the Micros played quite a few concerts in their lifetime. What kind of places did you play? Also: did you have any other gigs on the side - for musical or financial reasons?

At the time we came up, there were two ways to make a career in jazz: you went to one of the jazz colleges that were just beginning their hegemony over jazz: North Texas State, Berkeley, Indiana U., NEC; or, you were a sideman with Art Blakey or Horace Silver. Preferably both. We didn't do any of that stuff, and our music didn't fit into any established categories that were around at the time. So at the beginning we couldn't get any gigs at proper jazz clubs. So would just find a bar that was dead on a Monday night, propose to the owner that we would play there, get a friend to take money at the door, and bring in customers, and we'd play there every Monday for as long as we could.

Also we would play at rock clubs, because at that time (the early 80s) the rock scene was far more adventurous than the jazz scene, and people dug us because we were fun and kind of outrageous and theatrical. We got this kind of reputation as the jazz band for people who didn't like jazz. We played at the Mudd Club, CBGB, Danceteria, the Peppermint Lounge. But we'd play anywhere: a piano store, a furniture store, the boardwalk at Coney Island, weddings, Club Med, these are a few that come to mind right off; the main thing was to always keep playing regularly.

We did this for years, and the word just spread slowly via word of mouth. Over time, though, as we became more well known and made records, we were invited into the fold to a certain degree, and played the Blue Note, Sweet Basil, the Village Gate and the JVC Jazz Festival (3 times!).

However, by the early 90s, somehow we had made it back to finding a club that was quiet and playing every Monday night for the door...

Not only because I didn't come from a traditional musical background, but also because I started playing the saxophone at late age and just hadn't yet developed the skills, I often worked "day jobs" throughout my 20s, usually pretty menial ones (see the liner notes for my tune Slave Labor on Normalology for a complete list), even as I played professional music jobs and practiced my craft. However, for most musicians, the line between a day job and an "art job" is not always so simple.  Over the last ten or fifteen years, I've earned my living as much or more as a composer as an instrumentalist. While I've written music for some very good films, silent films, dances, and plays, I've also done quite a few jingles (including a song for a singing parrot), an exercise video for Mary Tyler Moore, horn arrangements for rock bands, "odd jobs, maam, your horse Ill fodder..." It's a murky area, and like many things, a matter of perspective.

I'd like you to talk about the way your idea of "composing" changed - or not - during the time when the Microscopic Septet were active.

I'm not sure it did, though I hope I got better at it. My earliest pieces were probably more solidly in a "swing" style, not the Swing Era, but they "swung," because that was what we were doing was about; my later pieces explored a wider divergence of genres. I started wanting to do more different things, this was one of the reasons I started Big Trouble while I was still doing the Microscopic Septet, I wanted to use different instrumentation, and different compositional ideas.

It's record companies time: all the albums the group released were on tiny labels - and this at a time when both "mini-majors" and "big indies" were looking for fresh faces. Would you mind talking about this?

It's record companies time, take 2: after the group's first CD came out, you had some "almost-deals" which didn't gel. What happened?

This is a topic that, for me, I don't really find very fruitful to pursue.

Yes, there were many trials and tribulations, and through most of the last five years that we were together and didn't record we almost constantly felt that we were just about to sign a major or minor record deal of some kind; for one reason or another it didn't happen. But I don't see any point in rehashing the various mishaps, betrayals and deceptions.

A subject that comes up a lot in interviews and writing about me: why am I not more famous? On one hand my critical/analytical sense can cite various things about the culture we live in, the vagaries of the record business at any particular time, the machinations and internal politics of the music biz. An often-cited explanation is that my music (the Micros and others) falls "between the cracks" - it doesn't fit an easily identifiable promotional/marketing/critical niche.

Yet, on the other hand, it is still a mystery to me. The music of the Micros is melodic, rhythmic, accessible, and I don't understand why it hasn't been embraced by a larger demographic. Playing live, we always thrilled audiences of all sorts. One never knows the real explanation of why things happen in one's life: the important thing is to make some kind of peace with it. I have an interest in film/theatre/dance music and a considerable amount of my efforts over the years have been diverted to that; perhaps if I had more single-mindedly pursued a pure music career... well, who knows if things would have been any different? The inevitable what-ifs are of no benefit. But after 12 years of doing the Micros it seemed clear to me that things were not going to get any better for us, and I just headed off in a different direction.

I know that the Micros are gonna play some concerts this year. Is it a one-off? Talk about this.

We are going to do a few gigs in the Northeast US (New York, Philadelphia and Northampton, MA). I had initially planned mainly to do a European tour, but for various reasons had to postpone it for now. I may try again for the summer.

But since I live in Sydney, Australia now, anything more ongoing than that is probably not very practical. I guess we will see how much fun we have on this go-around.

Do you consider the current situation when it comes to the media, the audience, etc. to be more - or less - favourable for a group like The Microscopic Septet? I mean, do you think that you had a harder time the first time - or that now it would be even worse?

That is a very interesting question. But for one thing, it's impossible to separate your music from your life. When I started the Micros I was 25 years old, it was the early 80s, I was at the beginning of everything. Now I'm 51, I have a family, I have different aspirations. Then everything seemed possible; now I have a different idea of the things I would like to achieve with the rest of my life, what my values are, and I know a little more of what the world is.

But the bottom line is: I have a great life, a great family, I've managed to earn a living as an artist for many years, I continue to get my music out there, to the degree that I do, to write and perform, and tour from time to time, and I'd like to think I'm continuing to evolve and grow as a composer.

However, that being said, the short answer is that I don't see any evidence that things would be any better for the Micros now, and they'd probably be considerably worse. As Monk wrote, who knows?

I'm also curious to know about the way you consider the group's recorded output - and also the compositions that were never recorded - from your current perspective.

I'm quite fond of the Micros music - since it was never in step with its time, it doesn't seem "old," or new, for that matter, to me.

That of course opens up the whole topic of innovation and creativity. So much of the new music I hear today in both jazz and rock sounds very old-fashioned to me - not necessarily a bad thing - just that it copies older musics that have mostly been done better. The only thing that seems "new" (and worth doing) is an art that is intensely personal, that is to say, reflecting a person's unique world view. Since every human being is unique (although some are clearly more unique than others), that can always potentially (though not necessarily) be "new" and interesting.

Just a few examples that come to mind are Mikel Rouse, One Ring Zero, Plunderphonics, and an Australian band called The Fantastic Terrific Munkle, and the Necks also. (I notice that none of these are jazz groups - well, only the Munkle, sort of. There is much happening in jazz that I admire a great deal - just very little that is as original as these.)

So. The Micros is certainly that - a personal vision. I like all the recorded Micros stuff. I also went back at one point after the demise of the band and recorded my best unrecorded Micros tunes with a kind of hybrid Micros/Big Trouble on a CD called Normalology, which has already gone out of print twice. (I'm waiting for the rights to revert to me to try for three.)

However, since we broke up with 180 mostly original tunes in our repertoire, I mourn the many great tunes that never got recorded, mostly Joel's, as he is extremely prolific, and in the last years I devoted more and more of my composing to outside projects.

To me, a best-case-scenario result of this reissue would be a chance to record some of Joel's unrecorded Micros tunes: we have many CDs worth. Oddly enough, when I have mentioned this to Joel, he seemed somewhat indifferent to it; I am more wound up about it than he is. But maybe he'd change his mind. Anyway, given various circumstances, it's probably a long shot anyway.

I'd also like to do a CD of Bob Montalto's tunes, we have easily a CDs worth. (He was the most played outside composer for the Micros - there are three of his tunes across the reissue CDs.)

Guy Klucevsek at one point told me that virtually everything he had composed up to that point had been recorded. I was astonished by this, as most of what I have composed and performed hasn't been properly recorded and/or released. (This is even more true of Joel Forrester.) Clearly, I haven't had that much luck in the record biz. I do feel lucky to have been able to do the records I have - I have at least 10 or more CDs under my own name, which in a way seems miraculous. But that's over a 30-year career, composing and performing steadily throughout, and many to most of them seem well on their way to going out-of-print. But many artists who deserve more don't even have that. Look at Herbie Nichols' output during his lifetime.

Well, who knows, tomorrow is another day.

Beppe Colli 2006 | Oct. 22, 2006