Photo credit: Marc Baptiste
Saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart, who has a dual Jewish and Guadeloupian heritage, has been living in the United States since the early 1990s. His parents are Simone and the late André Schwarz-Bart, both of whom are well-known in France as prize-winning published authors. This interview marks the release of a new Jacques Schwarz-Bart album Hazzan in which the saxophonist pays tribute to his father who died in 2006, and of a bio-pic La Voix des Ancêtres. Interview by Yannick Le Maintec, originally published in French in Le Monde (*):
LondonJazz News: As we speak, you are back in Boston where you live after having lived in New York for a long time. You teach at the Berklee College of Music, where you also studied. How does it feel to return as a teacher?
Jacques Schwarz-Bart: It feels really exhilarating. For a very long time, I quietly held on to a secret dream of giving back what Berklee had given to me. I received an invitation to give a master class, and I think they liked the connection I was able to establish with the students, plus the fact that I was able to teach them a complex piece of music fairly quickly, and raise the level of their playing through directions and suggestions which were concise and to the point.
LJN: In the film dedicated to you, The Voice of the Ancestors, you say you feel like an immigrant. After 29 years on American soil, surely you can’t still feel like an immigrant?
JS-B: Yes. I think I will always feel like an immigrant. The sum of all my parts will always be a challenge for people I interact with. I do not expect to be perceived and understood in all aspects of my identity and diversity. I am already happy when I don’t feel any prejudice.
LJN: In the documentary film, you speak in measured terms about your dual origin, Jewish and Guadalupian, of people who have been in transit, not to say deported from their countries of origin. Does your sense of being an immigrant (or a migrant as one might say today) give you the feeling of being connected to what is happening in the world today?
JS-B: Yes. Being an immigrant allows me to see others as humans, as opposed to nationalists who have a myopic perception of humanity. When you look at the recent massive movements of migration, it is easy to see how this idea of a frontier is a pure fabrication of the mind, an artifice that is flying in pieces when confronted with reality.
LJN: I can detect in your comments that you are not exactly in favour of the walls that some would like to build…
JS-B: What you are referring to is an insult to the founding principles of the American nation, which was built by and for immigrants.
LJN: If we go back in time about 30 years, what happened in your career to make you switch to music? How does the top student in the class end up as a musician?
JS-B: I did not become a musician overnight. I was born a music lover. Music is an artistic vehicle that always transported me, got me enthused and impassioned.
I encountered my instrument, the tenor saxophone, very late, at the age of 24. I had just finished the school of government (Sciences Po). Since I was the top student in my ENA class, the President of the General Council of Guadeloupe offered me a position as General Manager. A few months before I started, I tried playing a saxophone at a friend’s house. Within half an hour, I was able to play simple scales and had melodies. My friends said: You never told us you could play! One of them offered me a gig the next day. And that summer, I played a series of little gigs. There was no transition between my first notes and my musician’s life.
After being in that position as a manager for two years, I quit in order to go to Paris. I wanted to be closer to the world of jazz music. I got a new position as a senator’s assistant. I was just enjoying going to concerts, and the idea of starting a career in music was simply inconceivable since I had started so late.
Then, one moment changed my destiny. I met Garrison Fewell – the Berklee professor and great guitar player – at the Caveau de la Huchette (TRIBUTE HERE). At the end of his set, he saw my sax case and invited me for the last song. I accepted with excitement. Afterwards, when he found out I had just recently started, he said I should come to Berklee. He sent manuals that I worked hard to ingest. I went to Boston for auditions, got a scholarship that allowed me to complete my musical education and stay in the US. I put my previous life behind me, and never looked back…
LJN: It’s hard to imagine you switching to full-time music at the age of 24. There must have been something else going on….
JS-B: I don’t know whether to attribute it to the weight of my ancestry and inheritance, but I clearly remember being apprehensive of the world ever since I was born. As a child, I wanted to climb back into my mother’s womb, and I was a very late talker. Human interaction was really of no interest to me. I didn’t feel like engaging verbally. On the other hand, I sang every melody I heard. That is how I felt alive: I knew I really belonged to the world of music.
I quickly amassed a collection of jazz cassette recordings. Vinyl was very expensive so I recorded a lot of music from jazz radio shows. My best friend father was a jazz aficionado, so I made copies of his entire vinyl collection. My walls were entirely covered with shelves of cassette tapes. This was my refuge, my place of safety.
LJN: Hazzan is composed of ten songs from the Jewish liturgy. How did you get to know Jewish music?
JS-B: My brother and I received a religious education. These chants I heard as a child, either at the synagogue or during Jewish holidays at my father’s friends. This aspect of Jewish religion was important to me because of my love of music.
Jewish philosophy and ethics remain life principles for me to this day. For instance, I am very much attached to the importance of questioning. I question everything. It is the essence of wisdom. It is said that a Jewish person always responds to a question by another question. But one does not do so to avoid the truth. Rather one doesn’t take the truth for granted: it must be sought after, with deliberation, fortitude and courage. That is how I also approach musical truth.
LJN: Among the ten prayers you have chosen, is there one which is more important to you than the others?
JS-B: From a philosophical standpoint, Ma Nishtana is important to me: we are reminded that we were slaves in Egypt. My parents met because of this teaching. It is this shared history of slavery between Jewish and black people that triggered my father’s interest in black culture. That is what motivated him to learn how to speak Creole and to befriend African and Caribbean intellectuals in Paris. And that is how he approached my mother in Creole!
From a musical standpoint, two songs are close to my heart, because they represent the fusion of all my influences. Shabbat Manuka Hi and Mi Sebeirach. These two pieces combine polyrhythms, rich harmonies, lyrical melodies and powerful grooves. These elements are the cornerstones of my musical universe today.
LJN: I don’t know if what I’m about to say can be offensive or should be taken as a compliment… Hazzan doesn’t really sound like an album of Jewish music. How do you respond?
JS-B: The idea was not to sound like Jewish music. I intended to fully express my artistic freedom as a jazzman who has delved into Caribbean and African rhythms while staying true to the essence of the Jewish chants on this record.
I will always remember the concert I played in Metz, my father’s native town. The organiser came to the stage during sound check. I saw on his face a mixture of enthusiasm and fear. I stop the band and he says: “It’s intense, it’s powerful, it grooves, but what does it have to do with Jewish music? Our guests are mostly part of the Jewish community here. What will we tell them?” I replied: “Do not worry. They will sing along with us. You think that nothing is Jewish in this music. But everything is Jewish while being also not Jewish. Through these chants, they will latch on to my entire universe.”
LJN: I think I am right in saying that Hazzan has a clear connection with the albums you previously produced, and notably Jazz Racine Haïti?
JS-B: Absolutely. I am interested in the spiritual aspect of music. And even when a musical style is not strictly spiritual, what draws me to it is its spiritual expression. It seems to me that jazz is experienced by most jazzmen as spiritual expression, just as gwoka came from Voodoo, which is religious music and also a passion of mine. Spirituality is a continuous thread throughout my work. My whole musical history is essentially a long prayer.
LJN: Is the saxophone a mystical instrument, or can it become one?
JS-B: If I can’t use my saxophone as a vessel for spirituality, I will have missed the point. Playing the horn is about unveiling your inner voice. There is a reason why the most spiritual artist in history, John Coltrane, was a tenor saxophonist.
LJN: So we come to the question “What about God in all of this?” (**). We talked about Judaism, voodoo… What does Jacques Schwarz-Bart believe in?
JS-B: I believe in energies bigger than myself. Human senses and intellect have limited ways of accounting for this unfathomable reality. Each religion is an attempt at capturing a glance. That is why no religion is superior to another.
The ones I received have each given me a different angle. I am also attached to Buddhism and Toltec shamanism, while Judaism and Voodoo remain foundational in my perception.
I also love astrophysics with a passion.
LJN: After Hazzan and Jazz Racine Haiti, have you now completed a process of self- examination What will be the inspiration for your future projects?
JS-B: I just remain open. Carlos Castaneda said that the apprentice shaman needs to let the spirit guide his steps on this perilous journey. If you keep your ego in check, you will keep your ability to follow the spirit. That is how I will get to my next step. That said, I have five projects ready to come out, and three in the works: enough to keep me busy for the next decade!
LINK: (*) Yannick’s original interview in French in Le Monde
(**) “Et Dieu dans tout ça?” is a familiar French trope, the question always asked of hundreds of interviewees by Jacques Chancel in his long-running shows on radio and TV, Radioscopie and Le Grand Échiquier.