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Meet New Duke: Brian Q. Torff on Everything Ellington

Brian Q.Torff, Jazz bassist and New Duke director spoke to TGNR about their project: introducing Duke Ellington’s sound to a new generation.



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TGNR: Clearly you’re immensely focused in directing New Duke. As you are incorporating the Ellington method, I can’t imagine your thinking would delve too far from that. Though Ellington was always one to look forward.  Not to invoke a pun here, but what do you think will be the next base line you’re going to be working on?

BT: I love that because they would ask Ellington, “What’s your favorite song?” He wrote thousands and he would answer: “The one I’m working on now.” I really like that answer because as a composer, that’s exactly how it works, Paul. Whatever you’re working on now, because before I came over here, before I got your text message, I was working on a tune called Bad Fedoras. It is basically a send off on hipsters, very Frank Zappa, and I’m immersed in that right now. That’s the base line I’m working on now, and I tend to work from the bottom up, not the top down.

So if I were a singer song writer I’d be there, like James Taylor or Bob Dylan, playing a song and playing chords. Or if I was Billy Joel or Elton John or Stevie wonder type guy, I’d be singing a song at the piano, and I do use the piano, but that’s not the way I work.  I work from the baseline up.  That’s the construction of the house.

TGNR: Of course.

BT: I get a great baseline and then everything goes up from there.

TGNR: One stone at a time.

BT: Exactly.

TGNR: I’m talking to a life long musician. When it comes to major life decisions and choice of careers, most people will give a lot of what they consider pragmatic advice that is complete unsolicited. Clearly at some point you found you had a passion for music. You loved the bass in particular. What are some of the most encouraging and helpful things anyone told you at the beginning of your lifetime pursuit? Also, what was some of the most interesting detractors that tried to steer you away from this life?

BT: Well first of all, I cannot really think of serious detractors. My mother was right behind me. I’m sure she was worried about her son and a career in music, but she never showed it. So she helped me.  When I got to Boston, to Berkley College of Music, I had a bass teacher who said to me when I first decided to go to New York, “When you go to New York be careful, but don’t be too careful.” I thought that was a wonderful thing to say. Basically he’s saying there’s some risk involved in this, but go! Go!  I had a bass instructor, Orin O’Brien in the New York Philharmonic. A marvelous teacher! She said to me, “Before you become an artist you must become a professional.” That was great advice.

TGNR: That is incredible!

BT: So I was lucky to have a number of people who were not only supportive, but they were intuitive to what I might need at that particular time. The rest of it is seat of your pants. You’re on your own.

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TGNR: I’m sure you have at least seen, or you may be a fan of The Blues Brothers movies. They make the second movie in 1998, there’s obviously no John Belushi, and part of the new equation is an added orphan boy raised in the same orphanage as Jake and Elwood.

At one point in the film Elwood is mentoring him… well, really kidnapping him! Though doing so in Elwood’s very ethically minded view and pseudo-intellectual way, while also on the lam. Though he is also being very grounded in the sense of being a blues musician because that’s his true and only passion in life. Elwood says to him, “No pharmaceutical product could ever equal the rush you get when the band hits that groove; the people are dancin’, and shoutin’, and swayin’, and the house is rockin’!”

How would describe what is largely an ineffable human experience from a musicians stand point? For that matter, what do you feel is the most memorable performance in your career thus far?

BT: Oh that’s a tough one. First of all that statement is right. There is nothing like it. I don’t think you even have to have a perfect night. There’s something about the joy of making music that is a gift.

I was just talking about this last night with Dave Childs. We were saying, “We’re really lucky. We’re really lucky that we can experience this. People can go a lifetime and never experience anything like it.” So I consider it a great gift and there’s something magical about it. It is still hard work. I think that it’s like living in search of the melody, and in search of the next performance. The next performance that will hopefully takes us somewhere, and if we’re lucky we will take the audience with us. That’s really what its about.

TGNR: Are you familiar with with term, “The Thousand Yard Stare?”

BT: No.

TGNR: It has military origins. Many times it has to do with those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though it does have other applications. It is a moment in time where one is so transfixed looking off in the distance, because they’re complete ensconced in the flow of their own thinking.

What was one performance so memorable, so meaningful, that if you sat back and thought about that experience it would bring back every detail, almost as if you’re reliving it again in the peace of your own company and thoughts?

BT: I think its hard after thousands of performances, because its almost like, ‘what’s your favorite song?’ Its a hard thing to answer. Though I do remember performing in a church in Roxbury with Mary Lou Williams. Roxbury is a very tough section of Boston. We were playing for Mass, and her manager was a Jesuit priest. This is all in my book. He was giving the sermon portion of the Mass, and I wasn’t playing. She was playing alone, and she was playing these very haunting spiritual chords. I just felt a chill, and I felt like.. the ages were right there in the room.

I had never experienced that before, or since. It was just one woman playing the piano, but the way the air changed and filled up was like nothing I had ever experienced in music. I don’t know what I can say about that other than that I know that it happened. I know that I experienced it.

TGNR: You mentioned to me earlier a wonderful quote, “you have to be a professional first.” There is an old saying that I learned from a personal guru of mine, who is also a long time Zen Buddhist. I once asked him, “what is it like to be enlightened?” He immediately had a hardy laugh! He said, “Before you’re enlightened, you chop wood and carry water. After you reach enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water.” So in effect nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.

In this case you’re a professional, and becoming a musician is your enlightenment. At what point did you first feel that Brain Torff became a professional musician?

BT: That’s such a poignant prophecy. Its exactly as you just described it, you keep doing the work. It doesn’t have to do with the status of the work.

My first real professional engagement was when I was 20 years old. It was at Carnegie Hall with Cleo Laine. Yet I cannot say that I had arrived, and now I’m a professional because I knew there was so much to learn. So I am not sure I can answer that, Paul. I am still learning to be a professional, and still learning what that’s about. I don’t think you ever really completely arrive. I am still learning what that really means.

TGNR: You had mentioned you were very fortunate to have a close network of support in your career. Had you ever encountered a memorable unsolicited detractor? Or should a young musician ever encounter such an experience, what would you suggest they say to repay the favor?

BT: People are going to say negative things about you. I get a lot of glowing reviews, and I get reviews that aren’t very nice about my playing. You really don’t like it, but the fact is you can pull out any artist, and you will find people say some really nasty things. You don’t stop them, you keep going because you feel good.

Basically you have to say, ‘Is there anything here I can learn from?’ ‘Is there any truth in this?’ ‘Is there anything that I need to think about in this?’ You try to be honest and then go on. You just go on. Sometimes you have to disregard, and sometimes you need to listen.

TGNR: Who is your greatest non-musical influence? What figures have become the most influential in your decision making process, and you leading the life you choose to live?

BT: Outside of my parents who were a strong role model for what they did, I think I have always been an Americanist. I was always inspired by Lincoln. I was always inspired by Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird. I was always inspired by that kind of character. I think whenever somebodies shows that sort of integrity I have always found that really inspiring and something that I like to try to emulate.

TGNR: Take yourself today, and if you were to converse with the young man that was first heading off to Berkley, based on what you know now, what would you tell him?

BT: “Be careful, but don’t be too careful!”

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Paul K. DiCostanzo is the Managing Editor for TGNR. He is a noted public speaker, an emerging historian of the Second World War, a vocal advocate for Crohn’s Disease/Ulcerative Colitis, and highly regarded interviewer. Paul K. DiCostanzo is Co-Host for the A.D. History Podcast. The A.D. History Podcast explores world history of the last 2000 years in an unprecedented fashion; with each episode covering a 10 year period beginning in 1AD, until reaching the present day. Ultimately finding the forgotten, as well as overlooked threads of history, and weaving a tapestry of true world history. Paul is author of the reader submitted Q&A column: WW2 Brain Bucket. The Brain Bucket answers readers submitted questions on all things regarding the Second World War. Paul has served as Managing Editor for TGNR since March 2015. Prior to TGNR, Paul has a background in American National Security and American Foreign Policy.