Gary Bartz

Saxophonist, Educator
A man holding a saxophone looks to the side.

Photo by Alan Nahigian


Gary Bartz has been one of the best purveyors of what he calls “informal composition” (as opposed to improvisation) on alto saxophone since the 1960s, working with such luminaries as Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. He has released more than 45 solo albums and appears on more than 200 as a guest artist, as well as working with some of the up-and-coming artists in jazz today, such as Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge for their Jazz Is Dead series and the jazz-funk band Maisha.

Bartz was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to nightclub-owning parents and was exposed to many great jazz artists who played at their club. He was 6 when he was inspired by the sound of Charlie Parker, and received his first alto saxophone at the age of 11. He attended the Juilliard School in New York City in 1958. He joined the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop from 1962 to 1964, meeting jazz giants Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He also began working with the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln group in 1964.

In 1965, Bartz was recruited into Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while they played at his parents’ club, taking John Gilmore’s position in the band. He made his recording debut with Blakey on Soulfinger that same year.

In 1970, Miles Davis asked Bartz to join his band and perform at the historic Isle of Wight Festival and his subsequent tour. Bartz is featured on Davis’ Live/Evil recording. Bartz also formed his own group, NTU Troop, named for the Bantu word for “essence.” The group blended soul, funk, African folk music, hard bop, and avant-garde jazz and recorded one of Bartz’s first classics, I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies, based on the poetry of Langston Hughes. His NTU Troop recordings are often sampled by hip-hop artists.

In 1997, he was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Performance for his work on Roy Hargrove’s Habana album, and, in 2005, he received a Grammy Award for his work as a sideman on McCoy Tyner's recording Illuminations. In 2015, Bartz received the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award that honors jazz musicians from the mid-Atlantic region who have achieved distinction in performance and education.

In 2019, producer Gilles Peterson invited Bartz to play the We Out Here festival with the London-based group Maisha, a move that proved so successful that Bartz played dates with them throughout Europe and cut an album with them in the Netherlands.

Since 2001, Bartz has been a professor of saxophone and jazz performance at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. Bartz focuses his teaching on finding new ways for his students to "open their ears" and presses his Oberlin students to truly hear the music they think they know so well.

Select Discography

Libra, Milestone,1968
Gary Bartz/NTU Troop, I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies, Fantasy/Prestige, 1973
Music is My Sanctuary, Blue Note, 1977
Coltrane Rules-Tao of A Music Warrior, OYO Recordings’ 2011
Gary Bartz/Maisha, Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions, Night Dreamer, 2020

I am very honored to have been chosen to join many of my mentors and contemporaries for this award honoring this art form that was founded in the USA, which I call informal composition, not improvisation. I give thanks to my ancestors who nurtured this great art form born in the USA. Music is humbling and I am humbled by this award. This music is our gift to the universe!


Gary Bartz

Music Credits: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive.

“Peace and Love” composed by Gary Bartz, performed by Gary Bartz and NTU Troop from the album, I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies

“Music Is My Sanctuary” from the album Music Is My Sanctuary, composed and performed by Gary Bartz.

“The Song of Loving-Kindness” composed and performed by Gary Bartz from the album, Blues Chronicles: Tales of Life

“Soulstice” composed by Gary Bartz, performed by McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz, Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash from the album Illuminations.

“Uhuru Sasa” composed by Gary Bartz, performed by Gary Bartz and Maisha, from the album, Night Dreamer Direct-to-Disc Sessions.


Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed

You’re listening to saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator and 2024 NEA Jazz Master Gary Bartz playing one his informal compositions—and don’t mistake it for improvisation! 

Since the 1960s, Gary Bartz has known as an innovative and dynamic musician working with such luminaries as Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and McCoy Tyner. In the early 1970s Bartz founded NTU Troop and created a series of pioneering seamlessly integrating funk, blues, soul, African folk music, and post-bop. In his career, he has released more than 45 solo albums and appears on more than 200 as a guest artist. And his musical boundary-pushing continues today with his cross-generational collaborations with Ali Shahid Muhammad and Adrian Younge for their Jazz Is Dead label and the spiritual jazz band Maisha.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1940, Gary Bartz grew up in a segregated America, but he found in music a universal language that could transcend societal barriers.

Gary Bartz: Music, for me, is the only religion. It's nature's religion, given to us. It's not a man-made religion. So music transcends segregation and everything, you know, all of that. And so, you know, Baltimore was just a great music town because of all the clubs and all the music and it was-- the music was never segregated. Music doesn't segregate, because it's universal, and that's why it's such a religion. It's a real religion. For me, anyway.

Jo Reed: And what is your earliest memory of music?

Gary Bartz: On Sundays, my family would go to my grandmother's house and my uncle had all these records and that was the highlight of my week, was going to listen to these records. So I first started listening when I was about four years old. Stumbled across this record player and when I was six, I put on a record that changed my life. And that was a Charlie Parker record. And I heard this instrument, I didn't know what it was, didn't know it was a man, woman, didn't know, it could be anybody. And I fell in love. And I said, "This is what I want to do with my life." I said that at six years old, listening to Charlie Parker, which is why I know music should be in the schools very early. But that's my oldest musical memory

Jo Reed: And you wanted to do-- when you say, this is what I want, was it playing the saxophone, making music in general, saxophone?

Gary Bartz: Whatever he was doing, that's what I wanted to do. I didn't know what it took, what it was. I didn't know anything. I just said, "I want to do that." It was just the most beautiful thing. Just beauty.

Jo Reed: So when did you begin to play the saxophone?

Gary Bartz: Oh, it took five years. I was six when I started begging for a saxophone. Every time, Christmas, birthdays, whatever, "What would you like?" "Saxophone." Took five years. Finally, when I was 11, they got me one for Christmas, and that was when I started. But it's funny, because I had been listening that long, that when I got the horn, I already knew how to play it. I mean, I knew how to play what I heard. I just had to learn how to play the saxophone. That's why I tell my students now, listening is more important than playing. And I always say it twice, listening is more important than playing.

Jo Reed: So when you actually picked up the saxophone, it was a fairly easy transition into making the notes come out in the way you wanted to hear it?

Gary Bartz: I won't say it was easy, but I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what I wanted to sound like. And because of that, I had a goal. I had somewhere to point towards. Because I have many students now, they tell me, "Well, I hate my sound, I don't like my sound." I say, "Well, what do you want to sound like?" They say, "I don't know." Well, I say, "Well, that's the answer right there. First, you have to know what you want to sound like. 

Jo Reed: And who else were you listening to? When did you begin to listen to John Coltrane, for example?

Gary Bartz: It's funny, because I started going out to the clubs, to jam sessions, when I was 14. My dad started taking me out, and I met John Coltrane and Benny Golson at a club one afternoon. I didn't know who they were. So, I was listening to him, but I didn't know that was him.

Jo Reed: And your father was taking you around to different jam sessions?

Gary Bartz: Yes. I was 14 years old. That's the only way I could get anywhere. Oh, the first one was with Sonny Stitt. I found out Sonny Stitt was working at a club called the Comedy Club down on the avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore. And I asked him, would he take me. And he said, sure. It was a matinee. Kids could come, and I'm down there, the place is packed, and Sonny Stitt is playing his butt off. And he gets on the mic and he says, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I understand we have a young man that would like to come up and play with us," and I'm saying, "Oh, wow, this is really going to be great." And he called my name. I said, "Oh, my God, what's going to happen?" My dad had sneaked the horn out because he always wanted to see if I could play. My mother knew I could play. She would tell him, "Floyd, he's really good." He would say, "I don't know, he's got to have something to fall back on. This is not an easy thing." So I go up and play with Sonny Stitt. And that generation of musicians, they tested you, and he took me through all the keys on the blues. Fortunately, I didn't know one key from the other, so I went everywhere he went, because I could hear, and that's where listening comes in. Everywhere he went, I went, because I could hear it, because I'd been listening and so that's...

Jo Reed: So you had decided you're making a career in music.

Gary Bartz: One way or the other.

Jo Reed: And you went to New York, you went to Juilliard.

Gary Bartz: I went to Juilliard.

Jo Reed: What was that decision? To go to... New York makes sense. Why Juilliard in particular?

Gary Bartz: Well, because they accepted me. But I just wanted to go to New York. I didn't even care about school. I just wanted to go to New York because, you know, during the summers, every summer, part of our vacation was to go to New York, and whenever we went to New York, we'd had to go to the clubs. We always went to Birdland, Smalls Paradise, different clubs, and so, I mean, it was so exciting. I couldn't wait to get to New York.

Jo Reed: What year did you go to New York? What year did you move?

Gary Bartz: '58. 

Jo Reed: And what was the jazz scene like in New York?

Gary Bartz: Crazy. I mean, unbelievable. And as unbelievable and exciting-- and just everywhere, the older musicians would say, "Yeah, but it's not like it used to be." Because they remember 52nd Street and, you know, all of that. Now, when I go to New York, the younger musicians say, "Wow, it's great," and I'm saying, "It's not like it used to be." So. New York is always going to be exciting, whenever you go there.

Jo Reed: Now, when and how did you become a member of Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop?

Gary Bartz: Well, at the time, the word would go through the community. Mingus is doing a big band at the Village Gate. If you want to play with him, come down. And so I got the word and I went down and sat in and started playing with him. Eric Dolphy was the leader of the sax section. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was in the sax section. I can't remember who else was in the band. But it was a big band, every Monday night, and no music. He would just start a pattern, Mingus would start a pattern, he would walk over to the leader of each section, hum something to them, or say something, and they would pass it on to their section, and then we would do that. Now, I later found out that Mingus was working on a record, “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady”. He didn't have anywhere, or enough money and resources, to practice with a big band, to rehearse a big band. So he came up with this idea of having a workshop at Village Gate every Monday. People paid to come see us. They didn't realize we were rehearsing. I didn't realize we were rehearsing. I thought it was a gig. But we would play something, and he would stop it and he would talk about it. That was the first time I joined a band.

Jo Reed: You know, Charley Mingus was known for his intensity and his passionate approach to music, and you're young, so I'm curious how that environment sort of influenced, challenged you, shaped you as a musician.

Gary Bartz: Well, I mean, music is a passion, you know. You know, I'm shaped by everything. So not just him. See, I had met Max Roach when I was 14, and Max and Mingus were really good, close friends. What they both did to me was-- because I came of age, really in the 60s, which was a very volatile time in the United States, and there was a period where I said, "Well, the world doesn't need another musician. We've got millions of those. What we need is somebody to try to fight this system." But listening and working with, and being around, especially Mingus and Max, I saw that I could fight that through music, because that's what they were doing. And so that was a very important time for me.

Jo Reed: Well, you mentioned Max Roach, and your first professional gig was with Max and with Abby Lincoln. Tell me that story of how you began to work?

Gary Bartz: Well, that same year, you know, when I was 14, 1954, Max was also working at a club down on the avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, we called it the Avenue. That was like 125th Street in Harlem. So he was working at a club called the Club Casino, and my dad took me down there. He knew the club, he knew all the club owners. This was before he bought a club, but he was in that social circle and I sat in with Max when I was the same time period, when I was 14. So that's how I met him. And of course, he did the same thing, they try to get you off the stand, say, "You don't belong here," but I knew Charlie Parker like the back of my hand. So he was playing Charlie Parker songs, I knew all of those. So he gave me his number, said, "When you come to New York, give me a call," which I did. So that's how we met.

Jo Reed: Just saying, first gig with Max Roach, not bad. That is a very, very nice first gig.

Gary Bartz: But it seemed like it took forever, because I moved to New York in '58, I started working with them in '64. So it didn't happen overnight.

Jo Reed: What did you learn from him about music, about how to lead a band?

Gary Bartz: Well, every band leader I've ever worked with, they each have something to teach you, and Max was probably the best. I would say he and Miles Davis were the best band leaders that I've ever worked with, worked for. And for different reasons. And not that I didn't enjoy working with all the other band leaders, they just led bands differently.  So I'm seeing all of these ways to lead a band, and I had actually started leading a band before I ever worked with any of those great musicians. So I guess I started out being a band leader. I've had a band since I was 14, not 14, but since I was about 16, 17 years old in high school. And for me, as a composing musician, I have to have a band. I wouldn't be able to do what I do. A band is a necessity. It's not a luxury, it's a necessity. 

Jo Reed: You said that it's through having a band, working with a band, that really innovative music is made. That's the way the music moves forward. 

Gary Bartz: Yes, there's never been an innovation in this music that did not come through a working band, because it's impossible to do that. And a working band has to be together at least two years to gel, to connect, to know everything about each one and you teach them, and they do this for two years, period, night after night, they find something. And that's why I'd say the only innovations have come through working bands from Louis Armstrong to Count Basie, to Duke Ellington, to Miles Davis.  They were all working bands. And they all innovated because they could, because they did that work and had that knowledge.

Jo Reed: It's like a music laboratory.

Gary Bartz: It is a laboratory, yes. Each band I've been in was a laboratory, a university.

Jo Reed: Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, your father has opened a jazz club.

Gary Bartz: Yes, in 1960. It was called the North End Lounge on the east side of Baltimore. And now I had somewhere to work, but I was living in New York, you know, so I would commute on the weekends. I'm doing it backwards. Most people would go to New York on the weekends. I'm going from New York, down to Baltimore on the weekends. But that was invaluable, because I learned how to lead a band, I learned how to do many things, work on music and that was very important.

Jo Reed: Working down at your father's club, that led you to begin working with Art Blakey.

Gary Bartz: Well, actually what happened was I was in New York and Art Blakey was doing a week at my dad's club, the North End Lounge. And my dad found out that John Gilmore, the saxophonist in the band, was leaving. So he called me in New York. He said, ", Art's saxophonist is getting ready to leave. You might want to come down, sit in." And I did that, and Lee Morgan was in the band. John Hicks was in the band. He was trying to get me in the band anyway, because we were good friends. We had groups together and I joined the band right there when I came down to sit in with him.

Jo Reed: How did you learn Art’ s music?

Gary Bartz: I already knew it. Yeah. I mean, that's what we did. As soon as the records came out, we learned it. So we were always ready to be in any band. 

Jo Reed: What did you learn from Blakey as a leader?

Gary Bartz: Well, I'll tell you one thing I learned. I learned how to build a solo. I learned how to hear better, because we never had a rehearsal. One night, we were getting ready to go on, and they were announcing us, we were in the wings, and Lee came up to me and he says, "Gary, you know this song?" He plays this song. I said, "No." He said, "We're getting ready to play this.? And we went out and we played it. So I had to learn that song on stage. So after that kind of experience, I no longer feared going anywhere, playing anything with anybody. So that's what I learned from Art.

Jo Reed: Miles Davis gave you a phone call along around this time. I'm skipping ahead a couple of years, but ring, ring. "Hi, it's Miles." Tell me the story. How did this happen? When was it and how did it happen?

Gary Bartz: Well, I didn't believe it was him, because my friends, we would always call each other and use his voice. "Hey, Gary," you know. So when he called with the same voice, we all said "Who is this? Is this you, Jack? Jack, come on." He said, "No, this is not," and I could hear a little anger. I said, "Oh, man, this is really…" So yeah, no, he called me. And in those years, he was hands on. Later years, he would never-- I mean, he might call you, but he had managers and people to call you. He had managers then, but he was more hands on. I mean, if you were in Miles's band, you were in his family, you could do no wrong. You could miss gigs, you could play horrible. But if he wanted you in the band, you were in the band.

Jo Reed: And you didn't hesitate?

Gary Bartz: Well, you know what? Actually, I did, because I said, "Oh, man," because I knew he was playing the music from “Bitches Brew”, electric music, and I would I knew all in music before that. I knew everything in the bands before that. I knew all of that music. I didn't know what this new stuff was. So I said to myself, "Well, I can't turn Miles down, so I'll give it a couple of weeks." And once I started playing it, I saw that I didn't have to do anything different. I just had to play louder because I couldn't hear myself, and I remember I went one time. I said, "Miles, I can't hear myself, everything's so loud." He said, "What are you telling me for? Tell the sound man." I had never been in a band with a sound man. I didn't know. But once I got that straight, I had a great time in that band.

Jo Reed: Miles performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in '70 is legendary. How long had you been in the band?

Gary Bartz: Crazy. That was my third gig. My third show with Miles was the Isle of Wight. Yeah. they call it the Woodstock of Europe. I think it was big. It was bigger than Woodstock. They said 600,000 people. I know when I got out on the stage and I looked, as far as you could see, all to the horizon, there were people. It was an ocean of people. It was amazing.

Jo Reed: You've said Miles is one of the great, great, listeners. And I want you to expand a little more on that and its importance to the music.

Gary Bartz: Okay, so let me preface that with, there's a misnomer that has been accepted, like many things in this reality, that we're improvising. We're not improvising. We're composing. We're composing music every time we play our instruments. The only time we improvise is when we make a mistake, and that's very rare, hopefully. And when you make a mistake in this music, you improvise to cover up that mistake. Yeah, I may play a wrong note, but I'll play the next note, we'll make that note right. Miles could hear so good. He used to say, "I love your mistakes." Now you're trying to play so that no one hears your mistakes. He heard them anyway, that's how good he could hear. He could hear the future, and that's what we have to do as musicians. We have to hear the future, because we have to hear that which nobody's ever heard before. Now you can copy people and sound like somebody, but as a composing musician, you know there's something to be heard that only I can hear. I think hearing is like a fingerprint. Everybody hears different. So once you can tap in to what and how you hear, you'll sound like yourself. You won't sound like anybody else.

Jo Reed: And is that the way you developed your own sound, Gary?

Gary Bartz: Yeah. Because I mean, even much younger, you hear something that's just out of reach, you know, and you keep trying and trying and keep trying, and then as you get older, you realize, you'll never learn music. No one can ever learn music. Music is something to be studied and played. Don't even worry about learning it. You just keep studying it, and doing the best you can.  I've been fortunate to have worked with some of them, played, performed, with some of the greatest ever. And what people don't realize is this music is music for virtuosos. It's not ordinary musicians, you know. Ordinary musicians can't do this. You have to be a virtuoso. I mean, it's so much study and work that goes into it constantly. I mean, 'Trane is 24 hours a day practicing, you know. I mean, it's virtuoso work. That's why I say for me, it's a religion.

Jo Reed: When you went with Miles, you already had made your own record, “Libra.” What year did it come out, and why did you want to make an album as a leader? What were you looking to say?

Gary Bartz: Well, I would go out to clubs trying to get a gig and they would always say, "You got any records out?" So I knew I needed-- everywhere I went, "Well, we want to hear you," so I knew I needed a record. So that was one incentive. And then, being a student of the music and listening to all these records from the time I was four years old, I mean, I had concepts of how I wanted to-- I thought I did. Actually, I didn't. But I thought I knew how to record, but it was important just for me to be able to get gigs. Later on, it became more important just for the music itself.

Jo Reed: While you were playing with Miles, you put your own group together NTU Troop. First, the name and its significance.

Gary Bartz: Oh, well, actually, I started NTU Troop. Intu is a root suffix from the Bantu language, which is Bantu. We say in English, we say Bantu. So Intu is the suffix, and it encompasses all of the arts. I felt the need to write music for my community, because, yeah, we could play the Cole Porter's, we could play the George Gershwin's. But my community also wrote just as great music, and so that was the concept of that particular band. It was a more political group. And I just, in July, recorded the first NTU Troop record since, probably 40, 50 years. And I had been writing for that group all along, but the time is right now, though. That was a very, very important group for me, yeah.

Jo Reed: "I've Known Rivers," is really an extraordinary piece of music, and it references the Langston Hughes poem, and it really explores issues of social justice, along with really wonderful music. So how did you approach sort of translating those themes from the poem into the music?

Gary Bartz: Well, because poetry is music, it's music to me anyway. So a lot of times when I want to write a song on a certain subject, I'll read a lot of poems, and a lot of poetry, and see what inspiration I can get from that. And that was a poem that every February when we had our one little so-called Negro History Week, that was one of the poems I learned. And that was a very popular poem, and one that I loved. So one day after I first started learning the guitar, I actually wrote "I Have Known Rivers" on the guitar. I didn't write that on the piano or the saxophone, I wrote that on the guitar. And it's funny, because I could never get the same sound and feeling that I got from the guitar on the piano, which made me see the difference between the two instruments. But like I say, music is a study. Every day you learn something. You'll never stop learning music. No one can. So but I'm inspired by a lot of poetry.

Jo Reed: Well, Gary, how did you teach the band members your music? What was the process you had for doing that?

Gary Bartz: Hmm, well, it depends on the musicians, but we would rehearse, unlike Miles. I did one rehearsal with Miles, did none with Art. Max would rehearse, some bands would rehearse, so my band was a band that rehearsed, we rehearsed. So that's how we learned it. 

Jo Reed: And I wonder, as a band leader, you've always been a band leader, what qualities do you think are really important to lead a band successfully? What do you need as a band leader to be able to do that?

Gary Bartz: Money.

Jo Reed: I was about to say, except for money. That's a given.

Gary Bartz: First of all, you have to have the right people, the right musicians and usually, like I said, like in Miles's band, we were a family. And every band, actually, every band I've ever been in, became a family, you know, because you're traveling on the road. So, first, choose the right musicians.

Jo Reed: Music is my sanctuary.

Gary Bartz: Mine too.

Jo Reed: You even made an album with that name. Which was in 1977. 

Gary Bartz: I was living in Los Angeles and I had signed a deal with Capitol Records. They had just started a jazz department, so-called jazz department. You  know, I hate that word, jazz. But they had started a so-called jazz department and my first record there was "Music is My Sanctuary" and that was produced by the Mizell Brothers, who I had met doing Donald Byrd records. They were producing his records, and I loved the way they worked. I loved their productions and I asked them to produce me a record I did called "The Shadow Do," which has ended up being a big hip hop, iconic record, because a Tribe Called Quest sampled one of the songs on the record. So Capitol allowed me, and gave me a nice budget. I'm proud of that record. I'm proud of all my records, really.

Jo Reed: Can you talk just a little bit about the vision for that record? Because it really is an extraordinary piece of music. It has funk, it has soul, it has jazz, I mean, it contains so many musics and it's still coherent, but it's coherent.

Gary Bartz: It is. And I guess, because in my head, there are no categories. I don't see categories, and it's hard to explain that to people. But I don't see categories. I hear music. Because people always, when they find out, "Oh, you're a musician, what kind of music?" The first thing they want to know. There are no kinds of music. There's only music. Kind of music? That doesn't mean anything to me. 

Jo Reed: Let's talk about this elephant in the room that I've been dancing around, which is you hate the word jazz.

Gary Bartz: I do.

Jo Reed: And you're hardly the first musician I've talked to who does.

Gary Bartz: Nobody that I've worked with calls it that. I mean, they'll say it because you kind of have to, but they don't believe in it. It's a word.

Jo Reed: Duke Ellington said "There are two kinds of music, good and the other kind."

Gary Bartz: And he also said "The music THEY want to call jazz."  I'm a musician, I hear music. 

Jo Reed: We talked about your rejection of the word improvisation, and that it's composition, like Roscoe Mitchell, and I think Mingus also, spontaneous composition.

Gary Bartz: That's what we do.

Jo Reed: That's what you're doing.

Gary Bartz: I could write a song right now, right this minute. Might not be a good one, but I could write a song. That's what we do. We write music all the time.

Jo Reed: No disagreement here, but I'm wondering what is different when you're composing music that isn't spontaneous or less spontaneous? Like when you were creating music for "Music Is My Sanctuary" or "Red and Orange Poems," for example. What's the different process for you? How do you do that?

Gary Bartz: Well, when you write it down, it's a formal composition. When you do it live, it's an informal composition. That's the only difference. Formal compositions are written down and someone else can play it. But now a lot of people, and I was just talking to Steve Coleman. After practicing or playing, he'll listen to it, and if he hears something he liked when he was playing, he'll make that a part of a formal composition. The younger musicians, when they start playing, they think they're improvising. When you think you're composing, it's a whole different ball game. Because if you know what a composition is, a composition is, you just don't just start playing. A composition has a beginning and then there’s an ending. This is a composition. Improvisation, you just start playing, and whatever happens, happens. So I don't do that, none of us do that. We've studied 50, 60 years not to make up something. So it took me two years to learn how to start a solo, because all my favorite musicians, when they started their solos, it was perfect. I said, "How do they do that?" Took me two years to learn that. It's the same thing with the ending. You got to end, make sure you're ending. Because you want everybody in the band to know you're ending so they end with you, you don't want to end and the drummer's still doing that, you know. That's what a composition is. Improvisation, it's just anything, you just stop at the end of your solo <makes music noises>.

Jo Reed: It's like storytelling, isn't it? It's the difference between oral stories, which are going someplace, and stories that are written. They're going places too. It's a different form, but you're telling a story. Well, speaking of storytelling, your concept albums, I mentioned the "Red and Orange Poems", "The Blues Chronicles." Gosh, you've done so many concept albums. So take us through your thinking about why you wanted to create an album that's a book of one story, as opposed to, you know, most albums are books of short stories.

Gary Bartz: Right, that's what it's like for me. Like my first album, "Libra," was a bunch of short stories. So the NTU Troop Records were more novels, you know, so that's how I think. And it's funny, I listen to Frank Sinatra, I listen to him every day, and he was the first one to do concept records where all the themes basically fell in the same kind of category, and I like that. I like that way of working. Rather than putting just a bunch of songs together and sequencing them in a pleasant way So some records can put you in a mood and keep you there. Some records will put you in a mood for this song and another mood for that song. So to me, that's not a concept, unless the concept is to put you in a different mood each song. So that's the way I feel about that.

Jo Reed: But your concept albums also build. It's not even just thematic, they build on each other. It's the whole thing is going somewhere.

Gary Bartz: Hopefully. Thank you.

Jo Reed: No, you're welcome. When you're composing those, these formal compositions, just generally, what's your process for doing that?

Gary Bartz: Well, I'll take "The Blues Chronicles," for example. So for me, the blues is not just the music, but for some people, it's a way of life. But it's something that permeates every culture. So I was trying to show the blues concept in different cultures. That was what I was trying to do on that record.

Jo Reed: And when you wrote it, do you write typically on the piano? What's your writing process?

Gary Bartz: It could be on the piano. It could be on the sax. Mostly, it's on the piano. When I wrote the "Song of Loving Kindness," that came whole. I was just practicing one day. I'd have been maybe eight hours into practicing, and I'd played that. I said, "Oh, I like that. Let me remember it." And so I remembered it. So sometimes songs come whole. Sometimes I say, "I like this much of it, but it needs more. I got to work on it." It can take years to write one song. There was a song on the "Red and Orange Poems," took me 10 years to write that song. And the reason why, it was because it was finished. I didn't think it was finished, because it was only eight bars long. And I'm thinking, "You can't have a song for eight bars, that's crazy." 10 years later, I finally realized it was whole. It was an eight bar song. And so I recorded it, and it's funny because even though it's eight bars, it doesn't sound like it's eight bars. It sounds like it keeps moving, but it's going right back to the same eight bars.

Jo Reed: What's the name of that?

Gary Bartz: "Relentless." (laughs)

Jo Reed: You spent a lot of the 1980s working as a collaborator and as a sideman, making great, great music, but stepping back from recording as a band leader. What was going on that you made that step back?

Gary Bartz: I was disappointed with the record industry. For me, performing is what I do. That's what I love to do. When you make a record, that's good for your pocket, because you get more gigs. You don't get paid for the records. I don't think I've gotten paid for any records that I've ever done, after I did them. Because the way the industry was set up, well, you weren't supposed to get paid. 

Jo Reed: When did you begin your own label? You've really come out and said, no, we have to control rights. We have to own the masters.

Gary Bartz: Yeah, we do. Chuck D. says, "If you don't own the master, the master owns you."  I think if you record records, you should own your own label. Because the only thing I found, the only thing a record label can do for you, two things they can do. They can give you a name. They can make you popular, because they do promotions. The other thing they can do, which they never do, or very seldom do, is sell your records. Sell them. The main thing, once I started recording, the one thing I would always hear, and notice, people said, "We can't find your records. We want to buy them, but we can't find 'em." That's a distribution problem. That's why you go with a record label because they have distribution. They can get your records into, Timbuktu, anywhere. But we traveled to Timbuktu. We can take the records there. So we need to own our own. That's why the name of my record label is OYO, own your own your own recordings.

Jo Reed: Well, you came back as a leader at the end of the 80s with "Monsoon," followed by "Reflections on Monk." You just went through this period of album after album...

Gary Bartz: I've got so many. I still do, because I come from a period where I would have record deals. I knew I was doing two records every year. I knew that. So I'm always in that mode, and I've continued to always be in that mode. So I've got records backed up. That's why I did three in July. And I keep saying, "Man, I've got to do this one. I've got to do that one. I've got to do this." That's what I do.

Jo Reed: The difference for you, Gary, between performing live and recording in a studio.

Gary Bartz: Two different animals.

Jo Reed: Talk about those.

Gary Bartz: Well, live, performing live, that's my favorite. I love doing it. I love doing it in studio too, but live, you have the audience. You know right then whether it was working, what you were doing was working. So I love that, and I love the rapport with the people, and to see what works. And it's funny, because it might work one day, one night, and the next night, nothing. So it's always a learning period because each audience is different, which is why I never write a list. I never write a set list. I know they know. My band knows what we're going to start with and what we're going to end with, and between might be anything. And I tell the audience,  "The vibes that you give us is what we're going to play back at you, so you guys better be good. If we suck, it's your fault.”

Jo Reed: You won your first Grammy in 1997 for your work on Roy Hargrove's “Habana." You won the Grammy for best Latin jazz performance, which shows your breadth, and shows your depth, and shocked the hell out of me.

Gary Bartz: Me too. I thought someone else had won it. So, it was a shocker.

Jo Reed: I mean, and in a way kind of also shows how ridiculous labels are.

Gary Bartz: Yeah.

Gary Bartz: 1997. That was a while ago. And we were in Italy, in the Umbria. Yeah, and it was actually-- we did it in the concert hall that we had performed at, we recorded it. Because they had a good sound there. But that was a lot of fun. 

Jo Reed: You and McCoy Tyner shared such a deep musical connection over the years. Talk about how your musical styles and approaches sort of complemented one another.

Gary Bartz: Well, working with McCoy… I think I started working with McCoy somewhere in the mid-60s. I met McCoy when he was working with the Jazztet, with Benny Goldson, Art Farmer and the Jazztet. That's when I met him. That would have been sometime in the early 60s. And so we became friends and I would find, whenever John Coltrane was playing anywhere, I was there, so I would see him all the time. So when he asked me to join the band, I was like, "Wow, I'm in 'Trane's, I'm in his shoes now," you know. And I had followed both of them, and I just knew that music that he was playing so well and felt so good and I felt it was like going home. It was like going home.

Jo Reed: What do you think it was about you two that really contributed to this lifelong collaboration that you had with him?

Gary Bartz: That we loved playing with each other. He was the first pianist, McCoy and John Hicks, for me, that knew how to play with a horn player when they were not necessarily playing the chord changes that were written. They knew what to do with that, you know and not many piano players knew how to do that then. So when I started working with McCoy, because he was the master at that, and I was following him,, it was just like going home. It's like going home.

Jo Reed: Well, the album "Illuminations," it has such an innovative and groundbreaking sound, and I would love to have you talk about the creative process behind that album. 

Gary Bartz: It was like all the others. We rehearsed the music, and we went in and ran it right down. I'm saying, we're so overqualified, it takes most people at least months to make a record. We can make a record in a day. But I mean, I just love playing with McCoy so much, because I could do… I had no shackles, I was free to go wherever I wanted to go, and he could hear well enough to follow you wherever you went. I mean, I remember one night in Brooklyn, a club called the Turbo Village. I played two songs with Bud Powell. After that, I knew what a piano player was supposed to feel like, and I always felt that from McCoy. Like saying, "Hear the future," he really could hear the future. Because he could-- I mean, I would make up my mind, a split second, "I'm going to do this," and he was already there, And so McCoy was like that. I couldn't do anything wrong with those guys, because their ears were so big. Even if I played something wrong, they'd make it right. 

Jo Reed: And "Illuminations" won a Grammy.

Gary Bartz: Yes, it did. "Illuminations" won, that was my second Grammy in 2005.

.Jo Reed: Let's jump to some more recent projects, and the first I want to talk about is your collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Young… and the album JID006 what year did you this?

Gary Bartz: Yeah, I think around 2021, I did a record for the Jazz Is Dead label with Adrian Young and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. And they contacted me about doing a show actually in Los Angeles at The Loft, which I did, --it was a big show. It really was exciting, I felt like a rock star. Verdeen White brought me on, and he had everybody open up their phones and flash their flashlights, and it was really exciting. And we recorded a record at that time. And we actually, I think we played Newport two years ago, two summers ago. And it was a project that I would like to do again. include?

Jo Reed: It's so full circle because Ali Shaheed Muhammad, of course. Tribe called Quest, who had sampled your music.

Gary Bartz: Right.

Jo Reed: And now there you are making music with them.

Gary Bartz: I know that was so cool.

Jo Reed: It's like a hug.

Gary Bartz: That was cool.   It was really a great thing to happen because Ali Shaheed Muhammad had recorded on one of my songs from "The Shadow Do" album, on a song that they called "Butter." The song on my album was called "Gentle Smiles." Reggie Lucas and I wrote that and so just being able to have that connection was really good. And what I loved about it is showing that there are no categories. It's all music, and that's why I don't see categories, because now someone would call them hip hop and call me bebop and call them, whatever. But we're all creating music together. Music has no name other than good or bad, like Duke Ellington said.

Jo Reed: He didn't even say bad. He said the other kind. I want to hear the backstory of your collaboration with Maisha. First of all, explain who Maisha is and then how you got involved with him. 

Gary Bartz: Well, Maisha is a band out of London. They became really popular as, the young lions of London, and they had asked me if I would do some gigs with them. And I would happen to be in Europe and so I did some shows with them. We had a great time. So they said, "Let's do a record," and so that's what happened. But what we did was we went to a studio that was a direct-to-disc recording studio, which is very rare. which means no tape. We cut it on a vinyl record, because it's vinyl. You know, vinyl that's back, and I'm glad because I love the sound. So the vinyl disc studio, they have these big lathe machines, and so when we record, whatever you record, that's it, mistakes and everything. But that's what we're used to doing, which is, like I said, we can go and cut a record in three hours. That's what we did with the Maisha record. We went in and cut a vinyl record in about three or four hours.  So we liked that, and had so much fun that time, we did another record this summer, which-- I don't know when that's coming out, but it should be coming out within the next year.

Jo Reed: I'm very curious about you coming in and playing with Maisha, an established band, and blending in so well. Because as you said earlier, for a band to gel and be together, should be two years. Obviously, that didn't happen. So tell me the process of how you all adjusted to work together.

Gary Bartz: Well, we did a lot of rehearsing, and a lot of playing together in the rehearsing studio. So we kind of felt-- we were feeling each other out, what each other can do, what the good points are, what they play best. So you want to see all of that, and put that together. So that's how we did that, basically, and going out and playing. The final result is always going to be the live performance. That's when you find out everything. You find out who's who.  I just like working with younger musicians. Because, like when I was talking about bands, the best bands, not only does it take two years, but the best bands always have a combination of young and older musicians. If it's all young musicians, can't be great. If it's all older musicians, it can be great, but it won't be innovative. When you've got young and old-- so you've got the younger musicians bringing the fresh ideas, and you've got the older musicians with all the knowledge. And to put that together, that's how you innovate. So that was fun, working with them, because it was young energy.

Jo Reed: You've been teaching jazz studies and performance at Oberlin for over 20 years. What brought you to teaching?

Gary Bartz: Kicking and screaming. I really wasn't interested in teaching. I didn't think I'd like it. But I love it, because it's not only teaching, it's learning, because music is so vast, no one can learn it. So while I'm teaching, I'm still learning. So that's what made it work for me.

Jo Reed: You've been there for over two decades and I wonder what changes, if any, you've observed in the aspirations, the skill sets of the young jazz musicians who are coming through. 

Gary Bartz: I have seen by, since teaching there for 22 years now, the students come in, and they know how to read music a little, but they can't hear. And if you can't hear and you're playing music, it's not going to work. It's not going to work. And they cannot hear. And so what I've had to do is devise ways and methods to open up their ears, and they know immediately when I show them, "Look, you can't hear," they know they can't hear and that upsets them. And they understand they should be able to hear, and so we just work on that, mostly trying to open up their ears.

Jo Reed: And, Gary, I know you hate the word, but you have been named an NEA Jazz Master. And I just wonder what this award means to you.

Gary Bartz: Well, it means to me to be accepted, and to have the same awards that all of my heroes had, or a lot of my heroes had. It means a lot to me. But on the other side, I know there are so many other musicians that I think are even more deserving than I am, because they've been here longer. But I appreciate it, and I accept it in all humbleness, and I think it's a great thing.

Jo Reed: And it's so well-deserved. It so truly is well-deserved.

Gary Bartz: Thank you.

Jo Reed: Gary, thank you for giving me your time.

Gary Bartz: I appreciate it.

Jo Reed: That was musician and 2024 NEA Jazz Master Gary Bartz. On Saturday, April 13, the National Endowment for the Arts, in collaboration with the Kennedy Center, will celebrate Gary and the other 2024 Jazz Master honorees with a tribute concert. More details will be coming soon on  You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple. It helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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