Jazz Studies Online: You're not from New York originally. What lured you here? What features did the city offer then that others did not? If you've stayed here, have your motivations for being here changed?
Dave Gibson: I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. I was introduced to jazz early through a few recordings of Nancy Wilson and Count Basie that my parents had in their collection. The idea of playing jazz was introduced to me by my 9th grade band director in Yukon, OK. I didn't realize that my school had an accomplished jazz ensemble, at least in regard to ensemble execution. The idea of improvisation remained elusive until I was 17 and a freshman in college. During my senior year in high school, I enjoyed my first trip to NYC as a member of the McDonald's High School Band and got to connect with other young musicians from all of the US. The experience led me to listen to music that I had never heard and I took that experience back to OK with me. I began to listen to music in a different way and felt I could hear the difference between NYC and everywhere else.
My second trip to NYC was as a Yamaha Young Performing Artist and I was able to venture on my own. I went to the Village Gate to check out Jimmy Cobb with Peter Bernstein and then off to the Vanguard to hear Tommy Flanagan with George Mraz and Lewis Nash. That trip hooked me. The kinetic energy in the air, whether real or imagined, was what I craved. The sense of agitation in the air and the way that different people and ideas challenged my perception of things led me to rethink my ideas or assert them with more confidence. It was uncomfortable in a good way and prompted me to grow in a multitude of ways. It is something that I still love and embrace about NYC. I love it.
Jazz Studies Online: How did opportunities for work come about when you first began as a professional? Who helped you the most in that regard? What networks did you take advantage of, if any? In what way has that environment changed since then?
Gibson: When I moved to New York, I was 28 or 29. I had been to grad school and had met a bunch of folks who had no desire to do what I'm doing, except for one guy. I had already been divorced. The breakup was attributable in great part to my desire to do what I am currently doing. It was on my mind from age 17 and though it was a crooked path, I was moving towards a destination. Because I felt as though my clock was ticking a little faster than many I met when I arrived here, I hit every session I could. I called every musician who was doing what I wanted to do. I went to the Local 802 and hung out in case a bone player didn't show for a rehearsal. It happened a few times and one time I read the 4th trumpet book on Wayne Andre's big band.
A few people were helpful to me. Steve Davis was on the road with Chick at the time and gave me the numbers of some folks to call. I eventually got the courage to call Slide Hampton to ask for a lesson. Shortly thereafter, he called me for some rehearsals and recommended me for some others and I started working a little. It wasn't steady, but I was around musicians who played at an extremely high level. If I couldn't hear it already, they let me know what I was missing. Benny Powell was great. So was Curtis Fuller. When I began to feel restless, I started writing music and inviting guys to play it. Eventually, I made a recording that was picked up by one of the independent jazz labels and more folks started to recognize me. I still don't feel as though I am doing all that I wish to do, but I am encouraged by the fact that I am still excited by music and wake every day with the sincere desire to improve.
Since my arrival here, I have noticed a shift in the consciousness of jazz musicians. There seems to be a real superficiality present on the scene now that I don't recall when I arrived. I don't see as many players who are eager to become better musicians but instead players who are eager to get better gigs. Sometimes, those players seem to be more interested in marketing than shedding. Sometimes, their head shots outshine their playing. I don't hear as many conversations about music and hear many more about all of the "great" gigs that "so and so" has and how I did a gig with this all-star player or that one. The clubs that are left will only give someone a gig if they bring in a "name" that they can put on their marquee and then the music doesn't sound good anyway. Working bands rarely exist because everyone is expendable if the leader is able to get one of a number of "all-stars" to come out and read the gig. Quality is shriveling to chase the illusion of being big and making it. It's some sad ass shit to my ears and it deepens my commitment to making MUSIC.
Jazz Studies Online: What is, or was, your favorite NYC venue (or venues) to perform at? Why?
Gibson: My favorite venue for many years has been the Smoke Jazz Club as that was one of the first places in NYC that I had a steady gig. I missed out on much of the days of Augie's [the predecessor to Smoke], but started hitting at Smoke right as they opened. The first weekend featured George Coleman, and the second weekend featured Slide Hampton. John Farnsworth was leading the quintet with Slide as special guest, and he invited me to sit in on Star Eyes during the last set. That was the first time I ever played with Slide and it was a thrill for a rookie in NYC. I was also part of a funk band called, The Hot Pants Funk Sextet +1, that was co-lead by Ian Hendrickson-Smith and Joe Strasser. That band held Wednesday nights at Smoke for around 5 or 6 years. I learned so much about what NOT to play on the bandstand by way of the opportunity to experiment week after week....or the timely comments of other musicians who frequented the club offering their sage commentary. Every venue offers its own advantages and disadvantages whether the acoustics, the crowd or the location. I have always had a sense of the tradition at Smalls and love to play the room. These days, I really enjoy the non-traditional venue, Fat Cat. I think of it as "jazz in the wild"....civilians come in the joint to play games and drink a few beers and find themselves in the middle of a concert rubbing elbows with folks who came to hear the music. One of my favorite incidents at Fat Cat occurred when a male NYU student approached me and enthusiastically asked, "What do you call this music your playing?" I replied, "We like to call it 'good'."
Jazz Studies Online: Have you noticed any major changes in the audiences for jazz at live performances in NYC since you started your career or came here? That is, in their knowledge of or appreciation for the music? In their demographics or personal background? in the way they act and react to the music? If so, why do you think the nature of live audiences might have changed?
Gibson: I'm not so sure I've noticed the audience changing as much as I have noticed different venues attracting different kinds of folks. Most of the time, I find audiences in NYC to be attentive and engaged. But, venues like the previously mentioned, Fat Cat, have a diverse clientele and there is a varied spectrum of engagement. The touristy clubs don't really book bands as much as they book "acts" who adhere to some dramatic theme that attracts the tourists. It always amazes me how much people in those joints will pay to have a conversation over a live band.