Son of bass legend Jimmy Garrison talks of being mentored by Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 18, 2011
Matt Garrison was born in New York City on June 2, 1970, the son of John Coltrane bassist, Jimmy Garrison. For the first eight years of his life, Matt grew up in amidst of a community of musicians, dancers, visual artists and poets. After the death of his father, Matt’s family moved to Rome, Italy, where the young boy studied piano and bass guitar.
In 1988, Matt returned to the U.S., where he lived with his godfather, noted jazz drummer and pianist, Jack DeJohnette. After a period of intense study with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, Matt received a full scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, kicking off his professional career. Matt has since performed and/or recorded with Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Joni Mitchell, DeJohnette, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Wallace Roney, Pat Metheny, Geri Allen, Gary Thomas, John Mclaughlin, The Gil Evans Orchestra, Tito Puente, John Scofield, Chaka Khan, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, the Saturday Night Live band and many others.
In 1998, Matt founded GarrisonJazz Productions, where he produces, promotes and markets a variety of musical projects. His newest venture, ShapeShifter Productions, LLC, operates management and booking agencies, as well as other music-related endeavors.
FBPO: Your upbringing was certainly far from ordinary. What are your earliest childhood memories about being surrounded by so many musicians, dancers, artists and other creative people?
MG: It was pretty much immediate. There was always someone practicing piano around the house or there was good music playing on the stereo or I was being brought to a performance. There are several parts to that: One, I lived in New York during the ’70s, an exceptionally creative period. Two, our home was an actual performance space, where all of the types of artists you mentioned came to perfect or experiment with their craft. Three, I came up surrounded by a serious mixture of races, cultures and genders constantly interacting and finding solutions together.
FBPO: What got you interested in the bass? Was it just natural – or expected – given your dad’s legacy, or did something else draw you to the instrument?
MG: I think it was combination of several things. My mother always spoke so proudly of my father and his work. It was probably her way of comforting me after his passing, but it left a mark on me. When I think of the bass, I think of my connection with my father, which is something I really never physically had.
I may have a natural inclination towards making music, but not necessarily the bass. The bass happened to be an interesting vehicle, given its history in my family. My grandfather on my mother’s side was also a bassist, who eventually focused on becoming a doctor. So there was a bit of convenience there, but also a natural desire to enjoy the feeling of freedom one enjoys from playing music in general.
FBPO: How would you like to see your father viewed by the jazz community?
MG: He’s seen exactly as he should be. He was an inventor of a sound and a way of playing that helped change the way rhythm sections create pulse, energy, dynamics. He was revolutionary, but as it so often happens, many great inventors are left by the wayside. That’s sort of what happened with my dad. Maybe it’s part of my mission for being here, to follow in his footsteps, keep his work alive and remind folks of his efforts when they forget. It’s a mission I accept with great pride and passion.
FBPO: Tell me about Rome. How long did you live there? How did that experience affect you musically?
MG: I lived in Rome for ten years, from ages 7 to 17. I left because I just wanted to reconnect with my American roots and understand why I had so many compelling thoughts about what was going on in the USA at the time. I was a breakdancer in Italy and craved all the cool music and cultural changes that were coming out of the U.S. as hip-hop was emerging.
Another reason I left is because I had the choice to become an Italian citizen after ten years of living there. That was kind of cool, but the downside was that I would have had to do one year of mandatory military service. So I decided to take my chances back in the USA! I should add, though, that the Italian culture, with all of its Mediterranean and European components, is one of the most beautiful and unique cultures in the world. I was deeply affected by simple popular songs and grew up also having a strong connection to modern classical, jazz and pop expressions, as portrayed by Italian artists. There’s nothing like it in the world, with all the amazing musicianship, sincerity, passion and history tied into all of it. I feel honored to have had that reality and perspective in my life.
FBPO: The time you spent with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland must have been invaluable! Were you able to appreciate what a big deal that was at the time, or did that not happen until you were older?
MG: I was fully able to appreciate the value of what was presented to me! You have to understand one thing: Jack and Dave are cool and open folks when they need to be, but essentially what I came away understanding after my interactions with them is that music is their life! They would never flinch on that basic premise. That, in and of itself, was almost more important than the music they imparted to me.
I have a clear vision in my mind right now, seeing the seriousness in their facial expressions and body postures, when discussing the importance of being completely present and aware of what you’re doing when making music. Those two human beings will always be the metaphorical “rock” I can always stand on when in doubt. I appreciate their life lessons even more right now as I move through this interesting career of mine.
FBPO: What kind of experience did you have at Berklee? I’m guessing it was a pretty big catalyst in building your career.
MG: I loved Berklee for the fact that I met so many critical friends there that are still so valuable to me, one way or another, to this very day. The most important music I learned there was actually from listening to great tapes and CDs and learning to transcribe a lot of that material. The second-best part of being there was being able to play at almost any hour of the day with many other talented and dedicated musicians.
As far as building my career, I would say yes, primarily because of the human relationships I acquired. The same thing is always true, even outside of a school system. I ended up on some the most important gigs in my life because of friend-to-friend, word of mouth communication. Music is almost 100% about how to interrelate with other people!
FBPO: Tell me about GarrisonJazz Prooductions.
MG: GarrisonJazz Productions is undergoing some massive changes. I’ve joined forces with one of my old high school mates, Fortuna Sung, and we’ve created a new business model called ShapeShifter Productions, LLC, under which GarrisonJazz Productions will operate as a record label. I will start working with artists other than myself sometime this year to bring forth new and groundbreaking music, even in the midst of this music industry chaos. ShapeShifter Productions, LLC, will also run a management agency and a booking agency. Of course, I’m one of the first artists to benefit from this new direction.
Another thing ShapeShifter Productions, LLC, will run is a new performance/audio+video capture/rehearsal/education space in Brooklyn, New York, called ShapeShifter Lab. It’s a beautiful forty-two hundred-square-foot location, which I believe will seriously change the New York landscape, given the breadth and scope of the type of projects we’ll be running from there. Aside from that, I’ve been building a website where I’ll release all sorts of new material and lessons.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy these days?
MG: All of the above!
FBPO: Though you’ve already done so much in your career, you’re still pretty young. What would you like to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
MG: That’s a great question and I will answer it by doing what I’ve been wanting to do all these years. Finally, I have a space within which I can accomplish a lot of my creative goals and it’s called ShapeShifter Lab! I invite everyone and anyone to come and enjoy the space. It’s going to be fantastic once we open doors this August or September.
FBPO: What sorts of things do you like to do that aren’t necessarily musically oriented?
MG: Hang out with my two amazing sons, Benjamin Noah Garrison and Lucas Joshua Garrison!