Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware is a survivor. Now 46, he's spent more than two decades in the mine-laden battlefield that is the New York avant-garde-jazz scene. And he's lived to tell the tale.
"Life's discouragements can get to you," he admits. "And when that happens, you start destroying yourself. You turn it in on yourself, right? And all of that could have been totally possible with me, because I'm a Scorpio. That's what Scorpios do; rather than having someone defeat them, they will defeat themselves--turn on themselves rather than succumbing to outside forces. But I have not done that. I have learned how to take all of my urges and all of this and all of that and channel it into positive creativity." Thanks to these efforts, Ware has become an acknowledged leader in the progressive-jazz community--and his affiliation with Homestead Records, the adventurous indie label that released his latest disc, Cryptology, earlier this year, has helped him gain a strong fan base among young, alternative-rock audiences. The album has also received critical acclaim from jazz commentators impressed by the dynamic working relationship between Ware and his associates: bassist William Parker, drummer Whit Dickey and pianist Matthew Shipp, whose fine offering Critical Mass appeared a few months ago on Henry Rollins's 213CD imprint. Together these players explore varying textures through the use of uncompromising improvisation, intertwining melodies, polytonal interaction and irregular rhythms.
"I have known what I wanted to do since I was twelve years old," Ware attests when asked about his music. "This is what I wanted to do, and I've never wanted to do anything else. Now it looks like everything is coming together for me. Why? Because the ground is fertile for me. The time is right for my expression. For my work in this world. For what I have to do. It's really very simple. And I understand that, and I always knew that. I've known it for the past twenty years that I've been playing out on the scene."
Ware moved to New York in 1973 from Boston, where he'd spent several years studying at the Berklee School of Music. Before long, his name was familiar among aficionados of outside jazz. He worked in two of pianist Cecil Taylor's ensembles, recorded and performed with drummer Andrew Cyrille and collaborated with trumpeter Raphe Malik, all the while honing his playing and compositional skills and learning how to distill his beliefs through sound a la Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins, to whom he's been frequently compared.
"You see, music and spirituality have always run parallel for me," he notes. "They flow in the same direction. That is, you should be coming closer to self-awareness--the true self, which is the spirit. It's always been this way for me. Even as a teenager, I was always deeply moved by music that I thought was going towards spirituality--going in a Godward direction, opening people up to that universal self, or whatever you want to call it. That was the music that moved me, and I've always desired to express my personal feelings about that in my music. I always have.
"My relationship of who I am precedes what I do," he continues. "And that, for me, is one of the keys to spirituality. That is the teaching. All the spiritual teachings say that you must come face to face with who you are, regardless of what happens. In other words, the identity has to precede any and all your actions in the world. So whether I'm playing music--whether I'm going to be a recognized musician/artist or not--cultivating that spiritual awareness will always be number one for me."
This same sense of mission marks all of the recordings issued under Ware's name. His debut for Hat Hut, 1979's The Birth of a Being, was impressive, and Passage to Music and Great Bliss, Vol. 1 & 2, issued by the Swedish company Silkheart in 1989 and 1991, respectively, displayed further growth. Raves for these recordings led to a three-record deal with DIW, distributed by Columbia, but the respect Ware garnered didn't translate into commercial success. In short, he was a superbly resourceful player/composer who was virtually unknown outside the exploratory-jazz universe.
To pay his bills during this period, Ware worked as a Manhattan-based taxi driver. In Motion, a half-hour documentary by Dutch filmmaker Coco Schrijber, documents this aspect of Ware's life, and while the piece is not available in the United States, the star of the show gives it a good review. "It was interesting," he acknowledges. "It encapsulates a certain thing. It was done over the course of a weekend, like a Saturday and a Sunday night in New York City in the summer of '94. I'm, like, sitting in the cab and I'm being asked certain questions about my life and my music and my creativity. It came out nice. I think it's a good, short introduction to my world, so to speak."
Fortunately for Ware, his world has changed since then: Shortly after the filming for In Motion was completed, he was able to support himself solely with his music. "Thank God I seem to be out of that period now," he comments. "I seem to be making it with my music, and I hope it lasts. I did that cab thing for fourteen years. Maybe that's long enough." He declares that the stresses that come with the job "certainly took their toll. I paid the price for doing that. But it had its function, that's a certainty. It enabled me to do my creative thing in the way in which I wanted to do it and not really compromise it.
"I'm just now starting to make a living," he goes on. "But it's all right. It's cool. Because I have taken care of myself. Not that I don't have problems. But basically I have taken care of myself, and now I'm able to play music on a higher level than I was twenty years ago. And that's because of my spiritual growth, the increased vigor that comes from understanding and the constant improvement of my musical skills. It's what I had to do to keep it all together."
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According to Ware, the more eclectic audiences he's been attracting lately have reacted as one to his inspirational playing. "Everywhere that we have played, including North America, there's been a tremendous response to the music--a really wholehearted response," he reveals. "When you feel it, you just know that you've moved an audience. You know because there's something about the way that the music flows. This very subtle quality that, if you're attuned, you definitely know is happening. I talk with people after the concerts and really feel that they caught the message."
And Ware clearly hasn't run out of things to say. During the last week of September he returned to the studio with the members of his quartet to record two new projects--his next Homestead release and another album for Silkheart. Ware divulges little information on these upcoming ventures, other than revealing that the material is all original. "We've had three rehearsals so far. Very intense rehearsals," he adds.
As for his rising stature among alternative rockers, he claims, "It's exciting. I want them to know that this is real. I want them to hear that this is real. I think it all just goes down to the point that a lot of young people are sick and tired of the same old stuff they always get. But this is good. What goes around comes around."
David S. Ware Quartet, with the Ron Miles Sextet. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 14, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre, 119 Park Avenue West, $10/$8 students and Creative Music Works members, 477-3081.