Guthrie Ramsey Jr. began making music around the same time he was playing with blocks and learning his ABCs. Now the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music, Ramsey recalls starting piano lessons at age 5 and quickly discovering both classical and jazz styles. By seventh grade, he was directing local church choirs and playing in numerous ensembles.
“I was a real focused and directed little kid,” he says with a chuckle. “It was kind of strange, man.”
Today, Ramsey spends as much time thinking, writing, and teaching others about music as he does creating it. Since arriving at Penn in 1998, he has led classes in jazz history and African-American music, and in 2003 he published Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip-Hop. He still finds time for his own music, too, writing songs and playing piano and keyboards with his ensemble, Dr. Guy’s MusiQology.
Ramsey released a new album, The Colored Waiting Room, in February. Frequent contributor and Gazette arts & culture blogger Molly Petrilla c’06 caught up with him to discuss the music he makes (“jazz infused with the sounds of R&B, funk, soul, Latin, and hip hop”), the music he teaches, and the music he’s listening to right now.
What was a “colored waiting room,” and why did you choose that as the title for your new album?
The colored waiting room is a historical place where black passengers had to wait separately from white passengers before they got on the same train or bus. It was an extension of a series of laws and practices that sought to segregate black citizens from the broader populace. Of course, with separate-but-equal being struck down in 1954, that was no longer the law, but those practices certainly outlived the law.
I think what happens inside those very unpleasant experiences is that people actually make their own joy, make their own pleasures, make their own world and what they desire. As a result, [these rooms] weren’t just spaces of containment, they were also spaces of freedom and freedom dreams. So what I conceived of for this CD is that this colored waiting room is actually a nightclub—that the songs and spoken word on this CD take place in a nightclub called The Colored Waiting Room.
What are some of your favorite tracks?
The most sentimental track for me is “Little London’s Lullaby.” It’s a little blues lullaby that I wrote for my granddaughter when she was born two years ago, and my daughter—her aunt—sang the song on the album. It’s really sentimental to me because I trained my kids in music, and now I’m trying to make the impression on my granddaughter that, “Hey, this is what we do.”
There’s another song called “Lake Como (Remix)” that I think might be my favorite on the CD. I wrote it when I was staying on Lake Como in Italy a few years back. I recorded it as a solo piano piece, and a bass player who’s also on the CD said, “Wow, I can’t stop listening to that song.” Those are the kind of comments you pay attention to, so I remixed the song and scored it for a full band.
I hear there was a good bit of student involvement on The Colored Waiting Room.
Students who are interested in the real-world practices of the music industry have few formal or extra-curricular outlets at Penn. Consequently, some of the students who take my history and literature classes see this other part of my life and want to participate because they get to see the real workings of someone trying to put together [music] projects. They take independent studies with me or volunteer to help out with different aspects of the projects. It’s analogous to undergraduate research.
For this album, one of the students actually did research on mixing and mastering and sent around listening sessions. [Other students] wrote liner notes, and some helped write and produce the film I put out for this CD.
How would you describe the current music scene?
There’s a lot to dig about it and there’s a lot that’s not so good about it. It’s very tough to make generalizations about any musical genre or form, but one of the reactions I’ve been having from [my new] CD—people always bring this up—is that it’s kind of a throwback to a stronger musical past, that there’s something different about what they’re hearing in this project than what they’re sensing currently in the music marketplace.
Is there something lacking in contemporary music, then?
So much music that people are finding disrespectful to themselves and others always gets the greatest attention, always has the highest sales. Across the board, there’s a lot of music circulating now that people find deeply offensive. I think that there should be alternatives. I don’t believe in censoring people, but I believe that if you present strong alternatives for people, we may see a shift in the aesthetic.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton’s new album, which is very controversial. I’ve been trying to understand where this CD fits into the larger scheme of things, and in my hip-hop class we recently talked about that piece’s pleasures and problems.
I’ve also been listening to a CD by [trumpeter] Bill Ortiz—he’s a Latin Jazz artist—and to [bassist] Christian McBride’s new CD [The Good Feeling].
Where do you stand on music-streaming sites like Grooveshark and Spotify, through which you can listen to—but not download—entire albums without buying them?
I can see how that would be a problem for musicians who are actually living off of the music they make. For me personally, I’m just happy to have people hear the music. Then maybe they’ll want to see me play live or buy the music to own. But it’s a two-sided coin. Musicians now have unprecedented access to creating their own recordings and disseminating their own music, which means they don’t have to wait for a record company to provide the resources to do that. On the flip side, the ease with which we can now record and disseminate music also allows others to circulate our music easily, so everything is a tradeoff.
I frankly would rather have it this way, where people are getting lots of opportunities to record and to share their own music without a middleman.
What are you working on right now?
I have several things on my desk. The first is marketing and promotions for The Colored Waiting Room, which is just as big a job, if not bigger, than trying to create the CD because I’m doing [all the publicity work] myself.
I’m turning in my manuscript on Bud Powell to the University of California Press. It’s a socio-cultural study of the bebop movement in jazz and Bud Powell’s place in it. He was a seminal figure in modern jazz, but he also spent many years in and out of mental institutions. The evidence points to him suffering from schizophrenia.
I’m also working on another book: Who Hears Here? It’s a collection of essays on black music that combines some of my academic writing with some of the more public writing that I do on my blog. It will also include some reviews and some interviews with prominent scholars of black music.