Interview with Tom Varner about Martian Heartache


This is a nice snapshot of musical life in 1996 - Tom Varner 2010

(Interview by Frank Tafuri)

Tafuri: Martian Heartache. What a title!

Varner: The whole album itself is a giant follow-through to the Mystery of Compassion. But at that point [when we made the album], I wanted it to be a taking stock of one's life of being in this struggle of doing this music and going full steam ahead.  There was this feeling of being a solider.  So "Martian" meaning a soldier very far away from home in a reflection of all the complexities of life — good, bad, or indifferent — and putting them together in a very personal statement.

Tafuri: A martian as a solider, as opposed to a martian or being on a martian planet?

Varner: It's a play on both.  It was also at the period where there was that feeling like (as I'm sure you know sometimes) no matter what you do, no matter what you say — either you or everyone else is on a another planet. And it's breaking your heart. I wanted that sense of being on another planet and poignancy at the same time ... combined with an overview (having been in the trenches over twenty years now) of trying to play improvised music on my instrument and composing for those settings. All of a sudden it hit me: I've been doing this for twenty years now. It's that sense of still being in the struggle and not knowing where it's going to lead, but knowing you're gonna keep going.

Tafuri: Well, there definitely is even more than a hopeful tone to the album. There's a great sense of humor in it, as there seems to be in most all of the music that you compose.

Varner: That's true, because it's looking at the complexity all around, but definitely with a sense of humor and definitely with hopefulness at its core.

Tafuri: That's probably the only way to overcome martian heartache.

Varner: Over the years of people going "Ew, I don't like the French horn — it just sounds funny" and things like that, you get the feeling you're on another planet. But full steam ahead anyway. And then reflecting all of that into the music.

Tafuri: Speaking of playing the French horn and being on another planet — and you've probably been asked this question a million times — how did you start playing the French horn? There're not that many French horn players out there to begin with — I would imagine — and then to move into the rarefied air of the jazz vein.

Varner: I don't know. I just started playing the French horn when I was ten years old in the fifth grade.

Tafuri: Just for the hell of it?

Varner: Yeah. In fourth grade — this is in Millburn, New Jersey, in the public schools — they said, "Okay, it's June and you're gonna have summer vacation and you're coming in September and you're gonna get to play in the band, if you want. What do you want to play?" And I kind of had it in my head: either the trumpet or the trombone.  I'd rehearsed in my own little brain, I'm gonna tell 'em either the trumpet or trombone.  And then they showed little pictures of all the instruments and I saw the picture of the French horn and thought, "Aw, maybe that one instead. Yeah!" And  then I did an ear test. They said "Well, we don't know if you can play that one, but, here, let's do a little ear test" and they played little notes going up, down, half-steps, fast, slow, and I aced it as a fourth grader.... They'd go 'duh-DAH' and I'd go "Up!" They'd go 'DAAH-duuuh' and I'd go "That's down."  Then they said "OK, you can play the French horn. You have a good ear."

Tafuri:  You had never really even heard a French horn then.  nIt wasn't like they got out a whole bunch of instruments and started played them for you?

Varner:  No, [but] I think we had one of those records in my family, although we didn't even have a stereo — we had a little, tiny, kiddy, Mickey Mouse player. But one of the records we had was like an 'Introduction to the Orchestra.'  I think I remember hearing something about a French horn on that record.  That must have been the only thing, because my parents were not musical.

Tafuri:  So that's wild.  So you really, really didn't even know what the French horn sounded like?

Varner:  Not really.  I knew that it was kind of like this cool thang.

Tafuri:  It looked cool, anyway.

Varner:  Right.  And then, by the time (six years later) I'm sixteen and I'm really getting into jazz, I'm thinking "Aw, I guess I can never play jazz because I play the French horn."  Or then, when I started to think "maybe I can," then I thought "I'm too old to change my instrument now, I couldn't change my embouchure now" ... at the old age of sixteen!  So it just sort of became this thing and I just stuck with it.

Tafuri:  That's what I just was going to say: "if this isn't a story of stick-to-it-iveness..."  To say, "okay, I saw this little picture of this instrument, lemme try that," and then to stay with it...

Varner:  It's true. It's a little perverse.  It's like "Okay, what am I gonna do?  I'll pick the hardest instrument you can possibly play.  Then I'm gonna play jazz on it.  Then I'm gonna play my own music that some people call avant garde jazz on it."  How else could I have set myself up for hardship ... and still done okay?

Tafuri:  You said your folks were not that musical.  What was there reaction to all of this?

Varner:  They loved music.  (My mom, in fact, had played baritone horn in high school marching band, but she was the first one to say she was terrible.  She just did it so she could march.)  They liked music and we would go to see the New Jersey Symphony and other concerts like, for instance, Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington..

Tafuri:  So they were supportive of it.

Varner:  So they were supportive.  I mean, when I finally told them "Guess what? I've decided I'm going to be a professional jazz musician for the rest of my life" they weren't exactly thrilled, but even then they bit their tongue and were like "Okay, you're eighteen now, we've raised you to believe in what's right" (they were these good, religious-but-politically-liberal-left, Bible belt, Missouri, small town folks) —

Tafuri: — living in New Jersey —

Varner: — having moved to New Jersey in the mid-'50s, just before I was born. (They were both from a small town in Missouri.)  They were like "Okay, if that's in your heart of hearts what you want to do, we'll try our best to keep our mouths shut about it."

Tafuri:  So your training was mostly in the schools?

Varner:  Initially, yeah, but I took piano lessons, which helped with theory — though I was a terrible pianist.  And I took private French horn lessons from around age fifteen through college.  But then, by the time I was college at Oberlin with Jon Jang, I wanted to study classical French horn as well as academics, but I was in the College — not the Conservatory — and they wouldn't let me.  So at that point I really knew I wanted to be an improviser anyway and play jazz, so I figured "I'll figure this out on my own and I'll just do the best I can."  I was only at Oberlin for two years and then I was at the New England Conservatory for two years.  I got very good technical training, as well as Jaki Byard, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and Ran Blake.  Then one year later I recorded by first record for Soul Note.  When I think of that time from, as a seventeen-year-old going "Wow! Listen to this Julius Watkins record on 'Friday the Thirteenth' — maybe I can do this," within five or six years I recorded my first record for Soul Note.

Tafuri:  That thought had to be pretty amazing.

Varner:  Yeah, then I was like "Go!  Go!  Go!" and the French horn was so difficult — in especially that period — to make swing in jazz.  It's like trying to do beautiful ballet dancing with only your socks on on ice; you're slipping and sliding and you can't get the accuracy that you need, especially if you're improvising and turning on a dime. It's hard enough to play one note.

Tafuri:  You're not left-handed, are you?

Varner:  I am.  It's just a happy coincidence.

Tafuri:  I always thought that fingering with the left hand was always one of the weirdest things about the French horn ... beyond the whole fact of having to leave that other hand stuck in the bell all the time...  (I'm always a little hesitant to shake hands with French horn players.)

Varner:  Yeah, it's a little sweaty.  But that's only to keep it in tune; you're not supposed to jam it up there.  Because it's such a difficult instrument — it's so hard to play in tune — you're constantly adjusting with the hand in the bell to make things a little sharp or a little flat to be in tune with the other guys.

Tafuri:  Your story's very interesting, though, to have just picked an instrument and then done the do.

Varner:  Well, I had some other heroes, one of whom was Steve Lacy.  At an earlier point, when I realized he was saying "No, I'm only going to play the soprano sax" when everybody thought that was sort of weird, I figured "Well, if he could do it, then I'm going to try to stick to this instrument...." From the beginning when I started to have my own groups — even back to the times with Jon Jang when we were college sophomore roommates together, I knew I needed to write situations for my instrument because not enough other people were going to do it.  I wanted to be a composer, as well.... I needed to be a leader in one way or another.  And in the beginning it was that wonderful group with Gato Barbieri and Don Cherry, Complete Communion, that was one of my first cues.  And Monk and Dolphy. That was the push. I wanted to take that as launching pad for a small group where my instrument wouldn't get too buried, and just go on from there.