“It’s a Godly Thing” –Ernest Ranglin and Jason Wilson in conversation
with Douglas Heselgrave
Calgary Folk Festival – July 23, 2011
In a perfect world, Ernest Ranglin would need no introduction. The 79 year old Jamaican guitarist has made inestimable contributions to the development of ska and reggae music – having played on hundreds of seminal recordings as well as famously tutoring Bob Marley on his guitar technique – but sadly many people in the larger musical community have still never heard of him.
This situation is somewhat regrettable for the elder musician who began life as a ‘serious’ musician. Ranglin wanted to play avant garde and jazz music for a living before accepting and embracing the love and affection thousands of world music fans held for what Ranglin calls the ‘commercial’ side of his music. Indeed, Ranglin had challenges with playing dance music from the very beginning of his career – when he secured his first gig playing in a ska band, he had to hide it from his parents who would have been mortified to know that he was playing party music.
If Ranglin felt any emotion other than pure delight when he and Canadian reggae keyboardist, Jason Wilson’s band played two killer sets for thousands of world music fans in Calgary at the annual folk festival last weekend, he hid it well. At nearly 80 years of age, Ranglin was a little unsteady on his feet as he walked on stage, but the instant he began playing his guitar, the decades slipped away as his fingers flowed up and down the neck of his instrument like greased lightning.
Hearing Ernest Ranglin play live was like a dream come true. There simply aren’t many musicians of his caliber (or of his generation) still on the circuit today, so it was an honour to have an opportunity to sit down and talk with him and Jason Wilson about music by the banks of Calgary’s Bow River as the sun went down.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Doug: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Ernest.
Ernest: It’s nice to be here. This is my first time in Calgary. I was in Montreal earlier in the summer, but this is nice. It’s beautiful down here by the river.
Doug: Well, I’d like to start by asking Jason a question, if you don’t mind. Your band played with Ernest today. That must have been an honour for you.
Jason: It was a dream come true for me. I feel like I’ve been really blessed. Jackie Mittoo was my mentor. (Jackie Mittoo was one of the premiere roots reggae keyboardists in the genre’s golden age) The last couple of years of Jackie’s life were spent with me. His last recording was done with me and you know, and I few years later I was introduced to Ernie and we hit it off. He liked my band and he ended up recording on our last album as well. (on the album ‘The Peacemaker’s Chauffeur Ranglin plays on ‘the importance of being Ernest’) I kind of pinch myself. It’s kind of funny I call Ernie my friend now because we’ve played on so many shows together –
Ernest: We’re just like brothers –
Jason: At first, it was Mr. Ranglin, Mr. Ranglin. Now it’s Ernie. It’s a blessing!
Ernest: Ha Ha….Ernie – he’s ‘earning’ that’s what he wants to say!
Doug: So, in your own country, you’ve been well recognized. You’ve been given the order of distinction.
Ernest: Oh, that was way back in 1973. Now, I’m a commander of the order of distinction. I got that award about three years ago.
Doug: Do you still live in Jamaica?
Ernest: Yes, I do. I have a doctorate also. That’s from the University of the West Indies.
Doug: Do you ever think of retiring? You’re 79 years old!
Ernest: Retiring! Did he saying ‘rehiring?’ I’ll come to Vancouver if you want to rehire me!
Jason: That’s right!
Ernest: Ha Ha Ha. I haven’t really thought about it.
Doug: When did you first pick up a guitar?
Ernest: It was at an early age and I’ve been loving it ever since and I’m still loving it.
Jason: I thought you wanted to be a cricket player.
Ernest: I could make a few runs off my guitar –
Doug: I heard you play 54-46 twice today. What struck me was that each time you played the solo, they were completely different.
Ernest: Of course!
Doug: How important is improvisation to your music?
Ernest: It is so great not to repeat yourself because to me whenever you start repeating yourself, that’s the end of your ability to improvise. Let’s just call it that. Because your thoughts are rolling along, you should have whatever is going, new ideas at all times and if you get stagnant that’s where you stop.
Jason: I think the crowd responds to that, too. Because if – like you –you see the show twice in a day, if it’s not slightly different –
Ernest: You shouldn’t be doing the same thing. That’s why I don’t want to put down classical music, but if you play the same Beethoven or the same Chopin, and it’s the same notes and same expression that you play every time. That’s a good way to learn because all of those things can be learned. But, if you have to do the same thing every time, it becomes boring –
Doug: There are musicians out there that I’ve met – ones who love to play – who have played essentially the same set for 20 years.
Ernest: Really! I wouldn’t want to do that. Well, Well. I want to look at life just as how the wind is blowing against these trees and maybe they’re blowing a different rhythm every time. I can admire the rhythms of nature and we need to be creating at all times.
Doug: How do you put yourself in a frame of mind where you’re open to those things? Is it a conscious state of mind you’re in when you improvise?
Ernest: Well, it’s a Godly thing. Ha Ha Ha. Because God gave us all this knowledge and He’s always dealing with us. I’m quite certain He’s not going to tell you the same thing every time, or He is going to tell you the same thing every time but in different ways. So, this is what this is about.
Doug: I know you as a reggae artist, but I also enjoy your jazz records. Do you differentiate in your mind between different types of music? By that I mean, do you approach music all the same way, or does it depend on what you’re playing?
Ernest: The whole problem is that I have played jazz from the 1950’s and I tried to prove what I could do, but then after when I reached about the 70’s or the 80’s, I had reached a point where I didn’t have a good manager to push me. I think of people like Dizzy Gillespie and those, I reached up to about number three and I knew if I had a good agent or good manager, I would have reached the top. But, I didn’t have that chance, still I’m really glad that people could have seen me create what I did. Still, I feel that it’s only musicians who really know my ability (the extent of my ability) I was good friends with the top musicians, but that never really reached out into the public. People like Les Paul would seek me out –
Jason: He was a bit of an unsung hero in jazz –
Ernest: Yes, Les Paul, I saw him in 1953 with Mary Ford and he came to look for me in ’54. I met many great people, but only musicians really appreciated what I was doing. I was not exposed, so I never got the exposure. So, when things reached about the 90’s I had to reconsider. There was nothing for me to really try to prove.
Doug: When you talk about proving –
Ernest: I’d been doing this all these years and I didn’t get anywhere with it because I didn’t have the right people to push me. So, I went into the commercial music in about 1992, 1993 and from there I played real good jazz from about that time. Until now, all that I’m doing comes from the knowledge I gained from the fifties to the seventies. What I’m doing now is just a matter of making a living.
(both Jason and Ernest break into uncontrollable laughter)
Doug: So, I’m thinking of those records from the nineties – ‘Below the Bassline’ and ‘Searching of the lost chord’ on Island Records.
Ernest: Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. So, this is where I went over to the commercial side of music. I have to live. I remember Joe Harriot
Doug: Fantastic musician
Ernest: Yeah, he’s a great guy and… Who’s this man who had the music here in America who was the avante garde player?
Jason: Ornette Coleman
Ernest: Yes, Ornette. Well, Joe Harriot was doing the same thing from Jamaica, but playing it in England and doing his own thing. But, he called his music a different thing and Ornette called it avante garde, but it was the same music. So, I was over in England and talking to Joe Harriot. Well, I’d known him from young boy days, so he said let’s play together and he wanted me to play that music. But, I had to say ‘Joe, I’ve got to live.’
Doug: Do you enjoy playing that ‘outside’ kind of music?
Ernest: Well, I said ‘no’ because I’ve got to live. So, I put down this music from the early nineties and I’ve been trying to live from playing middle of the road music. I think I enjoy middle of the road because if I try and go play jazz music today, about 2% of the audience is going to listen to what I’m going to do –
Doug: I find that sad. Your ‘Live at Ronnie Scott’s’ album is really one of my favourites.
Ernest: But that was 1964!
Jason: And there was an audience for that kind of thing then.
Ernest: That’s when Joe wanted me to do that, too. So, this is it. I’m just trying to live. (Ernest makes a wide gesture with his hands that encompasses the beautiful scenery in front of us, smiles deeply, puts his hand on my knee and looks into my eyes) Just trying to live!
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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