Artist in Residence Ray Briggs
Artist in Residence program producer Kati Szeker sat down with artist Ray Briggs to discuss his early inspiration, staying curious, and the importance of library spaces. Read below or watch the video to learn more about Ray. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Listen to his work for the Artist in Residence Program 2021: Two Pieces by Ray Briggs.
Kati: Could you please introduce yourself?
Ray: My name is Ray Briggs. I am the Assistant Director of Jazz Studies at California State University, Long Beach. I'm an artist-educator, I'm a saxophone player, and I perform a lot in the southern California area, in other parts of the country, and parts of western Europe.
I am a scholar as well, ethnomusicologist by training, and I'm very interested in music and culture and how those two things are interrelated of course, and how music tells stories.
"I'm very interested in music and culture and how those two things are interrelated of course, and how music tells stories."
Kati: What made you pursue jazz? What are your inspirations?
Ray: I grew up in Tennessee, in Memphis, and it is a music town in every sense of the word. And it's interesting because growing up there, I just thought it was normal that you know, a lot of people sing, a lot of people play instruments, and you’ve got music all over the place. I just thought, “yeah what's special about that?” I'm thinking this is just kind of humdrum, status quo. But once I left and moved to California I realized that yes, there's great music out here, but it doesn't permeate everyday life as much as what I was accustomed to.
So now, in looking back I realize how special that environment was, and so I would say that’s kind of what led me and inspired me is just you know where I grew up, hearing a lot of incredible music and musicians.
Kati: It’s a different experience here in California. The inspiration coming from your family and then moving to southern California, did that set the road to jazz?
Ray: My first Masters was actually in woodwind doubling so I studied all the woodwinds: flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon. But saxophone became my main focus. Mainly because you know just like time and where I thought my creative voice was.
I still have my bassoon but I’m not active as a bassoonist anymore. I'm more interested in playing music that reflects a bit more of my African-American cultural kind of heritage and the saxophone I think allows me to do that more. The bassoon, not so much right, because it's mostly a classical, western European classical. Again, it's great music, it's just not a part of my kind of cultural background. So I was interested more in doing that and jazz to me allowed that to happen more.
Kati: There are so many varieties of music...
Ray: To me, the challenge is - how can I grow as a human being to see beauty in all forms, to see beauty across cultural barriers if you want to say it that way. That's the challenge to me in other words, if it's a music that I don't know but I see that it connects to a community of people, I am in the mindset of you know, what is it that they see in this? Why is it so important to them? And if it's that good I want to know what that is, right? I want to enjoy it.
It's like someone telling me about a really good restaurant. Well, I don't just want to hear about it, I want to go to that restaurant and I want to eat the food. But sometimes you have to be primed for what is the taste that they're going for because if you approach it with the mentality of whatever music you're used to you may be dissatisfied. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. So I really enjoy that, first getting into the kind of cultural criteria of the group - what do they say is good? Then I'm going to get into the art.
"So I really enjoy that, first getting into the kind of cultural criteria of the group - what do they say is good? Then I'm going to get into the art."
Kati: What are your experiences with libraries?
Ray: Libraries have always been important spaces in my life. This is a part that I try to share with my younger students, that there is something about being in the space that you can't get online. There's something about being in, physically in the space of a library that cannot be replicated online.
For example, you look up a book that you want, an article, journal article, whatever it is, and you go to the shelves to get it. As you're standing there, there'll be some things that you didn't find in your search that are right next to it, that are very much in line with what you're doing. You're looking at the spine of the books - okay, oh look at that, that's interesting, I didn't find that, that's exactly what I need. And you wouldn't have found that had you not been in the library physically. That's happened to me so many times.
The cool thing about a library that I also learned as a grad student is that there are a lot of things you can't get online that are in the library. There's some things that have not been digitized that you only get physically. So you have to go. If certain types of research call for it, you have to be there right? And so I think we do our students a great disservice if we let them think that they can find everything that they need just online.
Kati: What do you find exciting about a partnership with EveryLibrary and working with other artists?
Ray: It's appealing to me to work with this project because I think art, it flows from the same well of creativity and you know, exploration. While it might manifest itself within the particular craft of the artist right, so if I'm a visual artist it's going to show up in my paintings or drawings, if I'm a photographer it can show up...and so I'm a musician so it shows up as sound.
I am most attracted to - what drives the artist? Not so much what is the finished product right, but what is it they're thinking about? What is it that they're feeling? Because I think at that level we're all the same and that there are probably some things that I feel that a poet might feel and then in their craft, they express it this way. But I think we rarely talk about, have space for those conversations to take place.