With this interview, Ducts welcomes Tierney Malone, guest arts editor. For five pieces in this issue, Tierney curated selections from his own visual art as well as a “playlist” of contemporary jazz musicians to accompany the literary work, creating a layered experience and interpretation of each. See our feature essay, fiction, humor, memoir, and poetry pieces to view the artwork and to access Tierney’s playlist selections.
“I’m basically a storyteller”:
an interview with Tierney Malone
With Voichita Nachescu, Ducts essays editor
On the history of Juneteenth
Voichita: I discovered recently something that I wrote about you in 2009. Can I read that to you? “Tierney Malone considers himself a sign painter, a remarkable modesty for an artist recently mentioned in the New York Times, who has shown his work at world class venues, such as the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and whose recent works have been collected by jazz musician Kurt Elling and Yankee catcher Jorge Posada. Malone’s artistic work elevates to full significance patterns, letterings, typography.” Has anything changed since 2009, and what would you like to add to that description of you?
Tierney: Oh, definitely a whole lot has happened between then and now in regards to my work and my approach to what I do. I would say that the energy has not changed, but the clarity on why I’m doing the things that I’m doing has been revealed to me, I guess, over the years. I’m still telling stories using text and images that appear like advertisements. You know the whole reason behind that is that billboards are for public consumption, they are for everyone who has the opportunity to pass by them to be exposed to whatever the propaganda that’s being offered. I find it a very democratic means of communicating. I’ve always been inspired by the text used in cinema, and of course album covers.
Voichita: I remember you saying something like, “People don’t need to be taught how to look at art,” and I think that’s a great way to put it, not to mention that I love your radically democratic approach to art consumption. You mentioned that you have two upcoming shows, can you tell us a little bit about them?
Tierney: Yeah, on June 3rd I’m in an exhibition with artist Robert Hodge. We produced a record that was dropped on June 19th, 2016, an album that is called Two & 1/2 Years, a Musical Celebration to the Spirit of Juneteenth. Robert Hodge wanted to bring the Juneteenth story to a younger audience. The project is primarily hip-hop driven, but it also uses all the art forms that African-Americans are responsible for. Of course there’s hip-hop, jazz, rhythm and blues, spoken word, and gospel, all these are represented. The album includes 40 artists and producers from around the country and from Houston, including cats like Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, rappers Lil’ Keke, K Rino, just a ton of talented cats from the Houston scene.
We’re producing a limited-edition version of that project on wax, and so this exhibition is the visual component to that album. The exhibition is held in Galveston, at the Galveston Art Center, because Galveston is where the announcement that was made on June 19th, 1865, when General Granger came to Galveston as a representative of the Union and the United States government to declare that slavery was abolished. It’s in Galveston that Juneteenth was created, so there’s going to be something pretty interesting about this kind of coming together of this visual work, this album, and the place within which, the whole reason why we’re talking about this, that it happened in that city.
Galveston used to be a major, major city in Texas before 1900. In 1900 was the huge hurricane that took Galveston off of the map, and made it the sleepy beach town that it is, and all of the money moved up the channel to Houston, and that’s why Houston became a major city. But if that hurricane hadn’t happened, Galveston would be Houston right now, which is kind of crazy to think about. So yeah, that’s happening on June the 3rd, and it runs through July, and we’re going to have performances by some of the artists from the project. We’re going to be doing a series on the history of Juneteenth as we see it. In my view, the celebration of Juneteenth is valid, but the reasons given as to why we celebrate it are erroneous, not true.
Voichita: What do you mean?
Tierney: Juneteenth was introduced to me when I came to Houston to go to college. I had never heard of Juneteenth before coming here. But now as I’ve gotten older and researched that over the years, I’ve begun to realize that there was an intentional conspiracy to hide the news about emancipation from Africans. And if I was told these things in school, my discourse with this society would be much different. But I spent so much time trying to prove that I’m not inferior. And that’s a whole another kind of mind―there’s no other word for―mindfuck. I’ve been deemed inhuman by those who benefited from my ancestors’ labor and my ancestors’ wombs, monetized their wombs, who raped, burned and killed people at whim… yet I’m the one who is… considered the violent one that should be watched. I’m the one that is thought of as a menacing risk, when all the riots before the 60s were white people on black people. History books don’t have that shit. This is like right there but my people are the ones who are the vicious ones. My people are the ones who are the lazy ones. My people are the ones who are the dangerous ones. No, that’s called a pathological lie... so the bogus Juneteenth, the way it was presented to me is that slaves in Texas were freed two and a half years later than everybody else.
Voichita: More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation… and I think two months or so after the end of the Civil War.
Tierney: And I was like, “Why in hell would you want to be celebrating that you were freed two and a half years late?” For a long time, I didn’t celebrate Juneteenth. Now it’s a holiday celebrated in at least forty-five states around this country. Isn’t that crazy? Forty-five states are honoring Juneteenth and there at least ten countries around the world that celebrate Juneteenth. But the way it’s celebrated is that it marks the end of slavery in United States of America, and that’s not the truth. Even after June 19th, you still have states that did not completely end slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation was turned into the 13th Amendment and then ratified in December of 1865. So these facts are right here and can be easily looked up, but no one’s looking it up.
Of the top ten jazz musicians of the world, half are from Houston
Voichita: That sounds really fascinating, especially given the history lesson around Juneteenth. I didn’t know many of the details. But you mentioned that you have a second project coming up.
Tierney: This is a continuation of Jazz Church, a project I did at Project Row Houses from October 2016 through February 2017. My regular radio show is called Houston Jazz Spotlight, which is broadcasted every Monday morning at 9 am Central on KPFT Houston. In addition, on the first Monday of each month, I produce a live show in front of an audience. It’s an evening of rare jazz records and interviews and live music and poetry and art―all of those things. We did our first one in May and so our next one is June the 5th and each show has a different theme. This show is called the Juneteenth Jazz Jubilee. Again, there are reasons why Juneteenth should be celebrated. One of them is that enslaved Africans in Texas, for a very long time, state-wide, acknowledged their emancipation date. And the thing is, different communities around the country, based on their emancipation date, would celebrate their emancipation date. So it’s not the only one, but it’s definitely the largest one and it’s for the tradition, again. Texas was the first state to acknowledge Juneteenth, to actually have a holiday, and then all of a sudden it’s just all around the country. It is a beautiful occasion for African-Americans to acknowledge their ancestors.
Voichita: Right now it sounds like you’re super busy preparing for these two events related to Juneteenth, about which you feel both passion and a strong ambivalence, I would say. Tell us a little bit more about the Jazz Church of Houston and your work as a music historian.
Tierney: Well, I’m basically a storyteller, that’s just it. And I used to compartmentalize the things that I did, I used to think of my writing and how it’s different from my art and that was different from the work that I would do on my radio show. The one thing that all of these things have in common is that I am interested in telling of a story that hopefully will be interesting and of some use and ultimately, on top of that, entertaining for someone and now, I see all of those as one. That’s what I’m saying... that’s the thing that has changed. The work I do on the radio is, if looked upon now, no different than my visual artwork and my writing.
The Jazz Church of Houston was born out of an opportunity that was given to me. I was one of the first round of artists at Project Row Houses in Houston when they started... this was ’93, I guess. When we got our houses, they were still dilapidated shotgun houses. We actually had to put in sweat equity along with volunteers and to restore our shotgun houses. And so I have a real connection to it, to that house: the actual window that’s in the front is the window that I built and put in back in ’93 and no one has changed it since then. But when I was asked to do a project, I was just thinking about the fact that Houston does not acknowledge its amazing jazz scene, past and present. Nobody knows about all of the incredible musicians who came from here. Of the top ten artists―top ten jazz musicians of the world, half are from Houston. That’s just how serious it is.
Voichita: That’s impressive. I didn’t know that.
Tierney: There’s no group or institution that’s making that point other than my little weekly radio show, which is a life raft in the middle of the ocean. So I decided that I want to build a museum, and the idea was to create that venue in the city of Houston, a world-class venue for musicians to perform here. So when Jason Moran, Chris Dave, Helen Sung or Eric Harland come home or any of these guys... Billy Harper… there’s not a venue that they can just roll up and just say “Yo, I want to sit in with somebody tonight. I know that that cat’s playing. I know a great venue.” You’d have to look for a venue and in nine out of ten cases it’s gonna be a restaurant. It won’t be a club. We don’t have jazz clubs. We have places that say they’re jazz clubs, but they’re really not, they’re R&B places disguised as jazz venues.
So I just knew that I wanted to create a venue as an add-on to the space. The stage would be a museum with walls and displays and any time these walls would slide out and the space would become a music venue and a prototype of a type of space that should exist in the city. So the whole project was what I called an action project. I wanted to bring the community’s attention to the musicians from the scene as well as to allow them to hear this music in the way that they should be hearing it, in a venue where you don’t have to compete with people talking, cellphones, and drinking. And I was thinking this space is not unlike its prototype, a Church, and particularly, the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco. It’s a space where people are coming solely to hear the music and where the musicians know that these jazz lovers in the audience are there to hear just them. There were no cellphones allowed. There was no talking during the set and the musicians loved it because the space, even though it was a shotgun house, we’re talking about houses built in the late ’30s, so we’re talking about very, very hardened shiplap wood, the whole house became a speaker box. The acoustics in this space were incredible. We actually did a number of live recordings. We recorded every performance on this stage.
Voichita: It’s kind of miraculous and you wouldn’t necessarily expect a shotgun house to end up having great acoustics, but I think that’s really amazing that it happened…
Tierney: Everybody who came to the space―all these cats who play around the world―all of them love the sound in the space and again all the cats from the scene―they love it as well. And so when I conceived of this idea of an entertainment venue, I kind of figured out how maybe five performances throughout an entire gig, or maybe ten. All the performances were free, because I wanted to give people who had not heard this music an opportunity to come and to check it out risk-free. Each performance was limited to thirty-five to forty people, that’s as many as we could get in and we never allow people to stand or anything like that. I ended up having twenty-seven performances over nineteen weeks. So that was... crazy.
Finding Music for Text
Voichita: I remember you mentioning that you were feeling as if you were jetlagged at the end of the series. I can now see why. Can you tell us a little bit about the artists that you selected? When we asked you to collaborate with ducts.org, I was thinking of the concept of soundscape, by Murray Schafer, the sounds of a particular location, and I wanted to extend that to the sound that can create a particular immersive experience, that can accompany a particular piece of writing. So can you tell us a little bit about the artists that you selected or the creative process that you used? How did you select the pieces for the ducts.org issue?
Tierney: I responded to the major aspects of each story. I actually had a number of lists that I made, but I’ll explain how I ended up with the final selection. For “Audible Memory,” the line I kind of latched onto visually was the line where the author speaks about the photograph, and that feeling of melancholy. But in the end “Sad Twilight” was the song that I thought best captured the melancholy, a slight bit of sadness, but also a certain amount of hope.
“Exit Strategy” is a very, very, very strange story. I chose “Too Much” by Kendrick Scott Oracle because I thought of Alan Hampton’s vocals. Kendrick Scott, who’s a bass and guitar player, is from Houston too. Well, one more note about that song, if you notice there’s a part in the song that sounds as if it’s computer generated. To me, that’s the main character downloading, making his hard drive. Those sound effects to me, you know, they sounded like the uploading of that hard drive into her mind.
Voichita: How about “Sitcom Song” [accompanying “Classic Brady Bunch Episodes If Made Today”]? I love the title and it’s such a great piece.
Tierney: I mean, for obvious reasons, you know what I mean? To me that was a natural one. For “An Analphabetic Story of Consonants” by Jennifer Lang, that was a challenging piece to find music for. I felt there were three big pieces, one about love, one about tradition, and one about instability in regards to, you know, the tribal conflicts happening over there. So I was trying to find a piece that spoke to those things. But then I came across “Chant,” and immediately I heard the traditional part. There’s also contemplation in there as well, you know, and that’s one thing that the writer was talking about and that’s not a part of her life. So, I said, in the “Chant” piece, the horn reminded me of the shared instrumental sounds and the Middle Eastern music, whether we’re talking about Palestinians or Jews.
And then in the “C Train” poem, you know, I initially thought of another piece, but it was too upbeat, it was too happy. I’ve always liked the Child of the 808, and when I heard it in correlation to this poem, first thing that registers to me is the pressures from the drums. It sounds like a train. And then, you know, when the vibes hit in, it’s just a very cool, laid back movement and to me that captured those same qualities that I saw in that very short but very vivid poem. And if I was asked to do those other poems, there’s a song for each one of them in the album Two and a Half Years. Because, I mean, that album ended up becoming a Black Lives Matter protest piece. It was not set up to be that way but that’s what it is. I think the album is going to eventually get national attention because right now, we’re beginning to release tracks across the water and the Robert Glasper piece “Seasons” is getting mad radio play around the country now. It’s a project that’s going to continue to grow.
Voichita: Thank you so very much for explaining in so much detail your creative process of selecting these pieces. Is there else anything you’d like to add?
Tierney: One thing I want to add is that I’m honored to do this. This was very fun project. I like all the pieces that I read and I look forward to seeing the magazine.