Jazz dialogue: gary giddins in conversation with loren schoenberg (part one)

Noted jazz critic Gary Giddins recently engaged in a free-wheeling public discussion of jazz matters, current and historic, with Loren Schoenberg, Executive Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Below we present part one of this fascinating dialogue. For part two, click here.

Loren Schoenberg: How would you answer a five-year old or a seven-year old who asked the simple question: ‘What is jazz?’ You are famous for writing about it. What the heck is it?

Gary Giddins: There are many different ways to approach it. I would say that it’s a music that is a lot of fun; that it has very exciting rhythms that you can feel in your body. You can tap your feet and shake your head to it, and parts of it are composed in advance, just like any other kind of music. But a lot of it is made up on the spot by musicians trained to do that, and when the solos are really good they last as long as written music.

                Gary Giddins, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

I doubt if most people could name five classical works written in the 1920s that are listened to as much as recordings made at the same time by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.

Loren Schoenberg: Rhapsody in Blue and not too many after that.

Gary Giddins: A couple of Stravinsky works, Les Noces or Oedipus Rex, and, yeah, that’s about it.

Loren Schoenberg: Maybe some Rachmaninoff.

Gary Giddins: From the ‘20s, there’s the fourth piano concerto, but not much else, In any case, you get the point. The great jazz solos are analyzed and transcribed and orchestrated for different groups and sometimes lyrics are put to them.

But I think that the thing that bugs me most the way about the way jazz is taught — and the way teenagers, like my daughter’s friends, respond to it — is that they’re afraid of it. They think it’s difficult. It’s like homework or classical music. It’s not party music for people anymore. That’s very disturbing. So if I had a kindergarten in front of me, I would be focusing on that aspect of it.

Now, in terms of playing the music, one of the fascinating things is that it occupies a middle ground between the classical tradition, which is a written virtuoso art that requires enormous technique and all kinds of musicological knowledge. You have to be able to write and read a score. On the other hand you’ve got pop music, which can be on a garage band level where guys play the blues in two keys and still have fun doing it.

Then you’ve got jazz, which sometimes doesn’t require a lot of technique. Some of the greatest musicians were not musically lettered, in part because it’s an oral tradition. But then it can also have virtuosity that is the equal of any that western culture has ever produced; the Art Tatums, the Minguses, arrangers like Ellington and Strayhorn and Gil Evans and on and on and on.

So, it’s a huge world to enter. Almost anybody can find a place in it. I have no musical ability, but I can play a blues on the piano. I mean you wouldn’t want to hear it, believe me, but I can do it for myself.

I’ve just finished a textbook, with Scott De Veaux, who teaches jazz at the University of Virginia. It’s coming out in January, 2009, and we start off by saying that everybody’s had this experience — walking into a club and a quintet comes on the stage, saxophone and trumpet, rhythm section. They play a theme, which you may or may not know. It may be an old pop standard or maybe a blues, maybe an original, but because they’re playing in unison you recognize it’s a theme — certain melodic figures are repeated over and over again and you’re cool with that. There’s a good back beat. You’re having a good time.

Then the saxophone player starts soloing and in four bars you’re completely lost. What is he doing? There are certain things that jazz fans should learn about jazz. I think it’s worth developing sufficient literacy to know what a 12-bar blues is or a 32-bar song so you can sort of listen along the way the musician does, knowing that the release is coming and what is the soloist going to do with it? That’s the kind of teaching we’re trying to do in this book, but at the same time not to scare people because if the music isn’t fun, then the hell with it. That’s my feeling. All you have to know to master the rudiments of classic jazz form, as a listener, is how to hear the beat and count to four.

Loren Schoenberg: Well, I’d like to add two things. One is that to agree with what you said so heartedly for people to realize that jazz is essentially theme and variations. And that’s what it is. It’s theme and variations. So if you understand what the theme is, with the great improvisers, whether it’s Monk or Sonny Rollins or whomever, they play the theme and they pretty much vary it in the same way that I guess a great novelist will tell you at the beginning of the story. . .

Gary Giddins: Or the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations begins with a melodic statement, which is then subjected to a series of elaborations—different ways of playing it.

Loren Schoenberg: Based on the bassline.

Gary Giddins: Basically, yeah. Whereas with jazz, say you have a song and its got chord changes, but the soloist can superimpose his own variations on those changes, adding passing chords and substitutions, all kinds of things.

Loren Schoenberg: But let me ask you a question. In a sense aren’t you kind of taking this back to what it was you said that you didn’t like. We started to talk about either the technical things or if I started to parse chords with you, ask you for a harmonic analysis or something like that . . .

It’s just like when I go to a restaurant, I don’t feel that I have to know anything about how that bobka was made to enjoy it. I eat it and I like it and I feel no compunction to ask the chef how he made it or to say — and I’ll say this as a musician – where people come up all the time. They’ll say, “I love jazz” and this goes back to your — I guess what you said about your daughter, “I love jazz, but I don’t know enough about it.”

I mean, I don’t think you have to know anything about a cream puff to eat it.

Gary Giddins: You’re coming back to this argument that I had with Branford. Do you know about that?

Loren Schoenberg: Branford Schwartz?

Gary Giddins: Branford Schwartz; Wynton’s older brother. It was in Ken Burns’ film . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Oh, about Cecil Taylor?

Gary Giddins: Yes. It started out because when I was an undergraduate in Iowa, I brought Cecil Taylor’s quartet. They were there for a week and it was unbelievable. Some people loved it and some people – well, I was impeached. I was the social coordinator and they impeached me for bringing what they called a charlatan. Then they had the vote. It was like Andrew Johnson or Clinton. I won by one vote or something.

Now, of course, when I run into anybody who was at Grinnell then, oh, Cecil Taylor, that was so great. Like if half those people had been there – different story.

But anyway, Cecil – we did a panel one day. Actually it was just a dialogue on stage, the two of us. I said, “It took me a long time to understand some of the things you’re doing and most of it I still don’t understand. What do you say to people who find it just too complicated?”

He said, “Well, the musician prepares. The audience prepares. The listener should prepare, too.” So I said that to Burns, or a representative of his, and he quoted that to Branford. Branford said, “That’s bullshit. I love to watch the Knicks, but I don’t have to be able to play basketball.”

But, of course, art and sports are not the same things. We accept the idea that you have to learn how to read James Joyce or Proust or Kafka, to understand what metaphor or an allusion or a parody is. There’s a certain amount of learning that we take for granted when we go into a museum. We’re willing to learn how to understand a poem or certain kinds of classical music, or any other kind of music.

But only some kinds of jazz require that level of concentration or preparation, because other kinds of jazz, as we know from the swing era, are immediately grasped for dancing and listening by everyone.

Loren Schoenberg: Let me respond because you raised a very interesting point. First of all, I disagree that the audience has to prepare because I think that what happens is that if the experience itself of listening to something, no matter how opaque, that the listening itself doesn’t make the listener want to dig into it, then the experience it-self isn’t worth listening to.

Now that’s an absolute statement. I don’t mean for it to be taken out of context. But I disagree. I don’t think that there’s some kind of art that you should have to pay an admission at the door, which is your preparation. I think that, for instance, I tell students all the time — and I assume you’ve probably done the same things — I have students, many students in the Juilliard, for whom English is a second language. I will tell them, “Go see that Shakespeare play.”

Now, I prepare, I read it, I read it. I love to read the history of King Richard the Second and Third and all that. But none the less, I think that if you go here — and I think you agree — that the words will wash over you and somehow you will get it. The experience of getting it is what will send you back to go and investigate it.

Gary Giddins: Well, it doesn’t matter what sends you back. The point is you have to go back.

Loren Schoenberg: Yes; but . . .

Gary Giddins: And get some extra material.

Loren Schoenberg: Absolutely; but I thought you were saying, or what Cecil was saying . . .

Gary Giddins: You don’t prepare the first time—that would be impossible in most circumstances. The first time I heard Cecil Taylor, incredibly enough, was on television. He was on a PBS show with Ralph Ellison and Martin Williams. Ralph went after him with a shovel and Martin, who had mixed feelings about Taylor, was put into the situation of defending him.

There were three or four minutes where Cecil played, involving his strumming and plucking the strings inside the piano. I was mesmerized: “What is that? I’ve got to hear more of that.” Then I bought a couple of records. The record that really turned me around was a Blue Note album, Unit Structures.

Now I played that record to death trying to figure out what is going on formally, and at the same time, I’m playing it to death because there’s something about it that I’m finding enormously pleasing and interesting. But I do wish that somebody could tell me—the way I could ask a teacher about a passage in Ulysses—how these pieces are put together. Can you give me some direction here?

For me the breakthrough on Cecil was I was visiting my girlfriend one weekend. She was in Kansas City. Whenever I’d go down there I’d bring half a dozen albums that we liked. One evening we weren’t paying attention to the record at all, the music is strictly on in the background, one platter after another falling on the automatic changer. All of a sudden I’m really digging it, thinking what the hell is that — it sounded so fresh, as though I had never listened to it before. I’m running in my head who did I bring?

There was a Bobby Hackett album. It wasn’t him. I’m going through the list and I’m saying, “Holy Christ, it’s Cecil.” For the first time, I wasn’t screwing up my intelligence to try and figure it out. It was just sort of coming in through the back door and I got so involved with the timbres and voicings, the way the instruments were interacting. From that point on it was a different experience.

I think a lot of people when they hear certain kinds of jazz, they get tense because they think it’s going to be a challenge.

Loren Schoenberg: One more question for you and then we’ll go right to our audience questions. You said some of the more esoteric music makes demands. I cut you off when you were about to say the music of the swing era, one just listens to.

But now one of the odd situation is, as you know, that if you do play what we think to be that easily accessible “Flying Home” with Lionel Hampton or “One O’Clock Jump” of Count Basie's for anybody under 30, the average person . . .

Gary Giddins: It’s another world . . .

Loren Schoenberg: They just don’t know how to process it. We just did a thing. I used to do educational things for the little kindergarten kids with bands in the 70s. So in the 70s you were going to a school, five, ten year olds and you could play “Mack the Knife” and whether they knew it or not, they were just [Snapping fingers]. Then eventually, starting in the 90s and up to now, this is what happened — Saturday I saw it happen — I had a band playing a rompin’ stompin’ boogie blues in front of 15 kids between ten and fifteen. And not one booty shaked. And not one foot went. So, I don’t even know if we can accept anymore . . .

Gary Giddins: That’s right. Do you know who’s the most controversial figure in jazz history?

Loren Schoenberg: Stan Kenton?

Gary Giddins: No question: it’s Louis Armstrong. Right? I mean look at some of the things that were written about him at every level of his career.

Loren Schoenberg: That’s true. I never thought of that.

Gary Giddins: Now people will listen to a Louis Armstrong record, a vocal or a pop tune and they’ll say, “That’s really great. That’s fun. I like that.” Then I’ll start talking about Armstrong’s role in American music and they feel like, “Well, I’m not hearing all that.” So that becomes a challenge . . .

Loren Schoenberg: That we put so much on him that they just can’t receive it.

Gary Giddins: I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love his singing, but before Dan Morgenstern, try to find a serious writer, except for Rudy Vallee, who completely embraced him as a vocal genius. All the singers said he’s the most influential singer ever and Vallee — the corniest singer who ever lived — actually wrote a short essay that was published as an introduction to Armstrong’s book Swing that Music.

I mean you don’t hear any Armstrong in Rudy Vallee, yet the tone of his essay is, “I know you probably won’t believe this because you may hear just a lot of guttural grunts and so forth, but this is the man who revolutionized American singing and all of us, Bing and Columbo and all the rest, we’ve all learned from him.”

My favorite example of the divide between jazz and the rest of the world is a recording that came out from Columbia – I don’t know maybe ten years ago – they re-released Lotte Lenya’s albums of Kurt Weill’s Berlin and American songs.

Lotte Lenya was married to Weill and starred in a lot of his early shows. “Mack the Knife” was specifically written by him for her. Now she made a famous recording of it with Armstrong. It was a modest hit in the early 50s. But on this CD they added an eight-minute rehearsal of Armstrong and Lottie Lenya and it is hysterically funny because she cannot syncopate the last line of the song, which is, “Now that Mackie’s” — rest — “back in town.” She can’t get that rest, sings right through it. And Armstrong takes control of the session, coaching her. “It’s easy,” he says, and she, taking it all in good humor, says, “Easy for you!” She is trying to understand what he’s talking about and never quite gets it. The point is that jazz has made that kind of syncopation second nature to us, but she came from a generation when it was novel and unconventional.

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah.

Audience member: Has marketing had something to do with minimizing the musical intricacies of great jazz musicians?

Gary Giddins: My response is what marketing? Once when I was at the Voice, I wrote a piece about a new record on Blue Note. The president of Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall called me up and he said, “Wow, that was a great piece. I’m calling to thank you. That gives us such a lift.”

I said, “Bruce, why are you thanking me? I’ve been doing this for 25 years.” He said, “Yeah, but now you’re all we’ve got left.” He didn’t mean just me, but the newspaper people, because there’s no commercial radio. There’s listener sponsored radio, but you can’t buy an ad on that. So it’s difficult to do much serious marketing.

When I was a kid, when I was in high school when Miles’s In a Silent Way came out, man, did they market that. Like every 15 minutes, they’d play a short excerpt and the announcer would say something about the new directions of Miles. If you liked what you heard you went out and bought the record.

Now we’ve got 300 cable stations and there’s no jazz on television. Where we had three, there was jazz on television. I remember being backstage at a concert with Rosemary Clooney and Joe Williams. It had just been announced that Johnny Carson was leaving the air. Rosemary says, “When he goes off the air” meaning Severinsen, “When Doc Severinsen’s not on the air, none of us will ever appear on television again.” And Joe Williams said, “You got that right.” And that’s basically what happened.

The guy on Letterman, is he going to be able to back them? I mean it’s a bad joke. So the culture is changed and what we do is market what’s new and can control and sell to young people. The market has always favored the young, but before rock and roll, the split wasn’t as absolute as it became.

Last night Herbie Hancock won the first Grammy for a jazz album of the year in 43 years, since Stan Getz and the bossa nova era. It’s a gimmick, you might say, in that he’s playing Joni Mitchell and he’s got Norah Jones and Tina Turner singing the lyrics. It’s still a hell of a record and you have to give him a lot of points for being smart enough to come up with that gimmick.

But I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t know what the sales numbers are. I don’t know if it’s genuinely popular or if it’s just that the pop records that were nominated were so bad.

Loren Schoenberg: I think part of what happened with that record — someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it was marketed in Starbucks.

Gary Giddins: That’s a whole other thing.

Loren Schoenberg: And I think that was a huge part of it. That Starbucks put its okay on it. I mean there’s Starbucks for records, I guess Oprah for books. There are these places, and I think that’s part of it.

Dan, you had a question or comment? Is it still pertinent?

Audience member: Yes. Early in, you’ve mentioned Louis Armstrong and his influence. My question was when you were explaining to the five-year old or trying to define it, if you could explain from your experience of working with the Bing Crosby book and his history, what did Bing Crosby see in Louis Armstrong?

What was his influence that Louis Armstrong? What was Bing Crosby’s childhood that brought him to be able to recognize Armstrong and then work together with him and then bring him into the culture the way Bing Crosby did as a professional?

Gary Giddins: That’s a good question. One thing that Crosby and Arm-strong had in common is that they both came from the wrong side of the tracks. Armstrong more wrong than Bing, but Bing came from a Catholic-Irish working-class ghetto area in Spokane and Louis came from what they called the battlefield in New Orleans.

But they had at least one thing absolutely in common. They were born within a couple of years of each other, at a time when there was no prejudice about music. There was no such thing as ‘this is hip’ and ‘this is square’; ‘this is in’ and ‘this is out.’ Recordings were new. Crosby’s father bought an Edison player when Bing was six years old. It was one of the first in the neighborhood. Other people would come over to hear it. The idea that John Philip Sousa could play in your living room was unbelievable, miraculous.

So, because it was new — and the same thing happened when Armstrong bought his first record player—every record was a mystery until it was played. Crosby listened to everything. He listened to the white dance bands from the Northwest. He loved Al Jolson, who represented the New York Broadway culture. He loved John McCormick and the Irish ballads. He loved jazz. He loved everything that was musical that was good.

He put together an act with a friend of his. They came down to California. The friend was the younger brother of Mildred Bailey, who was unknown then. But she sort of got them auditions and put them up. They must have been good, because every time they auditioned they got a gig in vaudeville. Then Paul Whiteman’s musicians heard them and Whiteman asked them to meet him in Chicago in about three months from the time he hired them.

Well, they get to Chicago and one night when they’re working there, Paul says, “Tonight we’re going to the Sunset,” and that’s where Bing first heard Louis Armstrong. And his experience was, I guess, a bit like mine, hearing him when I was 15, a religious experience. It changed everything.

What killed him about Armstrong was that he would play a piece that would have you near tears; then, while the audience was applauding, he would put on this frock coat and a pair of mock glasses and do this comic routine that he kind of got from Bert Williams. Everybody would be bowled over with laughter. The idea that you could go from such angelic music to something that was sort of low and racy and funny within a few minutes was just a revelation.

Bing understood. As Artie Shaw said to me, “The first thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.” What he meant by that was that Bing was the first guy in that generation who heard the time. Bing’s time was unbelievable. Jake Hanna once said to me that Bing’s time was as good as Basie’s, which for him was the ultimate arbiter.

There’s a story I love about when Bing went to Britain in the 70’s in his last years. They put a big band together behind him at a recording session. All the guys in the band were hot shot British jazz musicians, guys in their 20s who considered themselves super hip. They came up with Rollins and Coltrane, but they also grew up listening to Crosby because of their parents and because he remained a huge star over there. So they were working with him and they were impressed. They decided they were going to put one over on him, by turning the rhythm around, throwing him off his stride. Yet nothing they did could budge him.

Finally this tenor player, whose name interestingly enough is Alan Cohen; not to be confused with the American Al Cohn, told him, “We were really trying to turn you around.” Bing said, “I don’t listen to you. I listen to the one, I know where the beat is. You can play whatever you want, but you’re not going to divert me from the one” — the first beat of the measure.

So anyway Crosby and Armstrong hit it off immediately. Their relationship was not known, but I found letters between them that were unbelievable. It didn’t surprise me that Crosby kept calling Armstrong a genius, but it surprised me that Armstrong kept calling Crosby a genius. They really had a terrific relationship. They smoked pot together and they drank and when Bing finished in his whites-only club, the Café Montmartre, he would go out to the Cotton Club in Culver City to see Louis. They would hang out. Joey Bushkin told me that when they were on tour in ’75, a couple of years before Bing died, they were in the dressing room one night and Johnny Mercer had just died. They had all been close with Johnny Mercer and they started talking about the great musicians and Bing said, “Do you realize that Louis Armstrong was the greatest singer that ever lived and ever will live forever and ever?”

And Joey said, “Yeah, I love Pops, but what do you mean?” He said, “It’s so simple. When he sings a happy song you laugh. When he sings a sad song you cry. What the hell else is there in popular music?”

He also said that Louis Armstrong is “the beginning and the end of music in America.” Then he did something quite wonderful in 1936. He had been arguing for years with his film studio, Paramount, to let him produce a film. When he finally got the right to do that, he chose Pennies from Heaven, and made a deal with Columbia to finance and distribute it. He insisted that Armstrong not only be in the film, but get star billing. He’s only in the movie for six or seven minutes, but he’s billed on the same card with Bing.

The other time that Armstrong is billed as the star when he’s only in a movie for two and a half minutes is Hello, Dolly! Which was David Merrick’s way of thanking him because Hello, Dolly! was about to close on Broadway, until Armstrong’s record came out. They had to change the stage arrangement because it had been done practically as a dirge. I’ve told this story a few times. When the movie came out, Hello, Dolly!, I really didn’t want to see it. I wasn’t a Streisand fan. It wasn’t my kind of thing. But I was in Florida with my family and my grandmother was there. Old Jewish lady in her 80s. Still with the heavy Yiddish accent. My mother was saying, “You know, it’d be really nice if you take her to the movies one afternoon. She wants to see Hello, Dolly!” I take her to an afternoon matinee in Miami. It’s all Jewish ladies. There’s nobody there besides me under 65. The movie is going on forever, like watching a train at a crossing that never stops. After about two hours Streisand starts to walk down these stairs and the camera does a sweep and lands on Armstrong, who looks incredible. He’s wearing a black tux with a bright red lining, and the Jewish ladies burst into applause. The only time during the whole film! It was a reflex. They were there to see Streisand, but Louis brought them to attention.

Tony Bennett told me that growing up in Queens he and his friends would go to movies that Armstrong had cameos in just to see him.

This is the end of part one of this article. For part two, click here.


May 20, 2008 · 3 comments

  • 1 James Bell // May 21, 2008 at 08:09 PM
    After seeing Lauren in Omaha at the Durham museum I added a "Loren" to my Google alerts and got this fascinating and enlightening discussion. I'll ashare it with my Jazz friends.
  • 2 DBJ // May 21, 2008 at 09:28 PM
    I'm sure Mr. Giddins is heartily sick of being asked, but any idea on when V. 2 of the Bing bio will be coming out? This inquiring fan is happy to see that the textbook with DeVeaux is finally finished...a good sign.
  • 3 Steve Carras // May 26, 2008 at 08:01 AM
    Excellent as always, Mr.G, especially regarding the generational divides as such (much of which you've already coveed in your Bing Bio,) and I second DBJ's question!