In Conversation with Chick Corea

by Patrick Spurling

Chick Corea’s work has encompassed everything from Miles to Mozart, but many still remember him best for his successful fusion band Return to Forever, which launches a reunion tour this week after a twenty-five year hiatus. The tour will bring Corea to fifty cities, where he will again share the stage with Return to Forever cohorts: bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White.’s Patrick Spurling recently caught up with Corea in Zurich for this conversation.

In 1974 you once referred to Return To Forever (RTF) as a pilot project. How do you feel about the return of RTF?

My life is a kind of pilot project. It’s a viewpoint that you take everywhere you go. ‘Well, let’s see what happens this time?’

You must have a healthy home life to have the energy for a 50-concert tour with RTF this summer?

                            Chick Corea, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

I do. I was blessed with an incredible set of parents who are no longer with me physically. I am unable to put a value on what they gave me. They didn’t try to force my thinking into any one way. When I came up with ideas that were outside of their thinking they didn’t try to chain me down. They gave me freedom at the beginning of my life.

Now, I’ve been married to my beautiful wife Gayle for 34 years. She is my greatest supporter and we have a wonderful friendship. It is true, that does help me come out on the road. And I have two great kids too. My son is a musician and I’ve now got two grandsons, four and five years old, two nuclear power plants. And I have a wonderful daughter, a couple of years younger than my son, who dances and plays piano.

You asked once: “What does your art do for the neighborhood?” What did the music of Return to Forever do for the neighborhood and what will it do this time around?

The general idea is to bring a good feeling into the area. What I like to see happen and what music generally does for people is it lightens the load. They come and listen and feel a little lighter; they may even be inspired. Given the stress of living and surviving and working, these are breaks for people. It eases the passage of time.

What do you say to young players who play well technically but are not good communicators?

Music is communication. This is an aspect of life and of art that is not often taught in schools. Sometimes it is spoken of in mystical terms like talent or charisma, but these are qualities that no one can define. What I ask students to do is to think of an artist who touches them and who moves them. Has that artist managed to communicate what he is creating and feeling to you? This approach is easier for students to grasp. There are artists who have a high skill level in this area; but whose other musical skills may not be so high. Certain pop artists develop a particular skill in putting across a song that reaches people. My challenge has been to do that, but add a kind of technical expertise that makes it more challenging.

Do you encourage players to push the envelope by your own experimentation, or do you prefer a more stable foundation?

I don’t think the stable foundation has much to do with the risk factor. In music part of the challenge is that risk and stability both have to be there. I am about to go on a three-week tour with Bobby McFerrin and this is a man who has the risk factor at 100% when I work with him. We don’t rehearse and we make it up as we go along. His competence in the area of communicating in combination with whatever skills I have in that area always end up making a very stable basis for the concert. The stability is in the fact that the rapport with the audience is established. They’re comfortable and we let them into everything we do. The safer it is for the audience who just sit there comfortably the further out we can go. I particularly enjoy that and I would like to try taking that kind of challenge to a wider audience.

Gary Burton mentioned recently that there are always musicians who work borders and mix genres. Do you feel like you have reshaped musical borders?

Well, that is what they tell me. I’ve never given the slightest acknowledgment to any borders. Like I said, my parents brought me up so I didn’t need to ask someone if it was okay to like this kind of music or include that sort of thing in my playing. I could think freely. When I become interested in a particular technique or kind of music I learn about it. I have a project coming up in the fall with guitarist John McLaughlin, one of my favorite musicians. I think there is a lot I can learn from John. [Editor's note: John McLaughlin also discussed this project during his recent interview with]

          Return to Forever: Packed for a 50 City Road Trip

Since you’ve recently written and arranged a number of pieces for orchestra, I'd like to ask if you have any interest in conducting.

Ah, conducting. If you saw me conduct you’d see that I have a special style. I have a philosophy about that — that I should never be a conductor. No, it’s not an interest. One of the things that conductors do as part of their creation is to bring a concept to a performance. I prefer conductors that give all of their concepts and ideas to the orchestra during rehearsal and then let them go during the performance.

In the past, you have mentioned an interest in composing for orchestra and movies. You’ve done considerable orchestral writing now with the concertos and arrangements for the London Symphony Orchestra. What about this other half of the dream; writing for movies?

It hasn’t come true yet. When you see a movie with great acting and a great story and great cinematography you see one of the greatest examples of team work in the entertainment industry.

Recently I took two of L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction novels and was inspired to write portraits of the characters and the places. That’s the closest I have been to writing for movies [To the Stars, 2004 and Ultimate Adventure, 2006.] It’s music that stands alone as a tone poem.

You know whose music I appreciate in movies is John Williams'. Even though the great Star Wars movies and the Harry Pottermovies have a certain sound to them, there are other movies he’s made that have a completely different musical approach. Always brilliant and beautiful: I think he’s really got that medium down pat. Yes, I would like the opportunity to put music in a movie.

I heard once from my friend Takemitsu, Toru Takemitsu, who wrote the music to Kurosawa’s wonderful movie Ran. It’s one of my favorite movies. Takemitsu told me how he worked with Kurosawa. They would discuss the story and Takemitsu would present finished music to Kurosawa who would then take the music and mold the scene to it. If I could find a director like that I’d be into it. Remember the battle scene; the huge battle with the two families fighting against one another?

There is a fire in the background?

Yes, and these guys are carving each other up. Initially you hear all of the sounds; the horses and fighting and this orchestral music. And then toward the height of the battle the sound of the horses and fighting goes down to nothing. And all you hear is this incredible expressive orchestral music that Takemitsu wrote. This marriage of music and film has really set a standard for me.

Remembering jazz group leaders who composed movie sound tracks, Don Ellis was one such composer, composing for The French Connection. In some of his last work, during the RTF years of the early 1970’s, he composed forward-looking music for big band with an integrated string quartet. Does combining jazz and classical elements hold interest for you with respect to film score composing?

Come with the offer, the good movie and the budget and I’ll do it.

You are well known for having mentored many young musicians. “All the RTF and Elektric Band members have become band leaders; I encourage that,” is a quote from 1999.

Sometimes all a musician needs is an acknowledgement and a proper validation for what he is doing. When I was developing the record label Stretch, I asked Vinnie Colaiuta, the great drummer, why don’t you make a record? The tapes he played for me were amazing. Sometimes that’s all it takes. If I reverse the flow, when I get an acknowledgement from another person, especially a musician who I admire, it encourages me. You need that sometimes. That’s how a culture grows.

What is it about Bela Bartok that jazz players like?

He is a kind of jazz musician who doesn’t improvise. His music is attractive rhythmically, harmonically, and fantasy wise. He is a fantasist. Is that a word? There is an adventure in it and a jazz about it. His harmonic and musical language is distinctive and definitive and his compositions just keep going. Recently I discovered another musician/composer who I missed, [Henri] Dutilleux; in his 90’s now. This past year I started listening to his piano music and now his orchestral music. He is a genius in the same way as Bartok with a wider range of expression. Dutilleux composes pretty music, mysterious music, atmospheric music and very rhythmic music. And his piano writing is incredible.

You’ve written two piano concertos and recently finished projects with the London Symphony Orchestra. Do you have new orchestral projects in mind?

No. After the second piano concerto I am leaving the orchestra alone for now.

Upcoming projects?

The big project on the docket now is of course the RTF reunion. They’re old friends and we haven’t played together in a long time. It’s a great feeling. We are doing 50 concerts this summer. We’re working out how much old music and how much new music to use and we’re all very excited about it. The other exciting project is with my good friend John McLaughlin. We’ve put a magnificent band together with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Vinnie Coliauta. I haven’t played with John in a long time and we’ve been looking to do something together.

One last question. You have said: “Live contact is really missing in our society.” Is that the reason you spend so much time on the road?

Well I always see myself being with the audience that’s right in front of me, and that the communication there is as solid and unchanging as anything in life. Styles and technologies and ways of making and presenting music change, but the one thing in art and in communication that will never change is that you have someone entertaining someone. They are in front of you; it’s not being recorded; it’s not going through a digital processor; and it’s not being viewed on a screen. It’s you in front of the person just as I am talking to you now. I love that and I never want to let that go. That’s solid ground for me. I don’t have to worry about the economy or who’s the next president. All I have to do is know that I enjoy doing this for the people in front of me and they enjoy receiving it. That secures a life for me.

Ten minutes after the interview Chick Corea and vibraphone player Gary Burton performed at the Tonhalle concert hall in Zurich, Switzerland, nearly 30 years after their Grammy Award duo performance Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert, recorded in that same city.

Many thanks to Chick Corea and the Chick Corea organization; to Johannes Vogel and AllBlues Konzert AG; and to Roland Fischer from Universal Music Switzerland.

May 30, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Esperanza Spalding

By Tomas Peña

Those following jazz ought to keep an ear on the bassist Esperanza Spalding, who is going about things her own way. She’s got a good tone and conservatory training, but so has everyone else these days. More important, she already sounds distinct. Essentially she’s a singer, using her instrument and her voice to similar ends. Her musicality is all integrated: The Esperanza Spalding experience is light, melodic, joyful, always sort of minimalist and airborne.
                                                                                 Ben Ratliff, The New York Times

Congratulations on your new recording, Esperanza. Very impressive!

Thank you!

Just to clarify, Esperanza is your second recording as a leader. Your first recording, Junjo, is a collaboration with drummer Francisco Mela and pianist Aruan Ortiz.


               Esperanza Spalding, photo by Johann Sauty

You were born in Portland, Oregon and raised by your mother. Let’s talk about your mother and the influence she has had on you both personally and professionally. Was your mother musically inclined?

Yeah! My mother should run for president! Actually, she was a vocalist. She was invited to go on the road with a show but then she became pregnant with my brother. That ended her professional career. When I was seven or eight she enrolled in a professional music program but by that time she had been away from the music for so long that it was difficult for her to catch up to the rest of the class. I used to accompany and afterwards, I would try to play the lessons at home.

You started playing the violin at the age of four …

Actually I was five

How old were you when you mother enrolled you in the music program for inner-city kids?

I think I was eight or nine. By the way, I also played the oboe and the clarinet.


It was nothing to brag about Funny story: I practiced on the oboe every single day but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get it. When I finally returned the instrument I learned that it was defective, it didn’t work … there was something wrong with the keys! Anyway, I never got a second whack at it!

Eventually you switched to the bass and hooked up with a group of serious musicians who “kicked your butt into getting serious.”

Yeah, there was one guy in particular. His name was Thara Memory. I was terrified of him! He would look at my compositions and yell, “No, get serious!” Later, he chilled out and became one of my mentors.

And then there were the “cats” in the blues band.

Yeah, Sweet Baby James and The Original Cats.

Are they still around?

I think Sweet Baby James is still around. As long as he can stand up he’ll be doing his thing.

Then it was off to Portland University and the Berklee College of music, where you “aced” the audition and received a scholarship. Tell me about your “defining moment” with (guitarist) Pat Metheny.

Hilarious. I don't know if he even remembers the conversation! For him it was so nonchalant and for me it was so huge! I was just talking to a friend about this. When you're looking for an answer the tiniest thing becomes the most significant thing. Anyway, the conversation took place at Berklee when Gary Burton and Pat Metheny were producing a record by the student ensemble. Everybody had left the studio and I was there, probably practicing and Mr. Metheny walked in and asked me what I was planning to do with my life. I told him that I was thinking of leaving school and pursuing a degree in political science. He told me that he meets a lot of musicians, some great, some not so great and that I had (what he called) the “X Factor.” Meaning, that if I chose to pursue a career in music and I applied myself, my potential was unlimited.

How did that make you feel?

Mind you, he didn’t say I was “great.” He said if I worked hard I could make it, which is what it’s all about. Any creative pursuit is a lifelong process.

At Berklee you also met and/or shared the stage with Patti Austin, Joe Lovano, Michel Camilo and Dave Samuels. As a student and the youngest faculty member at Berklee, do you see yourself as a jazz artist/jazz educator?

You know it's funny how much is missing in music education. Anytime you take a Western history music class and Johan Sebastian Bach’s name comes up they speak about the fact that a lot of his music was improvised. But since we really can’t hear it people play it as is. When you think about that it makes you go, “What?” What I mean is, Western music is based on improvisation, but it's never really talked about.

Funny you should mention that, there's a book by Alex Ross called The Rest is Noise – Listening to the Music of the 20th Century that talks about that very subject. People seem to forget that classical music did not begin as music for the “bourgeois,” it was intended for the masses! And often times the audiences were downright rowdy!

On another note, how do you characterize your music? If I walked into a record store where would I find your music?

When Norah Jones made her first recording it was placed in the jazz category. When it started selling it was placed in the Pop category. So the question then becomes, what genre is she? Certainly not jazz.

Touche! What is the one thing that you would like everyone to know about Esperanza (the recording)?

I want everyone to know that it is just the tip of the iceberg. My objective was to create a record that contains a lot of the creative forces that exist in jazz and improvised music. Also, to create music that someone with a developed ear or someone who just wants to enjoy the music can appreciate. Like Betty Carter once said, “Jazz ain't nothing but soul” and it's true. We put our hearts and soul into the music.

That definitely comes across.

Thank you man, I appreciate that!

I like your renditions of “Punto de Areia” and “Body and Soul.” How hard was it to translate the lyrics of “Body and Soul” from English to Spanish?

That's a good question. We aren't allowed to change the poetry, so we had to do a little translation. If we could have messed with the poetry a little it would have helped but for copyright reasons we couldn’t.

How many of the tunes are original compositions?

I think it's nine tunes altogether. Also, there are two songs that are not on the record that will only be available through iTunes. Actually, those are two of my favorite songs.

But I won’t be able to download the tunes until May 20th, when the recording is released.


in a past interview, you were adamant about the fact that you wanted to be judged on the quality of your work, not by your gender. Historically speaking, the music industry has not been very kind to women. Thus far, how has it been for you?

Well, for me it’s been fine. The tricky part is taking responsibility for your self. It’s really easy to say, “Everybody treats me like a woman!” and it’s true, however many women make the mistake of over sexualizing themselves. The hard thing, in the beginning, is to learn how to present your self in a totally professional way so that you're not inviting any of that. There's a way to behave where you are not over sexualizing yourself as a woman, but it's hard to learn because in most situation it's to your benefit.

Given your appearance, you were bound to run into those kinds of situations.

Every woman that’s pretty knows how to use it, the tricky thing is to know how not to use it! But really, really, really, tricky part is to make sure that your music is together like any other man. And then when you present yourself, you have to do it totally professionally and platonically, if there is such a word. Once you learn how to present yourself, respect yourself, and have faith in your music, it's not hard to do.

Thinking back, the only other woman I can recall who plays the bass and sings is Me’shell …

Ndegeocello! I love her!

She’s amazing. I love the name of her new recording The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams!


Let’s talk about your band.

On the recording or my working band?

Let’s start with the band on the recording.

Otis Brown on the drums, Leonardo Genovese on the piano … he’s amazing! I know somebody huge is going to grab him soon, so I am just enjoying my time with him, Jamey Haddad on percussion, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez plays on half of the songs. Unfortunately, two of the songs that are “killin’” are not on the record, Ambrose Akiamusire on trumpet, Donald Harrison on saxophone and Gretchen Parlato (and Otis) on background vocals.

Isn’t there a guitarist on one of the tunes?

The current band is Otis, Leo and a guitarist named Ricardo Vogt, he’s from Brazil and he’s phenomenal.

You obviously have an affinity for Brazilian music.

Yeah, I love it.

Just to backtrack for a moment, where are you from? What’s your heritage?

I am from Portland, Oregon. My father is African-American and my mother is Welsh, Native American and Hispanic.

You just returned from Europe …

Yes, I performed at a jazz festival in France.

How was it?

It’s beautiful. It’s always amazing to be around your peers and other musicians that you admire. It was really cool. We got to see Wayne Shorter before we played.

Wayne is amazing. The minute he puts a horn to his lips you know it’s him.

I don’t say this too often but Wayne Shorter is one of my musical heroes. I love everything he’s done and all the facets of his career. He’s a perfect example of what can happen when you spend your whole life following your own muse. He’s been doing it for what, forty-five years?

Something like that. You are scheduled to appear at The JVC Jazz Festival in New York on June 25th.

I’ll be there!

Is there anything you would like to add before we close?

Yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with music.


Everybody should read and everybody should think more than they read.

That’s deep!

Like Sam Cooke said, “If you don’t read history and you don’t know what’s going on in the world what are you going to put in your music?” Because your stuff probably isn’t as hip as you think it is. You have to know what’s going on!

Thank you for speaking with and good luck on the release of Esperanza. I should mention that your upcoming performance at the JVC Jazz Festival will take place at The New York Society for Ethical Culture.

May 28, 2008 · 10 comments


Jazz Dialogue: Gary Giddins in Conversation with Loren Schoenberg (Part Two)

                                Gary Giddins, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Below is part two of Loren Schoenberg’s free-wheeling dialogue with noted critic Gary Giddins. In this installment, they discuss a wide range of musicians and writers, look at the growing phenomenon of 'tribute' bands, speculate on the relationship between jazz and dance, and talk about the future of the art form as well as the challenges of exposing new audiences to jazz. For part one, click here.

Loren Schoenberg: I’d like to ask you a question. We talked about Armstrong; now let’s jump over to Gary Giddins, the writer. Let me ask you a question. What writers of any style, writing about anything, have motivated you and inspired you in your own writing in the way that Armstrong has in terms of jazz?

Gary Giddins: I guess that the first writer who really got me excited was a critic named Dwight Macdonald. He was sort of a lefty political writer, but when I was a kid he had started writing about movies for Esquire. When I was maybe 12 or something, my father used to subscribe to Esquire, which in those days had a reputation for being racy — all I knew was he hid them behind his hat boxes. I think it was the girlie drawings by Varga. One night he and my mother were out and I pulled down some magazines and the first one had a letter complaining about Macdonald’s review of Ben Hur, which I had seen a year or so before. This woman was fulminating, which made me want to read Macdonald’s review and it is hilarious. I use it as a reading in my class at the CUNY Graduate Center. I loved his independence and wit, his refusal to accept received wisdom and I read everything of his I could fine.

The next guy who did it for me was Edmund Wilson, especially Classics and Commercials and The Shores of Light. They’ve just come out in a Library of America edition, and stand up beautifully. By then I was 15, and I was determined to write — I never considered anything else.

Jason Moran told me a few weeks ago that his parents had him taking classical music lessons. He hated it. He hated practicing. He had no interest in being a musician. He obviously had this incredible facility, but he just didn’t grab them. Then one day, a relative died and at the memorial service they put on Monk’s “Round Midnight.” He was 12 and that was it. The other shoe dropped. For me, it was — before I became enamored of criticism — biographies and fiction. House of the Seven Gables was a revelation. I read everything, lived in the library, bought paperback books whenever I had change in my pocket.

After Macdonald and Wilson, there were many other critics I loved, including Max Beerbohm, and Shaw as a music critic and then, when I started reading about jazz, Martin Williams and Dan Morgenstern made me realize that jazz criticism could be an exciting literary pursuit.

Loren Schoenberg: To go back to my very first question when I was asking you to put something in five-year old terms, I’ll take the five-year old thing off the table, but I’ll ask you in the simplest terms, how can we understand what is a critic? What’s the role of a critic?

Gary Giddins: A critic is a kind of diplomat, a liaison between the artist and the public. The critic doesn’t work for the artists, who frequently have a hard time understanding that. It used to drive me crazy when musicians would thank me for “giving them ink.” I wanted to say my job is not to give you ink.

You’re working for the art in a sense, especially if you’re a jazz critic ‘cause you want to promote interest in the art. You want to tell people what they should be listening to. But you’re really writing for the public. You’re writing for yourself. I did a book called Weather Bird, and in the introduction explained that, at some point at the Voice I realized it didn’t make sense for me to write 1,800 words telling you not to buy a record that you were never going to buy in the first place, that you’ve never even heard of. In movie reviewing, you have to cover whatever opens. But with jazz there are so many clubs, so many new records, so many reissues — why should I waste the space for bad stuff when there is so much good stuff I want to tell people about.

The wonderful thing about writing about jazz is that you have so many options. You feel like writing about swing? Go to the place where Loren is playing. You feel like writing about avant garde, go to the place where Ornette is playing. You always have these options, and that’s what’s exciting about jazz — the changing history, the variety, the different ways of playing. It breaks my heart when I meet young critics who think jazz was invented in 1959 by Miles Davis. It’s not a job to find out who Duke Ellington was and if you don’t, then you’re writing from a position of ignorance that would never be accepted of a classical music or literary critic.

Loren Schoenberg: Absolutely. Yes, sir.

Audience member: How will you explain the fact that jazz has been such a place of conflict?

Gary Giddins: I’m sorry. Jazz?

Audience member: Has been such a place of conflict among critics.

Gary Giddins: Why do critics argue about it?

Audience member: Yes.

Gary Giddins: Well, for one thing it’s human nature for people to get very involved with the music that initially excited them. For people who grew up in the swing era, they had Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, I mean it was the circus every day. When bebop came along they didn’t trust it, didn’t get it. So instead of saying, “I’ll write about Benny Goodman and leave Charlie Parker to you,” they started attacking it. It was unbelievable, some of the things that were written.

But then what really was interesting was that the bebop critics who wrote beautifully about Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell, when they heard the new music of the 50s, the avant garde, they had the same exact response as the moldy figs and started attacking that. I realize now that I responded with knee-jerk disdain to the fusion period. Now I don’t know why I was so upset. It was basically plugged in bop to some degree, with a back beat. But at the time I just wasn’t hearing it and I shouldn’t have written about it until I was.

That’s the other thing. You can’t write a negative review that has any value unless you’ve spent as much time understanding the work as you would a work that you love. You have to spend as much time with it and figure out why it doesn’t work.

It’s interesting. As a jazz critic when I go to a concert I trust myself. I always feel like I’m right on it, and rarely second-guess myself. I know a good solo from a mediocre one. And yet I never give myself that credit when I review a record. I’ve got to play the record a dozen times before I’m certain. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just always the way I’ve worked.

Loren Schoenberg: Interesting. You used the word record, which I use, too, which is a dating thing these days. If you say to somebody who’s under 30, if you say where’s the record store they just look at you like, ah ha ha ha.

Gary Giddins: Yeah; but where is the record store. That’s another loss — talk about marketing.

Loren Schoenberg: It’s on the Internet.

Gary Giddins: That’s another problem. You can buy a record on the Internet and save money, but all of us who remember the record stores remember shopping and all the records we bought that we didn’t go in for, but that we just happened to see when going through the racks.

Loren Schoenberg: Right. And also for me and probably for others, it was at the record bin at the Sam Goody’s near my hometown where I met jazz nuts.

Gary Giddins: Yeah; me, too.

Loren Schoenberg: And met the jazz people and talked about this and traded things and did you know this album. That’s totally lacking. I mean I guess the best analogy is kids who look up words on the Internet for a definition as opposed to paging through a dictionary — and the fact that paging through a dictionary; you’re going to wind up seeing all these other words.

We have in the audience this evening the author of the recent biography of Frankie Manning and that’s Cynthia Norman here, who’s a dancer herself.

I’d like to ask Gary about dancing and jazz because you were lamenting before about the lack of jazz as a functional kind of music. In other words, something that people either screw up their intellect or thing that they have to know something about and they just don’t – you could dance to Cecil Taylor. You could dance to John Coltrane. You could dance to Bill Evans. You could dance to any of it. It’s music with a beat and we’ve gotten to this strange . . .

Gary Giddins: Cecil dances. He often begins his concerts by dancing.

Loren Schoenberg: But we’ve gotten to this strange point now where jazz bands are trying to swing, in their own way — no matter how they subjectively define swing — trying to make it rhythmically interactive; and consequently we have an audience that’s strapped in their chairs and the one thing they’re not supposed to do is move.

If they move they get this kind of psycho-drama thing that comes from middle class Germany in the 19th Century about people going to hear music as though they’re going to church because they think that that’s how the aristocrats listen to it, which isn’t how the aristocrats listen to it. And we still have it today when you go to classical concerts and you see the people sitting like that. They don’t even know why they’re sitting like that. I mean I really would love to stand up at one of those concerts.

I’d probably get fired from my gig at Juilliard if I did, but just stand up in the middle of a symphony concert and say [Speaking loudly]: ‘Excuse me, why are we all sitting like this.’ And the thing is is that they can’t even answer the question because they don’t know.

Now my question is what do you think?

Gary Giddins: About that?

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah.

Gary Giddins: I think that first of all there’s an issue of etiquette that you’re bringing up because you should be relaxed in a club. You should have a drink. You should be tapping your foot. You should be responding in any way you want to respond. If you hear something great you should yell out, cheer, get involved . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Right; but you shouldn’t clap after every solo?

Gary Giddins: I was just going to say, we are a society that tips everyone. Even if the service was awful, we leave a tip. That’s what happens now in jazz clubs. We applaud every solo no matter how indifferent. You may not even be listening, but somebody else started the applause so you add to it.

Applause in the middle of a performance is supposed to be an acknowledgment that somebody just played something that really got you going. But then there’s another kind of thing that people do that most musicians hate — clapping in time, unless the bandleader encourages it. Sarah Vaughn told me once, “Every time they do that to me, I just change the beat until they realize they’re not clapping on the right beat anymore.”

Herbie Mann, when he made that famous record of “Coming Home Baby” at Newport said that he had to keep walking backwards to the bass because he couldn’t hear it over the clapping in time.

Loren Schoenberg: So, do you think that in terms of the future of jazz, I know once we start talking about the future of jazz it’s time to haul out the Ouija board, but can you foresee a time when dance will come back into it?

Gary Giddins: Well you were part of that little moment, retro swing. I think that things get recycled. There’ll be fads. But one thing about jazz is that no one in the entire history of it has ever predicted what was going to happen.

Nobody during the swing era could have imagined Charlie Parker. Nobody in Charlie Parker’s era could have imagined Ornette Coleman. Coltrane in 1956 could not have imagined Coltrane in 1961. Nobody would have predicted how many homages we’re hearing today.

Loren Schoenberg: Oh, isn’t that horrible?

Gary Giddins: It’s really getting to be a drag.

Loren Schoenberg: It’s killing jazz music. They call it an homage because these jazz clubs now instead of booking so and so, they book the Dizzy Gillespie tribute or the Count Basie orchestra. When the Count Basie orchestra plays, I bet you that there’s 27 percent of the people in that audience who think that Count Basie is up there. I’m serious. They don’t know.

Gary Giddins: You know Daryl Sherman. She's a very talented pianist/singer. She plays at the Waldorf and she always announces that she’s playing Cole Porter’s piano. She says every week at least one person says, “Will Mr. Porter be performing this week?”

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah; so it’s a funny anecdote, but what it speaks to is the fact that the jazz business in a sense is being killed by this thing. But on the other hand, let me make a devil’s advocate kind of argument . . . Louis Armstrong is this over-powering figure and all these people and it came out of something that was directly related to 19th Century America and early 20th Century America, the great migration and the social values at those times and all these . . .

Gary Giddins: And the dancing and the nightclubs and people getting together . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Just the whole thing. That’s gone. That happened. It was a wonderful moment and some great music came out of it, but in a sense what you’re seeing whenever you go to a jazz club or a jazz festival or go to a jazz event, you’re really seeing like the last disciples of Christ or somebody. . . . I think Neil Leonard wrote about it a long time ago, but we do get almost messianic about it, like when we talk about Armstrong and we talk about these epiphanies. Things that just don’t resonate anymore because that time is gone.

Now this is a devil’s advocate argument but I’d just like to hear your — I’d like to hear your response to it.

Gary Giddins: Ornette once said – he started his own record label and he was putting out a record and he said, “This is going to sell a million copies.” I said, “Ornette, how do you figure it’s going to sell a million copies?” He says, Well, there are 400 million people in this country and surely one out of every four hundred or something is going to like this music. He’s absolutely right.

The problem is that 350 million will never even know that it exists. That’s the issue that we’re facing. You can travel around this country and never hear jazz.

Loren Schoenberg: Okay; but to get back to my question.

Gary Giddins: Yeah; but that’s an important issue. No, the question is, I assume, that nobody likes everything and that even if you took the most popular, the greatest Count Basie or Coleman Hawkins record ever made and play it for a group of this size, maybe only two people will come over afterwards and say, “Tell me about that record.”

But you have to have the ability to market it to a large number of people so that the smaller number of people can be turned on to it. That’s what no longer exists. In the 60s there was commercial jazz radio. Not much; maybe a few hours a week, but we all knew where those few hours were.

Loren Schoenberg: Yeah; but we’re still dancing around my question because basically okay, let’s say that you get your druthers and everybody in America hears jazz. Somehow it’s promoted like other niche musics are promoted.

So, it’s promoted; okay, fine and the number goes up this much to two percent of record sales. Now it’s six or seven, which is pretty damn good and more people know about it. But that still doesn’t answer my question — because you talked about Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie. They were born when Orville Wright invented the airplane, okay? 1903-1904. That’s when they’re born. My question, which I want to get you to address is that . . . There’ll always be a little bunch of people like us and like you and like other people around the world who love this music from a certain time and for us it’s a great experience. But in terms of any relevance to the culture at large outside of this hermetically sealed concert experience — it’s gone?

Gary Giddins: It’s been moved outside the mainstream of the culture. . . . Ken Burns got this wrong and we argued about it. He had the whole country dancing to jazz in the ‘30s, and then bop killing it off in 1950s. But jazz was a huge business in the 1950s. It was Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Ellington’s biggest hit records . . .

Loren Schoenberg: Sarah Vaughn.

Gary Giddins: And also the LP sold in numbers that the 78s didn’t sell because it was during the Depression and spending a dollar on a piece of vinyl with two tracks was not something everybody could do. When the LP came out, it offered for two and a half dollars 12 tracks or 16 tracks. Those records really sold. Those jazz musicians, a lot of them became celebrities. People knew who Gerry Mulligan was. People know who a lot of musicians were in that period.

Look how many of them were signed up by the major labels. Columbia didn’t recruit Monk out of charity. Thelonious Monk was selling big-time numbers. Mingus was selling big-time numbers. And I think that today, despite all those homages, jazz is really a lot of fun. When I go out, I almost always come back in a good mood. Almost any night you go to the Vanguard or Jazz Standard, there are just so many great players out there. The overall level of musicianship is amazing.

Loren Schoenberg: But how about if part of the experience is turned into some-thing? Not only for you, but maybe for most of us, in which there’s something almost self-validating about the experience and we no longer look to the fact that when Coleman Hawkins and all these people we idolize were out there . . .

Gary Giddins: Let’s only talk about living musicians and see where the conversation goes.

Loren Schoenberg: What I’ll say is those people that we idolize from the early days, one of the things that they were doing was breaking the barriers and playing something new to challenge the listener. Sometime when you go to the Vanguard and the other clubs, you hear inspired, at best, versions of what’s been done.

Gary Giddins: Well, I don’t know. I went to see a band. It was Bill Frisell and Don Byron and Paul Motian and they were doing arrangements of things like Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and it was fantastic. I don’t know how many people knew what the tunes were. I didn’t know a lot of them. I’m sure there was probably something by Joni Mitchell. All I knew is they were really playing.

Loren Schoenberg: But Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and these are things from the 1960s . . .

Gary Giddins: Well, whatever it is, it’s stuff that’s outside the conventional jazz repertoire.

Loren Schoenberg: But what I’m wondering is that has it become for most of us something that is validating, something that we know is going to be, as opposed to something that’s truly challenging.

Gary Giddins: Okay; two fast anecdotes. I was at a festival in Ouro Preto in Brazil in September. Joshua Redman played. His regular drummer couldn’t make it so Greg Hutchinson sat in.

Now Greg Hutchinson, you know him; unbelievable drummer. I think he’s one of the most exciting drummers alive and he goes back with Joshua, long time. They’re old friends, but he hadn’t played with him in – I don’t know – 15 years or something. So this was only the third gig they played together. Hutchinson just decided that he was tired of the arrangement and he was going to shake it up. You could see Joshua responding physically at one point after he played an unbelievable solo. He said to the audience, “I don’t know; maybe it’s the altitude.” But it was really coming from the rhythm section and its willingness and ability to respond to the moment.

Anyway they played an hour that was the best that I ever heard them play. The place went crazy. These were not jazz fans. They were Brazilian music fans. They were people from the town, the college. It’s a tiny little mining village inland; long way from San Paulo or Rio. They just knew that something on that stage was thrilling.

Now the other anecdote is harder to explain in a way, but at Columbia University, David S. Ware’s quartet was on a bill with Cecil and Max — Max Roach and Cecil Taylor played duets, but before that David S. Ware’s quartet came out.

Now this was definitely not a jazz audience. These were thousands of Columbia students and anybody who was in the neighborhood, because it was free and the field was filled. It was like an old rock festival. There were that many people. David Ware killed. The audience was on its feet after every number, cheering.

Now I wonder if 20 of those people went out and bought a Ware album because the guy never sold records in his life. That’s why the group just split up.

Loren Schoenberg: So, is what I’m to take from your response that that experience for those people was not a regurgitation or a validation because they had never had that experience. They viscerally responded to something that they didn’t know.

Gary Giddins: Exactly right, but unlike you or me. The first time I heard a Louis Armstrong record I wanted to hear all of Louis Armstrong, all of Sonny Rollins. The Ware concert was just their adventure for the day. It didn’t make many converts— maybe a few people.

Loren Schoenberg: Okay. Did you have a question, a comment?

Audience member: I wanted to make in response to your question, piggy back on it. Classical music is still selling records from the 13th, 12th Century. Dizzy’s concept was that the new classical music was what they called bebop . . .

Gary Giddins: Yes, but first of all the classical music that is still selling is mostly before the 20th Century for the most part; Stravinsky, the Russian and French modernists and a few others are exceptions. But they’re not selling that much anymore because most people after they buy a couple of sets of Beethoven’s Nine, don’t need every version that comes out.

The problem with jazz is that it covers a lot of history, which can be intimidating and confusing. When we were growing up and I walked into a record store after I heard about Coleman Hawkins, I might buy one of his records, but I was also there to get the new Sonny Rollins or the new Miles Davis.

Now, enough history has passed that when young people who are trying to learn about the music decide they’re going to buy something, are they going to buy Jason Moran or the legendary guy, Monk, they keep hearing about. The fact is that people are buying reissues. That’s what’s keeping the record companies alive.

Loren Schoenberg: I think we’re living in a time of a paradigm shift when it comes to how we view the commercial marketplace, especially how we view record album sales. I mean the whole thing of even buying things and the relationship of being sponsored by a company and advertising for it, I mean that’s a thing of the past frankly. . . .

Gary Giddins: My daughter tells me that nobody buys an album. You go to iTunes and you take the track you want.

Loren Schoenberg: Right.

Gary Giddins: They listen by the track.

Loren Schoenberg: So it’s back to like 78s because that’s what people did with 78s .

Gary Giddins: Exactly right.

Loren Schoenberg: So that whole way of looking at things that we all look at it I think is ultimately a thing of the past.

Gary Giddins: I was just going to say that one of the reasons that people started turning against CDs is because one thing that has not changed in the 200 or so years that music has been an art form in concert halls is that we can only listen so much music before we start to fade out. The time limit is usually 50 to 60 minutes. That’s what a set is. That’s what the longer symphonies are, with few exceptions. The 75 minute CD was not a favor to anybody. People didn’t play them the way they played an LP, listening intently to a 15 minute side. They started to zone out. So you’d listen to a few tracks at a time, but you would never quite get the intimacy with that CD that you got with LPs, let alone 78s.

Loren Schoenberg: Consequently with those days, I guess the people bought the 78s, they got to know every . . .

Gary Giddins: Every note.

Loren Schoenberg: So consequently they became so much more informed about the subtleties and the specificity of that one three-minute record. It’s like you mentioned Benny Goodman. When I worked for Benny Goodman I had a bunch of ratty looking clothes. Benny came up to me and he said, “You know, it’s better to have one good suit than three horrible things like you have right now.” So I went out and I bought one suit. I guess it’s better for the person who wants to get into an art form to really know one thing well and forget all these CDs.

I remember once when I was going to music school, I was going to Manhattan School of Music. There was a young baritone sax player. He was about 19. He really didn’t play that well. I was 20 and I said to him, “Man, you really got to check out some of the swing era players if you want to play this music.” He says, “Man, I’ve done swing. I’m doing bebop this week.”

But anyway the bottom line is somehow I think — I want to go back and ask you one question from the past. This is an area which I’m ignorant and so I don’t know.

So I’m asking for instruction. . . You mentioned Ulysses, Herman Melville, Moby Dick or things like that, pieces of literature that are very sophisticated in a sophisticated dialogue with the past, the present, Shakespeare and all this kind of stuff. Do you think that they thought that you had to have a key to unlock that thing or do you think that you could pick up Ulysses or pick up Moby Dick not knowing any-thing and enjoy the experience?

Gary Giddins: With Ulysses we know that Joyce said that it’ll be years before people have figured out everything in this book. What I discovered about Ulysses after trying to read it many times and getting only part way, is that every time I said I’m going to read it, I would prep myself.

I’d re-read Portrait of the Artist and the Odyssey and I would get all these notes together and what should have been pleasure became an endless homework assignment. One summer Debbie and I went away for a month and I was really in the mood to read Joyce. So I took Ulysses with no notes, no dictionary, nothing and it was one of the greatest month’s reading I’d ever spent, because there’s some stuff you’re not going to get, but the hell with that. You’ll get most of it. You will get 80 percent and it will change your life.

Audience member: Do you think that familiarity is really the key for people understanding jazz? Familiarity with anything will bring understanding, but it wasn’t allowed so we can become familiar with it. That’s my point. I don’t know if you’d like to make some comment about it.

Gary Giddins: You know one of the most successful music events is the Visions Festival downtown, which is all avant garde. That audience has been going there year after year. They know every musician. They love it. It’s very successful.

Loren Schoenberg: Well, you know, we live in a country in which at the Olympics every year they talk to the gold medal. By the time they get to the silver medal winner, that person’s kind of crying. Then the announcer says [in a somber voice], “Now we have the bronze.”

Listen, speaking of third best in the world, we have one of the best in the world writers who has modestly for the last 90 plus minutes just talked about other people and other things. . . . We haven’t even started to talk about your books. I would urge every one of you to go out and read something by Gary Giddins. If you haven’t, read the New York Sun where you’re part of, I think, the best arts, page in town.

Again, thank you so much, Gary. Thank you all for coming.

Gary Giddins: Thanks for having me.

May 22, 2008 · 3 comments


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


In Conversation with Ben Allison

by Tom Greenland

Since his initial emergence in early 1990s as part of the Jazz Composers Collective, New York bassist, composer, and bandleader Ben Allison has resisted and defied easy categorization. He partakes equally of “downtown” and “uptown” aesthetics, as well as a host of other influences, including Led Zeppelin, television soundtrack music, altered timbres and extended techniques. He has developed, ultimately, what could be termed a “mid-town” sound, something uniquely his own. Over coffee at one of his favorite local spots, Allison had much to share.


Thank you.

One thing people think when they think of you is that you have a wide range of things that you can do musically. You’ve played with what we might call “downtown” players and also mainstream musicians, and you definitely have strong roots in your music. Can you talk about that? I’m not trying to pigeonhole you or anything like that, but maybe you could talk about boundaries, and what is jazz, and how you see your role in defining that, or not defining that.

That’s a big question. . . . I came up in the late eighties when there was, at least outwardly, a kind of division in the scene; I mean, people wrote about it a lot, and write. People use those terms: “uptown,” and “downtown,” and “mainstream.” A lot of the musicians that I knew did their best to avoid those kinds of monikers, at least a lot of my contemporaries. The people that I tended to gravitate towards often were the kind of musicians that straddled both scenes, that liked to work in a wide variety of settings.

                        Ben Allison, photo by Tom Greenland

Who are we talking about here?

Well, for instance, a lot of my compatriots in the Jazz Composer’s Collective. That was our non-profit organization that we started back in the early nineties. As you say, I was involved in playing with a lot of the people that were representative of quote-unquote “downtown” music, and also more mainstream, or “uptown,” music, and we always felt like—at least I felt like I didn’t want to pledge allegiance to one camp or the other. I really felt like there was value in many different styles of music and the kind of thing that I wanted to do usually involved elements of almost everything.

I think of jazz as a fusion music. At its core, it’s a fusion music; it really is — from its infancy, in my opinion, a coming-together of different musical traditions, and it’s always had that at its core. And it’s always also been an evolutionary music; it’s always been the kind of music that evolves over time when different groups come together and trade ideas. And I really wanted to be in an environment where there was a lot of trading of musical ideas. And there’s a certain dogma that comes with associating yourself with a camp, and I wanted to avoid that. I like the idea of organizing and putting a name to what we were doing . . . but I also felt like the key would be to really have the ability to define it on a daily basis, just by the music that we were playing.

So we weren’t necessarily associated with “uptown” or “downtown” or whatever. It was really our own thing. I thought there was a lot of similarity of viewpoint with some of my friends. We were all really interested in composition, jazz composition, as a guiding force behind our music — that is, new music. Our definitions of composition among the members of the collective are extremely varied. For instance, Ted Nash, the saxophonist who was involved early on, wrote rather elaborate, sometimes fairly through-composed pieces of music, whereas Frank Kimbrough, for example — a pianist involved early with the collective — would write two or three bars, a little scrap on a piece of paper. But the idea was, no matter how much you wrote down — or didn’t write down — the idea was that we were trying to create something specific. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t entirely left to chance. Each person’s group had a particular sound.

So even if Frank’s group, for instance, was largely improvised, if he didn’t notate a lot of things, the vibe of his approach was — is — clear. I mean, as a bass player in his group I would approach his music from a certain mind-set. I was always thinking to serve the tune. That’s what I mean by compositional: it wasn’t just about the notes, it was about exploring certain kinds of sounds, certain vibes, certain moods. And those moods were more often created by the composer. They would set the stage. And that was something that we all, I think, had in common, and we all also had in common a desire to integrate a lot of different useful styles into our own particular mixes.

What kind of styles were you going to?

Well I listen to every kind of music on Earth; I mean, even stuff I don’t like, I still listen to it! [laughs] That’s been my approach.

What kind of music are you drawn to, say, that you might partake of in your composition?

I’ve been drawn to? You mean that I like? Oh, phew! I can’t narrow it down to any particular thing that draws me to something. I would say that the music I come back to often is music that is — well, in the Western tradition let’s say, if we’re talking about music from around these parts — I think it’s often people who are focusing on music from a composerly standpoint: people that are writing original music, people that are trying to develop recognizable sounds, so that in the first few bars you can kind of tell who it is. People who have a personal style. . . I mean, there’s a reason why Neil Young is still listened to. There’s a reason why he’s keeping legions of fans, and new fans: because he writes good tunes! And you can’t get past that, and they have a sound that is his.

                        Ben Allison, photo by Tom Greenland

Now, some people don’t like that sound, but everybody recognizes it—well, a lot of people recognize it—and he can write good songs. And that helps; that always works; that always just stands the test of time. Duke Ellington is another example; [Thelonious] Monk is another example. I also like musicians like Monk whose playing is totally intertwined with his tunes, his writing. I mean, they’re almost indistinguishable. That appeals to me. And I’ve used that kind of concept in my own writing. I really write from the vantage point of the bass, and then I try to incorporate the things that I like to do on bass into the tunes. I mean, really, that was my first inspiration for writing — period — was to create situations for myself musically that I sounded good in.

Do you write from the bass?

Yeah, most of the time.

Or do you use piano yourself, or harmonies, or…?

Early on, years ago, I did, and then I specifically avoided it for a long time. Starting in about the mid-nineties I sold my piano and decided I wasn’t going to use it anymore. Not that I’m not a fan of harmony, I guess I just felt, stylistically, I didn’t want to bog them down with too much information in the middle range there.

I also have the great fortune of playing with some musicians who are masters of harmony, so they often would fill in the blanks, and I like leaving a lot of room in the middle for them to do that. If you look at my charts, they’re usually bass notes and melodies — almost like figured bass, in a way — and I don’t provide a lot of harmonic information. I often think of it as being implied by what’s going on on either side. And, you know, that’s just my approach. I guess, as a bass player, I’m a real counterpoint person: I’m really thinking about things more in a linear way.

And everybody’s got a different approach. For pianists, so much of it is about harmony, ’cause that’s what their instrument does; it’s just a great harmonic instrument. . . . Once I’d gone through studying harmony and really trying to absorb as much as I can and really getting into it, once I did that, and felt like I’d gotten as far as I wanted to get with that, I really wanted to push away from it and see what else could happen. With my group Medicine Wheel, my whole idea was to start from the vantage point of texture. I would really think of a particular texture or timbre, and that sound would be the very first idea I had for the tune, so that…

Can you give me an example of that?

Well, on my first Medicine Wheel record, a tune called “Blabbermouth”: the solo section starts with the pianist plucking the strings of the piano and the trumpet player playing plunger trumpet into the piano, so the pianist would hold the [sustain] pedal down and it would give this very reverberant effect and kind of creepy and strange. And that was the first sound that I thought of, so I’m, like, “Alright, I want to write a tune around that, that really features that sound.” So, by the time you get to that in the tune, you’re already two minutes into the tune, and people may not recognize the fact that that was the impetus for it, but when I did that it started a thought process.

For instance, on that particular tune I started with that idea and then I thought, “Well, that was a spacey, atmospheric kind of sound. What can I do to ground it? Well, let me add some kind of funky bass-line or something that will really ground it rhythmically.” And I had this bass-line that I’d been working on that I just had in my little scrapbook, so I pulled that out. “Alright, the bass-line’s really just a C-dominant sound; it doesn’t really go anywhere. What can I do to add some angularity?” So I wrote a really angular melody. It was adding layers and adding layers and kind of trying to counteract the previous layer and adding some kind of form to it.

And it was somewhat intellectual in that way, in that I was thinking, “What can I do to offset this?” It was a lot of problem-solving. So then I had this funky bass-line and an angular melody and this thing that I was going to get to: “Alright, now I need something to offset that,” so I wrote a bridge which is totally different. And, you know, a lot of it is taking all the fragments that I have, the little pieces that I’ve been working on, and have documented on paper or on tape, and assembling them. And once I have all these pieces it’s seems to blossom. It just becomes — for that stage — it’s somewhat intellectual.

Then once that’s in some kind of a shape, then you really have to look at it again and really apply your aesthetics — we were talking about aesthetics before — really making sure this doesn’t sound like crap. And that’s [laughs] the most important part!

I think some of my favorite composers are inspirational in that way. The first one that comes to mind is Alban Berg, whose music I studied a little bit after the early nineties. He was, of course, a proponent of the twelve-tone school, a student of Schoenberg’s, and they were really using these kind of intellectual approaches to come up with musical ideas — coming up with modes, and then shifting them upside-down, turning them backwards, and matrices. . . . It got very intellectual. But, in the process, the thing that separated his music out, for me, maybe more than some of the other composers out of that school, was that he would take that material and then apply a really beautiful sense of aesthetics to it. So he wouldn’t let that be the end; it would be more the means-to-an-end. In other words, he would take those various strange techniques and come up with musical fragments that might be pretty weird, but then he would apply his romantic sensibility to it — I know he was a big fan of Brahms — and he would take those fragments and make them sound really beautiful and really great, at least to my ears. And I just thought these he struck a really great balance between heart and mind, and I learned a lot from him.

So if you’re composing, there’s an element of conscious effort — you’re working with an idea or material. Do you have a point, too, where you work it out, you play it, and you just feel it? And then step back from that? You know, I would say I probably work in the opposite direction: I might try to get into a zone first. In writing, for instance, you just let it out, let it flow, ’cause if you’re sitting there trying to think everything through, sometimes you can’t get the idea out. And then you go back and put your ideas on the table — “Okay, is that working?” — almost more calculatedly. You see what I’m saying?

There’s absolutely a back-and-forth. That’s where the fragments come in, the fragments I mentioned that I use. I started this description in my classes as Step Two — or Step Three, actually. The first step is, as you say, really letting it go, just letting your mind wander. I mean, so much of the musical fragments that I have in my scrapbook come from either things that happened spontaneously on the bandstand that I try to remember or ask musicians in my group to remember. Or, more often than not, just getting together with guys with a tape deck or whatever — these days it’s my laptop — and recording a free session. We just get together, turn the lights off, and play, and mess around for a couple of hours. “What are you working on?” “Oh, check this out: bluh-bluh-bleh!” and we’ll just mess around, you know, and just come up with little ideas. And if I’m getting together with a drummer, and we’re playing for three hours, there might be two really cool grooves in there that I want to build off of — just two bars, four bars worth of stuff that I’m really going to take and say, “Alright, this is the jumping-off point.”

So I’ve got something somewhat specific that maybe the next guy doesn’t have that’s a really great musical idea. Now, what do you do with it? And the reason that, I think, is good, and works for me is, number one: it really capitalizes on the special things that musicians I know do — you know, really unique things that they come up with. And therefore I consider them such an integral part of the writing process, because I really want to play with all these guys for a reason: they’re all very very creative, individual musicians with a composerly mind-set who have original voices on their instruments, who have been working to get something personal together for a long time. And that shows. I want to capitalize on that; I want to use that; I want to incorporate that into the tune. And that really helps to define the band sound. So those are the two most important parts of that.

The second one is playing with people and hearing their ideas and their personality?

Yeah, or also just working out stuff on my own, where I’ll play the bass and sing along with it, or just sing a little idea in the tape machine, or just sit down and play a bunch of ideas, then record it all. It doesn’t have to be with another musician. And sometimes it is. A lot of times it isn’t; a lot of times it’s me sitting at the guitar. This new group I have [Man Sized Safe] features Steve Cardenas on guitar and the guitar features heavily into the sound. I wrote quite a bit of the last two albums on guitar, at least some of the ideas were written on guitar. And I use Pro Tools a lot when I’m writing…

Oh, ok, like, set up grooves or…?

Right, set up ideas, recording little ideas on tape and kind of layering them up. Some guys use sequencing software. I always felt that to be kind of cold; I prefer to compose to the real sounds, if I can. But I do like the idea of having that instant feedback, being able to hear how things fit together a little bit before I put them into that shape. And then, Step Three is to…

Step Two was to work with the ideas, see what you have?

Yeah, and try to do that kind of intellectual process of assembling them into some kind of form. [Step] Three is bringing them into the guys, bringing them into the session, or putting them out there on a gig and seeing what it really sounds like, and then also having them weigh in on it. The guys often have great ideas. Like on the Cowboy Justice record, for instance, we did “Blabbermouth” — that’s the tune I mentioned at the beginning of this interview that we recorded on the first album — we decided to re-do it and I really wanted to give it a totally different treatment, and Ron Horton had the great idea, right off the bat, of starting with the bridge, what used to be the middle of the tune, making that the beginning of the tune and kind of flipping the sections. And it’s such a simple idea, but it totally changed how I thought about it and I ended up writing a whole new section for the bridge and having it start in a different way. A great idea, and it set up this whole train of thought.

So I call that the “workshop” section in deference to [Charles] Mingus, who was my whole school. So, bringing it in, workshopping it, letting the band flesh it out. Somebody’ll say, “Yeah, you know, I’m not really feeling this.” Where I thought someone would have a great time soloing, they’re, like, “Yeah, I don’t really feel this. This isn’t really me.” And another person will say, “You know, I want to sink my teeth into this!” “Great! Okay, so that’s going to be…” We’ve talked about things like that.

Like a feature for that person?

I think so; I mean, I don’t often have more than one soloist on a tune. Sometimes I do; sometimes I write little ditties, just the tune, and when we get to the set, where anybody can solo on it any night, or maybe I’ll have everybody solo tonight if we just want to stretch it out into some massive jam. It depends on the gig. You know there’re different settings we play in, in rock clubs, and we play in opera houses, and we play at festivals where it’s, like, fifty-five minutes and the red light goes on and you’ve got to get off the stage. So you have to have a band that can turn on a dime and be able to play in any situation.

Do you change your material for those different situations?

No, but we change how we play them.

How so?

Well, like what I was just mentioning. Depending on the length we have, how tight we’ll play the tune, how much we stretch it out, the order. Also our approach to an individual tune might change a little bit.

Does it change with the audience? Like, if it’s a “rock crowd” are you going to go for more grooves?

It’s not going for more grooves. It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. So we will change how we play to fit the room. You’re always reacting to the audience, but I rarely go into a setting thinking, “Hm, this audience seems like this, maybe we should play like this.” I’m more often of the mind of, “This is what we do. Let’s try to pull them along into our scene.” And I’m always amazed at how, if the music’s good and it feels good, no matter where you are, people react favorably. However, we will change things quite drastically depending on the acoustics. That has a big impact on how we blend because some rooms are really dry, some rooms are very reverberant, some rooms we’re playing almost totally acoustically, some places we’re [going] through some massive sound system, and that impacts how you play. This isn’t pop music; it doesn’t sound the same in every setting; every night’s different. And I actually enjoy that immensely and I take a certain amount of pride in being able to work in almost any kind of room, have the music work in any setting. That’s the mark of a group that’s been playing for awhile.

As far as reaching your listeners, you’ve said already that, “I do what I do and try to make it engaging.” I’m just curious about your appeal, because you definitely have some call-backs to the tradition of swing and all this stuff, but there’re also a lot of contemporary aspects to your music. It’s crossover, in a way. I mean, I wouldn’t call you a mainstream player, but there are elements of rock and street culture and things like that. Is that something that you’re just messing around with, or is it something that you hope will bring people who may not get into the more esoteric aspects of extended improvisation and atonality?

Well, it’s funny, because I think we’re still talking about atonality as being the vanguard of the music, where in the jazz world a lot of that happened before I was born. I mean, that happened in the late fifties, early sixties; certainly by the late sixties that was well investigated. I mean, I was four at that time. So, that to me is classic jazz; I don’t really see that as being the vanguard of the music.

Also, the rock references—you know, I’m a big fan of classic rock, so that’s music from the sixties and seventies [laughs]. It’s forty years old! And I think, that being said, I don’t write with the idea of necessarily trying to attract new audiences. I mean, I do, of course, want to broaden my audience all the time. We do that mostly by touring and getting our music played on the radio and all the things that we do to get people aware of the music. I’m very gratified, though, by the kind of audiences that come out and do it. I mean, we were at the Green Mill jazz club a couple weeks ago in Chicago and the demographic was about as wide as you can get. That’s also a testament to that club and the vibe that they put out. It’s a great club. We [recently] toured around for a little while and we always try to play there when we get to Chicago, if we can. The people that are reacting to it are really from every conceivable background in terms of age and gender and race. And I guess because my music incorporates so many of the things that I like, and so many of the things that I like are all over the map [laughs], there’s hopefully something there that almost anybody can get to.

But I think, overall, what I hope people react to is, first of all — I hope this comes across — the sense of joy that we feel when we’re playing, when the band is in-sync musically. I don’t mean, necessarily, tight rhythmically; I mean in-sync musically, where we’re really trading ideas, where we feel that sense of spontaneity, but also an interplay that’s working, that’s like a really great conversation, where there’s a lot of give-and-take and somebody’s throwing out an idea and then someone else in the band reacts to it almost instantly and you can hear that happening in real time. It’s very exciting. And I think people react to my music when — even if they don’t necessarily know that’s what’s happening, on an intellectual level — you feel that; you feel that when that’s happening; you feel the energy. When you see music live it’s different than hearing it on a CD. And I think that’s what most people react to when they hear this music.

You know — you’re a music writer and a fan and a listener, and I’m a big fan of the music, a listener and a player — we sometimes get almost sidetracked our knowledge. I mean, I know, for myself, I sometimes fall into a trap of analyzing a piece of music while listening to it [laughs], you know? Which is kind of stupid. I sometimes wish I didn’t know anything about it and could experience it just like so many of the people in the audiences that we play for experience it — just as it is. You know, they don’t really understand the mechanics of the whole tune, nor should they; they should just feel it for what it is. And that’s really my favorite kind of audience member — somebody who really doesn’t know that much about jazz and hasn’t heard it a lot, certainly the kind of music we do, because then you’re really playing for people who are just experiencing it in the way that I hope people will.

Yeah. I think that’s a challenge for jazz because, you know, when it was coming up there were a lot of common references that people could grab on to, like the tunes — everybody knew the tunes.

Right, everybody knew George Gershwin, everybody knew the Broadway tunes, everybody knew the popular music of the day.

Right. And there’re newer artists coming along that are trying to use the popular music of the day. I’m thinking of Josh Redman’s James Brown cover [“I Got You (I Feel Good)” from Joshua Redman] or something like that. Or, they’re trying to bring in more pop music; you have all these “smooth jazz” artists that are bringing in rock and pop and r&b references…

Yeah, very recognizable pop tunes.

Yeah, and then putting the jazz element of the creativity or the open-endedness within that. And I think that’s a challenge for artists that are trying to be really original. How can you be simultaneously original and have enough references and enough familiarity to make people feel comfortable with your exploration?

That’s interesting. For me, it’s very very hard, but it’s something I take very seriously; that’s probably what I work on more than anything.

Because, for instance, with very avant-garde music, you lose a lot of people very quickly by challenging them that much. You’re asking a lot of patience from your listener. But I think you can combine both of those things.


You can challenge them, and make them comfortable, if that makes sense?

It’s absolutely true, and that’s where the aesthetics come in to play. Aesthetics — it’s hard to quantify; you can’t really quantify it, but, for sure, something has aesthetic appeal if it feels in some way relevant to people. And the music that we all have in common — this is why I’m a big fan of television music, by the way, and that music factors largely into my sound, because I’m a product of the TV generation. I mean, I came up really, in my opinion, at the height of television music. The sixties and seventies was when guys were writing incredible music for television, whether or not you noticed that. Some of these hour-long shows would have full scores, totally programmatic, scored out to the smallest movement, and themes that people may not have consciously assimilated but are in the back of their minds. You know, Star Trek and Little House on the Prairie and all the cop shows, all the cop dramas—[in] all of that stuff, there’s a lot of incidental music that went on, underscoring it, and those sounds have seeped into our collective unconscious and they’re there. So as a jazz musician I’m tapping things like that.

Programmatic music?

Programmatic, yeah. By that I mean music that really follows the scene. So for a score that would mean the timing of how the video was cut influences how the music is cut. And classic programmatic music would be, like, Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, where each animal’s got its own theme, and when that animal shows up in the story you hear that theme. And in Star Trek every time there’s a fight sequence you get: dahn dahn dahn dunt-dunt dah daah! You know, that’s the fight music, and every time Kirk is fighting that’s the theme you’re going to get, and you recognize it as that, and that’s there. And I guess sometimes people remark that my music has some kind of film-like quality and I’m actually happy when they say that because I do—I’m not telling stories in my mind as I’m writing it, but I’m referencing a lot of that kind of music that’s sectional—each section has a point, it’s got a real character to it, you know?

Yeah, that was my next question: is there an image for each part. Duke [Ellington] did that a lot in his music. He would tell them a color or he would have a description, and then say, “Just play. You interpret it, but I have a very specific idea.”

Yeah, no doubt. I think the best description for me is, as a composer, I’m trying to create a landscape that the musicians are then free to explore. So, in an abstract way — another way of saying that is — you’re setting up a mood, a tone, a color, a timbre, whatever you want to call it, that the improvisers are — should — be aware of, and should be conscious of. But then they’re free to play off of that and manipulate it and explore it and change it and react to it in whatever way they see fit. But the point is that the vibe is there.

May 13, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with John McLaughlin

by Walter Kolosky

              John McLaughlin, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

For the past four decades it seems guitarist and composer John McLaughlin has been about forty years ahead of everyone else. He has thrived in a cross-section of musical genres. In fact, his 50-year career has been a case study in how to create new genres.

After paying his dues in the London music scene of the 60s, McLaughlin came to New York City to play in the trailblazing jazz-rock of Tony Williams’s Lifetime band. Very quickly came revelatory performances with the legendary Miles Davis. In the early 70s, with a double-neck electric guitar as an appendage, he led his historic Mahavishnu Orchestra– fusion music’s first supergroup.

Mahavishnu’s pioneering jazz-rock was able to break through the popular musical barriers of the time to connect with a wide range of fans. Today this music is being revisited through numerous tribute recordings, and even music festivals. Young musicians all over the world continue to be influenced by its reach. After Mahavishnu, McLaughlin and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain formed the Indo-Jazz group Shakti, playing a form of world music before the category even existed.

Later, as part of the Guitar Trio, McLaughlin, Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola redefined flamenco music. Since those times, McLaughlin has performed in a number of fascinating groups, written concertos and produced critically acclaimed instructional DVDs.

John McLaughlin continues to push himself to the limits. Currently, he has four projects operating simultaneously. A European tour with his group The 4th Dimension was to start in a couple of weeks when we spoke. He also is busy with the release of his new Floating Point CD and its companion Meeting Of The Minds DVD. The CD is his first studio recording since he left Universal Music. The ‘floating point’, according to McLaughlin, is the place musicians find themselves when the group is grooving so hard they almost form their own gravity. They float. McLaughlin is also in the early planning stages of a very exciting world tour to begin later this year.

John spoke to from his home in Monaco. We discussed jazz education, John’s sojourn last year in India, his new releases and his future plans. But to begin the conversation I wanted him to talk about something he saw the very first week he came to America.

It was almost 40 years ago. You were a young jazz musician and came to New York City for the first time to play with Tony Williams’s new band, Lifetime. The first day you are there, you meet Miles Davis; your all-time musical idol. It must have seemed like a dream. Then later in that very same week, you are witness to the two trumpet legends Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong engaged in conversation.

Yes, it was at the Baron Club. But it wasn’t just Louis Armstrong. It was Dizzy Gillespie too! I saw Dizzy and Louis Armstrong chatting. Miles came out of the men’s room. Then Miles saw them and the three of them started-up. It was wonderful to see this beautiful complicity between them. They were three giants. Of course, I had no camera. I had no money. I recorded the scene to ROM in my head. If I close my eyes I can still see it now. They were joshing and joking and bull-shitting around. It was so sweet to see the three of them. It freaked me out. It was the very first week I was there. There they were– three generations of jazz trumpet giants right in front of me. These guys were really wonderful people too. I met Louis but didn’t really get to know him. I knew Dizzy a little more. He was just out of sight. What a great guy. Miles of course was one of the greatest human beings I ever knew.

Speaking of jazz tradition… We have a popular column here at called The Dozens. One of the [forthcoming] topics is dedicated to your interpretations of the jazz standards. I think it is an aspect of your career that often gets overlooked because of your, shall we say, more exploratory music. No matter what musical direction you are taking at the time, you always find a place for a standard. What is it about the standards that still attract your attention?

                  John McLaughlin, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

It’s all about the love in the end, isn’t it Walter? It is what makes everything tick. It’s what makes me tick. I love the standards. In spite of all my adventures in Shakti-land, flamenco-world and on the jazz-fusion planet – I grew-up with the standards. In the right environment, the standards can be extremely attractive. It’s hard to put into words. But I simply think it comes from growing-up with these tunes and loving them. It is as simple as that.

You play them for the love of it. How important do you think this repertoire is for the learning process? Shouldn’t all young jazz players be studying this music?

Of course. This is especially so if they take the time to analyze what the great musicians have done in the past with them. I think part of the problem with young players today is that they’ve got such a whole bunch of things to learn just to get up to date. For us back then, it was already quite a mouthful. You had bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, then Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell. Then along comes John Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans, Herbie, Wayne – this whole new school of neo-bebop.

And you also had the things that Miles did with Gil Evans like the wonderful standard Porgy and Bess. We had all of that to get a hold of. That was, of course, in addition to being long-haired hippy weirdo freaks and dropping acid and freaking-out generally and buying big amps and freaking our guitars out with feedback too…[laughs] This is what we call evolution in music. Some people wouldn’t call it that. They’d call it devolution! [laughs]

Today, if the young musician has the time to study what happened in the 50s and 60s and then come to terms with the fusion music of Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Return To Forever and other fusion bands of the 70s and puts it all together to form their own style…well, it’s already quite a job.

And you help in your own way. The last few years you have produced and released two remarkable and technically revolutionary instructional DVDs. This Is The Way I Do It is a uniquely formatted guitar improvisation guide. The Gateway To Rhythm is a tutorial on mastering rhythm without having to play drums. What are you hearing back from the users of these music teaching tools?

You can not imagine the profound satisfaction Ina (John’s wife and co-producer) and I feel from the letters we receive and emails we get about these DVDs. These were not financial ventures. They were about addressing problems confronted by musicians.

When and how did the ideas for these instructional DVDs come about?

Thirty or forty years ago, I started doing master classes and became aware of the problems guitarists were confronted with. Time went by and I did more classes and learned more about those problems. I know my own inadequacies only too well. Knowing them is the constant path of learning. In the early 80s, I started taking protégés and helping put them through music education at Berklee, Juilliard… just generally trying to put back what music has given me. It has given me so much. At any rate, a number of years ago, after a particularly difficult master class, I was bombarded with questions of quite different characters. There were questions of right-hand technique, left-hand technique, how to improvise, how to get a grip on harmony, how to get a grip on rhythm, what the spiritual aspect of music was and how do you relate it to improvising and jazz… The questions were coming from quite different quarters. This event actually began to germinate into the beginnings of This Is The Way I Do It. I should mention that on previous occasions I had been approached by educational societies and companies with regard to teaching with video cassettes. As you know using video cassettes is limiting. There was no way I could do it. In the end this is how the This Is The Way I Do It DVD was born.

Creating a useful instructional program the way you wanted to do it on DVD had to be a difficult undertaking.

Yes, in particular getting the score moving in sync to all the audio. This was really a first. It was a very difficult and tricky problem to solve. We had no reference. No one had done it before. But we actually did it. Even today we have letters coming in about this. Some of them are very touching.

That DVD collection took care of the melody and harmony. But there is another important music element you thought it would be helpful to explain.

Gateway To Rhythm, which I did with the wonderful Indian percussionist Selva Ganesh, is about how to master rhythm without having to play drums. The konokol method comes from South India but its application is absolutely global. This DVD has also been very well received. I think Gateway was really the second aspect to This Is The Way I Do It.

Do you still teach master classes?

I stopped doing master classes because they came to be frustrating. If you have more than five or six people you are in trouble. I have my own particular style. Hence the name This Is The Way I Do It. My teaching philosophy is that in the end who can teach whom? All the teacher can do is show what they do. This allows, by a process of identification and assimilation, the student to take what he wants out of that and apply it in his own particular way. They are not going to play like me. Well, maybe in the beginning they will play like me or Pat Metheny or John Scofield. But they need to carve their own style. To do that they actually need to try to discover who they are as human beings – which is the spiritual way in life – to address these questions of who we are. I didn’t really get into that, but anyone who is curious can always visit my website to learn where I am coming from. I talk about the whole Mahavishnu thing with the guru years ago. It was wonderful and I loved Guru Chinmoy. I miss him since he passed away a few months ago. What he gave me as a teacher is inestimable.

You have already said that your brand new album may be the best you have ever recorded. That’s quite a statement, John, considering all of your music that has come before. Why do you say it?

I don’t know why. I love all my paintings. My recordings are all like paintings to me. The guys in the band are mostly Indian except George Brooks on saxophone out of San Francisco and Hadrien Feraud the young bass player who is with me in the 4th Dimension band. Let us start with the drummers. They are coming from the Indian tradition. But they know everything about Western drums and Western percussion. They hit it! They are wonderful.

A lot of these young Indian musicians have grown-up listening to your music and admiring how you have incorporated it into their traditions. You may be more famous in India than America.

They have their own way of thanking people and I was a recipient of this. At the beginning this was strange. These Indian people would come up to me after a concert and touch my feet and say “thank you for making me aware of my music.” It was all very sweet. I have been going to India for 30 years now. So now I am used to it -- I give them my blessings and off they go on their way. This is just the way it is. When you get over sixty, Walter, you become a guru yourself. [laughs] There has been a lot of that going on with the Shakti group. Other Indian people, not necessarily musicians, who may be in the arts like painting or dance… I have had a good contact with these people. I think they identify with me. They certainly identify with my profound affection for India and its culture and people. I was there for 7 months last year and I miss it. So does Ina.

What was the experience of living in India like for you?

It’s hard to describe my feelings. But there is another prevailing atmosphere or different attitude toward life in India that is quite different to the West. Life and death are much more evident over there. You don’t see dead people in the street. But you see people going off to the funeral pyre carrying the bodies down the street. You see people that are mutilated for whatever reason in front of the temples – a sight from which we are very protected from in the West. The beauty and the tragedy of life are much more in your face over there. This necessarily affects you. I defy anyone, even the most insensitive of human beings, to go to India and not be influenced or touched in some way by, say, the beauty of the smiles – even from people who have absolutely nothing. The beggars in the street smile and it is like the dawning sunshine. It is quite astonishing.

I understand a wave of profound creativity overcame you quite unexpectedly while you were there.

We were there in our house. It was lovely weather. It was near the ocean. We have very dear friends there. I have my little computer, my guitar and my little amp. It just started like that. I had not intended to write at all. But day after day things were just coming to me and I had to get them out. This had never happened to me before. Ina said she couldn’t believe how much music I was writing. I told her I couldn’t believe it myself. I just couldn’t stop. I had become a compulsive composer for want of a better word. So she said we should make a CD. It went from there.

Was there a theme?

The principal crystallization for the album came from the festival of Abbaji. The opening tune on the CD is a piece called “Abbaji” that I wrote for that festival. There is a tune, but there is a lot of free form improvisation with George Brooks on saxophone. This festival honors Zakir Hussain’s father, the great tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, who died on the third of February five years ago. Zakir organized the concert that ran from 6:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. There are outstanding musicians playing. I had the 6:30 A.M. spot. And there is an audience! Can you believe it? Not bad, huh? Along with me were the drummer, the percussionist and the keyboard player who subsequently I would invite to record with me as the main rhythm section for the CD. George was with me too. It was only later I started looking for guest soloists because on every tune except one there is an Indian guest soloist. These musicians are not really all that well known. But they are sort of the young lions of Indian music. They are coming up and really burning on their instruments. Bamboo flute players, electric sitar player, Shankar Mahadevan singing like…ah, wonderful…

But you say this is not an Indian music album.

It is not. This is a jazz fusion. I was not going the Shakti way. Shakti has a lot of Western influence in it because of me. But we observe a lot of Indian rules and regulations in the music. But this is not at all that. Ranjit Barot the drummer and Sivamani the percussionist– the two together are amazing. And then there is Louiz Banks the keyboard player… they are not Indian instruments. They are Indian people playing Western instruments. You’ve got to hear them!

Meeting of the Minds is a DVD documentary of the recording sessions.

Yes. We couldn’t call it “Meeting Of The Spirits.” [laughs] (John is referring to an old Mahavishnu classic tune.)

Yeah, that’s been used. [laughs]

The DVD was Ina’s idea as well. It was all live in the studio. We were in a beautiful studio. The studios in India are generally better equipped than the ones in New York. Can you believe that? You go into any little recording studio in India and they have the best equipment. It is unreal. Because it was a live recording in the studio it was a very special event. You have these Indian guys coming into the studio to play my music. They are coming over to my world but playing their way. It was a real juxtaposition of cultures in a very different sense than Shakti.

So we see the recording process, but we see a cultural mixing of methods and culture as well?

Absolutely. Yes. I have seen the DVD myself. But our first order of thousands of DVDs was lost on the way from Germany. I couldn’t believe it.

Have they turned-up?

Yes, just about 20 minutes ago…

The record is great. I love the recording. I am doing electric guitar and synth. I am very happy with the atmosphere. These players are wonderful. You see a real meeting of the minds on the DVD.

You are promoting Floating Point and are about to embark on a European tour with your wonderful new fusion group The 4th Dimension in just a few short weeks from this conversation. But there are already gears turning in another realm that are going to thrill music fans. You and Chick Corea are forming a new band to be called The Five Peace Band.

We are. I just went to see Chick in Austria. He had a concert with Gary Burton. I know Gary from a long, long time ago. What a wonderful player. We are going to have a band with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Vinnie Colaiuta. We have been talking about it. Chick and I go way back to the 60s. Chick is one of the rare guys I have had a constant contact with. He is such a lovely person and such a fine player – what a wonderful musician.

Do you have any clue at this early date as to what music you will be playing?

No. I don’t really know. I mean we’ve had our hands full lately. But there will probably be some new music coming out. I am sure we will also go looking for pieces that are appropriate for this type of line-up. I have thought about a piece from the Heart of Things Live album. Kenny can really play. We played together in Paris for the last Miles concert. The other guys too… It should be something.

Postscript: At the time of this interview I had not yet had the opportunity to see the new Meeting of the Minds DVD. I have seen it since. It is a fascinating exposition of two musical and social cultures coming together to make music that speaks to all cultures.

Walter Kolosky is the author of the book Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra This book is currently available with a discount for readers -- $12.95 (almost half off the Amazon price). But, readers need to use this link and enter the coupon code (for US purchases jazz.comusa and for outside the US jazz.comintl -- use all lower case).

May 06, 2008 · 29 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Marian McPartland

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is pianist and radio personality Marian McPartland.

by arnold jay smith

“I hate all those words that end in -arian.”

Thus spake Marian McPartland whose music indeed has no time frame. She celebrated her 90th birthday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. An all star assemblage feted Lady Marian with some of her songs including the title track from her most recent album Twilight World, (Concord), sung by Karrin Allyson. “I’ve sung it many times and even recorded it,” Allyson said later. Marian couldn’t remember the lyricist, so I offered Johnny Mercer. “Oh, more famous than that,” she said. To some of us more famous than Mercer you don’t get.

              Marian McPartland, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

While cadging together a DVD for a Women In Jazz Festival at NYC’s St. Peter’s Church, at which Marian was honored as a living legend, I came across two videos in which she was featured. The first was made at the Clinton White House. The intense gaze of President Bill while she was speaking of -- then playing -- a Fats Waller tune is worth the balance of that VH1 broadcast. The second was a lecture and demonstration at a school where she took one tune and played it in the many styles of jazz piano from Scott Joplin forward.

“I did a lot of those things for some time,” Marian said. “I traveled as long as I could show youngsters what this music is about. I had a young trio at the time, almost the age of the students.” She has always said that her favorite trio was bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, the Hickory House trio.

[Note: The Hickory House was a restaurant on W. 54th St. in NYC that was not a jazz joint per se. It was close by the famed “52nd St.” -- a/k/a “The Street” -- and its brownstone walk-in clubs. Hickory House was noted for its steaks and chops and later for its trios. In addition to Marian’s decade-long tenure there Billy Taylor did a long stint at the Hickory House, as did Mary Lou Williams. See the “Postscript” below for more on McPartland’s Hickory House trio, including anecdotes from Joe Morello and Bill Crow.]

Prior and during the Hickory House stint, Marian played and toured with husband, then ex-husband, then husband redux, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. “We always said that the divorce was a failure,” Marian quipped. “You have to play it right or it just doesn’t come off. We didn’t play the divorce right.”

Speaking of playing it right, Marian studied at London’s Guildhall. “I was already playing by ear since I was three. I had a private teacher for a while but that didn’t take. In school I was badly behaved so my father asked what could he do? The teacher replied that ‘she should be studying music, of course.’” Three years later she was asked to tour with a four-piano show playing “like Frankie Carle. I was in show biz and I never looked back.” It was after Marian met Jimmy, who was still a G.I. and they began working the USO shows during WWII that she started meeting some of her American heroes. “We were in Belgium and I met Dinah Shore, Edward G. Robinson and Fred Astaire.” Then came New York where she met Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott and Louis Armstrong. She was as green as one could be in those days being from England and the first time in the Apple. “I remember walking down Broadway with Jimmy showing me the town. We walked by this club where Louis was working, the Aquarium Club. The door was open so we looked in. Louis shouted, ‘Hey, McPartland. Come in here!’ So we did. We were staying at Gene Krupa’s house and went to hear him a lot too.”

The conversation turned to Krupa’s hometown, Chicago, where Jimmy replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverines. Jimmy and Marian were working in the Windy City not long after they visited NYC, when Jimmy suggested to her that she get her own trio. “He said then I can play whatever I like [trending to] bebop and anybody I can hear on records or see in person.

"There was a funny incident. We worked a horrible club called the Rose Bowl in Chicago which had a bowling alley attached to it. Jimmy always liked to hear me play a solo. I was playing "Claire de Lune" for some reason and not a jazz tune when a roar came from the bowling crowd next door for somebody getting a strike or something. That ended the solo spot.”

There was a penchant for swinging classical music at that time as another of the 52nd St. crowd, Art Tatum, proudly demonstrated his breathtaking technique on "Humoresque." “You know I had to learn that,” Marian continued. “We went to see [Tatum] who took us to a speakeasy which was just an ordinary house, but when you walked upstairs there was this club in full swing with juke boxes, a big piano, people drinking and carrying on. Tatum sat down [at the piano] and he must have played till 10 o’clock in the morning. Such a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood, you’d never guess there was all this gaiety going on.”

Marian had already met Louis and then Mary Lou, but she didn’t get to play with any of them until Jimmy was playing Eddie Condon’s. “That was the first time I was asked to sit in,” she remembered. “I knew all those traditional tunes, “Ostrich Walk,” “Royal Garden Blues,” all of them.”

Fast forward. Jazz was hot in 1979, for me in particularly. WBGO, our local jazz NPR affiliate, went on the air; Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program was born, and — dare I even utter in the same breath — my live interview series at the New School called Jazz Insights© began its 26 year run. The first two are extant; the last sadly not. Most of the McP’s Piano Jazz shows have been done in the studio, Sherry Hutchinson producing. But there have been some live: that Hickory House Trio and a tribute to Jimmy McPartland to name but a pair. (Not to be confused with a Jimmy McP tribute hosted by cornetist/Bix and Hoagy Carmichael author Richard Sudhalter.)

Marian spoke of some of her favorite shows. “We got Teddy Wilson to talk, which was not always that easy to do. Mary Lou did my first show and she actually taught me things, on the air. She was very tough. I think she wanted her own show and she was annoyed that I had it. At one point I said, ‘I really liked that chord you played.’ She replied, ‘I didn’t play that chord.’ I didn’t pursue it; it was, after all, my first show and Mary Lou Williams at that. After a while she got mellow, even sang a song. Later we went out to dinner to the Russian Tea Room. We tried to get Count Basie a few times, but I think he was ill. We even announced him in the program guide. We tried to get Earl Hines, too.”

The program had its genesis thanks to songwriter Alec Wilder who had an NPR radio show based on his book American Popular Song. He recommended that Marian do a show and Piano Jazz was the result. “We’re looking forward to a big 30th Anniversary bash in 2009.”

The guest parade actually began at the Hickory House where people like Duke Ellington would fall by for dinner and sometimes play. “Duke’s press agent and the Hickory House’s, Joe Morgan, was the same. A pain in the ass but he did get some good press items. Billy Strayhorn would sit quietly alone in a corner booth,” Marian remembered. “He never played. I often wondered about that, never sitting with Duke. Oscar [Peterson] came by; Artie Shaw, too. Once we had Martin Luther King come in, but I never got to talk to him. He was friends with my bass player at the time, Ben Tucker, composer of “Comin’ Home Baby.” He must be making a fortune from that one song. Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows got engaged there.”

The music was continuous at the Hickory House. John Mehegan was the “intermission” pianist. One night Marian remembered that while she was on he came running down the room shouting, “That should have been a C7! People at the bar had that ‘Who the hell is this guy’ look.” An infrequent visitor Joe Bushkin was at the Embers and Marian was asked to follow him with her trio. Marian: “Joey had taken all his fans with him and nobody knew who I was. The management thought I needed some backup so they brought in Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge which turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life. While I was at the Embers Jimmy was at the Metropole Café.” [Note: The Metropole was a long drinking joint on Broadway not far from 52nd St. where the bands played on the long bar. It was rarely quiet so the bands had to play louder than the clientele. Krupa and Cozy Cole had a drum school upstairs. It (and the original Birdland) became a Gentlemen’s Club.]

I asked Marian if there were any reunions of the Austin High Gang, the band of Chicagoans with whom Jimmy had played “They had disbanded but there was one where we played the Blue Note in Chicago with Gene Krupa and Bud Freeman. [What was more interesting is that] we played opposite Billie Holiday. Mousey Alexander was our drummer.

An underplayed side of Marian’s success is as a songwriter. The melodies have been in her repertoire for years but, as we all know, it’s only when we hear a lyric that we remember the tune. Such is the case with “Twilight World” and an earlier one “The Days of Our Love,” lyrics by Peggy Lee, which has been famously recorded by Cleo Laine and Jackie Cain.

To conclude the long phone interview, for good measure, Marian reiterated that she “hates that word ‘blog.’ I don’t have a computer; I don’t have email. I do have a website, but I don’t know what’s on it. That’s all she wrote.”

And we have Marian McPartland.

Postscript: The Hickory House Trio:

Bill Crow was a self-taught bass player at the time he met Marian and he said he was struggling with difficult keys. “Marian loved all those keys,” Crow said. “She improved my playing just by pushing me to play in every key.” He remembered getting a lot of solo space.

Visitors to the centrally located stage atop the bar played an integral part in Crow’s career: “Jackie [Cain] and Roy [Kral] came by and hired Joe [Morello] and me for a record date. British pianist/vibist Victor Feldman liked the way we sounded together and we recorded his first American album. Unfortunately the record company lost the tapes.”

Marian occasionally took the trio on the road to places like Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, where they had more than just one-nighters. “We met the greats,” Crow remembered. “Not only would Jimmy [McPartland] sit in but in between rounds of golf we would be joined by some of Jimmy’s Chicago and trad pals: Vic Dickinson, Pee Wee Russell, Marty Napoleon, Bud Freeman, Herb Hall, Eddie Condon and Yank Lawson. I even got to work with some of them.”

Crow related how the writers from Down Beat and Metronome were always asking Joe Morello to compare himself to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, then the marquee names. Crow: “Hating to make those comparisons, Joe invented a fictitious drummer named Marvin Bonessa who [Joe] claimed was better than all of them. He claimed that Marvin was reclusive, wouldn’t record and wouldn’t give interviews, but was head and shoulders above all other drummers in both technique and imagination. Marian and I and Joe’s friend [guitarist] Sal Salvador joined in the conspiracy. We had writers going crazy trying to locate Marvin. I think he even got nominated in one of the Down Beat polls.”

I first laid ears on Morello when he was with Dave Brubeck at a 1956 Brooklyn College concert. I was stunned by his phenomenal left hand and asked him if he hadn’t been a left-hander. Crow now tells the story. “Joe had developed a finger system with which he could keep a string of eighth notes going with just his left forefinger controlling the drumsticks. Then he would add accents by using his wrist.” Crow was fooling around with sticks on breaks on a pad made up of a folded napkin. Eventually he figured out the Morello finger system. “I could do that one trick so that when a visiting drummer would marvel at his control, Joe would say, ‘Oh, anybody can do that even my bass player.’ Joe would hand me a stick and I’d do the trick.” I would have loved to have seen the looks on those visiting drummers’ faces.

Morello remembered coming to NYC “at the starvation level. My friend Sal Salvador, then with the [Stan] Kenton band, told me of this British girl [sic] who was looking for a drummer. I’d never heard of her but Sal had evidently told her about me. Mousey Alexander, who was playing drums with her, had this big bass drum which was booming so I remember not using it too much.” Morello would drop down to the Hickory House once a week or so and sit in. During one of his visits he remembered Marian pointing him out to a guitarist. That introduction led to a long association with the legendary Johnny Smith, first for three weeks at the original Birdland, then to the more posh East Side boîte The Embers. Then came the calls. “I couldn’t believe it; first Stan Kenton, who was at Birdland, wanted me to sub for Stan Levey who went into hospital for something. The next day Marian calls for me to replace Mousey who wanted to go with Sauter-Finegan.” Seems everything that happened for him in NYC had Marian attached. “Even though we’d travel, New York and the Hickory House was always home base.”

May 02, 2008 · 6 comments