For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their eighth decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers who were first-hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is clarinetist Buddy DeFranco.
When I was coming up, the instrument of choice for young reed players was the clarinet. Imagine my surprise when I learned much later that it is among the most difficult to play. While its size makes it easier for small hands to hold, the keys are further apart for young fingers to reach and there are both holes to cover and keys to depress. I guess it’s like swinging a heavy bat before stepping to the plate. There have been no fewer than four clarinet players in my family, ranging in age from eight to adult. One musician told me that it's discouraging to see how many young players drop out after trying clarinet. The recently-retired, Guinness record-holding Stanley Drucker of the New York Philharmonic, like our subject Buddy DeFranco, virtually played nothing else.
Others have brought the clarinet back from oblivion. After the Swing Era, where the instrument was the defining sound— think Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, and the Glenn Miller Reed section sound—it fell into disuse as a solo instrument. There are more celebratory doublers now than in recent memory: Eddie Daniels, Paquito D’Rivera, Anat Cohen, Ken Peplowski, and, among the traditional players, Bob Wilber. Then there’s Don Byron, who plays klezmer and contemporary jazz on the instrument.
Save for Wilber, who was a student of Sidney Bechet, all of the above give some kind of credit to Buddy DeFranco. DeFranco brought the clarinet kicking and screaming out of Swing, and gave it new life as a bebop instrument. For the 100th celebration of Benny Goodman’s birth at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the spotlighted trio of DeFranco, Peplowski, and Wilber were featured in, but not limited to, playing music from the different eras in which the clarinet shone: Wilber, New Orleans; Peplowski, Swing; and DeFranco, Bop (see the jazz.com report on that concert). Goodman, the popular clarinet pioneer, played in all of those eras.
Like Drucker, DeFranco has played clarinet exclusively (excepting a brief episode on mandolin when he was five, and tenor sax—of necessity—much later.) Boniface Ferdinand Leonard DeFranco (b. 1923) remains extremely active. Backstage at the aforementioned J@LC concert, we made an appointment to do a phoner, which we missed due to double bookings. The resultant interviews—we needed two—were held in the spring of 2009.
“By the time I was eight or nine I knew the mandolin was not for me,” he said. “I wanted to play the sax, but my father [a professional musician] knew some clarinet players who told him to start me out on that instrument.” It was the late 1930s, and the Swing Era had already begun. “You had to double, mostly sax and clarinet. After all was said and done I liked it better than saxophone.”
Considering all that I have heard of the difficulty of getting around on the clarinet I asked if that was true.
“It’s very difficult,.” he began. “It’s got so many tone holes that you have to close with your fingers and four different registers to contend with. That means four different fingerings for the notes." If that weren’t enough, there are different clarinets, each with their own playing methods
“The Boehm Method was designed for the Albert System clarinet,” DeFranco explained. “The original clarinet had six holes and thirteen keys. Boehm [commonly mispronounced 'Bame'] invented a more upscale instrument, with seventeen keys.”
DeFranco cleared something up for me. I thought that the different clarinets and their respective methods made for the sound: more or fewer holes and keys. Some play(ed) in the low-to-middle registers: Kenny Davern, Perry Robinson, Pee Wee Russell, Bechet. Others played more brightly, like Goodman, Shaw, Herman, and DeFranco. “No, that depends on the instrument itself, the mouthpiece and the player,” he said. I asked about the wood. “Some clarinetists prefer rosewood these days. Most prefer grenadilla [from Africa]. Never ebony.” Although its ebony appearance makes for the perfect sobriquet: "licorice stick." Most clarinetists I know think that corny. I tend to agree.
Rosewood clarinets were/are often one-piece affairs like D’Rivera’s. In the old days, some were made out of metal and were used in schools, as they had to take a lot of punishment. Some starter clarinets these days are made of a plastic resin. Most clarinets come apart into different sections—mouthpiece, barrel, upper and lower joints, and bell. The barrel in particular can have an effect on pitch, so some clarinetists use two or more interchangeably. DeFranco plays only Albert system, and his sound so distinctive that he need only play a couple of notes to be completely identifiable.
Clarinet playing does not come easily, DeFranco told me. “You have to cover those holes completely or you’ll squeak,” he said. “You have to squeak for a year before you call yourself anything.”
A Camden, New Jersey native, DeFranco moved with his family to South Philadelphia when he was three or four. “I was a buddy of Joe Wilder,” he said proudly (see Wilder's The OctoJAZZarians.) These two dapper and handsome young dudes went to the same music school. “We played together frequently and occasionally on some gigs.” Philly did not easily accept integrated groups at that time, but DeFranco was to learn a valuable lesson. “South Philly was a mix of races and religions,” DeFranco remembered. “Joe taught me the meaning of tolerance and acceptance. Since that time I have played in groups where I was the only white player,” he said. [One of those groups was in 1950-51, a septet led by Count Basie. The group was Clark Terry, Wardell Gray, and Buddy in the front line, and a typical Basie four-man rhythm section. It was the only time Basie did not front a big band. More later.]
“I was living in my grandfather’s house when a man by the name of Willie DeSimone, a celesta player, heard me play and said that he wanted to teach me. He did, for free, for three years. At that point he said that I needed to pay. So he charged me a dollar.”
In a moment of flashback, DeFranco remembered that it was during this time that he played some gigs on tenor sax. “As I said, if you wanted to play in a band you had to double. So I did. But not often, and not for very long.”
That brief period led to DeFranco’s induction into the territory bands of the 1940s. “[These bands] traveled within a hundred-mile radius, playing dances, etc. The only one I remember was led by Roger Kent, which was comprised of older members and teens on weekends or vacations.”
Some of the people DeFranco remembered playing with were Wilder, Red Rodney, Charlie Ventura, and Gerry Mulligan (who, contrary to written information, was from Philadelphia and not New York). Both Ventura and Mulligan were to cross paths with DeFranco as closely as in the next few ‘graphs.
In the early 1940s, DeFranco joined drummer Gene Krupa’s band, and later Johnny “Scat” Davis'. Therein lay an interesting relationship. Krupa was with the Goodman Band when they made the film Hollywood Hotel. Davis was the featured “trumpeter” in that flick. “I’d heard about that, but I wasn’t in it,” DeFranco noted. “Actually, [Davis] played the cornet and sang 'Hooray For Hollywood,' which became a hit. He led a band, which toured the country, not a territory band."
As for Krupa, DeFranco was in the band that featured singer Anita O’Day and trumpeter Roy Eldridge, “immediately after the hits ['After You’ve Gone,' 'Let Me Off Uptown,' 'Drum Boogie,' et al]. We toured the country playing them. I replaced Sam Musiker [whose son Lee would one day become Tony Bennett's musical director]. “[Krupa] was a good leader, and as a result he got what he wanted from the musicians.”
Krupa led a distinctive sounding trio—drums, tenor sax and piano—which featured Ventura and teen pianist Bobby Scott. Krupa’s big band was a forerunner of bebop in that "swing-to-bop" period. He had hired Mulligan—then a teenaged arranger—who scored a few Billboard-charted recordings: 'How High The Moon' and 'Disk Jockey Jump' to name a couple. DeFranco said that they played those charts, “But mostly we played the pre-Mulligan hits. It’s what the audiences wanted to hear. They were still dancing then.”
We’re now in the middle of WWII, which fomented the bands, DeFranco said, allowing them to play in some places for moral purposes. There was a band led by a railroad magnate’s son, tenor saxophonist Charlie Barnet.
“Charlie Barnet didn’t need the money; he led and played because he loved it,” DeFranco said. Buddy missed the Barnet bands in which singers Lena Horne or Billie Holiday were featured. “Mary Ann McCall was the singer when I was there,” DeFranco remembered. McCall went on to greater fame with Woody Herman
Barnet was as outspoken as he was rich—perhaps because he was rich. In her autobiography, Holiday remembered how scared she was when Barnet drove down a southern avenue in an open car with her in the passenger seat. “A white man driving a black girl?” Horne had similar misgivings when she told me of her experiences with the brazen Mr. Barnet. “He could be quite cavalier with your life,” she noted.
DeFranco didn’t see that side of Barnet. “[As with Krupa] we just played his hits, ‘Cherokee,’ ‘Redskin Rumba.’”
DeFranco’s jazz chops never waned, even when he went with a “commercial” band. “Ted Fio Rito’s was a ‘Mickey Mouse’ band,” he said. They played music to dance to—non-explorative, don’t-confuse-the-patrons businessman’s bounce. Fio Rito was big in Hollywood movies, and had a number of hits including the band’s theme, “Rio Rita,” sung by Dick Powell and others. (Powell was a singer prior to tough guy actor. Check out the aforementioned Hollywood Hotel) “Swing was in favor, so Fio Rito courted jazz players and a bought arrangements to help modernize his music, none of whom I can remember,” DeFranco remarked.
One of those great Swing bands was led by the very accomplished cornetist-turned-trombonist, Tommy Dorsey. It was DeFranco’s biggest career uptick to that time, and the music world took notice. He was with Dorsey twice: ’44-5, ’47-8. “It was a combination of happy and stressful,” he reflected. “Tommy was a combination of different characters. He could be very gruff, rough, and generous at the same time. He was good to Buddy Rich, although he fired him every three months. He hired Gene Krupa when Gene got out of jail and nobody would touch him.” [Krupa was imprisoned for marijuana possession. Fodder for the tabloids. The lyrics went something like: “What do you expect? He‘s a jazz musician.” Ditto Rich, by the way.]
“We were well-paid so no one complained.” DeFranco remembers that once when he was very ill in Florida. “Tommy brought his doctor down from New York to take care of me. I never saw a hospital bill. And I got paid for that week. He was that kind of a person, as well as being terrifying.”
DeFranco was not in the band during the Frank Sinatra contract … shall we say, dispute. But that episode could be an example of TD’s intense nature. Others might say it was Dorsey’s business acumen. [See The Godfather.] DeFranco remembered other vocalists in the Dorsey Band: “Group singers the Sentimentalists a/ka the Clark Sisters [who had a hit with 'Sunny Side of the Street']; the Polk Family, which featured [soon-to-be big band soloist] Lucy Ann Polk. Dick Haymes, Sinatra’s successor, was on the band when I joined. Others on the band were reedmen Boomie Richman, Al Klink. Brass were Conrad Gozzo and Ziggy Elman. Dodo Marmarosa or David Raskin were at the piano.” DeFranco remembered other additions. “There were six violins, two violas, two cellos, a harp and a bass. And he added a French horn and tuba as well.” [Other bandleaders also added strings, notably Artie Shaw, who toured with a string quartet. Shaw would later play and compose chamber music.]
DeFranco remembered that the entire string section toured with the Dorsey band. “We needed two busses for the personnel, plus trucks for the equipment. [Dorsey was] making a fortune. We’d play these gigantic ballrooms and stadiums. A [Dorsey] take for one night would be 60% of the house, and we would sell out.
“My experience with that band fulfilled my need, so that I could go out as an individual,” DeFranco remarked. “To my mind he was a great leader and gave me confidence.” Despite those personality flaws? I asked. “You move past it.” He did, twice.
In between Dorsey stints, DeFranco worked for a brief moment with Boyd Rayburn. But it wasn’t until 1950, when he hooked up with that aforementioned Basie septet, that the bebop side of his voice broke through.
“Basie” and “Bebop” do not usually go together, but consider the rest of that front line: Wardell Gray’s tenor sax had a Lester Young influence and influenced beboppers yet to come; Clark Terry’s uniqueness would later add bebop to Ellington. Put them together with Basie’s economical spacing, and you have one of the most improvisational, and unjustly overlooked, small bands of that period. The rhythm section was Jimmy Lewis on bass, Gus Johnson, Jr. on drums, and Basie at the piano. Guitarist Freddie Green would oin later.
“Willard Alexander was managing the Count Basie Band when the [big] bands began to fold,” DeFranco began. “He suggested to Basie that they go to a small group: trumpet, sax, and rhythm section.” That must have sounded like blasphemy back then, as the Count had never had anything less than a large aggregation. Alexander recruited DeFranco. They remained together for over a year. “We got along better than a family. And what a learning experience.” DeFranco almost cavalierly said that race was never a problem within the band, or the music business. “From civilians we got some flack. We got nasty and threatening calls,” he said. “Some [white] guys wanted to beat me up outside a hotel in Chicago. After a while I almost became anti-white because of that.”
Alexander’s theory was that the big band would be back, but he needed to keep the Basie name alive. And back it came, with a roar supplied by singer Joe Williams. DeFranco: “Joe used to sit in when we played Chicago [where Williams lived]. It was at one point that Bill decided that Joe should join the group.”
When the septet broke up to form the “New Testament” Count Basie Orchestra, DeFranco left. “What a mistake,” he said emphatically. “My manager [not Alexander] decided that I should form a big band. Willard cautioned me against that, saying that it was premature, that big bands were not ready for a comeback and that he could get me booked all year with a small group.” While the band failed, DeFranco considers it a success, musically. There remains a CD extant in Scotland with all of the band’s material. Some personnel: Gene Quill, alto; Bernie Glow, trumpet; and Hal Schaefer, piano. DeFranco wrote most of the arrangements.
DeFranco was by this time exclusively a clarinetist. “After I left Dorsey, I sold my tenor so as not to be tempted. I wanted to be known as a clarinet-bandleader.”
A Swing door was closing, but Bebop was coming in through a window. DeFranco: “In my last year with Dorsey, Dodo Marmarosa and I went to hear Charlie Parker. Charlie Shavers suggested we go hear this guy playing crazy jazz up in Harlem. There was Parker playing on a borrowed alto [so what’s new?]. We knew instinctively that this was a new movement. It was only a matter of time till it caught on [with the public]. This was not a fad, but a trend. There was validity there.
“The next group I heard was a trio led by George Shearing playing at a midtown club called the Clique Club, which later became Birdland [the original at Broadway near W. 52nd St.].” Birdland’s booking policy was a triple bill. DeFranco remembered that Sarah Vaughan was the headliner. The third group was the Oscar Pettiford All Stars, which included Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and JJ Johnson. “George asked me to join his group. He even got me a Union Card.” [You had to be in New York for nine months before you could play a club.] “We never recorded, as I got a call from MGM to record and George got a deal with Capitol.” Ironically, Shearing wound up at MGM, as well.
DeFranco’s initiation in leading a bebop group was auspicious: Sonny Clark or Kenny Drew, piano; Milt Hinton or Gene Wright, bass; Art Blakey or Bobby White, drums. “There were others before those, but they were my first real forays into leading bebop groups,” he said. I posited that DeFranco was the first real bebop clarinetist. “Tony Scott was around at the time but he was playing more in the Goodman style,” DeFranco explained. “He wanted to sound more modern but he didn’t know how. Then he went outside and began playing crazy music, I thought. He was successful for a while with it. He did have a fantastic command of the high register at that time.”
During the sixties the clarinet took a back seat to the new/old soprano sax as the primary double. Scott moved to Italy where he became a local hero. Herman continued to lead his ever-younger herds, but played less clarinet and more alto, and sang. Davern and Wilber formed a soprano duet band, but DeFranco soldiered on. “Sink or swing with the clarinet was my motto,” he said more than jokingly. Looking for new avenues he joined forces with accordionist Tommy Gumina. “Tommy was way, way, way ahead of his time. He could play anything on that thing including getting around on some rapid-fire bebop.” Gumina later formed Polytone, the pick-up and music electronics company, which is world-renowned. “Tommy was one of those early polytonal players. He could play like Art Tatum and Bud Powell.”
In the early fifties, DeFranco teamed with arranger Nelson Riddle for some interesting projects. “Nelson and I were roommates in the Dorsey band [Riddle was a trombonist] so we were friends for a while. I was doing clinics—the clarinet in jazz—in colleges and universities, some high schools too, for Leblanc, prior to joining the Yamaha team, where I am now. Nelson was in California writing for Nat Cole and Sinatra. I asked him if he would write something for me to use in my clinics. A friend suggested that what Nelson wrote might make a good album.” The result was the first Buddy DeFranco with Orchestra Cross Country Suite (Dot), eleven compositions dedicated to places in the U.S. This was a stretch for Dot Records which was reveling in very white covers of R & B hits by Pat Boone and Raymond Scott’s wife Dorothy Collins, among others. Collins was a star of Your Hit Parade, a TV staple in the fifties. “The owner had me pose in white buck shoes and a sweater [Boone’s trademark attire]. “The LP itself shifted between categories so finding the right bin in record stores was a problem. Also the promotion was poor. The owner of Dot didn’t understand what it was, even though he had ok'd it. It was a good effort, and it has been recently released on CD by Nelson’s daughter.”
Cross Country Suite was followed by two other orchestral efforts, both backed by Russ Garcia (see Garcia's OctoJAZZarian profile). One was called Broadway Showcases. The other was all Gershwin with Oscar Peterson.
“I worked with Oscar a lot,” DeFranco noted. “Through the efforts of Norman Granz [Oscar’s manager and producer] we did many recordings on Clef and Verve. When Norman Granz decided to make some records, he would call some people out of Jazz at the Philharmonic and ask ‘What are you doing for the next week?’ And we’d go into the studio and record for that length of time.” The resultant records were reworked, reconfigured, and repackaged for years. While he was never in any of Lionel Hampton’s bands, the DeFranco-Hampton groups on Granz’s labels were always swinging affairs. And loose. The repertory company included Buddy Rich, Alvin Stoller, Louie Bellson, and always the members of the Peterson Trio, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown.
One of the standout collections—which Granz held back when he sold his company--were his recordings of Tatum. Art Tatum Group Masterpieces remain manna from heaven. “I played with both Peterson and Tatum, but you couldn’t compare them. It’s like comparing two diamonds. It was a little more difficult to play with Tatum because he was never an accompanist. Whenever you played with him you played his way. Oscar, on the other hand, was a marvelous accompanist as well as a great soloist.” Labor Day weekend 2009 found DeFranco in Chicago, playing some of those very things he did with Tatum.
The longest stint of his mid-career was conducting one of the touring Glenn Miller Orchestras from 1966-74. “I bumped into Willard Alexander at the Hamburger Hamlet in Beverly Hills. It was a bad time for bands; even small groups had trouble getting bookings. He said that I was going to be the next leader of the Glenn Miller Band. Willard spoke to the executor of the Miller Estate [which never stopped owning the rights to the name] and ‘if you’re right you’ll start the day after tomorrow.’ And for a nice taste too.”
Off-and-on for the past few decades DeFranco has teamed up with longtime friend, vibist Terry Gibbs. “We first came together in London [in the late seventies-early eighties] at Ronnie Scott’s,” DeFranco began. “Each of our groups were on a double bill. At the end of the first set Ronnie, an accomplished tenor saxophonist and leader in his own right, asked us if we would like to play a tune together at the end of each set. It turned out so hot that we decided that we ought to get a group together.”
The natural thing, instrumentation-wise, was a re-creation of Goodman groups featuring Lionel Hampton. But the two do so much more. Both still work, together and separately. “Terry is such a good player. Perhaps the most swinging out there.”
In his teens young Buddy sat in Philadelphia’s Earle Theater with his brother through five shows to hear Dorsey clarinetist Johnny Mince. “I decided then and there that jazz clarinet was the way for me to go. Then the storm broke: Goodman [rumbling thunder] and Shaw [flashing lightning] arrived on the scene and I haven’t looked over my shoulder to this day.” Not to worry; no one is gaining on him.
Legacy: Here’s a side that the otherwise modest DeFranco did not show until nearing the end of our lengthy conversation. “I take credit for ‘discovering’ [encouraging?] Eddie Daniels [on clarinet],” he boasted. “It was at the Village Vanguard one Monday night with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Thad was out and Eddie picked up the clarinet and played a couple of solos, which were just terrific. I asked him why he didn’t play clarinet more. He said that Thad didn’t like the clarinet. So he had to sneak and play it when Thad wasn’t there. That’s when I suggested to Eddie that he step out. I knew he was going to be the next great clarinet player. I was right.”
Regrets: Physiological—“I have developed myasthenia gravis, a debilitating eye and nerve disease. I see double. I need special glasses to drive. Most importantly, I can’t read music”—and musical— “Duke Ellington called me to fill Jimmy Hamilton’s chair, who was leaving. But I was into organizing my own band at the time so I didn’t join Ellington’s. I felt badly about that. That’s the only thing I would like to do over.”
Unfinished: “I’ll retire when I get it right.”
October 16, 2009 · 2 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
That appearances are deceiving is evident in the case of Mike Stern, who at 56 resembles a battle-tested rocker of the Spinal Tap variety—he wears his thick black hair shoulder-length, complementing the look with an ‘80s-centric uniform of black pullover, black jeans, and black sneakers—rather than one of the most distinguished jazz guitarists in the world. Indeed, a rock sensibility is a component—but only a component—of Stern’s capacious arsenal, as is evident on Big Neighborhood [HeadsUp], his 14th leader date. Joined by four different rhythm sections and guests who represent a wide range of styles and strategies, Stern not only rocks out (with guitarists Steve Vai and Eric Johnson) but also references the blues, funk, various Afro-diasporic idioms, and hardcore bebop, knitting together the flow with his warm signature sound, as he has done on three similarly diverse recordings since 2001 (Voices, These Times, and Who Let The Cats Out).
Stern is also a hardcore road warrior of long-standing, and he had just concluded a three-week run of one-nighters in Europe when Jazz.com caught up with him at his East Side Manhattan apartment. The 11 a.m. start time came only a few hours after the conclusion of his previous evening’s gig at the 55 Bar, a dim, narrow saloon on the ground floor of a Christopher Street brownstone in Greenwich Village where Stern, surrounding himself with a cast of characters as diverse as New York City, has conducted his R&D since 1985. Stern seemed none the worse for wear for the energies expended during his late night with partners Anthony Jackson and Lionel Cordew, or, for that matter, from the grind of his most recent tour, a 19-day marathon in Europe and North Africa from which he had returned only 36 hours before.
You played last night at the 55 Bar, and are back again tomorrow night. How often have you played there this year?
Not that much this year. But whenever I’m here, I’m playing there. I traveled back from Europe on a Sunday after a long tour, and then we played on Monday. It’s cool just to be able to go there and hit. It’s such a cool place. As we know, everything is changing. People do cool things in settings like that all of a sudden are happening less and less. Pat Metheny told me that when he first started his band, he got a van, and he and Mark Egan and Danny Gottlieb and Lyle Mays just went around playing at coffee shops everywhere. Well, you can’t do that any more. I used to play with Jerry Bergonzi at a lot of small places in Boston that are gone. 1369 Club was one of them. The Willow. So 55 Bar is one of the few places like that still around.
Let’s talk about Big Neighborhood, your new release. The presentation is similar to what you’ve done throughout this decade, since Voices, incorporating the various flavors that you like to use as vehicles for composition and expression. The previous three records had two core rhythm sections and special guests. Here you expand that concept with four rhythm sections. Also here you rock out, which you haven’t done on the preceding records. It’s also the first recording on which you’ve played with another guitarist since Play, with John Scofield and Bill Frisell, which was a very different proposition.
Some special guests were involved on my final record for Atlantic, Voices, and also the following record, These Times. But Voices was more of a concept record, for lack of a better term. I used voices on just about everything except maybe one tune. Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou sang, and it was the first time I’d ever used anybody singing along with any of my melodies. Richard and Elizabeth were on These Times, too, and Kenny Garrett and Victor Wooten came to play as special guests—but it had a similar flavor. I like variety on records. A while ago, I made Standards and Other Songs, which was all standard tunes and three other songs that I wrote—that was a single concept. But variety seems to work for me because I like a lot of different kinds of music.
This record is probably more adventurous than anything I’ve done in terms of bringing in special guests and people outside my normal orbit. I think that guitar, more than other instrument, blurs the boundaries between different niches. But I do consider myself a jazz musician. That’s what I studied. That’s what I listen to all the time—more straight-ahead a lot of times. But as I say, I’m coming from a bunch of different places also.
Now, for this record, I checked out two guitar players that I dug for a long time, and wanted to record with—Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. Steve Vai is a rocker.
He played with Zappa, and all these speed ...
That kind of stuff. But he’s an excellent musician. He’s written a lot of things with strings and he orchestrates—he does things with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, and some other places. He does some classical stuff, too. I’ve always known this about him, and I’ve dug tunes on some of his records. I told Vinnie Colaiuta, a great drummer, who isn’t on Big Neighborhood, but on other records I’ve done, that some-day I’d like to hook up with Steve Vai and do some more rocking stuff, and Vinnie said that would be great, because Steve is amazing.
Anyway, I called Steve, and he was interested in doing it—which was not a slam dunk. But it turns out (I didn’t know this) that he was in Boston at the time I was there, attending Berklee, and he used to check me out playing bebop gigs.
Eric Johnson is more of a blues guy, from Texas, and I’d talked to him over the last eight or nine years about playing on a record, and now finally we got it together.
To get both of these guys on the same record was risky, in some ways. I don’t know them. We don’t play all the time ... well, we don’t ever play. So I was wondering if it was going to work, but I told myself to go for it. I thought it worked great. They’re strong personalities, and I thought about the tunes that would fit them, knowing their styles, and that would fit me as well. One thing that glues the record together, for better or for worse, is that I played on everything and wrote all the tunes. But because I don’t play regularly with these guys, a bit of chance was involved.
Also, because of scheduling reasons, they couldn’t come to New York, so I had to go to them. I went to Austin to record with Eric—I took Lionel Cordew, a great drummer from New York, who I play with a lot, and Lincoln Goines, a bassist I play with a lot, and Jim Beard, who produced this record and played keyboards. We were able to rehearse the tunes here, and then we went there and Eric played along. We played live. For this kind of music, it has to be live, so you get the live vibe. I can’t send files or whatever. I don’t have a computer. I mean, I could work that out somehow, but I don’t want to. We had one day for each guy, and two tunes apiece. So we were live in the studio in Texas with Eric, and then right afterwards we went to L.A. to do the tunes with Steve. The session with Steve Vai was with Dave Weckl, who is already in L.A. and plays with me a lot.
The rest of it was in New York. The first time was with Esperanza Spaulding, whom I’d heard about even before her first records—that she was a great singer and a great bass player. For a lot of these decisions, I went with instinct. I had these tunes that I thought would be great for Esperanza, and I decided, 'If I see her, I’m going to ask her to do this.' I saw her at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, where she was playing with Terri Lyne Carrington, who was supposed to be on my last record, Who Let The Cats Out, which had Roy Hargrove, M’Shell Ndegeocello, Gregoire Maret ... This date is more adventurous than that one, though.
You tour so much. For your last one, I think I counted 17 concerts in 19 days in seven countries, mostly Europe.
Something like that.
For you, that’s probably a light tour.
In the summer, it’s a challenge, because you’ve got to run around to get to the gigs.
It’s a challenge that you seem to welcome.
It’s ok. The travel’s kind of a drag, but the music’s fun as hell. That’s the main thing. You really get paid to travel. The music’s no problem! We’re all relieved when we get to the gig, and we’ve done the sound check and it’s time to hit.
The month before, you were in Mexico.
It was a kind of busy time. I was supposed to be in Mexico earlier, and then they had the swine flu. So I went a little later.
Next month, you’re touring the States with the Yellowjackets.
I did a special project with them. Those guys are amazing. Bob Mintzer—forget it! He’s writing his ass off. On the bus, he’s writing these classical things.
You seem to make a real distinction between recordings and playing live.
I had some opportunity to play with Joe Henderson right around the time he did Musings For Miles with John Scofield, and Sco couldn’t make some of the live hits. I played with Dave Holland and Al Foster. It was a treat to play with Joe, and we got along really well. He actually came over here. I told Joe’s manager, 'I’m not going to play with him just cold, without any rehearsal. I don’t want to read on stage. I want to learn the tunes.' She said, 'Ok, we’ll hook it up.' I called Al Foster. I said, 'I’m feeling a little bit better about these gigs coming, because Joe’s going to come over here and rehearse.' Al said, 'Are you crazy? You’ll be lucky if he shows up to the gig!' But Joe came over. I had a little amp out, and we played for five hours. I had a little amp out here. He was looking through my CD collection, and he saw all this stuff—some of his own records, some Trane, some Sonny, some this-and-that. He picked up this Stevie Ray Vaughan record, and I asked, 'What do you think about Stevie Ray Vaughan.' He said, 'Stevie Ray was a motherfucker at what he did.' It was funny to hear him say it, because Joe was always well-spoken. He was wide-open to all kinds of stuff. But during the week that we were playing at the Blue Note, we were talking about recording in the studio and playing live, and he said, 'In the studio and playing live are two different things.' Joe used to play long live. He’d stretch forever on one tune—and it was killing.
So I think you have to realize that they are two different things—though of course, there are similarities. I always try to get a live vibe in the studio. But often you’re separated in different rooms, so they can mix later, which is a cool thing to go for. So you try to compromise, and get a live vibe. I don’t like sending a part and then overdubbing. Again, for my music, it won’t work. It’s got to be live. But having said that, it’s different than the live version of the same tunes. Which I did on this DVD. It’s a live version of a lot of tunes on the last few records I did, and they’re longer and we stretch out more.
For a live situation, it’s very important to have trust in your producer, and Jim Beard seems to be your producer of choice.
On a lot of records he is. Gil Goldstein did the Standards record and the Give and Take record. I’ve known Jim for years. He’s an awesome musician; he helps so much. I bring the tune to him at his loft space which he shares a loft space with a great guitar player, John Harrington, with whom he’s playing in Steely Dan right now—Jim was musical director for Madeleine Peyroux, and now he’s doing Steely Dan. Anyway, I go in with the tune, and we demo it. He has a great concept for, 'Is this what you’re hearing for the drums?' He uses a little drum machine thing, and does the rhythm on the keyboard—he doesn’t just use a loop. In this case, we were hurried for time, so we actually had to make just loops. Usually, it’s much better conceptualized, but we figured that everyone would figure it out, and thank God they did. We had a little bit of rehearsal.
In the future, I’m going to want to go back to taking a little bit more time with the demos. At one point with Steve Vai, when we did 'Moroccan Roll,' they weren’t getting it. We’d sent them out just this melody over a loop of the drums. We were late to get to the rehearsal, since the flights were always late, so we had a half-hour. Steve had learned the melody, which was tricky—he learned everything and he played the shit out of it. But it was done more as a funky kind of thing, and I wanted it to be more Middle Eastern sounding. So I said, 'Have you ever heard of Nusrat Fatih Ali Khan?' Steve said, 'I almost played with him; right before he died, I was going to play with him.' He told me he had a sitar-guitar (I didn’t even know what that was; since then, I’ve tried one—they’re very cool), and that he’d put it on later as an overdub in addition to what he played live,' which was the bulk of it. Eventually, we got the vibe of that tune. Had we had more time to demo that stuff, it would have been clearer, but we got it anyway.
Anyway, Jim helps with all that stuff. Makes really good demos to send everybody. No matter who it is, even if it’s just one group, if you don’t have enough time to rehearse (which a lot of people don’t, they’re busy and so on), you want to try to give them a sense of everything, and THEN rehearse. Give them as much as you can. I like to do the same thing when I’m doing a record with somebody else, have them send me the music so I can learn it and try to get my stuff together as much as possible. Then you rehearse, then they tweak it from there.
Is there an overriding thread in this record? You say that in putting these records together, a lot of your choices are impulsive and you follow your instincts. Now, I don’t know much you listen to your recordings after the fact, but you can reflect on them. This is the fourth recording where you’re presenting a similar mix of material.
Well, the last few records ... you said the last four. I think it’s probably more the last three—These Times, then Who Let the Cats Out ...
Not Voices so much.
Not Voices so much. It’s really more of a concept for me.
My thinking is that in the 2000s you’ve more explicitly incorporated world influences into your music.
Yes, that’s true, and that seems like it’s going to stay. My wife, Leni, does records with more of a line, one thing through all of it. She just did something called Africa, which has all these African musicians. She’s playing some with Salif Keita now, and Baaba Mal. She goes over there and does that, and rides camels to gigs. She is very adventurous that way, and I’m hearing what she brings home, and it’s gotten in me. Then also part of it is just knowing Richard Bona. I met him in the ‘90s, when I was playing at a festival in Europe with the late, great tenor player with Bob Berg in a band we had then. Richard was playing with Joe Zawinul at the time. I had heard about him, and we had the day free, so I grabbed him and said, 'Let's play a little in my hotel room,' where I had a little amplifier. We were playing some standards, and started singing a couple of my tunes that he knew. He told me he’d bought a couple of my CDs and knew my stuff, and he was playing and singing a couple of ballads. That made me think I had to do something with either him or somebody else singing a couple of these tunes. When it was time to do my last CD for Atlantic, called Voices, I asked him if he thought it would be all right, and he was very encouraging. After he heard a couple of the tunes, he said, 'I'll sing them.' So I kind of leapt into this new thing with voices. With his voice, it had a 'world' flavor anyway. That feeling is on Voices, on These Times, on Who Let The Cats Out, and on Big Neighborhood as well.
On These Times I started wanting to use different guests, and I developed that idea more on Who Let The Cats Out, which was my first record for Heads-Up, and Big Neighborhood. I’ve done a bunch of records now, and I want to reach out to people that I may not—or may—get a chance to play with whose playing I really dig, like Roy Hargrove or M’Shell Ndegeocello, who are on Who Let The Cats Out. Roy and M’Shell both sat in once at a gig at 55 Bar, while I’d already played with people like Victor Wooten and Dennis Chambers. Big Neighborhood even has guys who aren’t 'in the jazz orbit,' like Eric Johnson and Steve Vai.
I’ve wanted to hook up with Medeski, Martin & Wood for ages. During the ‘90s I played a lot with Ben Perowsky, who’s a great drummer. Ben introduced me to Billy Martin. Billy told me he’d checked my stuff out when he was in Boston, so he’d known me for a while. I’d forgotten that Bob Moses, who I played with on gigs a long time ago, also had told me about Billy—Billy reminded me that Bob was his good friend. So anyway, I’ve wanted to do something with them, and I had these tunes, and again acted on my instincts.
Did the tunes come first, or the personnel?
Both. Sometimes I wrote the tune with somebody in mind, or I tweaked a tune (or the beginning of a tune) that I already had, or something was already written and I thought this would be perfect for this person.
Do you feel you have a particular harmonic language? Are there things that are recognizably Mike Stern about your compositions?
I think so. I haven’t thought about it so much. Some things I’m not sure if I write first with the bassline or if I write with some chords. I usually write on just the guitar. Some things I actually sing the melody and write it down; I’m singing the melody and playing the chords—a singer-songwriter vibe almost. When I write it down, I think, 'The saxophone can play this part.' Esperanza sings on Big Neighborhood—I thought, 'Well, she can sing this piece, so I’d better check it out with her range and ask her.' I had a chance to do that when I ran into her in the airport, coming back from the Red Sea Festival, and I said, 'Here’s the tune I want you to sing; can you sing this?' I played her a little bit. She said, 'Perfect,' and started singing it. It was a cool, natural way to check it out. But that lyrical or more singable focus is one way I write a tune. Other tunes are coming more from bebop, are really meant to be played. Maybe I’ll put them over a funk bassline, say, but the melody is more intricate. On this record, 'Coupe de Ville' has a funky vibe but is really a bebop tune, based on a standard, in this case.
Harmonically, it’s hard to say. Different tunes go different places. I’ve written a bunch of tunes, and I’m fortunate to come up with whatever the hell I can come up with. I don’t take anything for granted.
Most of the repertoire on these recordings are originals by you. It’s as if you have separate files of activities, different influences...
Different influences. I really feel more strongly... Two great examples of this are Bill Frisell and Sco—we kind of came up together in Boston. I’ve known Bill for years—I met my wife through him. I’ve also known Sco for years. We played with Miles together. The guitar really lends itself to checking out a bunch of different kinds of music, especially after the ‘60s. There was an explosion of guitar everywhere. More than you’d want to hear! But there’s a lot of it in rock music. There’s a lot in pop music, in country music, and, of course, in jazz. There’s a lot in classical. There’s tons of Bach originally written for lute that’s transcribed for guitar. There’s a ton of stuff. At the very least, you can relate to it in a certain way, even if it’s not your favorite kind of music. Bill’s got a lot of country stuff in his playing. He’s great at playing standards; he’s listened to a lot of that. He listens to some rock, as you can hear when he turns on the distortion. Sco, of course, has a lot of funk in his playing, he plays the shit out of standards, you hear country licks—he can do a whole bunch of things.
That’s the nature of the instrument. It blurs boundaries. So when I’m writing, to a certain point, some of it is just from being eclectic in that way. I consider myself, as I said, 'a jazz musician.' It’s my favorite kind of music, and most of the stuff I actually practice and listen to is 'traditional jazz.' A lot of times it’s not guitarists. I check out and listen to horn players the most. I just dig it.
All the Sonnys! Actually I’ve been playing with Sonny Fortune with the Four Generations of Miles. George Coleman isn’t feeling like playing so much lately, so Sonny Fortune is doing it, who’s got tons of energy, tons of soul, and playing his ass off. He’s an older guy, too. And Jimmy Cobb comes on like a kid! He’s got his drums all set up and he’s always ready to play.
Do you see yourself as the same person in all of these situations? Are you in the same mind space when you’re rocking out with these guitarists on Big Neighborhood as in Four Generations of Miles?
Yeah, kind of. You can hear it. It’s just the way I play. Eventually, it coalesces into a style. Certainly, there’s a little bit of bebop lines even in the first tune, 'Big Neighborhood,' which is kind of a Jimi Hendrix thing. I hear some of the bebop stuff that I play. I can’t just say, 'Ok, now let me play Rock.' It doesn’t fit into a nice little box like that, which I think is a good thing. It’s just what I do. It’s my style. Anybody else has a better vantage point than me, because I can’t judge my own playing. I just know I put my heart and soul into doing a record or a live gig, and do the best I can every time. But most people tell me that they can hear my voice—whether I’m playing more straight-ahead with Four Generations of Miles, or a bebop tune on this record, or playing the first tune, which is more rocked-out, they can hear the similarities.
Let’s talk guitar stuff. Is the sound from the guitar or from the fingers?
I think eventually it’s from what you hear in your head. It kind of settles to that. You pick the guitar you want, and you may make a compromise. Sometimes those fat archtop guitars are unbelievably great. But if you turn them up too loud, they sound a little twangy or sometimes don’t have the same kind of singing quality, or they feed back. So it’s a little difficult if you want to rock a little—you have to use two guitars. I usually just settle on one and say, 'that’s enough; let me just cut to the chase.' I’m after a singing kind of sound, a fatter sound than most solid-body guitars—I use a solid-body guitar. I used to use an old Fender Telecaster that used to belong to Roy Buchanan. Actually, I bought it from Danny Gatton, who was a friend of his. Danny said, 'I’ve got to buy a used car, so give me $500.' It was a beauty, a priceless guitar. Anyway, it was stolen from me years later, but a guy in Boston had seen me play with that guitar, and built me a guitar like it. Then Yamaha wanted to endorse me and make a Mike Stern model, so they copied that one and added their own flavor to it. So I use a Tele-style guitar, a really cool-sounding guitar. I use with two amplifiers, a little bit of chorus, and a little bit of delay for more air.
In terms of my approach, I pick really light. I pick every string, every note, but I try to pick so it’s not like typing. It’s more conversational, where you swallow some syllables and other syllables come out more. I’m trying to get that happening, and also more of a singing quality, sometimes bending strings more. That’s always what I’ve heard in my mind. And more of a horn-like approach. I’m transcribing horn players all the time, trying to get that on the guitar. So the way I set it up with the equipment is one aspect of it, and probably most of it is I hear in my brain—then I try to play like that.
When I wrote about you for Downbeat a few years ago. John Scofield said something that I thought was fascinating. He said: 'One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing. Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.'
I think John is exaggerating. When I first met John in a little rehearsal studio with a guy he was friends with named Ronnie Bishop. I saw Sco recently, and we tried to track what happened to Ronnie Bishop, but we don’t know. Ronnie was a badass vibes player. Anyway, John was playing more bebop back then, and he was smokin’! I said, 'Man, you sound great; what’s your name?' He said, 'Aw, I’m not playing good. I suck. My name is John Scofield.' He was like that for years, and always playing his ass off. This is when I first went to Berklee, when I was playing more blues and rock. Berklee. I’d go to check him out, and then I guess after a few years had passed from when he first actually heard me play, I might have had that horn-like approach a little bit more together. The thing is, I just kind of settled on my approach. You do what you do naturally, and say, 'This is what it feels like.' I tried the other approaches that John mentioned—sometimes I do a little bit of that. But picking every note just seemed natural, and I could get that horn-like approach I was looking for—or close enough to it.
People also cite your practice habits, which are prodigious. Frisell said that he met you after you got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, maybe around ‘78, and the two of you would practice at your apartment for hours.
All the time, we’d play.
The way Bill put it: 'Mike was and still is thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.' What were you doing in the ‘70s?
I was studying with Charlie Banacos, a very famous teacher and an incredible player, who I still study with. Nothing surprises him. Ages ago, he was a real prodigy. He told me that when he was 12 years old, playing piano somewhere, Erroll Garner walked by, and said, 'That’s me in there playing!' Charlie checked out all these great musicians—of course, lots of piano players, lots of different musicians. He teaches for all instruments, but not THE instrument. He teaches ear training, harmony, different methods of getting certain bags together that he’s figured out a way to teach—always incorporating a lot of ear training and transcribing so it becomes real. He’ll give you a cold concept to practice, and then say, 'Ok, transcribe this for this lesson,' and then it makes more sense. Charlie has always been a big push for me. I’m still studying with him, though I don’t do but three lessons a week. I don’t do but three lessons a week. My practice habits have gone away! I’m getting lazy!
But I still practice every day and play every day—I mean, every day. I love it. Usually it’s easy, but sometimes it’s hard, like pulling teeth. You’re trying to get some new stuff together, and you’ve got to write out things in different keys, and so on. But at the gig, it gives you a freshness. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything new is coming out, but three years later you’ll listen to a take and say, 'Shit, what was I working on back then? That’s different than what’s happening now.' You hear it. So I’m always trying to push whatever my potential is.
So the practice has been consistent over 35-40 years.
Yes. For me, it had to be, because I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as they say. It took me a while to get some of this stuff together. Then all of a sudden, it kind of clicked. The first time I had a lesson with Pat Metheny, he was 18 and teaching at Berklee. He’d already been teaching some at the University of Miami. It just happened quick for Pat, and he got to a really high level, kind of fast.
You went to Berklee in 1971?
Yeah, I went there in ‘71, then I took a year off and played in a rock-and-roll band and blues bands in D.C., then I came back. So I studied a total of about two years with Pat, kind of off-and-on. He liked my playing. He said, 'there’s something there ...' One thing that I did have, he felt, was a really strong time feel. Miles said the same thing. He used to call me 'Fat Time.' That was my nickname until I lost weight, and then he used to call me 'Time.' [DOES MILES’ VOICE] 'No more Fat Time, huh? Ok. Time!'
So that was one thing that I think I had, but the rest of it really came slow. It was really hard. Students ask me all the time, like, 'How do I get my jazz stuff together? It’s really hard.' I say, 'Well, no shit! This is what I did.' Usually it’s a lot of transcribing, or get a teacher and learn where the notes are on the guitar. I mean, I was starting from scratch. Before I got into jazz, I was listening to rock and blues, and playing along with those records. My mom played a lot of jazz records around the house ...
Have I read that she was a music teacher?
No, a musician, not professional, but plays a lot of classical music around the house, on records, and on piano—she used to play a lot of Bach. She’d play a little jazz on the piano. But not much. More just records. I took some of those records to my room to try to play along with, like the rock records and the blues. I got totally lost. I dug the music, and I thought it would be a good way to at least expand, as I felt I was in a rut with my rock and blues playing. Then one thing led to another, I went to Berklee, and I started really falling in love with jazz. I said to myself, 'No matter how long this takes and no matter what comes of it, I’m going to try to learn how to get fluent with this language, to a point where at least I can play with some emotion.' At first, like any other language, you have to start slow. You can barely order breakfast, or whatever. You’re scuffling with the words and the concepts, the verb conjugations—all the logistics of a language. The same with jazz for me. It took forever, and it was kind of embarrassing to play with other people. I’d push myself to do it, even though I was shy about it, and hitting wrong notes left and right. Pat Metheny was very supportive. I played a couple of things with him, hit wrong notes left and right, but apparently they were in a groove, so he said, 'You’ve really got some stuff going on.'
Because of the time.
Because of the time and the touch, I think. And I guess maybe I was hitting more right notes than it felt like. So I just kept going, and then it got better. I had to put in a lot of practice to do it.
We’re going to regurgitate some well-documented history here. But it was Metheny who gave you the recommendation for Blood, Sweat & Tears, which was your first major gig.
Exactly. Bobby Colomby told Pat they were going to audition some guitar players, and Pat told me I should go and try out. I figured it would show me what it’s like to audition for a gig, but I was sure I wouldn’t get it. Somehow I got the gig, which surprised the hell out of me. Some really terrific players from New York were trying for that gig, and they seemed more advanced than me. I guess the fact that I could rock a little was what they were also looking for. Anyway, I got the gig. They liked me and they were helping me along. At first, I was scared to play with a band, like, all of a sudden, in front of a whole bunch of people.
That was a great band.
It was a really great band. At that point, Larry Willis was playing keyboards, Bobby Colomby was still playing drums, Lew Soloff (he sits in with me a lot at the 55 Bar), and at one point Don Alias, who played percussion for a while, took Bobby’s place on drums. Jaco was in the band, too. I’d met him before, but that’s where I got tight with Jaco.
Before we proceed, I’d like to discuss the milieu at Berklee in the ‘70s. You’ve mentioned yourself, Scofield, and Pat Metheny, and all of you seem to have been checking out Mick Goodrick at the time. Can we ascertain any overriding continuities or connections amongst these guitarists?
Mick was a big factor for everybody. He’s an amazing writer and guitarist. He was playing with Gary Burton at the time, then Pat Metheny moved to Boston from Miami to teach at Berklee, mainly to play with Gary Burton. At one point, the two of them were playing together with Bob Moses and Steve Swallow. It was an incredible band, especially live. Pat was playing electric 12-string guitar then. A very cool sound, an amazing band. Of course, Pat inspired a lot of people, but we had a big connection with Mick as a kind of guru for everybody. He was and continues to be an incredible improviser, making huge strides on the instrument. I heard him by accident a couple of years ago when I was in Chile. They were broadcasting a jazz festival late night on TV, and I heard this guitar player playing solo. 'What the fuck?' It was on a nylon-string guitar. It sounds like he’s improvising; it sounds like Bach improvised. I turned around, and it was Mick. They had a closeup of him playing with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra. Charlie was just smiling, Mick was soloing, then the band came in. It was unbelievable.
Then also, I think we were in a generation where people were including a rock sound in their jazz guitar playing. So if you wanted to sound like a horn player, there were ways to do that a little bit more. More legato kind of phrasing. Hendrix and B.B. King and a lot of the other rockers and blues guys also sing, so they tended to make the guitar sound more vocal, and introduced into jazz guitar a more legato kind of sound, with more bending of strings. Mick Goodrick was one of the first guys that I remember having that in Boston, for instance.
You’ve mentioned in a number of interviews that when you got into Blood, Sweat & Tears, you were interested in trying to play like Jim Hall, an abstract, very harmonic approach, and you were told that this was lovely but not exactly apropos for the context.
Exactly. Not for that context. I was told by Jaco Pastorius. I was totally into Jim, and still am. He’s so melodic! Sometimes I think (and Mick used to say this) that people’s voices on the instrument are defined as much by what you can’t do as what you can do. Jim told me that when he first came to New York City, two of the first guys he heard playing in clubs were George Benson and Pat Martino, so he wanted to turn around and go home! He said, 'the hell with it.' He said he had to find something new and do it his way. Because he doesn’t have a lot of chops, he builds excitement and, of course, beauty, and he creates tension by his choice of notes and the melodies he makes.
But Blood, Sweat & Tears was a big band vibe, and we were playing 'Spain,' a really fast Latin groove, Bobby Colomby was playing loud, everybody was very aggressive, playing burning solos. Now, I didn’t have a lot of technique or chops. I was still in the mode of doing something which I would recommend to everybody learning any kind of music, which is to start off slow at first, because otherwise you let your fingers run and you don’t hear what you’re playing. My solo started off melodic, and the energy just kept going down-down-down. I couldn’t get it happening. The more I tried, the worse it got. After the gig, in the dressing room, I was bummed out. Larry Willis and all the horn players were letting me be. 'The kid will get it together, he’s young, he’s learning.' They were giving me some space. Jaco comes up to me, and in his inimitable, subtle fashion, he says, 'Hey, Stern, man, you know that solo you played on ‘Spain’ just now, man? That shit wasn’t happening at ALL, man!' We were really close. He said, 'Look, you’ve got to get your chops together. You’ve got to hit up against the time.' That’s the way he always put it. He said: 'You’re ready to do that. I really appreciate who you listen to and that you want to hear what you’re playing first, but you’re ready to push it. So start practicing faster tempos, and start going home and doing whatever you do to practice that.'
So I started taking 'Donna Lee' or 'Cherokee' or some of these faster tunes, and pushing the metronome up a bit every time I played the head. Mick Goodrick had also told me this before, that sometimes when you practice something a little bit faster than you can play, then, when you slow it down, you feel you have all the time in the world to think about what you’re going to play next. It’s as much of a thinking thing as it is physical. Some guys are playing fast, but they’re not really hearing the phrasing that fast. You have to get your brain in shape, and I was ready to do it at that point. Chops can really in certain contexts; they’re right for a certain vibe and a certain kind of tune.
Now, Jim Hall, on 'The Bridge,' which is a very fast tune, just plays snippets. He doesn’t burn down a bunch of 8th notes. The rhythm section plays softer behind him. I’m sure he talked to them, or they just got it. They’re very sensitive players, and it was a group, and they’d played together for a while, so they got the idea that you should play a little softer here and a bit more lyrically, and we’ll play the time and he’ll play little snippets of the melody. He figured out a way of doing it. So there’s ways of playing fast without a lot of chops. But hitting right up against the time, as Jaco put it, was something that I wanted to do, because I’d heard a lot of Trane and Sonny Rollins—and of course, Jaco. I went for that, and worked it out a little bit.
So you knew Jaco Pastorius by the time you joined Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Yes, I knew him. I met him a long time ago in Florida. I was living in Washington, D.C. then, and I went down there with some friends to hang out for a few days, and I happened into this little club. There was a rock band playing, we were having some drinks ... I was drinking quite a bit in those days, and have since let all that stuff go, out of necessity. At the break, Jaco gets up (I didn’t know who he was) with this trio. People were talking, yapping away, but he was burning. He was looking right at the audience, smiling, and no one was listening—they wanted to hear a rock band and dance and whatever. It was killing. I went up to him, and I said, 'My name’s Mike, and I’m going to be going to Berklee next year.' He said, 'Yeah, that’s a music school in Boston, right? Yeah, man, I heard of it.' Anyway, about three years later, I heard him with Pat. I went up to him and said, 'Did I ever meet you before?' He said, 'Yeah, your name’s Mike, man. I remember you, man. The Flying Machine inm...' He had a photographic memory. He remembered the whole thing. He was burning both times I heard him. Then we played with Blood, Sweat & Tears together for a couple of years after that. He had just done his first record, Jaco Pastorius, with Bobby Colomby. Ron McClure had just left the band, they were looking for somebody to transition with another bass player, and since Bobby had just recorded with him, he asked Jaco to do the band for a little while, and Jaco said, 'Yeah, I’ll do it for three months.' 'Spinning Wheel' never sounded so good.
Talk about playing with Billy Cobham. His band was very big at the time, probably a different feel than Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Yeah, that was more open. More instrumental. Blood, Sweat & Tears still had David Clayton Thomas. We were playing all the hits and all that stuff. The band wasn’t as famous as it had been, but it was still a big crowd. Billy played at some big jazz festivals, and some clubs, too. But he was very well-known, as he still is, the two bass drums and all that. People don’t realize that Billy can swing his ass off, but we were playing more jazz-rock stuff. I’d been at Berklee, playing mainly bebop gigs with Jerry Bergonzi and some more electric stuff with Tiger Okoshi, the great trumpet player. Then Billy called, and I did that gig for a while, with Gil Goldstein, Tim Landers on bass, Michael Urbaniak on violin ...
You mentioned the palpable growth that occurred during your time with BST. How did Cobham affect your development?
Just playing off of the drums more, in that context. I’d already been doing that, but the way he got up behind me, when I would push on the distortion and kind of rock a little... He has a way (he’s amazing at it) of going with the solo, with whomever is playing the solo, to be very supportive and just behind you, and build with you and all that kind of stuff, especially when we were on the road, playing on a regular basis. Billy continues to be great at that. Because he’s got so much stuff, it’s hard to pin him down. He does more things than a lot of people. Basically, I try to do my band, and then if I do something else, it’s the Yellowjackets. Well, Billy’s doing the Grateful Dead and different projects all over the place, all the time. I learned a lot with him. We did a couple of my tunes. I was practicing all the time, learning a lot. From Gil Goldstein, too—we were playing together all the time. I’d just grab people and want to play all the time, even on our days off.
We were playing in New York at the Bottom Line, and Bill Evans, the saxophonist, who I’d played with in Boston at a place called Michael's, called me at the break and said, 'Guess who I'm going to bring down. Play your ass off!' He brought Miles, and I guess Miles dug the gig. We were playing a tune, and all of a sudden the drums were gone. Miles had called Billy off the bandstand, and he said, 'Tell your guitar player to be at Studio B on Tuesday.' He wanted me to play over a tune they'd already recorded. I said, 'Miles, this doesn't need nothin', it sounds great.' But I tried. He wanted me to do almost like a Bitches Brew thing, but they were at the same time playing ... A week later we did a tune live that had a long guitar solo, which he hadn’t titled, but he liked the guitar solo so much, he called it after my nickname, 'Fat Time.' As we were leaving the session, Miles said, 'That was a motherfucker; we’re gonna go on the road.' I said, 'Great. Who’s playing keyboards?' He said, 'No keyboard. Just you.' Just guitar. So I thought, here I’m playing with Miles and there’s no keys, and I’ll be so exposed—I’m scared to death. That’s what he wanted. He wanted a real lean sound, which is a cool sound. I was into it anyway. I used to play a lot with Jerry Bergonzi for the same reason. Sometimes piano is a richer instrument, and sometimes keyboard players don’t leave as much space; they tend to play a lot, because it’s right there in front of them, and they can reach for a lot. It’s incredible, and why not? But there are times when you just want to hear two-note voicings, or nothing—just lay out. Of course, anybody can do that. I do that a lot. I just like to hear bass, drums, and the soloist, a lot of times.
Anyway, I did this with Miles. That was '80, and I played with him off-and-on for about three years. Then I needed to take a break, because I was getting kind of crazy personally, kind of imbibing a little bit too much. I was doing everything. Drinking too much, doing everything. I was missing flights to get to gigs. Finally, Miles had had it. He said, 'Call John Scofield.' I was surprised John didn’t get the gig in the first place, because it was in New York, but apparently Miles had heard John on a gig that was not the best for Miles to hear him on. Sco was probably playing his ass off, but in the context of the music, he couldn’t tell whether that would work. Barry Finnerty, who was great, was originally doing the gig, but it just didn’t work personally between them.
You left Miles for a yearn ...
Yes, I went with Jaco! Jaco was actually taking care of me. That will give you an idea of how bad I was at that point. And Miles had tried to put me in a rehab before that, and I wasn’t ready. If Miles wants to put you in a rehab, you know you’ve got something wrong. He was really scared. Gil Evans also, who smoked pot 'til the day he died, but it wasn’t much compared to what the hell I was taking. They used to come down and say, 'Look, it’s not funny any more. You’re going to die.' At that point, I thought, 'well, that’s the way it’s meant to be; there’s no way I can stop this shit.' I’d been to some therapy, I’d already been hospitalized, all that stuff, and nothing seemed to work.
It’s striking that you were able to practice so much in the midst of that.
I was still able to do that. That was like my life raft. That’s the thing that saved me. Music and positive things are stronger than negative things, in a lot of ways. For instance, Leni and I were like Sid and Nancy Vicious. She was in it, too. We were living above this place called 55 Grand Street ...
Then popularly known as '55 Gram.'
As we used to call it. It was a crazy time. She had to go to rehab first. At one point, she was feeling DT’s, she was feeling bugs all over her—all that stuff. So at one point, me and Jaco and her went to this shrink who I’d seen a few times before, but never was able to keep an appointment with him, and I hadn’t seen him for a while. Jaco said, 'Man, we got to help her out!' Finally, I made an emergency appointment, and we actually made it up there only 20 minutes late or something. I was drunk as hell. Jaco was doing all the talking. Jaco was the only person who could put two sentences together at that point, believe it or not. He said, 'He’s ok, but we’ve got to do something about her.' Leni went into this rehab, and as soon as she went in, I said, 'I’m going to have to cool out.' So two weeks later, I went into the same one. She was already on her way out. They kept me for a while, because I had been going crazy for so many years. I started when I was 14, the first time I ever shot dope, and I got strung out like a clothesline. At Berklee, I was doing opiates and drinking on top of it; I’d pretend I wasn't doing heroin, so I was okay, but meanwhile ...
When I came out. Mike Brecker was incredibly supportive. He’d already taken me to my first AA meeting like a year before, but it never really clicked til a year later. Then he started calling me all the time in the rehab, I called him every day. My sponsor was Jerry Wortman, who is now the road manager for Bob Dylan, who originally was road-managing for Mike, then Pat Metheny. AA was the only thing that worked for me.
Since then, musically, things have gotten so much more ... You expand. You let your heart go where it wants. Not that I couldn’t play back when I was getting high, but it would definitely put this strangehold on things.
That’s a beautiful phrase, 'Your heart can go where it wants.'
It really does. Also, there’s more subtlety. You can color emotions differently through your music in a more subtle way—or in a stronger, more straight-ahead way. But you feel it differently, more connected to it. It made a big difference in my whole life for me to get sober. Leni and I have a real strong love that carried through, which a lot of times doesn’t happen when you get sober—you break up. We had something really strong, and it was very much the same with the music for me. So I was very lucky to have two very positive things in my life that carried me through.
Let's talk about the dynamics of playing with Miles. You’ve mentioned that he would always change up the arrangement.
For example, on 'Fat Time,' he didn't really rehearse it. We didn't know what the melody was. Marcus Miller would get an idea of what it was, and then jump in, make up a bassline, and lead the way. Miles had kind of a vibe, but I think he played the melody on the spot almost. At one point he went to the piano and said, 'Play a Spanish thing for the bridge,' or something like that, and he played something over A, and then, 'Spanish,' and B-flat. I thought it was a harmonic minor kind of sound, kind of over A7, but I wasn't sure I was going to fit, and how are we going to get back to C-minor? We played it through twice, recording both times. At first he said something to me, try to do this or that, and then I felt unsure, and he said, 'Just play it your way!' Then he let go and said, 'Play.' Then Bill Evans came up to me and just said, 'Play with a lot of energy; he wants a lot of energy.'
Did playing with Miles test all your musical resources at that time?
Yeah, I would say so. Because also, how to comp behind him was ... I really had to listen. He used to like it when I'd lay a chord underneath one of his notes. So I needed to know what pitch he was playing, and I really had to listen a lot.
Were his chops pretty consistent during that time?
For a while they were. Then he got pneumonia. He actually suffered a minor stroke during the first time I was with him, so he had to cancel some gigs. When we recorded We Want Miles, on some of that he had pneumonia, and his chops were kind of down—but it was still Miles.
Anyway, back to his liking you to comp.
Well, I really had to be on my toes. You always had to be with him anyway, because sometimes we'd get used to an arrangement, and he would kind of change it on us at the last minute. The first band was very open. It's like he was searching at the same time. No one really knew what he wanted to do!
The second time with Miles was a lot different than the first time. He had two keyboard players, and he was more on his way to doing the more arranged stuff with Marcus, like Tutu and 'Time After Time,' that direction of doing pop tunes of the day ...
He was recreating himself musically at that time.
Yes. And he got Marcus and Al Foster, which in itself was totally unique. Marcus was coming from more of a funk kind of place, but definitely had a great jazz sensibility on the electric bass, and could walk—you could tell he was into that music. And Al could rock if he needed to. I've got some live tapes—I heard them recently, and I couldn't believe it. I didn't know who the drummer was at first. It just starts off with somebody playing this rock groove on the drums, Al with probably an 18-inch bass drum, a small kit, and he sounds like, you know, Led Zeppelin—really beautiful. Just the way he played the time, no matter what he played, it was swinging. Rock, whatever, it was swinging. But what an interesting rhythm section. I didn't get it right away, to tell you the truth. I thought, 'Shouldn't we have a little bit more arrangements, shouldn't we ...? Well, it's Miles, so I've got to go along with it; he's the bandleader, and it's Miles Davis.' But I thought some of this is going to fall flat on its face. Some of it wasn't so happening, and some of it was amazing. That's kind of what he was looking for.
Then the band started gelling more as we got into it. Six months down the road, everybody knew each other more, and ... The very first gig was fun—in Boston, at a club. Then the first one in Avery Fisher Hall wasn't happening. Some of it was recorded on We Want Miles, and there was more happening on the recording. But Avery Fisher Hall ...
A difficult space.
It's terrible! I heard Stan Getz there, and I thought that would be burning because it was softer, and still you couldn't really hear him. You could kind of pick out the notes, but they would blend together. There's too much reverb in the room. So you can imagine when we were playing this ... and he wanted me to play loud.
Miles was a musician who legendarily used a lot of space and implication in his playing. You're a musician who plays a lot. I'm not using the word pejoratively, but you're a florid player. You have a lot of technique, you're not afraid to use it, and you make it fluid. In what ways were you influenced by Miles' style that might not be immediately evident?
Well, first of all, I understood that he didn't want me to do what he did.
To this day, though.
But to this day, there are times when I've got him in my ear. There are a couple of tunes on These Times, for example, that are more lyrical, and I'm trying to hear Miles in my playing, how he would leave space, and it's more like that. When I was playing with him, I kind of felt he was doing the space kind of playing and he wanted more aggression. When I first started playing with Miles, it took a minute for some critics to warm up to that sound. Miles told me, 'Don't listen to those cats.' He just said, listen to him, listen to what he wanted. And he wanted me to rock. He said, 'Play me some Hendrix.' That's what he always said.
He wanted you as a contrast.
Exactly. And he definitely made it very clear that's what he wanted. It was trio. With the keyboard player, which wasn't recorded as much, I could leave more space, and it felt more of a natural thing to do in that case. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string; I had an electric-acoustic guitar that I brought on the road, and he wanted me to do that some. But basically, for the first band with Marcus and Al, streamlined like it was, he wanted some more burn, and he would leave all the space, and when it came down to it he wanted more Rock and more energy, and he'd signal Al with his hands to open up more behind me—to play louder and more cymbals and that kind of stuff. It was almost like he was working with shapes. Because a lot of times, it was single chords, easy vamps, and they'd go on for a while. So you had to kind of milk it for whatever you could ...
Did you learn from that? Is that notion of working with large, extended shapes, and music as painting ... did it rub off on you?
Definitely. Also the singing quality of how he approached the something. As I said, I've always tried to get a sound with a singing quality, more of a legato sound rather than a percussive ... Guitar is by nature more of a percussive instrument, or can be in some ways...kind of a combination ... But it can be more percussive than how I use it, how I like it. Anyway, Miles had that vocal, beautiful sound, and I’ve tried to cop as much as I can the way he phrased and his sensibility in that regard—my way of doing it, of course.
You’ve been sober for 25 years, which pretty much coincides with the duration of your gig at the 55 Bar, where you played last night and are playing tomorrow night. You told me how it started, you played there with Jeff Andrews.
Jeff Andrews, a great bass player. I was still playing at 55 Grand Street (there’s no connection between the two), and Leni and I still were living above the bar there. But Jeff found this other place, a tiny room, and I’ve always loved playing those kinds of places because you feel more comfortable doing new stuff.
That’s an incredible way to do R&D, isn’t it, to have that sort of home base where you can do anything you want.
You can, and rehearse, or get together with different players and do some of the same stuff. In some ways, just because it’s in New York and I get a chance to play with a lot of players, that’s influenced these last couple of records. Certainly on the road, I put together bands with different people, too. But at the 55 Bar, it’s loose as hell. A bunch of people have played there with me, playing standards, playing some of my own tunes, playing all kinds of stuff. It’s reinforced an openness—checking out different players, and the excitement of hearing somebody play. Sometimes I’ll play the same tune with different players, and it’s a whole different tune because of the way they play the drums, or the way they play bass, or whatever.
More than many male musicians your age, you’ve brought in a lot of female musicians, particularly drummers and bass players—Kim Thompson, Teri Lyne Carrington, and Cindy Blackman, as well as M'Shell Ndegeocello and Esperanza Spalding.
True. But it’s coincidental. I met Cindy, for instance, years ago in Boston, at Berklee, and I also met Teri Lyne in Boston—I knew her dad a bit. We never played, but he always said, 'You guys got to play together.' So I knew her a little bit, and then we toured together some. Esperanza is somebody I just knew about, who has a beautiful voice, but if she couldn’t sing I would use her just as a bass player, because she’s an extraordinary bass player.
So some of it happened coincidentally, but also, remember, my wife is a guitar player. We have a little rule that we’ve reinforced (though we’ll probably bend it sooner or later) that we don’t do too many gigs together—we’d rather stay married! You look at people who go on the road together or do records together, some friction happens, and then if you have to go home with the same musician you’re having friction and you’re married to them ... Realistically, we figured maybe we shouldn’t push that too much. It’s nice that we have our own careers and our own musical directions, and Leni certainly has very strong musical directions. I don’t know where she comes up with half the stuff. I like her records a lot more than mine. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. But personally, I really do. I think the way she puts them together is great. On her first record, there was hardly any budget, but she brought in Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, Larry Willis, Bob Berg. I said, 'You’re not ready to do a record yet.' I hadn’t done my first one sober yet. But she went in and did it, and it was killing. That pushed me to do mine. I let her go first. I’ve recorded a couple of her tunes, and a lot of people like them better than anything on the record.
But I like just anybody who plays their ass off. If they happen to be girls, that’s better. They’re nicer to hang out with. They’re prettier than guys, too!
Also, a lot of younger musicians. So much traffic passes across your bandstand at the 55 Bar, so many ideas about music-making from different languages and cultures ... Are musicians under 35 coming through a very different set of experiences and formative influences and expressing different attitudes to music than from your generation?
It’s cool to play with younger musicians, and you learn a whole lot. For example, Kim Thompson comes up with creative, incredible stuff from things from hip-hop and styles that I wasn’t as into. She’ll tell me to check something out. But then, she was writing a tune on the computer that’s mainly a groove. I said, 'Kim, you’ve got to write a bridge; this needs a bridge.' I’d heard her with Kenny Barron, and she played great with Kenny, so I was surprised. When we first hooked up, we were just playing standards. I didn’t know that she could play funky, that she was into all that. She’s been playing with Beyonce for quite some time. I learned a lot from just her vantage point. You hear it, obviously, on radio and TV and so on, but you get it differently from somebody who’s in that world.
I also learn a lot from younger people who I don’t play with. I’ve transcribed a bit of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s stuff, because it’s so beautiful, and I can hear where he’s coming from. I hear some Mick Goodrick influences, because I think Kurt is another generation that was also influenced by Mick. He’s a fantastic musician. I’m always checking out older players, too. Sonny Rollins. His earlier stuff never gets old. It’s always fresh.
When you play bebop, you do have a way of breaking up the thematic material and improvising along those lines. Would that be a direct influence from Sonny?
Sonny is definitely a big influence. But the way it works out is abstract, by osmosis, from listening a lot. I’ll transcribe a lot of things. I like to use certain phrasing, I guess, from different horn players without memorizing licks so much. Sometimes you’ll hear a phrase of Sonny’s, a strong melody that you heard and just wrote out. It’s like reading a good book, and you come away from the book with a few quotes. 'Oh, the author said it like this,' and I remember how he said it, and then you take it and find your own ideas that way.
Will you continue to hew to that distinction Joe Henderson made to you between recording and playing, or will you give people more of an opportunity to hear your R&D directly? You’ve said that the 55 Bar is an acoustic challenge.
It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible, and at some point I may just say, 'Well, go for it anyway.' I definitely want to do it, because I’ve been playing there so long, it’s so comfortable, and I could get different cats to come in and record. It wouldn’t be expensive, and I’d love to do it. There is a way to do it. You have to put a microphone further in the back so you get more ambiance from the drums, otherwise the drums are overpowering. I did do a little educational video there with Ned Mann and Ari Hoenig that came out well. It was recorded with a hand-held camera, and we used just the mike from that, and also sometimes a really good engineer was there, miking the bass a little bit more.
But philosophically, do you prefer people to hear this finished product...
Well, this DVD is one night that we did. Most of the time now, people want a live performance, and they want to see it as well. That’s a little tricky. Seeing is cool, but I like to hear. But I also like a good live recording, and I definitely want to try to do something at the 55 Bar.
So that 'big neighborhood' theme really does apply to what you’ve done at the 55 Bar over the years.
Totally. It really does. Also, just touring. You meet so many musicians literally all over the place, who bring their own music that isn’t jazz that you get influenced by. You realize that music connects in so many different ways, which is beautiful. But more specific to the 55 Bar, it is a place that’s in a big neighborhood. It’s in New York. It’s in the heart of Greenwich Village.
There is something counter-intuitive for an artist as visible and well-known within the international community as you are to make yourself 'local.' A lot of musicians might feel they’d get taken for granted, it would drive down their price.
It’s true. I’m surprised that the Iridium still hires me—or the Blue Note, which is right down the street. I’ve somehow gotten away with it. But I wouldn’t give it up. At one point, I just said, 'Well, that’s the way it is; then I’d go on the road to do other gigs.' But I’ve got to have a place to play as there’s one that can keep me playing. It keeps me kind of sane, and it’s a cool spot to play. If it weren’t there, I’d find a street-corner somewhere. I’ve got to find these little places George Coleman told me that when he was coming up, there were places (and Buster Williams told me the same thing) where they would play five sets. The guy would say, 'Five sets, forty minutes, twenty minutes off,' and you’d have to do that. Then in the morning, there would be a bebop breakfast gig. What happened to that? It’s gone. They had more places and you could get longer engagements. Miles told me the same thing, that he and Bird ... Maybe he was exaggerating, maybe not. He said they’d play the same tune for 8 hours. They would stretch it out, and they’d be playing all the time. He said, 'Cats don’t play that much any more.' That was the one point he made, that it’s so important to play and play and play. Guys were playing
You’re 56, and traveling is not easy.
No, it’s getting harder. That’s kicking my ass a little bit, but I love to play. I was just talking to Bill Frisell, because I saw him with McCoy’s band. It’s such an interesting hookup. The way they play is so different. It’s like Jim Hall with Sonny. One time Miles sat in with Trane, and apparently it didn’t make it at all. To me, this made it. It was very different. Bill’s just doing his thing, and it’s charming, and I love it. Bill said, 'Oh, you should do this gig; you’re more in this world'—because I check out McCoy all the time. But there’s something great about Bill doing it, because he’s thinking, 'Oh, shit, what am I doing here ...'
In any event, do you see yourself keeping up this kind of schedule?
I was talking to Billy about going on the road, because he’s got his family, his daughter is older, and his wife is a painter ... He said, 'Look, this is what I do.' I was bitching about the travel. I said, 'What else can I do? Teach? What else can we do?' He said, 'I love to play, and this is what you have to do to play.' So that’s probably what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future. Though I love to teach also. I get into that Charlie Banacos thing. He’s so full of energy about music. He doesn’t over-charge anybody. You have to pay up front, because he has a three-year waiting list or something. He does three full days and then some other stuff, and on his off days, he’s still transcribing different stuff. This cat is a master, and he’s still like, 'Yeah, man. Oh, man, I can’t wait. I’m going to transcribe this new...' And the way he does it. His ears, forget about it. It’s beautiful. Bergonzi is like that, too. It’s independent of everything else. They just keep going.
Ted Panken spoke to Mike Stern on July 28, 2009.