For Dr. Billy Taylor’s 93rd Birthday Anniversary (1921-2010), An Uncut Blindfold Test from 2005

I got to know Dr. Billy Taylor a bit towards the end of the ’90s, after Bret Primack asked to write the liner notes for a live recording by his trio—unfortunately, it was never released. (I posted it on this website three years ago to the day.) Five years later, he consented to have me come to his Bronx apartment to sit for a DownBeat Blindfold Test, of which I post the uncut version below. His responses show how open-minded he was, how oriented to the here-and-now. A great artist and ambassador for the music, much missed.

 

Billy Taylor BT (Raw):
1. Geri Allen, “Dance of the Infidels” (from THE LIFE OF A SONG, Telarc, 2004) (Allen, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums, Bud Powell, composer)

I have no idea who that is. I haven’t been listening to other people for a long time now, since I had my stroke. So I’ve been listening mostly to things that I did. So now I’m not as aware as I used to be. Because I had to listen to a lot of people to present them in the different things that I was doing.

This is very interesting. It’s someone who’s harmonically oriented, and really is handling the piano like a horn in some respects, because he’s playing that kind of horn-like improvisations. I find that very interesting, because it goes off into some very different spaces that I wouldn’t think to do. I liked it. [Do you recall the tune?] No, I don’t. [Someone you knew pretty well composed it.] Really? I’m embarrassed. [The original version was at a much hotter tempo.] This was very relaxed. I liked where it was going. It helped me… I’m listening. Oh yeah? Really? That kind of stuff! I also liked the rhythm section very much. It seems like a group that’s played together a lot, and they know each other. Everybody seemed comfortable. 4 stars. A very fine performance. [AFTER] I’ll be darned! Geri is one of my favorite people, and one of the people’s whose work… I’m embarrassed now. Because she is so special to me. She’s one of the few people I’ve asked to play my work. I was ill, and she substituted for me on a thing that I was doing for David Parsons Dance Company, and did a brilliant job. Oh, she’s wonderful. Oh, it’s really embarrassing. Because I have this. But I didn’t… Man, I like this picture, too.

2. Bebo & Chucho Valdes, “Peanut Vendor” (from PAQUITO D’RIVERA PRESENTS CUBA JAZZ, RMM, 1996) (Bebo Valdes & Chucho Valdes, piano; Moises Simon, composer)

That’s two players that really are comfortable playing in Latin Jazz. I really love that. I have no idea who they are. But they are so comfortable with that style, man. My first job playing Latin music was with Machito, and I remember the first time Mario Bauzá threw something like that at me. I didn’t know what to do with those two chords, man! So the best I could do was to play some jazz over it, and in that band it worked, until he could get back to the piano and show me what to do with the montuno. That whole idea of giving you all the information you need harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, it just amazes me how they can do that in that context. You’re talking basically a very simple harmony. I fell out when I heard the pianist playing some Art Tatum, that thing that he does. It was pretty exciting. It sounds like Chucho, who I’ve played with. 4 stars for sure.

3. Ron Carter, “The Golden Striker” (from THE GOLDEN STRIKER, Blue Note, 2003) (Carter, bass; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone, bass)

It sure sounds like Percy Heath and John Lewis doing some interesting things. The tune is by John Lewis, but I don’t recall the name, although I’ve played it. I certainly like the kind of interplay that people who know one another have in a combination like this. It’s not just the fact that you’re playing a familiar jazz work, but they are so comfortable with it. I hear something that I haven’ t heard. They are adding something very personal to it. Everything you’ve played for me, I’m giving at least four stars. Because what you’ve played for me so far, these are masters. They’re people who are playing something that is part of the repertoire, and it’s not something I’ve heard someone else play and come close to this kind of feeling and projecting the kind of thing that John Lewis meant when he wrote the song. [AFTER] I love it! Like I said, it’s jazz masters.

4. John Stetch, “Bright Mississippi” (from EXPONENTIALLY MONK, Justin Time, 2004) (Stetch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I think Monk would have enjoyed that. It was different! There are a lot of things you can do with the changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” but that sure was different than anything I’ve heard done. He carried the whole idea of keeping everything within almost an octave. He barely got out of the octave that he was doing the bass line in. To maintain that and to sustain it, that really held my interest. I expected it to lose me. But he stuck right in there, and it made it right from beginning to end. Very nice. It’s odd when someone decides to go out on a limb and say, “Well, I’m going to do all of these awkward intervals, then I’m going to make a bass line and put something on it.” It’s very inventive. 4 stars. This got 4 stars because of the fact that the pianist heard it, said, “Now, here’s something I can do with these kinds of intervals; I’m going to do these on well-known changes, but I’m going to take somebody’s melody that’s off the wall, and I’m going off the wall with that.” It was very inventive, I thought.

5. David Hazeltine, “Sweet and Lovely” (from ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Venus, 2004) (Hazeltine, piano; George Mraz, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

“Sweet and Lovely.” I love the way the pianist sets something up harmonically, and follows it through both with the voicing of the chord that he’s improvising on, and the manner in which he structures the improvisation. It shows a continuity that I really like. You don’t hear enough of that. You hear it in Hank Jones and some of the guys of my generation, but this sounded like a younger pianist who was doing that. [Why does it sound like a younger pianist?] I don’t know. There were things that were very much older in terms of what he was playing. But if this is an older guy, he’s young in spirit, because I get the same rhythmic thing. There’s a difference in rhythm that not all of us retain when we get older. I loved the rhythm section. It was perfect. It laid it right down. It enhanced the piano sound, because he’s got a good touch, a lovely touch, and the bass was right under it, laying with him. I’ve played that tune many times, and they were doing some slightly different changes… That’s why I was thinking this was someone younger, or he was listening to younger guys. This is a whole tune, it’s been done a zillion ways, and he put some stuff in there that was really beautiful. 4 stars.

6. Jean-Michel Pilc, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (from FOLLOW ME, Dreyfus, 2004) (Pilc, piano; Fats Waller, composer)

This is the first one that didn’t hold my interest as much as I would like. That’s one of my favorite Fats Waller tunes, and you can take it outside and do a lot of things with it. It’s interesting, but this didn’t interest me that much. It didn’t swing enough or long enough, it didn’t hold me harmonically enough. It was cute. I mean, it was different, it had nice things. But for me, if I were playing, it would be an experiment that was interesting, but I’d have to go back and try to find something else. It didn’t make it as an experiment. Something was missing. 2-1/2 stars [AFTER] I know Jean-Michel’s work, and I didn’t recognize him. I enjoy his work very much. But this didn’t work for me. He’s a very fine pianist. I have several things he’s done, and I like them. Because he’s adventurous, as you can hear. In more cases than not, it works.

7. Marcus Roberts, “Rickitick Tick” (from IN HONOR OF DUKE, Columbia, 1999) (Roberts, piano, comp.; Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums)

Another experiment that’s interesting, but doesn’t hold my interest very long. It’s nice, and many of the things that the drummer was doing remind me of Winard Harper, who plays drums with me. Winard does some things that are so rhythmic; they have a form that I like. So it’s kind of hard for me to hear someone else do that concept which I associate with him, and do it a little different. It’s not appealing to me in that regard. I’d give it 2 stars. [AFTER] When I’m accustomed to a specific thing in a style, it’s hard for me to accept something that doesn’t please me as much. I like Jason’s work. He’s a very imaginative drummer. I’ve watched him grow over the years from a young guy… He’s very mature in what he’s doing now. Generally speaking, I like what he does.

8. Randy Weston, “Portrait of Dizzy” (from MARRAKECH: IN THE COOL OF THE EVENING, Verve, 1994) (Weston, piano)

Those were three of Dizzy’s most interesting melodies to me, and an abstraction of those melodies is less interesting to me than to play the melodies themselves. Because they are some of the best melodies, to me, that came out of the bebop context. I was playing something for Tatum one time, and he said, “If you can’t make it better, don’t change it.” 1 star. [AFTER] He’s a good friend of mine, but that’s what I think. I’m surprised, though, because I love Randy’s work when he’s playing most things like that. What threw me is that I’m so used to hearing him play rhythm, and he’s so rhythmic and he plays so beautifully with rhythms. I guess that’s what I missed there. I’m embarrassed.

9. Hiromi, “Desert On the Moon” (from BRAIN, Telarc, 2004) (Hiromi, piano; Anthony Jackson, bass; Martin Valihora, drums)

Chick Corea? No? It sounded very much like him. Boy! The touch and some of the harmonies, I thought. That fooled me. Very nice, whoever it was. The kinds of things that he was doing there… I liked the touch, and I liked the way he balanced his playing. It was organized beautifully, arranged very nicely, I thought. Chick was the first one who comes to mind playing rhythmically like that and harmonically like that. Or maybe Keith Jarrett or someone like that. I liked the harmonic flow. I liked the general musicality of it. This style I think is one of the styles that seems to stick around, and there are many guys who can do something like that. But as I said, the thing that appeals to me is the combination of harmony, melody and rhythm, how that’s put together in an organizational way… It’s arranged beautifully, even though it’s not an arrangement per se. It has a nice flow. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know her work. As a matter of fact, I used her at the Kennedy Center. I should have remembered. I used her for the Women’s Jazz Festival. She’s one of the people I’ve been thinking about in that context. We haven’t done as much as I hope I will do with her. Because she really comes across. She’s very interesting to watch when she plays—as well as she sounds. She’s a very interesting player. It’s nice to run into young players that have a personality when they play.

10. Michel Camilo, “The Frim-Fram Sauce” (from SOLO, Telarc, 2005) (Camilo, piano)

“Save the bones for Henry Jones.” It’s very interesting that someone would take Nat Cole’s vocal and make that kind of an instrumental out of it. It’s very well done. He captured the spirit of it. It’s fascinating, though, because everybody I’ve heard so far, I haven’t heard the kind of left hand that I grew up with. I am interested in what many of these other younger players are doing to compensate for that. They’re not playing stride piano or any style of it, but they are doing something that’s a combination of walking and other things like that. Which is very good. It’s very up-to-date and makes it… I’m spoiled, because I came up with Fats Waller and Nat Cole and people who did that. But a lot of pianists who can stretch a tenth don’t choose to do that. They’ll do other things. 4 stars. It was very well done. [AFTER] I’ll be damned! I was just reading something about him. That’s funny. We’ve played together a lot, and I know he can stretch a tenth. But for some reason, he didn’t. But he didn’t have to. He did what he did, and it was very personal.

11. Onaje Allan Gumbs, “Dreamsville” (from RETURN TO FORM, Half Note, 2003) (Gumbs, piano; Marcus McLaurine, bass; Payton Crossley, drums; Henry Mancini, comp.)

That was beautiful. A nice way of starting a ballad and building it up into a nice flowing feeling there. I liked that. The tune is by Henry Mancini, and that’s one of his lovely melodies. I really like it. 4 stars. The guy has a nice touch, and used it in a lot of… I like it when it’s musical. One thing that I generally find missing in younger pianists is the rhythmic feeling. I’m not hearing as much of the rhythm as I’m accustomed to. I want melody, harmony, and rhythm, all three of them, in a different way. Sometimes I just lose the feeling of the rhythm. It’s melodic, it’s beautiful, it’s rhapsodic, or whatever the player intends for it to be. But for me, it doesn’t satisfy something I like to hear. That’s a personal bias, I suppose, but I like all three of the elements. I don’t mean that as an overall critique. I’m just saying that many of the things I hear younger players do doesn’t swing enough for me. And by their terms. I don’t mean swing like I would swing, but swing whatever their style, and really swing, make that rhythm happen. [AFTER] Onaje! Wonderful.

12. Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2, Concord, 1990) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

I know who it is, but I can’t remember his name. He used to live in the Poconos, and did a lot of stuff for Concord Records… Dave McKenna. I love his playing. He does this better than anybody I know. Those are some interesting lines he’s playing, man. They’re fascinating. Now, that’s a left hand! One of the things I pride myself in is what I do with the left hand, because it’s what I grew up with and I like to use it. But I love the way he used it, because that’s very personal. I remember years ago, when I first met Dave, I did a radio piece on him, and I was pointing out the fact that this was the most unique left hand I’d heard since Fats Waller. It was so personal and the way he did it was so effective as a contemporary way of doing basslines. 5 stars.

[—30—]

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Dr. Billy Taylor, New York

An Article on Jazz as a Cultural Signifier for the 2007 Playboy Jazz Festival Program Guide

Ted Gioia’s incisive “Jazz (The Music of Coffee and Donuts) Has Respect, But It Needs Love,” which appeared in yesterday’s Huffington Post, reminded me that a few years ago, through a chain of circumstances too complicated to relate, I had an opportunity to write and extensively research an article on a similar subject. The idea was to interview various cultural critics, music programmers and ad industry folk to explore the ways in which jazz is perceived within the mainstream as a cultural signifier. As I sometimes do, I’m printing the “director’s cut,” which ran about 3200 words, over the final 2400-word edit; it’s a bit more sprawling and meandering, but there’s more information in it. Ap0logies to various friends for not altering their 2007 credits to match their contemporary circumstances.

* * *

In February 1964, the month when the Beatles set off the “British Invasion” with two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and a Carnegie Hall concert, and Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, ascended to the heavyweight boxing throne, Playboy offered its annual “Jazz and Hi-Fi Issue,” fronted by a fetching blonde in a salmon-pink peignoir, manipulating a trumpet-playing bunny puppet with her raised right hand.

In  small print on the lower left were the articles: the 1964 Playboy Jazz Poll results, “the latest in hi-fi equipment,” “the Playboy record library,” “Mamie Van Doren Unadorned” and “Boudoir Fun with Richard Burton,” “a new novel by P.G. Wodehouse” (an excerpt from Biffen’s Millions). In place of the Interview, already a buzz-generator after 14 installments for in-depth conversations with Bertrand Russell, Billy Wilder, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jimmy Hoffa, Albert Schweizer, and Vladimir Nabokov, Playboy offered a 17,200-word panel discussion on no less a subject than “Jazz: Today and Tomorrow,” eliciting insights from Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Ralph Gleason, Stan Kenton, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller. Jazz and Playboy were anything but strangers: The Interview had launched in November 1962 with a blunt Miles Davis-Alex Haley dialog, and some readers may have remembered a November 1960 jazz roundtable on which Adderley, Gillespie and Kenton joined Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Shelley Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Nat Adderley, Nat Hentoff, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer parsed the thorny issue of “Dope Addiction and the Jazz Musician.”

Neither panel seems dated, and the issues that concerned the panelists in 1964 (read it verbatim on www.cannonball-adderley.com/article/playboy2.htm) remain particularly crucial to the broader jazz conversation. How does an expanding and ever more technically proficient musician pool grapple with unfavorable economics and insufficient exposure? Can art jazz and popular jazz coexist? Can folk forms from different cultures coalesce with the jazz mainstream? Can the musicians from those cultures make consequential contributions to it? Is race a barometer of authenticity? Does the term “jazz” even apply to the many styles that it is used to describe?

During that “pre-Sixties” portion of the Sixties, it was easy to absorb this discussion not only in the pages of Playboy, but “men’s magazine” spinoffs like Rogue and Cavalier, and such general circulation standbys as Esquire, Saturday Review and Harper’s. All were targeting an adult, educated, professional male readership, primarily but not exclusively white, for whom jazz coded as an alluring signifier, a soundtrack to the “Playboy bachelor” lifestyle, one that encouraged connoisseurship of sound systems, sports cars, Italian suits, Hathaway shirts European art films, dry martinis, good cigars, and fine wine, as well as sexy ladies. Among African-Americans, the hipness factor was high: progressive jazz dovetailed with civil rights movement aspirations, and it had street presence, too, through a national circuit of inner city clubs, lounges, theaters, and radio stations that presented a panoramic selection of black music.

In February, 1965, Playboy, grabbing the zeitgeist, presented an “Interview” with Bob Dylan. Five years later, Miles, now plugged in and wearing Carnaby Street threads in lieu of Italian suits, was playing first sets at rock concerts at the east and west coast Fillmores. That same year, Wayne Shorter left Miles after a six-year stint; in 1971, he and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, the guiding intelligence behind Miles’ pathbreaking jazz-rock album Bitches Brew, formed the ur-fusion group Weather Report. In 1972, Chick Corea, another recent Miles graduate, discovered Scientology and launched the smooth jazz movement with Return to Forever. In 1975, Miles sat with Playboy for the second time, having long since discarded his musical skin of a decade earlier. To a public besotted with Rock Spectacle, the aesthetic values of hardcore jazz already seemed a cultural artifact.

In relation to the popular culture matrix, it still is. The jazz audience remains specialized, a subculture, a 3% sliver of the total music pie that divides to micronic levels for those mavericks whose radical departures from the tried-and-true are the DNA of jazz evolution. Mainstream music pubs like Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe seem to consider the word “jazz” more offensive than  “ho” and “bitch,” and mass market glossies ignore it altogether. It goes without saying that jazz is minimally present in print and TV advertising. Undeniably, jazz is barely a blip on the popular culture radar screen, and its coolness quotient resolves barely on the > side of null and void.

Well, perhaps it depends on what your definition of “cool” is. “Jazz is cool,” says Alan Brown, a market researcher who has analyzed classical music audiences. “To some extent, it’s the new classical music, and the audience is sophisticated — or seen as sophisticated. Our culture reshapes art forms constantly, and over a period of years the meaning of the art form changes in the public consciousness. That’s extremely difficult for some arts organizations that hold dear a specific definition of jazz.”

“Jazz Cool has become marketable to the bourgeoisie,” ripostes Greg Tate, a veteran essayist and cultural critic for the Village Voice, who agrees with the “America’s classical music” trope. “It’s lost its stigmata and its stain,” he continues. “On one level, it’s read as very safe and uplifting, a part of American culture that young people are encouraged to want to study and learn and participate in.”

“It’s certainly not the cutting edge of what really cool young people are into or following,” declares Touré, a novelist, staff journalist and editor at Rolling Stone, and occasional talking head for CNN and MSNBC on pop culture matters. “When I encounter a character in an ad or in a movie who’s all into jazz, it’s like a cliche of the idea of being cool, which is outdated. Part of jazz as Cool came from it being counter-culture, underground, something that was sometimes attacked as the devil’s music. But nobody’s scared of us now. The same thing in Hip-Hop. We used to be seen as dangerous figures, and now we’re selling Pillsbury and Chevrolets. Nobody’s scared of us. Jazz is supposed to suggest classy refinement, intelligent, mature, with that little burst of excitement—but a SAFE burst of excitement.

“It doesn’t come through the airwaves on its own any more, and you need a certain music education to understand it—you won’t be into it just by accident. Also, it requires an intellectual concentration much greater than a lot of people today are ready to offer. It’s weird talking about a melody or a rhythm. When do we talk about ME? The generation of now is very much about that. A lot of songs are really just the singer’s exploration—and by proxy, you as the listener—of ‘who am I?’”

These sentiments are demonstrably true for the masses, yet jazz does address that question for far more than a few. Indeed, considered on its own terms, the music has never been healthier. In the wake of ’80s young lions like Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, post-Boomer jazzfolk — Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Danilo Perez, to name a few — have built their styles from the ground up, absorbing the vocabulary and syntax upon which jazz was built. Thousands of students learn jazz in high school bands, and pay high tuitions to jazz degree programs at numerous universities in the United States and Europe. Nor is academe the only institutional setting in which jazz has staked firm roots. Supported by a well-heeled, racially integrated board, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra represents its parent institution as a full-fledged partner to the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet, while the SFJAZZ Jazz Festival celebrates its quarter century this year. The music generates sufficient advertising revenue to justify the continued publication of well-produced monthly trade magazines like Downbeat, Jazziz, and Jazz Times, and inspires its practitioners to release a few thousand new CDs each year.

To pinpoint who exactly comprises this audience and what jazz signifies to them is a complex proposition. “We’re just beginning to understand how people relate to the art world in general, including jazz,” says Brown. “There’s so little market research. But there are statistics that demonstrate that the constituency for jazz is more diverse than other forms of music.”

In February, Blue Note released comparative demographic information for jazz and total music market that both supports and counters Brown’s diversity proposition. Certainly, its constituency is seasoned. Some 76% of jazz buyers are “over 36” as compared to 44% of the total market; of the jazz-buying over-36ers, 44% are male and 32% female, while the gender breakdown for the total market is 57%-43%. It is also quantitatively more affluent (44% of jazz buyers earn over $75,000 [29% over $100,000], compared to 31% [19%] of total music) and more educated (38% of the jazz market are college grads or have graduate education, compared to 22% of the total sample). Jazz appeals to a more racially diverse audience than other genres, with a 57% “Caucasian”-34% “African-American”-9% “Other” breakdown, as opposed to 72%-17%-11% overall.

“There’s many jazz audiences rather than one,” says Randall Kline, the Artistic Director of the SFJAZZ Festival. “We appeal to different demographic groups at almost every concert we present. With Dave Brubeck, the age skews older. With Jason Moran, it skews younger. For a Latin Jazz show, it’s primarily Latino. Jazz is the perfect candidate for long-tail marketing over the Internet, because it’s lots of niches, and we’re always marketing to those niches.”

SFJAZZ’s most recent audience research also confirms that those niches conform to the high skew of plus-$100,000 households and college graduates. This makes sense to Andre Guess, Kline’s counterpart at Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2000. “The people who read Playboy forty years ago, who had the slick hi-fi and so on, are commensurate to the $125,000 a year subscribers at Lincoln Center now,” Guess says. “Where it has some appeal is with the 30 to 45 year-old guy with a nice job, who just met this woman he’s trying to get to do certain things with him, so he takes her out to Jazz at Lincoln Center or to Dizzy’s Club, has a nice dinner, and at the end of the evening… It’s all a setup for his thing.

“Popular music is basically the soundtrack of adolescence and sexuality. Jazz was that at one time. There’s an element to it now. But from a marketing standpoint jazz mostly is mellow or laid-back, something that I graduate into after my young and wild-and-crazy days. I want to grow up now.”

The notion of jazz as sophisticated seduction resonates with such upscale brands as Brooks Brothers and Cadillac, both long-time Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsors, and Movado watches, which Wynton Marsalis endorses along with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Pete Sampras and Tom Brady. Infiniti and Audi have sponsored SFJAZZ; so has Target. During the ‘90s, Lexus put a jazz soundtrack to commercials hawking its 400 luxury line, targeted to over-40 executive types, but shifted gears when when Infiniti, a direct competitor, stamped its launch campaign with the Dave Brubeck classic, “Take Five.” The ‘90s also saw Starbucks associate its brand identity with jazz by distributing content generated by Blue Note at its stores; this year, Hear Music, Starbucks’ house label, partnered with Concord, the L.A.-based jazz independent.

On the other hand, the safe-as-old-pajamas connotation persuaded Ryan Kitch, a New York based sound designer for Saatchi & Saatchi, to use a Latin Jazz version of Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island for a Cheerios spot intended for Mexican-U.S. distribution. “The song spans several generations and has a nice, timeless feel,” Kitch says. “Cheerios has been part of family life for generations, and lots of people can relate to it. But we also do spots for Wendy’s and J.C. Penney, and usually end up more in a Rock type of world.”

Such jazz-embracing attitudes are exceptions to the rule in the corporate world. “Advertisers are always looking for something hip and contemporary and on the edge, and they feel that jazz is old and done,” says sound designer Chris Bell, who worked on the aforementioned Lexus commercials.

“Jazz is in a sort of no-man’s-land,” says Steve Silver, the San Francisco-based creative director who conceived the Lexus ads. Silver plays saxophone, and mentions that his father, Art Silver, wrote a jazz review in Playboy’s inaugural, Marilyn Monroe issue.

“For an upscale advertiser you’d think that jazz would work pretty well,” Silver continues. “But often, upscale means luxurious, and if you want to convey luxury, the no-brainer approach is to use opera or classical music. I say ‘no-brainer,’ because frequently, something counter-intuitive would work better. On the other hand, if you want to say ‘urban hip,’ it’s not your best choice. There were times, of course,  when jazz was TOTALLY “Urban Hip.” That time is not going to be now. Jazz would be a great opportunity to make your product stand out, and I’d love to use it. It has so many flavors—it could be optimistic or cacophonous. Or it could be not so tied to class and income. But it isn’t hugely in demand for those particular flavors that you’re trying to communicate.

“Jazz is different than a lot of these other sounds, because it requires you to listen and engage and be intellectually—and emotionally—stimulated. We’re so far away from Classical, that as soon as you hear the violins, two notes, half a bar, you think, ‘Well, that’s classical.’ As soon as you hear a Rock or Hip-hop sound with that heavy beat, you’re viscerally engaged, but not really intellectually engaged. When you use music for commercial purposes, you’re not showcasing the music. You’re using the music to showcase something else. So if the music is too engaging, too rich, asks too much attention, it gets in the way of the trajectory that the advertiser really wants, which is the product. It’s almost too distracting.”

Notably, artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, who signified jazz when jazz led the zeitgeist, still code intriguing to the young and cool. “When we were producing the Verve Remixed series, we found jazz, iconic jazz in particular, had a lot of cachet in the dj/electronica/lounge crowd,” says Jason Olaine, who directed A&R for Verve between 1999 to 2004 after a six-year tenure  programming the Oakland jazz club-restaurant Yoshi’s. He’s referring to several CDs on which deejays  altered classic tunes from the catalog with drum loops and analog scratchy sounds. At the time, Olaine notes, “they were some of the most widely played soundtracks to chic bars and fashion hotspots from San Francisco to L.A. It seemed like a good way to monetize the catalog and reach some new kids, not only educating them about some of these classic artists but also possibly turning them on to buy our catalog.”

“The characters in jazz today are less singular than before,” Touré reflects. “There’s no excitement around the genre now as there was when Miles and Monk and Bird and Ornette Coleman were reinventing music.” He suggests that the cross-generational fascination they inspire has as much to do with the transgressive qualities they projected as with their respective sounds. “There’s definitely an aspect of Fear of Black Man, that fascination with the black man that is wrapped within the cool of jazz,” he says. “It’s a small underground club, some kid’s hiding away practicing, and he blows away the club, and it’s late, and there’s alcohol and women, and there’s Black Brilliance on the stage. In America that fascination always exists, but the locus has changed. It used to be located on jazz and boxing, but it isn’t in those places any more. Now in Hip-Hop you get a lot of that Black Male Other.”

“There’s a sort of stereotypical character that does rap, and the music is an extension of their life and the culture,” Guess elaborates. “There has to be a movement to create an aura or mood around musicians like Miles, Trane and Sonny Rollins, that marries itself to what jazz is, so the uninitiated can say, ‘Okay, this is the vibe, and I can see it in this person.’”

It’s tempting to fetishize the stylish surface imagery of those years. As a corrective, Tate mentions a scene in ATL, a youth-oriented Urban movie from last year. “One guy in the film is dating the daughter of a fairly well-off black professional, and he goes to this lily-white southern country club,” he says. “The band is playing something, I think, from Kind of Blue. It struck me that this is not just old folks music. It’s old WHITEFOLKS music.”

In point of fact, the jazz paradigm for the digital era follows pathways reminiscent of the one-world lifestyle pitched by Benetton. The underground club and existential brilliance found therein do exist, at least in New York, but the performers could come from anywhere; jazz now functions on a global playing field, and multiculturalism is the new mainstream. Kind of Blue modalities will be part of the game in the brave new world. So will church music and the blues, bebop and soul jazz, the piano vocabularies of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, the universes of Coltrane, Monk and Sonny Rollins. So, too, will the intoxicating melodies and rhythms of Cuba, Brazil, India, and West and North Africa; the song forms of popular music, from hip-hop to Bjork; the Euro-Classical tradition. The more intrepid may translate Fibonacci equations into musical flow, explore post-Webern dissonances, or make computers improvise in real time.

“From a marketing perspective, jazz reads more intellectual than sexy,” Guess notes of this tendency. “It needs to be decoded, and it’s hard to overcome that. One reason why jazz been marginalized is that it’s a little like pornography—the ‘I know it when I hear it’ kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons why Wynton Marsalis places such an emphasis on trying to define it in a way that you can understand it.”

But the Internet inevitably will open doors for micro-marketing strategies, and as the elites that it has created parlay their assets into increasing social influence, jazz—in all its many varieties—seems well-positioned to find a consequential niche. Consider the Silicon Valley venture capitalists and information technology executives who populate the board of SFJAZZ, chaired by 32-year-old Srinija Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! Inc. Through the prism of mass media and fashion culture, they may code nerdy, but they will be the movers and shakers of 21st century progress, and their geek cool demands a music that engages their quirky, pragmatic, improvisational intelligence. Being cool, they will not require definitions.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot of power, and a younger culture,” Kline says. “It’s like San Francisco from the Gold Rush, people coming west to earn their fortunes, that rugged guy in Levis with a pick-axe over his shoulder. I think jazz fits with that sensibility. How we in the jazz world position ourselves is the challenge, but the place of jazz will be much stronger and longer-lasting.”

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A DownBeat Feature From 2009 and an Uncut Blindfold Test With Christian McBride

A few weeks ago, I missed a chance to observe bassist-composer Christian McBride’s birthday with a post of a DownBeat cover piece that ran in late 2008 and a slightly earlier Blindfold Test that I conducted with him not long before that. I’ve decided to rectify the omission, as I think both pieces are worth reading. I’ve posted my “director’s cut” of the feature (it runs about 900 words longer than what appeared in the magazine), and the original, unedited transcript of the Blindfold Test.

 

 Christian McBride, DownBeat Cover Article:

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 8th, Christian McBride stood in the foyer of David Gage’s Tribeca bass atelier, poised to sound-test the latest addition to his arsenal. There was little time to spare—McBride had fifteen minutes to retrieve his car from the parking lot, a short walk away, and it was a mere 90 minutes til gig time at the Blue Note with James Carter’s new band with John Medeski, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron. Still, McBride couldn’t restrain himself. Beaming at his new possession like a father cradling a newborn, he  put forth an elegant, funky one-chorus blues that the prior owner, the late Ray Brown, might well have cosigned for his own. Then McBride packed with a single efficient motion, enfolded Gage and his wife with a hug, and exited the premises, grabbing the car keys with two minutes to spare.

McBride was elated for reasons that had less to do with the excellence of the bass, which he declared superior to the one he had traded in to ameliorate the price, than with the pass-the-torch symbolism of the occasion. His new instrument had not come cheap, but he seemed to regard his possession of it to be more in the nature of an inheritance than the result of a transaction.

“It means the world to me, but I don’t think I’ll get that sentimental about it,” said McBride, who performed with Brown and John Clayton throughout the ‘90s in the singular unit, Super-Bass. “In my heart I’ll know it’s Ray’s bass, but I’m going to play what I need to. We had a very fatherly relationship. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I feel I SHOULD have it, since John has one of Ray’s other ones.”

Barely out of his teens when he joined Super Bass, McBride, now 36, was anything but a neophyte. Out of Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1989 to matriculate at Juilliard, and quickly attained first-call status. By the fall of 1993, when McBride made his first extended tour with Joshua Redman’s highly publicized quartet with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins, many considered him a major figure in the jazz bass continuum.

Perhaps this explains the vigorous blastback that certain elders launched McBride’s way in the latter ‘90s, when he began to revisit the electric bass, his first instrument, as a vehicle to investigate more contemporary modes of musical expression.

He recalled a backstage visit from Milt Jackson after his band, opening for Maceo Parker, played “a little tune I’d recorded that wasn’t a swing tune.” “Milt asked, ‘Was it necessary?’” McBride laughed heartily. “I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘necessary?’ ‘That ain’t the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.’”

“I stood there and took it, because I loved Milt. But I had to ask: At what point am I allowed to get away from bebop? Is there some graduation process where Ray Brown or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan comes to Bradley’s and gives me my diploma? Why do I feel that I’m going to get in trouble if I decide to get a little funky? I knew stretching out wouldn’t affect my bebop playing or make me alter my sound.”

In point of fact, Brown, a fixture on L.A.’s commercial scene, who, as McBride notes, “played pretty good electric bass” himself, was anything but judgmental about his protege’s populist proclivities. “Ray never said a negative thing to me,” McBride said. “His whole thing was about pocket; as long as it had a toe-tapping quality, he was into it. He loved that I brought my own thing to Super Bass as opposed to ‘trying to play like a bebop guy.’”

Over the past decade, McBride’s penchant for adapting his “own thing” to any musical situation, however tightly formatted or open-ended, brought him copious sideman work with a crew of auditorium-fillers, among them Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, with whom he toured extensively during the first third of 2008. It was the final year of his four-year run as Creative Chair for Jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which, since 2005, he had booked 12 concerts a year. Among the highlights were projects with Queen Latifah and James Brown, his idol, on which he both music-directed and played bass, and also such high-concept jazz fare as Charles Mingus’ Epitaph and a ninetieth birthday celebration for Hank Jones. McBride had not neglected his jazz education commitments—per his annual custom since 2000, he spent a fortnight as Artistic Director at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he maintained his co-director post at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, an employer since 2005. If this weren’t enough, McBride also assumed artistic director responsibilities at the Monterrey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, producing new music for the various special projects and groups presented therein.

The impact of all this activity on McBride’s Q-rating was apparent when the three Metheny devotees sharing my table at the Blue Note stated that his name, and not Carter’s, was their prime incentive for shelling out the $35 cover.

McBride did not disappoint: Playing primarily acoustic bass, he constructed pungent basslines that established both harmonic signposts and a heartbeat-steady pulse around which the band could form consensus. He also brought down the house with a pair of astonishing solos. On the set-opener, “Mad Lad,” a stomping Rhythm variant by Leo Parker, McBride bowed a fleet-as-a-fiddle, thematically unified stomp, executing horn-like lines with impeccable articulation, intonation, and stand-on-its-own time feel. To open the set-concluding “Lullaby For Real Deal,” by Sun Ra, he declaimed a wild Mingusian holler, then counterstated Carter’s balls-out baritone sax solo, chock-a-block with extended techniques, with a to-the-spaceways theme-and-variation statement that ascended to the mountaintop, danced down again, and concluded with an emphatic FLAVOOSH on the E-string.

At the Rose Theater a fortnight earlier, McBride performed equivalent feats of derring-do with Five Peace Band, the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin homage to the fortieth anniversary of their participation on Bitches Brew with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Brian Blade. Halfway through the final leg of a seven-month world tour, with Blade on drums, FPB addressed the repertoire in an open, collective manner, and McBride switched-off between acoustic and electric feels with equal authority. On one McLaughlin-penned piece, he laid down crunching funk grooves on the porkchop, at one point mirroring a staggeringly fast declamation by the leader so precisely as to give the illusion that the tones were merged into one hybrid voice.

“Technically, I could have done that ten years ago, but I don’t think my confidence would have been there to try it,” McBride remarked. “From playing electric so much more on sessions and gigs, now I have that confidence on both.”

He elaborated on the sonic personality that each instrument embodies.

“The acoustic bass is the mother, and the electric bass will always be the restless child,” he said. “Sometimes the energy of a restless child is cool to have around. It gets everybody up, and it keeps you on your toes. But the mother is always there, watching over everything—a wholesome feeling. The acoustic bass isn’t as loud, but it’s so big—it grabs all the music with a big, long arm. It encircles it. The electric bass is clearer, more in your face, but it doesn’t have that wisdom. Even with Jaco at his creative peak—and he was easily to the electric bass what Bird was to the alto saxophone—you never got that feeling. But you would go, ‘Man, this cat’s from another planet; who IS this?’”

[BREAK]

“I don’t know what made me think I would be able to do Detroit and Monterrey back-to-back, though I managed to pull it off,” McBride said. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to take on multiple projects at the same time. But in 2008 I bit off way more than I could chew. By October, I was ready to collapse. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to Europe for five weeks; I can’t collapse.’ Everybody was like, ‘You’re in town for three weeks? Let’s book some record dates.’ My brain was saying yes. But my body was like, ‘If you don’t go somewhere right now and sit in the dark for about three weeks, I’m unplugging on you.’ I’m trying to edit ‘09 a little bit.

“I’m ready to sink my teeth into my own music and see what I can finally develop on my own. Maybe one day I can be the guy leading an all-star tour or calling some other cats to come on the road with me.”

Towards that end, McBride was ready to tour with a new unit called Inside Straight, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen, whom he had assembled for a one-week gig at the Village Vanguard during summer of 2007 and reconvened to play Detroit. “I hadn’t played at the Vanguard since 1997, and thought it was time to go back,” McBride related. “‘Lorraine Gordon said, “Of course you’re always welcome at the Vanguard. But don’t bring that rock band you usually play with!’”

Said “rock band” was a plugged-in quartet with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake, and Terreon Gully, which McBride first brought on the road in 2000 to support Science Fiction, the last of his four dates for Verve, to bring forth McBride’s “all-encompassing view of what jazz means to me.” The week before Christmas, during FPB’s December layover, they entered Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a “farewell-for-now” engagement. On the first set opening night, without rehearsal, they stretched out and hit hard, detailing a sonic template that spanned the soundpainting-beatsculpting feel of such ‘70s art fusion as Weather Report and Mwandishi and the inflamed ebullience that mutual heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner evoked in their live performances of that same period.

Indeed, the group’s extreme talent far exceeded their recorded documentation or gig opportunities. “We got defaulted as a fusion band, which I thought was inaccurate,” McBride continued. “It seemed our gigs always got stuck in when I had two nights off with Pat or Five Peace Band, and it was hard to change hats quickly and think things all the way through. But we all like music that has a lot of energy. It could be funky or free, it could be bebop or Dixieland swing, or it could rock. As long as that jazz feel is underneath, what’s on top doesn’t really matter.”

Funk, freedom and rock are absent from Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue], McBride’s debut date with Inside Straight, and his first all-acoustic presentation since Gettin’ To It, his 1995 opening salvo on Verve. “I call it one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ recordings,” said McBride, whose twentieth-anniversary-as-a-New Yorker plans also include weekly hits over the summer with a big band, and Conversations With Christian, a still-in-process project comprising 20 duet interview-duo performances with select “friends and mentors.”

“I came to New York to play with all the great modern jazz musicians I could, and I became known doing that in the Paul Chambers-Ray Brown spirit,” McBride said. “In a lot of recent musical situations, I’ve found myself being a little louder than I really like, and I got the itch to come back to some good foot-stomping straight-ahead.”

It was observed that McBride had traversed a conceptual arc not dissimilar to the path of such generational contemporaries as Hargrove and Redman, whose respective careers launched on their ability to hang with elders on equal terms. While in their twenties, they embraced on their own ground the tropes of contemporary dance and popular music, but recently, perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove anything, have returned to more acoustic, swing-based investigations.

“I see everybody turning the corner again to the acoustic-based, swinging thing,” McBride said. “We were the generation that was able to assimilate all that had happened before us, and at some point decided to use with their jazz vocabulary hip-hop or certain types of indy rock, great music that not too many jazz people were keeping their ear on. It’s no different than what any other generation of jazz musicians did.”

[BREAK]

Regardless of the context in which he plays, McBride appears—has always appeared—to be grounded in a place not quite of his time. “My own mother told me once, ‘You really are an old soul,’ he said. “Coming from her, that almost scared me. I’ve never consciously thought we’ve got to bring back the vibe from the old days, but I probably do have a certain thread with an earlier generation. I’m an only child. My mom had me young, and she raised me as a single mom, so as much as we’re mother-and-son, we’ve always thought of each other as best friends. My childhood was hanging around my mother’s friends, listening to their stories, to their music.”

Referencing his fast learning curve, McBride added, “Having two working bassists in the family didn’t hurt.” One was his great uncle, bassist Howard Cooper, whose outcat gig resume includes Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. The other was his father, Lee Smith, a fixture in ‘70s Philly soul and R&B circles who began playing with Mongo Santamaria later in the decade. “He was a consistent figure in my formative years, in that I’d see him a few times a month,” McBride said. “We always practiced together, but after the initial ‘lessons’ when he showed me how to hold the bass and where to place my hands, it became just jamming. By high school, I spent all my time practicing classical etudes on the acoustic, which my dad didn’t play then.”

From the jump, McBride conceptualized the acoustic “as an oversized electric bass.” “Clarity was always the center of my concept of bass playing,” he said. “The  instrument’s range and frequency means you can feel the pulse that makes you move, but it’s hard to hear the notes. Much as I hate to admit it, I mostly hated bass solos, because I could never understand what they were playing. Notes ran into each other, and some cats would be out of tune—outside of first or second position, it gets dicey. I found that cats who play very clear and have good melodic ideas tended to be from the low-action, high-amplified school. When they’d start walking, all the pulse would go. Then, bass players with a really good sound and feel, who make you want to dance, when they soloed it was, ‘Ummm…go back to walking.’

“So my whole style was based on balancing the two—to play with a serious clarity of tone and still have the guts and power of the true acoustic bass. When I walk or am accompanying somebody, I wanted that soloist to feel they have the best tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic support possible, but I also didn’t want to bore the hell out of people when I soloed.  I was young enough when I started not to think that I had to get ideas only from other bass players. I thought, if I can play it, why not try to transcribe a McCoy Tyner or Joe Henderson line for the bass, and see how it comes out. Dumb 11-year-old idea.”

The notion of balance—triangulating a space between deference and self-interest, between pragmatic and creative imperatives, between acoustic and electric self-expression—is perhaps McBride’s defining characteristic.

“I’ve always tried to live in the middle,” McBride said. “I’d be a good U.N. diplomat! I’ve always found it interesting that I could talk about the same subject to two people who have violently different outlooks.” He recalled an early-‘90s encounter in San Sebastian with Lester Bowie—himself no diplomat—and Julius Hemphill when “they just started ripping into Wynton. ‘Man, Wynton’s ruining all you young cats. It’s a SHAME what he’s doing to you cats. But see, you got some different stuff happening, McBride! See, you got the opportunity to not be fazed by any of that stuff!’ I’m not really disagreeing or agreeing with them, just listening, ‘Mmm…mmm-hmm.’”

It’s unclear whether Bowie knew that McBride considered Marsalis “very much like a big brother or a mentor.” Old soul or not, he’s a child of the ‘80s, “one of the most fruitful periods for great jazz,” and, like many in his peer group, considered Marsalis’ recordings—along with those of the Tony Williams Quintet, Harrison-Blanchard, the various members of M-BASE, Art Blakey, Bass Desires, and Ralph Moore—“as important to my development as Miles and Freddie’s.” So when Marsalis came to Philadelphia in 1987 to conduct a high school workshop, McBride learned “as many of his tunes as I could.” Intrigued, Marsalis invited the 15-year-old prodigy to see him play the Academy Theater three days later, and invited him to sit in on “J Mood.”

Marsalis kept in close touch, conducting a regional Duke Ellington Youth Ensemble in which McBride participated, and “calling to check on me, telling me to keep my academics together” as McBride became a presence on the Philly scene. During these years, at Marsalis’ urging, McBride focused on the unamplified, raise-the-strings approach to bass expression  which, as he puts it, “seemed to be the new religious experience for young bass players coming to New York.” As his reputation grew (“people seemed to like what they were hearing”) he staunchly adhered to this aesthetic even through several bouts of tendinitis—although, upon Watson’s insistence (“Bobby, you don’t understand; the bass was not made to be played this way; maybe Victor can come down a bit…”), he did relent and purchase an amp for a Village Vanguard engagement.

Not too long thereafter, early in a duo week with Benny Green, Ray Brown heard McBride for the first time. “Ray said, ‘Why are you young cats playing so hard? You don’t need your strings up that high.’ I thought, ‘Shut up, and listen to Ray Brown.’ I saw him a few nights later, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Ray seemed to be playing the bass like it was a toy. He was having fun. Playing jazz, he had that locomotion I heard in the great soul bass players, like James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham.  He wasn’t yanking the strings that hard, he had the biggest, fattest, woodiest sound I’d ever heard, and most of it was coming from the bass, not the amp. At that point, I slowly started coming around. I was able to find a middle ground where, yes, it’s perfectly fine to use an amplifier. It’s not the ‘40s any more.”

[BREAK]

A member of the last generation to receive a full dose of the heroes of the golden age of jazz, McBride is now well-positioned, through his educational activities and increasing visibility as a public spokesman, to facilitate the torch-passing process. His present views, informed by deep roots in black urban working-class culture and the attitude towards musical production that he absorbed during formative years, are not so very far removed from those of his mentors.

“Everybody’s nice now, but a lot of hard love came from those legends,” he said. “At Bradley’s, if you played a wrong change, you’d hear some musician at the bar going, ‘Unh-unh, nope, that’s not it.” They’d ream you on the break. After they finished, they’d buy you a drink. All of us wear those moments as badges of honor. When you see young cats doing the wrong thing, it’s not a matter of actually being mean or being nice when you  pull them aside and tell them what’s happening.”

Often he tells them not to bridle at the notion of marinating “in situations you’re not used to or that make you uncomfortable—situations where you’re playing bebop.”

“The people behind the scenes who pull the strings play on this idea of faction-race-gender-class, groove-versus-no-groove, intellectual-versus-street,” he said. “We’re in a period where the less groove or African-American influence, the more lauded the music is for being intellectual, or ‘this is cutting edge,’ ‘this is what you need to go see,’ ‘this is pure genius,’ whereas the guys who are grooving—‘that’s old; we’ve been hearing that for over half a century; we need to come further from that.’ The more European influence—or, shall we say, the more ECM—you put in your music, you can be considered a genius.

“At first, I thought it was racial. Maybe it is to a certain extent. But the white musicians I know who like to sink their teeth into the groove can’t get any dap either. Part of it might be backlash from when the record labels were dishing out the cash to advertise and market some straight-ahead ‘young lions’ who frankly didn’t deserve it. The recording industry did real damage to the credibility of young jazz musicians who were really serious about building on the tradition. It almost took an American Idol twist—some new hot person every six months. When it happened to me in New York, I remember thinking, ‘That could change tomorrow.’”

From the musicians in his family, McBride learned early that music is as much a business as an art form, and that to sustain a career requires labor as well as talent.  “My focus was always on being good,” he said. “If I’m the best musician I can be, I won’t have to worry whether someone thinks I’m hot or not; I’ll just be working with all the musicians that I can. I think that’s where I got my outlook to always try to find the middle ground.”

He intends to retain this attitude. “You see musicians reach a point where they no longer have to take certain gigs—and they don’t,” he said. “Some of us think, ‘They’ve lost that edge; they don’t have that passion like they used to.’ I never wanted to become one of those guys. My chops start getting weird. The pockets start getting funny. There’s a reason Ron Carter is still as active as he is. He’s playing all the time. Ray Brown was like that. They keep that thing going.”

[—30—]

 

Christian McBride Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Hans Glawischnig, “Oceanography” (PANORAMA, Sunnyside, 2007) (Glawischnig, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

I feel like I’m pretty sure on at least who two of three of those guys are. It certainly felt and sounded like Chick on piano. I’m going to guess that was Eddie Gomez. [No.] Really! Mmm! In that case, I’m a bit stumped. Whoever it was, I certainly feel like they come from the school of playing of Eddie Gomez, a lot of very pianistic, melodic lines way up on top of the bass, a wonderful melodic sense all over the bass but particularly in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like a very overtly powerful, kind of meaty, woody, kind of Ray Brownish school. The sound came more from the Gomez-Peacock-LaFaro kind of school. That’s why I might have thought it was Gomez. But if it’s not Gomez, it’s certainly someone I like a lot. I can’t guess who. I didn’t know who the drummer was at first. At first, I thought it might have been Jack. I thought it might have been Jeff Ballard. Knowing it was Chick, it thought it might have been Airto playing traps for a minute. So I’m a little stumped on who the bass player and drummer are, but I liked it a lot. Any professional musician playing changes that good and playing that good time, 5 stars. Hans! Very-very-very-VERY hip. Beautiful, Hans. Sounded great. Good job.

2.   Victor Wooten, “The Lesson” (PALMYSTERY, Heads Up, 2008) (Wooten, bass, hand claps, composer; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps)

I’m glad I heard that last minute. Got to be Victor Wooten. Only one man sounds like that on the electric bass. Victor has become the new bar, the new standard for a lot of electric bass players today. There has now been a legion born of Wooten-ites, as we call them, who try to play like that. I guess it’s very similar to what happened when Jaco came on the scene; now, every electric bass player had to sound like Jaco to be considered hip. So Victor Wooten is very much in that position these days. I love what Victor does. Is this a recent recording? [It’s coming out.] Well, one thing I’ve heard in Victor’s playing recently more than what I’ve heard in the past is that I could tell his level of harmony has completely blown way past the stratosphere at this point. When I first heard Victor, he was more or less a straight-up kind of R&B-funk guy, but his technique on the electric bass was so incredible you couldn’t help but be affected by that. But now I know he’s been working with a lot of guys like Mike Stern and Chick, so he’s been in situations where the musicality now is almost at the level with his technique. So it’s really great to hear what Victor’s done with this new thing. I love it. 5 stars.

3.   Omer Avital, “Third World Love Story” (ARRIVAL, Fresh Sound, 2007) (Avital, bass, composer; Jason Lindner, piano; Jonathan Blake, drums; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Avi Lebovich, trombone)

Is it the bass player’s album? Is it his composition? If it’s his composition, I give him or her a few extra stars. I like the composition a whole lot. It was very soulful, interesting but not too complicated, as I know is a tendency to happen among a lot of jazz musicians in my generation and younger. We get so involved into the “hip” aspect of writing, sometimes we lose the simplicity of it all. This song had a nice, simple feeling to it. The only thing that I would have liked to hear a little different didn’t have anything to do with the bass player, but had to do with the comping behind the solo. I kind of wish the entire rhythm section would have come down a little more behind the solo, or maybe they could have raised the bass up in the mix a little more. But that was the only little minor thing that I heard that I might have thought I’d have done a little different. I could tell that whoever this is, is someone I know. The guys in the band, I could tell I probably I know them. But for the life of me, from that particular track, I can’t tell who it was. I’m not good at giving stars. Because any professional musician doing a helluva job like that, they’ve always got to get 5 stars. [AFTER] Johnathan Blake? I knew it! I should have said it. The last time Johnathan and I played together, I remember getting that same feeling. Listening to the drumming on this… When I did some gigs with the Mingus band, and Jonathan played drums, I remembered that same kind of feeling, like there’s someone behind chomping away! Not in a bad way, obviously. But I had a feeling it was Jonathan. Very nice, Omer. He’s such a jolly guy anyway. I love the cat. Omer! The big teddy bear.

4.   Eberhard Weber-Jan Garbarek, “Seven Movements” (STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY, ECM, 2007) (Weber, electric upright bass, composer; Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

Stanley Clarke. No? Is this person American? [Why would you ask a question like that?] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. [Go through your thought process.] My thought process is that most bass players I know with this kind of sound and that kind of facility, if it’s not Stanley Clarke, it’s always been someone from Europe. [The bassist is European.] Thank you! That part there has got to be overdubbed. That’s humanly impossible to play on the bass. You can’t go from a high E on the G string down a low G on the E string. Now, that can be played on the bass. [MIMICS FINGERING WITH LEFT HAND] Is this Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek. He’s done a lot of stuff with Kate Bush, hasn’t he? [This is 65th birthday concert.] So he’s really playing that live? I’d love to see that. Well, I dig that a lot also. For that particular thing, I don’t think two guys have that sound more together than Eberhard and Jan. Even the American cats who have recorded for ECM who have tried to kind of get that sound, that’s… We have our own explicit sound… When certain cats get that sound, we have a certain American way that it sounds. But that particular thing there, that’s entirely theirs, and they have their own definite fingerprint on that particular sound—which is, frankly, European. That’s not said to be an insult or a compliment. That’s just what it is. I liked it a lot. [Any speculations on what’s European about it?] It was much more based on harmony and melody than rhythm. I’ve found that most European music tends to rely less on rhythm than melodic and harmonic content, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for at that particular time. I think what we just heard is the preeminent way to capture that one thousand percent Euro sound. And it should be! 5 stars.

5.   Peter Washington, “Desafinado” (Steve Nelson, SOUND EFFECT, High Note, 2007) (Washington, bass; Nelson, vibraphone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that my dear friend, Lewis Nash? [On bass solo.] Is that Peter? Anything Peter Washington plays on gets 5 stars. Peter Washington has always been one of my favorite bass players of all time. He has such a big, big sound and such great time. He picks such great notes. Hearing him on record is almost misleading, because when you hear him live, his sound is so much bigger. It still sounds great on record, but hearing him live is even a bigger treat. Of course, the way he and Lewis have played together through the years, they’ve established a chemistry that’s pretty special. The way Lewis always plays behind everybody, particularly bass solos, is why he’s the hardest working man in the drum business, and he rightfully deserves to be, the way he plays behind everyone, particularly bass players. That’s why Ron Carter loves him so, that’s why I love him so, that’s why Peter loves him so. But getting back to Peter, he sounds great all the time. I’ve never heard him have a bad night, never heard him sound a little bit off—he’s always right in the pocket. Since I got Peter and Lewis, I don’t know if I want to put an egg on my face and guess the other two. I don’t know who the vibe player is. I was thinking he didn’t sound quite as eagle-like as Bobby Hutcherson or Steve Nelson. They’re both so much in the stratosphere, unless it was one of them purposely holding back. I certainly don’t think it was one of those two. It was Steve? Okay, Steve was trying to hold back. We’ve all seen Steve Nelson just take off on a spaceship and go above the clouds. And I respect him! He was trying to be cool on this one! But he still sounded great. Just by an educated guess, was it Renee playing piano? No? Kenny Barron maybe? You got me. Mulgrew. Ah, of course. Well, that’s the A-band.

6.   Reginald Veal, “Ghost In the House” (UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, Blue Note, 2004) (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Veal, bass; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums)

Just from the sound of the bass, it only leaves a handful of people. It’s got to be like Ben Wolfe or Carlos Enriquez. It’s not Reginald Veal. These are gut strings on this bass. I’d be very shocked if this is not Wynton’s group or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So is this Carlos playing bass? Is it Ben? Reginald?! Really! This must not be new, then. What is this from? Ah, the Jack Johnson film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reginald play with gut strings before. It certainly sounds like gut strings. I’ll tell you a little secret about Reginald Veal. I’ve always been very happy he never decided to be part of the New York scene—to kind of hit the Bradley’s scene, the Vanguard scene, and work around with the New York cats. Because if that were the case, a lot of us wouldn’t be working! I’ve loved Reginald Veal for a very long time, and I’ve heard him in many different situations with a lot of people. I think he’s most known in the jazz world for his association with Wynton. Also with Diane Reeves, but with I don’t think he was able to really stand out in that particular group like he did in Wynton’s group. But this particular thing here I don’t think would be the best representation of Reginald’s great ability. This was obviously a wonderful track. He played great, he sounded great, as he always does. But those of us who have seen Reginald through the years know he’s a sleeping giant, as they say. He’s a bad dude. 5 stars.

7.   Scott Colley, “Architect of the Silent Moment” (ARCHITECT OF THE SILENT MOMENT, CamJazz, 2007) (Colley, bass, composer; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; David Binney, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Is this Dave Holland? It’s killin’, whoever it is. I liked it a lot. I’m still trying to guess who the bass player was. Like I say, whoever it is, is really killin’. Maybe Patitucci. No? Good sound, good facility. Is that the bass player’s composition? There was a lot in there. I was trying to analyze it, but it’s hard to catch a lot of that stuff the first go-around. Obviously, it’s someone I could hearken back to when I talked about the…it has some very tricky parts in there. Compositionally, it’s built very well. For the first time around, it was a little bit of a challenge to find something to hang my hat on. I could tell it was definitely a really, really good composition, but from the very beginning I remember those slick dissonances between the bass part and the melody, and then how it kind of built into that section where it kind of explodes, where the drummer was kind of cutting loose at the end, and then the middle section where the solos were. So a lot of happening. Some good stuff going on. A couple of different drummers came to mind. Billy Drummond actually came to mind, but I know that’s not quite his sound. I’m a little stumped on who it might be, so I beg you to relieve me. 5 stars. Scott Colley? Dammit! Rooney, my good friend! Sure. I didn’t recognize Antonio’s sound, quite honestly. I’ve always known his drum sound to be a little different. But as I said before you told me who it was, whoever it was, was killing. Scott is definitely another one of my favorite musicians. I had no idea he was such a killing composer. I wouldn’t have guessed Craig.

8.   Francois Moutin, “Trane’s Medley” (Moutin Reunion Quartet, SHARP TURNS, Bluejazz, 2007) (Francois Moutin, bass, arranger; Louis Moutin, drums)

Is this Brian Bromberg? Well, that certainly would have gotten a lot of house in a big theater. It was certainly imaginative. Nice Coltrane tribute. My knee-jerk reaction is to say it might have been a little too choppy for me, and I don’t mean choppy in the sense that it didn’t flow. I mean choppy in the sense that whoever this person is has absolutely amazing chops, and it was used to the effect of garnish as opposed to meat on the plate. I say that with the utmost respect, because I know that people have said that about me from time to time. But with it being just bass and percussion, maybe that person felt a need to compensate for the lack of the piano and the guitar and whatever else was not there with some cute chop runs every now and then. But it was definitely imaginative, and it would have gotten plenty of house in a big theater. I don’t know too many acoustic bass players with those kinds of chops. After Bromberg, I’m a little stumped. 4 stars.

9.   Miroslav Vitous, “The Prayer” (UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS II, ECM, 2007) (Vitous, bass, composer, samples; Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Is the bass player also the composer? Really! Is this from a movie? I feel like I’m watching a movie. [What do you see in the movie?] Like a war scene or something like that. The after effects, or something like that. I’m so into the composition that my knee jerk reaction is that it almost doesn’t need a bass solo in it. Whoever the composer is, I’ll give a bunch of stars, more than 5, just for the feel and the arc of the composition. I think the bass solo, whoever it was, with all due respect, I don’t think it was needed. The composition stands alone very well by itself without the soloing in between. The saxophone, too; not just the bass. I could have stood for even a little silence in those holes there. But definitely a bunch of stars for the composition. I couldn’t tell who the bass player was. Miroslav! I actually got to play with Gary Campbell once. But wow, Miroslav, a huge amount of applause for that piece of music. That was awesome. It was also my first time really getting to hear his orchestral samples kind of up-close like that. I’ve heard them kind of on their own, just as a demonstration once.

10.  Buster Williams, “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly” (GRIOT LIBERTE, High Note, 2004) (Williams, bass, composer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums)

[AFTER 8 BARS OF OPENING BASS SOLO] Buster Williams. I know that album pretty well. That’s a great, great record, with George Colligan and Stefon Harris. Buster Williams has created such a legacy. He’s such an influential musician and such a really, really great composer. I’m not quite sure why more bass players don’t give it up to him, because he’s certainly right on that level where you would mention a Ray Brown or a Ron Carter or an Oscar Pettiford. I have always felt you had to mention Buster along with those guys. He’s also been able to develop a pretty identifiable sound. Even before he was using an amplifier, if you listen to him on, like, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, he still sounds a lot different from a lot of bass players from that period, and it just developed and developed. He has a sound like no other. When he’s playing quarter notes, man, when he starts swinging, it’s treacherous!—in a great way. Five million stars for anything he does.

11.  Hank Jones, “Prelude To A Kiss” (FOR MY FATHER, Justin Time, 2004) (Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Dennis Mackrell, drums)

This sounds like an elder statesman. Is that Doctor Taylor? [What makes it sound like an elder statesman to you?] Just the way they’re playing the time. It’s nice and relaxed. The language. The style of chords. Just the approach. It sounds like guys who never got stung by the Herbie-McCoy ‘60s bug. Interesting to give it to the drummer on the bridge, because it’s such a pretty bridge. I’m not saying drummers can’t play pretty. I still think it’s one of our elder statesmen. Was the bassist Earl May, or someone like that? It’s got to be Hank or Billy or someone like that. Georege Mraz? Aggh! There we go. 5 stars.

12. Ornette Coleman, “Sleep Talking” (SOUND GRAMMAR, 2006, Sound Grammar) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Is this Ornette with the two basses? Greg Cohen and I forget the other one. I’ve only seen this group in person, not on the record. I dig it. It’s kind of hard not to dig Ornette—for me. I remember when Melissa saw Ornette’s group at Carnegie Hall with Abbey Lincoln, and she said it was amazing because so many of these so-called “culture experts” who so-called know that Ornette is a genius, they couldn’t hang past the first tune. But I give props to Melissa. She hung in there the whole night. She said, “I dug it.” I was out with Metheny, and we saw them somewhere in Eastern Europe. But I dug it, man. I like the basses. Ornette might be the only person who would be able to get away with putting together something this loose. But knowing that it’s… Put it this way. If someone other than Ornette had to put this together, I’m not sure I would have understood it as much. He’s reached a point where he can put together almost anything and it will work as long as he is in the middle of it some kind of way. First of all, it was always my own personal opinion that Ornette was never really that out. I know he gets called the genius of the avant-garde, but I’ve always thought Ornette was pretty funky. I still hear plenty Texas in his playing, even when he’s really, really way out there. So I like that. That kind of ties it all together for me. So no matter how out it is, there’s still some hint of brisket underneath. [Meat is a frequent metaphor for you.] Yeah, man! 5 stars.

[END OF SOUND FILE]

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Filed under Article, Bass, Blindfold Test, Christian McBride, DownBeat, Ray Brown

Two DownBeat Feature Articles On Paquito D’Rivera from 2005 and 2009

I recently allowed the 68th birthday of Paquito D’Rivera, the singularly talented woodwindist (alto saxophone and clarinet) and composer, to pass without posting the texts of these two articles that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The first one covers a spectacular 50th anniversary as a musician concert in 2005 at which Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Candido, Yo Yo Ma, Rosa Passos, Portinho, Dave Samuels, the New York Voices, and Bill Cosby, among others, performed; the second, generated by DownBeat award for “Best Clarinetist of 2009,” contains a long interview and a prefatory essay.

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Paquito D’Rivera Article from 2005:

At the mid-point of a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in January, Paquito D’Rivera held his clarinet to the side, exhaled, and exclaimed, “I have never played so much shit in one day!” Ensconced in a small room at Carroll Studios on Manhattan’s Far West Side, D’Rivera, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Alon Yavnai had spent the previous half-hour working out the nuances of the fourth movement of Brahms’ Concerto for Clarinet, Cello and Piano before  a crowd of photographers, videographers, a Spanish film crew, various publicists, and select lookers-on. This followed a runthrough of D’Rivera’s elegant chamber piece, “Afro” and “No More Blues,” on which guitarist-singer Rosa Passos whispered Antonio Carlos Jobim’s undulating melody.

“I have heard that so many times, that I think I know your solo better than you do,” D’Rivera, dead-pan, declared to Yo-Yo Ma. “I think I can play it on the cello, too.”

“I think you should,” Ma shot back. His shirt-back was dark with perspiration, and he seemed ill at ease with the motley crowd.

D’Rivera persisted. “How do you write that passage for the string instrument?” he asked, referring to the cellist’s soulful, kaleidoscopic intro to “Afro.” “You play the same passage, but it sounds totally different.” “I play one on the first string and the other on the second string,” Ma responded. “Rock-and-Roll cellists do that,” D’Rivera said. He laughed lightly, and took his first break of the afternoon.

D’Rivera, who first worked professionally as a 6-year-old soprano saxophonist, was preparing for a next-evening “this is your life” Carnegie Hall concert billed as “Fifty Years and Ten Nights of Show Business” to acknowledge his golden anniversary on stage. More than 20 friends and colleagues from 15 countries convened in New York to celebrate the milestone.

He was fresh, alert, and in fine humor, despite a low-sleep week that included morning-to-night promotional appearances around New York and a 48-hour cross-country jaunt to International Jazz Educators’ Convention in Long Beach, California, where he accepted the NEA’s 2004 Jazz Masters Award. In another 48 hours, D’Rivera would fly to Uruguay to perform at a festival he booked, followed by a duo concert in Chile. A week later, he’d alight in New York, lay off a day, and embark on a three-week U.S. tour with the Assad Brothers.

“When I finish all these things, then I am going to be tired,” D’Rivera  said. He recalled a Carnegie Hall concert by Celia Cruz a few years before. “She was sick already,” he continued. “But when she went out to the stage, it was like a 25-year-old Baryshnikov. She did that show with so much energy, and when she finished and went to the dressing room, she became the old lady that she was. Maybe this profession does that to you.”

When emphasizing a point in conversation, D’Rivera likes to interpolate references to food and its byproducts, just as he frequently signifies on his alto saxophone solos by quoting choice licks from the lexicon of Charlie Parker.

“It’s like having sushi and black beans and rice and Indian food at the same time,” he responded, as if on cue, to a question about the challenge of performing tangos, chorinhos, sambas, various Cuban idioms, hardcore jazz, and classical music over a single event. “But you have to be very sure of what you’re doing in all the styles. It’s like a cook trying to mix Chinese food with Cuban food. If you know both styles, that can taste really good. But if not, it’s like Ray Brown said once—‘chopped onions with chocolate ice cream.”

Relaxed in a brand-new black Jazz Masters t-shirt, jeans and tan loafers, D’Rivera had launched his Sunday marathon with ‘90s Caribbean Jazz Project partners Andy Narrell and Dave Samuels, tackling an intricate Samuels arrangement of “Night In Tunisia” and fine-tuning the details of “Andalucia,” a D’Rivera homage to iconic Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The Americans exited and a trio of Brazilians—drummer Portinho, who had worked with D’Rivera throughout the ‘80s, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and Ms. Passos, who sang “So Dança Samba.”

“Caribbean music is pure happiness,” said D’Rivera. “But Brazilians are the only people in the world who get the feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. Saudade. I tried to translate that word once, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nostalgia.’ There was a Brazilian musician who told me, ‘no, it’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is something else. This is saudade.’

“The Brahms Trio is hard to play, but that doesn’t matter. I have worked like a slave on some hard pieces, and nothing happened at the end. But this piece is so well written, so profound, so logical and original. It’s very jazzy, too. The polyrhythms of Brahms have a lot to do with jazz music.”

Across the room, D’Rivera spotted trumpeter Claudio Roditi, his frequent partner in the ‘80s. “When I came to New York, I surrounded myself with Brazilian musicians like Portinho and Claudio,” he stated. “I mentioned several famous names I’d been listening to, and they told me, ‘I think you have to do your homework again; that is not the real thing,’ and they illustrated. Then I became a new-born Brazilian!”

In strolled the members of the New York Voices, who collaborated last year with D’Rivera and Roditi on Brazilian Dreams [Manchester Guild].

D’Rivera rose for greetings and salutations. “Two of three people who made me forget to play are here,” he said. “Toots Thielemans was the first one. Then the New York Voices and Yo-Yo Ma. When they play, I forget to play sometimes.”
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“Paquito reminds me of the musicians I played with in Cuba,” said conguero Candido Camero, who left the island in 1955, and met D’Rivera for the first time in 1987. “Especially the ones who play saxophone, clarinet and flute. His style, his phrasing, his sound, the feeling, the touch. The new generation always have different ideas. But the root stays.”

D’Rivera concurred. “I grew up listening to this music,” he remarked as Candido, bassist Cachao and pianist Bebo Valdes, 255 years between them, settled in for their leg of the rehearsal.  “It’s like playing marbles with my father, or baseball.”

The camera-folk jockeyed for position, and Joseluis Ruperez, the producer of the Spanish TV crew, firmly pushed them back. The elders and D’Rivera spoke in Spanish as someone fetched tape for Candido’s hands and timbalero Ralph Irizarry found the right position. Then D’Rivera and Cachao—holding his bow as he plucked the refrain—began to play a danzon. They applied themselves to “Priquitin Pin Pon,” which appears on the 2001 recording El Arte De Sabor [Blue Note]. Over three takes, Bebo Valdes soloed effervescently, uncorking fluid, ascendant chromatic lines that reversed direction like dancers spinning and twirling. On his solo, Cachao transitioned seamlessly from pizzicato to bow; positioned behind the piano, Yo-Yo Ma observed intently. After working out the appropriate clave structure, they stretched out over several similarly dynamic explorations of “Lagrimas Negras,” which D’Rivera recently had recorded with Valdes and flamenco singer El Cigala on a CD of that name.

Applause erupted when they were done. The photographers broke down equipment, the musicians dispersed, and D’Rivera packed up, ready for a short dinner break and a Carnegie Hall evening rehearsal for the orchestral portion of “Fifty Years and Ten Nights In Show Business.”
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Earlier, at 10-sharp, D’Rivera, wearing a crisply pressed cranberry guayabera and blue flowered bowtie, briskly entered the Patrons’ Room at the Buckingham Hotel, a block down 57th Street from Carnegie Hall, for a photo session.  Soon, Bebo Valdes strolled in, fortified against the chill  in a down jacket from and plaid flannel shirt from Sweden, where he eventually settled after leaving Cuba in 1960. At 86, he sustained an endless smile, carrying his six-and-a-half foot frame with only a slight stoop. As Bebo and co-producer Ettore Strata mock-conducted to a photographed score of Paderewski’s “Minuet,” Cachao, on a cane, slipped in like a shadow, a wry smile on his face.

After a succession of hugs and poses, the room emptied. With saxophonist Enrique Fernandez translating, the legends, born a month apart in 1918, sat on a couch and reminisced about D’Rivera’s  father, Tito, a skilled saxophonist who sold instruments, musical accessories and records at his Havana music store. When Paquito was 5, Tito bought him a Selmer soprano saxophone,  taught him to play it, and played him records by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie with Lester Young, Tito’s favorite saxophonist. He even introduced him to bebop.

“One day he came home with a 10-inch LP, and said, ‘I want you to hear something,’” D’Rivera recalls. “It was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker!” He sings the refrain of “Thriving On a Riff” from 1945. “We heard the whole thing in total silence, and after the last note he asked me, ‘Did you like it?’ I said, ‘No. What about you?’ He said, ‘Me either. But they are good musicians, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what is so confusing. I can’t understand anything, but I can feel that this is something special.’ So we kept listening. My father had played in a military band, and although he hated the military, he kept that discipline. But in some ways, he was very open-minded.”

Cachao worked with Tito D’Rivera as early as 1934 in a singing group called the Martinez Brothers, and later purchased bass strings from his store. “My first experience with Paquito was performing a clarinet and orchestra piece by Weber with the Havana Philharmonic when he was 12,” he said. “Even then he was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, but Tito imposed a lot of discipline. Paquito was complete.”

Bebo Valdes interjected an anecdote. “Way before Paquito was born, Tito was a boyfriend of a beautiful mulata named Silvia,” he said with a laugh. “I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us always went out together. I played with him a lot at the Rivoli, which was a place for blacks and whites. He was a very good musician and a great person. When I started working at the Tropicana, the famous Havana nightclub, he sold instruments to the musicians who worked there. If somebody couldn’t pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, ‘Another week will come; don’t worry about it.’”

Then he became serious. “Paquito plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range,” he said firmly. “But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life. He’s a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style, and he knows the very old traditional music from Cuba. His range is formidable. Now he’s focusing a lot on the music of South America, particularly things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina.”

Cachao emphasized that D’Rivera, in his insistence on addressing all styles of music with idiomatic thoroughness, follows the aesthetic imperatives that molded music in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

“In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”
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Surprisingly, D’Rivera states that he had no interest in a pan-American aesthetic when he lived in Cuba, perhaps because, during his teens, the regime propounded a cultural nationalist line that frowned on jazz as a counter-revolutionary Yanqui diversion. Official opprobrium seemed to strengthen the youngster’s resolve to use jazz and improvisation as a vehicle for free expression. Informed by a samizdat of bootleg cassettes and Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts, D’Rivera soaked up vocabulary from Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. The learning curve accelerated after 1967, when the authorities, switching gears, authorized the creation of an orchestra devoted to jazz. Within several years, Irakere, the Cuban super-group, took shape.

In 1980, when D’Rivera was 32, he landed in Madrid for a tour with Irakere, ran up a down escalator to escape his handlers, and famously defected. “I was stranded in Madrid, and a group of musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay got me a gig in a place called Dallas Jazz Club,” he recalls. “It was the first time I mixed jazz standards and some originals with Brazilian and Cuban music, and tango.

“The environment in New York enabled me to explore further. I always prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

During a pizza break at Carroll Studios, some of D’Rivera’s colleagues commented on the qualities that distinguish his tonal personality. All spoke of his instrumental virtuosity and aesthetic scope. But they also referred to his voracious curiosity and energy, his insistence on mastering the details—in short, the attitude that enables an exile to create a room of one’s own in a foreign land.

“Paquito plays Brazilian music with the feeling of Brazilian people—the same heart, almost the same culture,” Romero Lubambo stated. “He doesn’t just play popular music, like the samba,” Portinho added. “He is able to play chorinhos, the classical Brazilian music which is very difficult to play right.”

“It’s been a real trial by fire education,” said Chicago-born Mark Walker, D’Rivera’s drummer of choice since 1989. “We go to all these South American and Caribbean countries, get the CDs, hang out with the cats. Sometimes, Paquito wants to play a rhythm from that place the night we arrive.”

“He understands the rhythmic cell of each musical style, which is why when he mixes them, one doesn’t sound like the other,” said Alon Yavnai, an Israeli of Argentine descent. “He’s a lizard. Not cold-blooded, of course, but he can change the colors, and still you know it’s Paquito D’Rivera after a couple of notes. I also love how quickly he thinks on stage. He gives a lot of freedom, and he’s unpredictable. Tunes don’t sound the same; today he plays one solo he will never play again. But again, his personality is always there.”
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“Now I have to forget everything,” D’Rivera said.

An hour before the concert, he betrayed no tension at the prospect of performing polyglot repertoire with constantly shifting personnel configurations—and also serving as his own emcee—before a sold-out house at the world’s most prestigious venue.   Still in soundcheck gear of t-shirt and jeans, he stood in the common area that centers Carnegie Hall’s third floor dressing rooms, examining a table laden with depleted trays of fried pork, meatballs, fried peppers, rice in squid ink, humus, and an enormous cold salmon flown in that day from Alaska by a friend, the proprietress of a restaurant called Ludwig.

“I didn’t recognize her,” D’Rivera remarked. “I could not believe that somebody flew from Alaska with a salmon to come to this concert! Really it’s the whole world!”

D’Rivera greeted the indifferent 3-year-old daughter of New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan, talked numbers with producer Pat Philips, and laughed uproariously at the antics of concert host Bill Cosby, who made a beeline for the room in which Cachao and Bebo sat. With twenty minutes to spare, he finally made his way upstairs to change.

On stage at 8:05 sharp, Cosby stated, “The gentleman who is honoring…himself has done a brilliant job.” He concluded the roast with the observation that D’Rivera’s “shoes, when you see them, will be out of season.” Wearing white boots to complement his black suit, D’Rivera riposted. “I have not enough words in my limited English language,” he said, as Cosby departed for the wings, “to thank Mr. Bing Crosby…”

For the next three hours, D’Rivera—sustaining a steady stream of jokes and patter, moving traffic, playing immaculate ensembles, soloing with inspiration, and eying an 11 o’clock witching hour at which union overtime began—might have been presiding over a party in his living room. There were many highlights. A polyrhythmic, overtone-rich solo on “Andalucia” by Columbian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda with the Caribbean Jazz Project. An abstract D’Rivera clarinet variation on “Why Not?” counterstating pianist Michel Camilo’s  florid declamation; a leaping solo on “Adagio,” framed by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by Tania Leon, his conservatory classmate; a delicate duet with the harmonized a capella voices of Kinhan and Kim Nazarian on “Modinha.”

The chamber trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Alon Yavnai matched the intensity of the rehearsals. Cosby emerged to introduce the Cuban elders, remarking, “I think we should do this at the Museum of Natural History.” Striking the drum with his shaved head to punctuate the beats, Candido uncorked a showmanship solo, but Bebo and Cachao, perhaps fatigued after a three-hour wait in the dressing room, played with far less vigor than the previous day.

Fifteen minutes remained for the four orchestral pieces—a set of Gershwin variations showcasing D’Rivera’s wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano—and things got sloppy. At the closing vamp of the finale, “To Brenda With Love,” performed by D’Rivera’s sextet and the orchestra, Spanish flamenco dancer Raphael Tamargo, in a white-on-white suit-shirt ensemble, twirled, gesticulated, and stomped, resolving into a pirouette and a hand-clasp with the leader.

At the after-party, D’Rivera, momentarily anonymous at the bar, briefly bemoaned the union’s inflexible overtime policy. “Even in Germany, they’re more reasonable,” he said with some asperity. He sipped from a glass of red wine.

“My father was very strict about making sure that I kept a level head and didn’t let my ego get too inflated,” he said, shaking his head at the audacity of having made himself the centerpiece of such an expansive evening. “Confidence is a completely different thing, but there is a very thin line between them.”

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Paquito D’Rivera Piece From 2009:

“There was a great Cuban folklorist-writer called Lydia Cabrera, who went to study in Paris in the 1920s, and started missing her land,” said Paquito D’Rivera, relaxing in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note, a few hours before hitting the bandstand with his quintet. “She said, ‘I discovered Cuba from the bank of the Seine River.’ I discovered Latin America on the banks of the Hudson River.”

This process began in 1980, when D’Rivera, then 32, while on tour with the Cuban super-group Irakere, ran up a down escalator in the Madrid airport to escape his Cuban handlers, and famously defected. “Spain was my first Latin Jazz gig,” he stated. “Irakere was just a dance band that played some concerts—Cuban music mixed with classical and rock. But in Spain, I met up with a group of Argentineans, Brazilians, and Uruguayan musicians—they played Samba, tango some candomble from Uruguay. I started learning all those styles. Then here in New York, I had the opportunity to work with the Brazilians, who are people not from another country but another planet. I have dedicated a big part of my career, to Brazilian music. But I also like Venezuela, and Argentinean tango and Mexican guapango, too.”

D’Rivera wore a red guayabana shirt, crisply pressed black pants and well-shined black shoes. His face revealed deeply chiseled embouchure lines from a lifetime spent blowing on his array of wind instruments—he made his public debut as a six-year-old curved soprano saxophonist, graduated to clarinet a few years later, and launched his alto saxophone investigations at 11.

Deploying excellent English, he continued his account of becoming a polylingual musician. “In fact, this started in Cuba,” he said. “I composed one of my most popular pieces, ‘Wapango,’  in 1970 for the Carlos Azerhoff Saxophone Quartet. Later, I arranged it for strings and jazz groups and all that. For Irakere, I wrote ‘Molto Adagio,’ which is the second movement of the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, arranged in a bluesy way. I like doing all those hybrids. Now I prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

In his predisposition to present repertoire drawn from a pan-American stew of musical flavors, addressed with attention to a full complement of idiomatic detail,  D’Rivera—who spent his first decade in the U.S. working extensively with ur-one-worlder Dizzy Gillespie, and employed such avatars of hybridity as Danilo Perez and Edward Simon in the piano chair in various ‘90s iterations of his quintet—has had an enormous impact on the development of jazz thinking over the past two decades. In truth, his musical production hews to the aesthetic imperatives that guided Cuba’s incomparable musicians before the revolution terminated the casino-fueled economy that had provided them gainful employment and offered them first-hand contact with musicians from around the world.

This reality came forth in a conversation several years ago with the late bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, who was playing bass when D’Rivera, then 12, performed Weber’s clarinet concerto with the Havana Symphony. “In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”

Another continuity that links D’Rivera to his Cuban antecedents is his formidable command of all his instruments, not least the clarinet, as evidenced by his 2009 “Best” award in Downbeat’s Readers Poll. Sitting with Cachao in that same conversation, pianist Bebo Valdes, like Cachao a friend of D’Rivera’s saxophonist father Tito from the 1930s, stated: “Paquito is  a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style. He plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range. But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life.”

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You like to quote a Frank Wess quip that the clarinet, which is made of five pieces, was invented by five men who never met. However, by your account in your memoir, My Sax Life, you’ve had two extremely good instruments. In 1959, your father got you a Selmer, and then in 1997, you ordered a custom-made clarinet.

I used Selmers all my life, because my father was the representative of the company in Havana. He had a very small office, about as big as this room! He even had contrabasses and tubas in it. He ordered for me a covered-hole, center-tone Selmer. Covered hole because I was very skinny, my fingers were thin, and he was concerned that I would not be able to cover the holes. That instrument is now in the Smithsonian Institute. Together with that, he ordered the open hole model, which he gave me when I knew the fingering of the instrument. That’s the clarinet I played until 1997, when Luis Rossi, from Santiago, Chile, made for me this wonderful instrument that I play now, which is made not out of black wood, but rosewood.

The great Al Gallodoro, who passed away a couple of years ago, when he was 95 years old, called what I play the “smart man clarinet.” It’s an instrument with 7 rings and an articulated g-sharp on the left hand, like a saxophone. It’s very comfortable. Benny Goodman used it for a little while, and also Artie Shaw, but the instrument never had success. For some reason. I’ve gotten so used to it that for me it’s very hard to play a regular, 17-key clarinet. When I showed my old Selmer to Buddy DeFranco, he told me, “Wow! Too many keys in the way!”

You played your first public concert at six in Havana, on curved soprano saxophone. Which jazz clarinetists did you hear and assimilate when you were young?

Benny was the first American musician who impressed me—that concert he recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1938, with Lionel Hampton and Ziggy Elman, Harry James, and the wonderful Teddy Wilson. Then Artie Shaw, and of course, Jimmy Hamilton from the Ellington band. But Benny playing swing—my father never used the word jazz, only “swing,” even if it was Ornette Coleman—but also Benny’s rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was very illuminating at that tender age, that Ellington concept that there are only two kinds of music—good and the other stuff.

I tried to assimilate the different styles by copying them. I copied Benny with the soprano. Later on, my father came home with a 78 recording of Buddy DeFranco playing “Out of Nowhere.” [SINGS SOLO] When Buddy started improvising, I said, “Wow! What is that? A clarinet playing bebop?”—I’d already heard Dizzy and Bird. But a clarinet was not supposed to do that. What I heard in my ears was Jimmy Hamilton and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. So this guy is going [SINGS FAST BEBOP LINE] [DO-PE-DO-DE-DIDDLE-PLA...] with a clarinet! Wow, what a surprise! So  I started trying to copy Buddy DeFranco. It’s normal to try to copy your idols when you are a kid. But my first idol was Benny, and he still is today. Sound is the main thing in music, and he had that characteristic clarinet sound. I used to transcribe not only Benny’s solo, but Toots Mondello and Harry James, and even Gene Krupa’s playing, and tried to copy some Lionel Hampton solos. [SINGS LIONEL HAMPTON LICK VERBATIM]

You wrote that your progression was from soprano to clarinet to alto saxophone, and that your father taught you alto saxophone with the Marcel Mulé method, the French school.

Yes. The French School was very strong in my formation. My dad had the Conjunto Sinfonico de Saxophones—Symphonic Group of Saxophones—in 1943, I believe. That was the year after Marcel Mulé was appointed professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and founded his saxophone quartet. He started bringing all those books, and the pieces that were written for Marcel Mule by Jacques Ibert, Eugene Bozza, and many others. I grew up listening to and playing that music with a pianist friend of my father. It’s hard to explain why French music is so influential on my style, but I feel it. Maybe in using the staccato a lot when blowing the saxophone. Most jazz players play legato lines. Very few use the staccato—Wynton Marsalis, Claudio Roditi, I can’t think of anyone else. It comes from classical training.

You’ve said that it was your father’s ambition for you to be a clarinetist in the symphony orchestra.

Yes, I did it for a while. But I like improvised music, and didn’t feel happy in the orchestra as a main gig. So I did it for a while, and I did some chamber music, which  I enjoy even more than the symphony. I went with my father to play in stage bands, with the second or first clarinet. Even in cabarets. When I started playing the alto, at 11 or 12, I’d go to a cabaret that had a variety show, and my father would say, “please let the kid play the show.” And the guy was happy. “Ok!” He’d go to the bar and I’d play the show for nothing. I had my uniform and everything. I was very tall. It was important to my father that I learn how to play in a section, not only by myself. He’d bring home the third alto book for me to learn the notes. I did different types of things, as did many Cuban musicians, who had to do any type of music for surviving. I still maintain that tendency. Of course, improvised music, jazz, is my favorite, but I love playing other things. I love the complexity of Igor Stravinsky’s music. Bartok. Certain composers are more appealing to some jazz people because they are hippest. But how do you explain what is more hip? There is something hip about Stravinsky. Brahms is a hip composer. Milhaud. Ravel. Debussy. They have more affinity with the jazz language.

When you played jazz early on, was it on clarinet or saxophone?

Mostly on the saxophone. I was into Charlie Parker then, and later on Paul Desmond. Jackie McLean I liked also—it’s amazing how he could swing playing one note, even if he played it out of tune!

In a New York Times performance review, Ben Ratliff wrote: “No performer should be at full voltage all the time, and the clarinet subdues Mr. D’Rivera’s super-abundant energy.” Is that a remark you can relate to?

I  think that’s right. When you maintain the same energy all the time, it can be boring. The alto and clarinet have totally different personalities. It’s two instruments that are cousins, like Palestinians and Israelis. They don’t get along! Clarinet players that try to play the saxophone with the same concept, it’s not going to work.

My father was a saxophone player, and didn’t know how to play clarinet. Later on, he bought one, and learned to play it. I’m not sure who taught him. But suddenly, he showed up at home playing the clarinet, then he showed me how to play. My father was a self-taught person. He went to school only to the sixth grade, because he had to work in a printing press. He told me it was so hard, and when he was 15-16 years old, he decided to buy a saxophone. He learned how to play with friends.

Was there a clarinet tradition in Cuban music? There’s a flute tradition in Cuban charanga music.

It’s a different type of flute, what you call the 5-key flute. But yes, there was a clarinet tradition that was lost. The clarinet was never a soloist. So it’s a tradition, but not a strong tradition of clarinet playing there.

So for you as a young person, the clarinet was more a window into classical music.

Classical and some swing also, because of Benny Goodman.

Can we say that the alto saxophone was more your improvising instrument?

Yes, especially because of Parker.

How did your sensibility on the clarinet evolve over the years? Now you use it…

More and more. Mario Bauza gave me a clarinet and a mouthpiece when I came here; after my ex-wife sent me my old center-tone Selmer from Cuba, I gave it back to him. Mario and Dizzy said, “You should play the clarinet more; there’s not too many clarinet players around.” The scene for the clarinet was not very encouraging. It still is not. It’s improving, but it’s there’s still very few of us. It’s too much sacrifice for something that people really don’t feel. It’s easier to feel the sound of the flute.

Do you mean feel physically?

Both physically and musically. To make the clarinet sound hip into the world of modern jazz, it takes double or triple or quadruple the effort than with the saxophone. For that, you have to love the instrument. You buy a flute and go [SINGS ‘FHWOOOO’]—it’s hip already. Only the sound of the wind. FHWOOOO. It swings already, like a trombone. The trombonist goes, BWOOH, and it swings, like a baritone saxophone. But to make a sopranino swing, it’s a pain in the ass!

An LP that inspired me to play the clarinet again was Breaking Through by Eddie Daniels, with arrangements by the great Argentinean composer-arranger Jorge Calandrelli, who arranged for Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and so many others. Jorge told me about it. I hadn’t heard of Eddie Daniels in years, just from playing tenor with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn’t know that he played the clarinet. I felt so inspired. Wow! Clarinet again! Mario and Dizzy were right. So I started playing it more and more. Eddie gave me the encouragement that I needed. He started getting big after that. He revolutionized the clarinet world.

I enjoyed your autobiography, My Sax Life. You write the way you talk, which is no small accomplishment.

I sent the manuscript to a friend who grew up with me in the neighborhood. When I called her, she started crying and said, “That book is like talking to you.” I said, “Is that good or bad?” “It’s great!”

A common theme from your musical partners is that, for all your extreme technique, you’re also a very spontaneous player who doesn’t repeat solos, plays fresh things, remains in the moment.

I agree. Many young players—and among them many Cuban young players—have a tendency to overuse technique. Weapons are to use when you need them. You use technique if you need it to play a certain thing. If not, it sounds like an imposition. It’s supposed to sound effortless. Some people use it and try to make it look harder than it really is.

In the book you convey a conversation with Maraca Valles, the Cuban flutist, where he offers an opinion that the quality of aggressiveness you just mentioned amongst younger Cuban musicians reflects the tension and generalized anxiety in their lives. of the musicians. At the end of last year, you debuted your first all-Cuban band since moving to the States.

That was a fantastic thing, to work with people like Charles Flores, the wonderful bass player, who has worked with Michel Camilo. I heard talk about him all the time, Manuel Valera played  piano—his father is an old friend of mine. We have a very good guitar player and singer (a tenor) who came from Canada, Mario Luis Ochoa.  Ernesto Simpson, a great drummer. Pedrito Martinez was singing and playing percussion. Pedrito is one of the most talented Cuban musicians around. He plays the percussion instruments beautifully, and he is one of the few Cuban percussionists who understand Brazilian music. That is another groove that they don’t mix. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis! They are cousins, but I remember a Cuban entertainer in Spain who told me, “Cubans don’t understand Samba and Brazilians will never understand clave.”

Why?

Nobody can explain that to me. I don’t see any reason. We are cousins. Even the same African religions and all that. But Pedrito can play the bandera very well. Pedrito understands any type of music very easily, and especially Brazilian music.

It’s hard to maintain that band, though. If you live in Miami or in Cuba, you have Cuban musicians all over the place, but here you don’t have ten Cuban trumpet players and four bassists. You only have one or two. So I only do it once in a while. My goal is to do a Cuban big band one day. Mostly we played modern Cuban music. It was an experiment. I wanted to feel it, and it was very nice. One day I will organize it again. I want to record. But I have to work with my regular quintet. I am in love with that band, too.

Did you play percussion instruments when you were younger?

I think most Cuban musicians know how to play a little bit. I know how to play a conga, for example. Or a bongo. For five minutes. After that, I look for someone else.  Folkloric rhythms were part of the decor. It was on the radio, with my mother sewing and cooking and listening to Celia Cruz, and danzones and so on.

How is your relationship with the younger musicians, who grew up under Castro? For example, at the beginning of the ‘90s there was sniping between you and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I know that’s long in the past…

Yes, it’s in the past. Now I understand them. They are sick and tired of listening to talk about politics and all that. They want to keep that behind them. It’s a totally different way of thinking. They grew up with that thing there, and they have ties with it. In my opinion, they see Cuba like a total disaster, but it’s like home. Then they come here, and this is different. They don’t have—and this is an assumption—the intention to change that for a better life. They want to help their family, send some money, send some medicine. They have no intention to protest, to denounce the atrocities—and I understand it. These new kids ignore the government. I cannot do it!.

With the transitions have occurred in Cuba over the past few years, what would you like to see transpire?

A normal country. That’s all we want.

By what process? What’s a realistic scenario?

With these people, there are no realistic ways. They don’t want to recognize the reality. So the realistic thing, no. I think the ideal thing is what happened in South Africa, what happened in Czechoslovakia, and what happened in Spain. Forget what happened, let’s start something new, blah-blah-blah. Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution, and the country is working perfectly. The same thing with Spain and in South Africa. At least they didn’t kill each other or anything. But in Cuba they don’t want to change anything. People love to put words in their mouth. “No, they are going to change.” “No-no, I’ve been telling you for fifty years, we are not going to change nothing. We are going to PERFECT this piece of shit.”

So predicting what is going to happen, nobody knows. It’s too complicated. So like Americans say, let’s hurry up and wait.

Romero Lubambo once remarked, “Paquito always brings you to your limit, and then past it.” I suppose the corollary is that you’re as demanding of yourself.

Musicians sometimes don’t know how good they are. I force myself also to do things, and they force me to do things because they are high quality. When you are over 50 years in a profession, and you look back and see that your work has been fruitful, and you have conquered the love and respect of your peers, it’s an accomplishment. Those are my friends, part of my family, my musical family, the people who work with me. I learned a lot from Claudio Roditi, for example, and also from Fareed Haque, the guitarist, and from Michel Camilo, who knows Venezuelan music so well. Also Oscar Stagnaro, my bass player, who is my scout.

You launched your imprint, Paquito Records, last year with Funk Tango, which won the Latin Grammy. Will there be a followup in the catalogue?

My second project will be Benny at One Hundred. Actually, “Benny At One Hundred” is the name of the first movement of a sonata that was commissioned by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The first movement is dedicated to Benny Goodman, and it’s dedicated to his centenary, which is this year. I’m planning to go to the studio at the end of November and record  that movement and other pieces.

When my father, who was a classical saxophone player, played me that LP, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, that changed my life until today. Jazz is still my favorite activity in my life. For me, it used to have a political connotation—I wanted to play only jazz in Cuba to contradict what the Establishment said. But I love improvising. It’s the result of a multinational country. The result is a multinational style of music, and you can add anything, and if you keep the spirit of this music, it still is called jazz. I love what Herbie Hancock said many years ago when he was asked what is jazz, and he said, “something impossible to define and very easy to recognize.”

[POSSIBLE FOR INSERT]

Gunther Schuller a few years ago wanted to do a music school  for professional musicians, not to play like Jascha Heifetz, but to play the violin so you can do a jingle in the morning, and then the opera, and learn to improvise a little bit. But now, the art of improvisation is a mystery for classical musicians. I remember the face of terror on a very fine young trombonist I wanted him to play not in a jazz style, but on top of a montuno that I was playing with the rhythm section—WHAAP-WHAAP, PING-PING-PING, WHAAP from A-flat to B-flat. That’s it. He looked at me so terrorized, like he saw Adolf Hitler or something! WHAAP-WHAAP, That is something that is missing in the music schools, on both sides. Of course, nobody paid attention to Gunther Schuller. But that was a great idea, to open a music school where people learn how to play Brahms and how to play Monk.

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Filed under Clarinet, Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Paquito D'Rivera

For Geri Allen’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2010

In recognition of the birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen, here’s the text of a long piece that Jazziz gave me the opportunity to write about her in 2010.

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“Music can be a lot of different things. It can be about the celebration of the intellect. It can be about the celebration of the body and movement. It can be about a quest. It can give you an inner strength, create a fertile place for peace to exist. I think that what I’ve come to want from music is to have all of those things in it.”—Geri Allen

Geri Allen’s concurrent spring 2010 releases on the Motéma label, Flying Toward The Sound and Live, her first since 2006, are works of high distinction. The former, a tour de force subtitled “A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock,” is a suite of eight original compositions on which the composer “refracts”—her terminology—the vocabularies of that distinguished troika into her own lyrical, kinetic argot, conveyed with authority and refinement. The latter, culled from a pair of concerts, is the bebopcentric debut recording of Timeline, an Allen-led unit, conceived a decade ago, with veteran bassist Kenny Davis, youngblood drummer Kasa Overall, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who propel a succession of improvisations that are a step up in intense rhythmic edge and speculative spirit from Allen’s more programmatic, curated recordings of the past decade.

Both offerings were imminent last April when Allen did a week at the Village Vanguard, and considering the context, she might well have treated the occasion as an opportunity for a preview. Instead, she convened a new quartet, with two old friends—tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Jeff Watts—and up-and-coming bassist Joe Sanders. Each contributed two compositions. She functioned as essentially a co-equal member of the ensemble, allowing interpretations to coalesce from night to night in a workshop-like manner, lightly guiding the flow.

“It’s my band, but I decided that I wanted it to be free,” Allen explained over lunch a few days before the summer solstice. “I want everybody to have this opportunity to own it together.”

“Whenever I work with Geri, it’s a family thing, like going to my cousin’s house,” Watts remarks. They met at the cusp of the ‘80s when Allen was working towards a Masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was pretty new to jazz, trying to figure things out,” he recalled. “Geri was fluent in blues and bebop, had absorbed a lot from Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and was studying world music, things about South India and Africa—what pygmies were singing and so on—and applying it to her music. She was already a professional great musician.”

This became apparent to the broader jazz public when Minor Music, a German label, issued Allen’s 1984 debut, The Printmakers, a trio date with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, and Home Grown, a 1985 solo recital. Numerous next-generation pianists took note.

“Her perspective was rooted in tradition, but simultaneously daring and experimental—a truly modern musician,” says Vijay Iyer, who soaked up Home Grown at 17. “Her music contained intense polyphony, like African drumming at the piano. Her groove was really strong, but variable and fluid, almost speechlike at times. She created vibrant colors, and she wasn’t afraid to work with technology. She never had a bag that she was playing, but sounded like herself all the time.”

Jason Moran experienced his eureka moment upon hearing Allen’s brief solo towards the end of the first song on V, a long out of print Ralph Peterson ensemble date.  “I heard phrases I’d had never heard played on piano before, more assured than Andrew Hill, freer than Herbie Nichols—firm but strange ideas that felt almost familiar and inviting, but you were unsure what it was,” he says. “I was convinced she’d made the newest mark on modern jazz piano, the next step into the future.”

It’s hard to think of any comparably prominent musicians among Allen’s ‘80s peer group who matched her willingness to engage with multiple musical dialects, to incorporate both  “inside” and “outside” approaches into her expression. “I don’t see this as a conflict,” Allen says of her comfort zone with crossing lines that most players won’t. “I see it as a right. All artists have the right to make a statement, and it’s my right to interject all my influences, to walk through different points of view, to give respect to all these musics I love while remaining grounded in jazz as my core expression, and embracing the rigors of that choice.”

Towards actualizing this aesthetic, Allen has piggybacked on “the rebel spirit” of the visionary pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, whose compositions and arrangements she most recently performed and music-directed during a three-night centennial birthday tribute at the Kennedy Center in May. Allen launched her intimate relationship with Williams’ corpus during Pittsburgh days, took it to another level when she portrayed Williams in the Robert Altman film Kansas City, and documented it on the 2005 recording Zodiac Suite: Revisited, Allen’s only recording not devoted primarily to her original music.

Most consequentially, Williams’ insistence on establishing her own terms of engagement throughout a half-century in the music business made Allen “feel entitled to try to find my voice through composition.” A further draw was “her level of fearlessness—to be so well-prepared that whatever you throw at this person, they’re going to land on their feet.” At the same time, Allen adds, “Mary represented the absolute core of jazz. She understood the power of knowing and embracing whence she came, which is where true freedom must live.”

Which is why, in 2008, when Williams’ personal manager, Father Peter O’Brien, wrote a Guggenheim Fellowship grant proposal for Allen to develop a solo piano project, she opted to draw on Hancock, Tyner and Taylor for raw materials. “I’ve been teaching a lot for the last few years, and focusing on ensembles,” she said, referencing her position as Associate Professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation Studies at the University of Michigan. “For this, I decided to create a research opportunity that could morph into focusing on the challenges of what playing the piano is.

“These musicians changed the way we think about the piano’s function in ensemble and solo contexts. Their solo language broke through and created shifts. They’re heroes who celebrate human ingenuity. They let us know that to join this continuum, you must do the formidable task of learning the tradition, but also find your voice in that.”

[BREAK]

Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson calls his first Allen sighting—a 1990 Minneapolis performance with Anthony Cox and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff—“one of the most important concerts I ever saw.”

“It was something to do with Africa, something to do with free jazz—spiritual and surreal at the same time,” says Iverson, who was then 19. “She seems to have thought about and reinterpreted each style that concerned her—Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy—in a postmodern way. She’s like a chameleon.”

“Chameleon” is an apropos descriptor for Allen’s pan-stylistic sensibility, informed by several overlapping streams of influence, not least of which emanate from Hancock, Taylor and Tyner for “the amazing power of their sound production, their approaches to touch, their attacks on the instrument,” and their projection of identity through composition. But “Chameleon” is also the title of a popular Hancock tune from 1973, when the teenage Allen was paying close attention to Hancock’s plugged-in Headhunters band. “That sound was on the cutting edge of what I was experiencing growing up,” she says. “It had a feeling that I knew from Detroit’s avant-garde scene, and it opened up my playing, my ideas on freedom, maintaining an audience’s interest through a 25-minute tune. Also, the new sonic quality of the electronica was thrilling.”

She connected to Hancock’s “world-is-my-oyster” attitude “where you could do anything you want with music.” Allen mentioned Hancock’s 2008 Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. “I don’t know if anybody else could have done it,” she said. “That’s the product of a meticulous, well-planned journey—it doesn’t just happen. Then the courage of doing Ravel in G major [“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement” from Hancock’s 1998 release, Gershwin’s World] to create a modern evolution of a piece that was etched in stone.”

Indeed, Allen mirrored Hancock’s path—both developed formidable chops through early classical piano studies, and gestated polymath interests within the pragmatic black culture ethos, particularly prevalent then in enlightened Midwest circles—of placing all musical food groups on the same plate. “It was made clear that, to be a musician, you were fortunate if you could make a living,” she says, “and to do so, you would have to be versatile and open.”

Familiar with jazz through her father’s record collection, involved in music-as-ritual both through church activity and the ferocious R&B and funk soundtrack of the day, Allen—mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who would inspire several subsequent generations of Detroit jazz musicians—embraced the notion of a jazz career not long after entering Cass Tech, Detroit’s top-shelf arts high school.

“I was ready, and once my parents got over the shock, then I was good,” Allen says. She adds that her father, an educator and the son of a minister, was initially dubious about exposing his teenage daughter to the bars and lounges where jazz was played, but relented on the counsel of his close friend Earl Lloyd, a former Fort Wayne Piston who was one of the first African-Americans to play in the NBA.

Another Detroit mentor, dancer Jackie Hillsman, ran a studio on Grand River Avenue where, among other things, dancers and musicians spontaneously improvised together. “Having Maurice Chestnut on stage with me now is directly influenced by that experience,” says Allen, who first documented her sound-in-motion concept on a single duo track with Detroit tap dancer Lloyd Storey on her second album, Open on All Sides…In The Middle. “Coming up in Detroit, we’d play bebop, and there was a generation of folk who would get up and dance,” she recalls. “I practiced having the impact of that feeling in my improvisations, whether in the solo line or the ostinatos I use, and juxtaposing it with the harmonic challenge.” She mentioned a lengthy call-and-response with Chestnut and Kassa Overall on Charlie Parker’s contrapuntal chopbuster “Ah Leu Cha” from Live, noting that Chestnut “shares our challenge to articulate Bird’s virtuosic line and improvise within the same structures.”

Most important, Allen was learning her craft in real time, in the crucible of public performance. She recalls her very first gig, playing keyboards with bassist Ralphe Armstrong at Dummy George’s Jazz Room on McNichols Avenue. “The union man walked in and asked me for my card—I immediately felt the reality of being a professional musician.” Later that evening, local hero pianist Teddy Harris “sat down and slipped me right off the piano bench because I was playing the wrong changes. That established my level of heart,  right off the bat. You learned on the bandstand, and if you were serious you had to develop a thick skin.”

[BREAK]

Allen hit New York in 1982, settling to Brooklyn, where rents were reasonable. She soon found work with Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe; calls from Art Ensemble of Chicago members Joseph Jarman and Lester Bowie soon followed. She met a cohort of best-and-brightest Kings County  peer groupers—among them Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Vernon Reid, Robin Eubanks, Terri Lyne Carrington, Lonnie Plaxico, and Mark Johnson—and they gradually formed a collective known by the acronym M-BASE, exploring ways to extrapolate mixed meters, electronic sounds, and tropes from R&B and Rock into jazz expression.

Within M-BASE, Allen found a space in which to incorporate her varied interests. “In the beginning, it was very organic,” she says. “We were all around the same age, trying to make ends meet, always out listening to music. Everybody was writing, experimenting, sight-reading hard music, challenging each other to upgrade our professionalism. We were embracing everything we liked.” The use of electronics and mixed meters, she adds, “wasn’t a new idea. We took inspiration from Tony Williams and Lifetime, from Miles and Herbie, and then refracted their music in our own way. I was dealing with mixed meters before I came to New York; the goal was to make them sound natural, so it wasn’t like the dress wearing me, but I’m wearing the dress.

“When we think of M-BASE now, it’s definitely Steve Coleman’s conception—he had very specific ideas about composition, so his tunes had an individual sound, as did everyone’s initially. Eventually, the sound became much more institutionalized, so to speak. I have a fluid way that I like to hear music and sound, which wasn’t fitting into that any more, and that’s partly why I decided to move on creatively.”

As that door closed, another opened with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and an equal-billing trio with Haden and Paul Motian that made four recordings between 1987 and 1991 on which Allen established a stylistic room of her own, spare and poetic. On Ralph Peterson’s Triangular, from 1988, documenting another trio, she brought forth a rollicking, buoyant, confident take on bebop roots.

By 1996, Allen had augmented her c.v. with three transformational associations. One was a 1993 project on which she, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette fed the fire for master bebop singer Betty Carter, who admonished Allen “to play upbeats to give momentum to the rhythm section—what I think of as the style of Red Garland.” She continues: “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about comping that way. I was hearing something darker, warmer, richer…in other words, more akin to Ellington and Monk and Herbie Nichols. Jack and Dave had played with Miles, and they understood what she was saying.”  Thus prepared, Allen recorded a ferocious date in March 1994 with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, “where I went from being an excited observer of that sound to an actual participant,” foreshadowing a subsequent decade spent assimilating Hancock’s pianistic vocabulary into her own conception, particularly on recordings by trumpeter Wallace Roney, then her husband.

There was also a heady three-year gig, including two recordings and several tours, with Haden’s one-time employer Ornette Coleman, who had last worked with a pianist more than thirty-five years before, who honored her by performing two duo selections on Eyes…In the Back Of Your Head, her final Blue Note recording, released in 1997. “Playing with Ornette shifted my conception of the piano,” Allen says. “The sound was more important than the notes, though technical prowess was important, too. It’s very much like your first try at double dutch—what not to do, how not to reduce what’s there, but contribute something to help propel the music.”

A broader lesson, which Allen seems always to have understood innately, is to be willing, when necessary, “to be told what to do” in order to meet the demands of distinguished elder artists. She recalls her early New York years: “Some concepts I was more prepared for than others, but I’d go back to the drawing board and work through the equation. If you choose to deal with your weakness in an area that’s being challenged, you grow; if not, it just gets harder the next time you have to confront it. It does not go away. This is how life is.”

[BREAK]

Even in 2010, the upper echelons of instrumental jazz remain primarily a men’s club. It’s no easier than it ever was for jazzwomen to balance the demands of their profession—the travel, the need to carve out personal space to practice and reflect—with those of parenting.  Allen’s responsibilities are nothing if not substantial—a single mother of three since her recent split from Roney, she continues to tour while also fulfilling a weekly three-day obligation in Michigan when school is in session. But nothing seems to deter Allen from moving forward creatively.

“Women in my family always worked, including my mother,” Allen says. “As I was growing up, she was a defense contract administrator for the government, high up in rank, and well respected for her work ethic and fairness. Then she came home and was a great mom. She and my father raised me to be fearless, and pray. I felt that it would be a challenge as a jazz musician, but it couldn’t be so different from any other working mom who traveled as part of their career.”

She brought her children on the road until they reached school age, and retained a mother’s helper, who remains in her employ, when her youngest daughter, now 12, was six months old. “I have never had to worry about whether my children were well cared for,” Allen says.“That idea of family has been core in my life. My church has also become core in my life. My family is spiritually based, and service to the community is an important part of our legacy. I’ve seen that from the way my father mentored students through the years. In the same way, musicians in the community shared themselves with and made room for the next generation.”

Such bedrock kept Allen’s focus on the bigger picture at “rough moments when I felt musicians really were being mean” because of gender. “Most of the musicians were coming from a place of respect for the music, trying to get to something, and so was I,” she says. “I choose to remember the life-changing experiences, the ones that are pure humanity—life lessons about connecting with  people in highly evolved ways.  I think the real power of this music is that it can transform through authentic connections with others.

“It’s amazing to take a bird’s eye view of all the connections. I’m grateful and proud to have earned my place in New York, to be part of something so important that goes way back. I wouldn’t trade any of it—each and every breakthrough, and those other moments where you wondered why you were still trying to be here. The ups and the downs. I have faith that there is a reason for both.”

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Filed under Article, Detroit, Geri Allen, M-BASE, Piano

For Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s 51st Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2006

Master pianist-composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 51 today. Three years ago, I posted a couple of interviews and a review of his brilliant self-produced solo piano album, Faith. They might provide an interesting context for the DownBeat feature, posted below, that I was given the opportunity to write in 2006.

 

* * *

Since he emigrated from Cuba in 1992, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has embodied the adage  that discretion is the better part of valor, communicating to his public primarily through the medium of notes and tones.

“If you talk about things far away from your main function, it gives people an opportunity to be confused,” the pianist  said. “It’s frustrated me that people refer to me in two directions—politically or about virtuosity. I am not a political man, but like everyone I have a right to express my feelings about my country, its history, the government. But people have interpreted my words as though I were a politician speaking, and the repercussions are heavy.”

One such repercussion was a picket line whose members spat, threw bottles and waved Cuban flags to greet Rubalcaba on the occasion of his Miami debut in 1996. But during a week in New York last June in support of his current release, Solo [Blue Note], Rubalcaba, who is now a U.S. citizen, spoke at length on the aforementioned subjects, on aesthetics, and on his own personal history.

“I try to be balanced; nothing in this life is black or white,” Rubalcaba said. “To make the more radical people in the Cuban community feel happy about you, you have to adopt a certain a way of speaking, and apparently I never did it. The other part of the community says, ‘You are a Communist; you should say that everything is bad.’ I had serious health problems from the time I was born, and I never went outside Cuba for treatment. It wasn’t only because of that—we have our faith, our hope, things we really believe. But I was treated by wonderful doctors and a great hospital. Why not say that? It’s my truth. Now that’s destroyed. I have to support my mom in Cuba, send her medicine, money, everything to keep her alive.”

From the distance of exile, Rubalcaba notes, he is “in a stronger position to discover what happened in Cuban history.” On the other hand, despite the large Cuban emigre population and strong Latino culture in Miami, an hour south of Rubalcaba’s home, he is no longer directly connected to the Cuban street, and therefore is cut off from the raw materials that fed his imagination in formative years.

How has he sustained his muse? “One thing is to be updated about what happens in your country,” he responded. “Another is to have that sense of nationality inside you. You can’t explain it, but you feel that way, and that’s enough. That makes you different, because since birth you put together what you saw and heard, what they told you, the spectrum of colors and sounds, how you understand light, your sense of rhythm, the way you walk and speak and communicate. How to live.”

In the process of putting together Solo, a lyric meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz, Rubalcaba, 43, thought long and hard about issues of identity.

“I’ve always looked for music as a space where I can throw everything I know and feel,” he said. “The ability to get into different styles and languages is typical in Latin-American musicians. They move around the world, assimilating everything possible to make them powerful artists. And the way they think they are powerful is working in different areas. For example, a lot of writers work in musicology, in novels, in social studies. In music, we see the same. It’s not just Cubans. Astor Piazzolla left Argentina looking to develop his career. He established himself in Paris, and when he returned to Argentina he was criticized because nobody understood exactly what he was doing with the tango. But the tango we hear today is 100 percent Piazzolla.”

On Solo, Rubalcaba applies that paradigm, interpreting 20th century Cuban composers—“serious” music by Almadeo Roldan, Sergio Fernando Barroso, and Rolando Bueno, boleros by Rafael Hernandez (“Silencio”) and Conseulo Velazquez (“Besame Mucho”)—and signifying upon them with his own syncretic pieces.

“European culture had a strong presence in Cuba in the ’30s and ’40s,” Rubalcaba said. “Composers like Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Cartula, for example, used tools from the European school to tell their own stories, their own roots and traditions, on the level that we know as classical music.”

As an example, he analyzed Roldan’s “Cancion de Cuna del Niño Negro (Lullaby For A Black Child),” which appears on Solo. “The melody is not exactly a folk melody, but Roldan’s vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he placed it in a form that mirrors Europe,” he said. “There is the ambiance of the Impressionist composers. But the score shows us that the left hand, the ostinato, does not work as a French or Russian composer would do it. It’s against the beat, as in popular Cuban music—as we dance, as we accent and phrase our speech. My challenge was to combine the worlds of interpretation—my vision of that music—and improvisation.”

Asked if the experience of living in another culture has illuminated the raw materials of his formative years and made them resonate in different ways, he responded affirmatively.

“This depends on each person,” he added. “For example, people in Cuba refused to use cowbell or congas or maracas or timbales; they said that the real music was straight ahead and bebop. They moved. A few years later, after you’re supposed to see them work with the top representatives of the hardest music in the world, they start to include bongos and congas. Are we talking about feelings or a pose? Many people adopt things because they believe it’s a way to call attention to themselves and to appear in front of people as the most pure, 100 percent national from Cuba or wherever.”

Rubalcaba carries the Cuban vernacular in his DNA. His grandfather, Jacobo, who lived in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province, was a conductor, a brass player, and a noted composer of danzons, such as “El Cadete Constitucional,” which Rubalcaba performed on Super Nova, a 2002 trio project. His father, pianist Guillermo, still active at 78, spent the ’50s with the charanga orchestra of Enrique Jorrin, inventor of the cha-cha-cha; he now directs Charanga Rubalcaba, a traditioncentric unit, and has toured over the past decade with such nostalgia ensembles as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club.

At 6, Rubalcaba asked his parents for a drum. “It was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba, but they found a very rustic drum,” he said. “I played it and the timbales, congas, bongos, and maracas in our family band. So I went into music through percussion. When I was of age to apply to the classical school, they rejected me. I had no rhythm sense, they said. My father and one brother refused the test result. They repeated the test in front of them, and I passed. I wanted to be in the percussion department, and they said I wasn’t the right age; I had to choose between piano or violin, and my mom persuaded me to choose piano. In my second year I got lucky with a teacher, and I developed. A few years later, the principal asked if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, ’Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.’”

He grew up in Centro Havana, a neighborhood he describes as not unlike a U.S. inner city district. “Simple people, full of folklore. Street people. Tough people. You’d see a wonderful party, religious or not religious, and at the same time a big fight and a knife. That was a tremendously strange picture, because I was living in that reality but getting Mozart and Beethoven and Impressionism at school.

“The classical school in Cuba talks too much about European music and not about Cuban traditions or folklore,” Rubalcaba continued. “One of our mistakes, as with all revolutions in history, was trying to eliminate our past. When my generation were kids, the revolution was trying to create a society where everything was new, so we had problems being able to listen to Arsenio Rodriguez or Celia Cruz or Cachao or Beny More or Peruchin or Bebo Valdes or Frank Emilio. We heard Spanish pop music and music from Eastern Europe. Jazz was prohibited; it was the music of the enemy. They prohibited rock musicians because they did not want the new revolutionary young people to be dressed like them with long hair—this was synonymous with capitalism.”

While immersing himself in the European legacy by day, Rubalcaba spent evenings in various Havana venues playing with the giants of Cuban pop—Orquesta Aragon and Los Van Van, singers Omara Portuendo and Elena Bourque, salsero Isaac Delgado. He crystallized those influences into the funky timba style that would become Cuba’s lingua franca in the ‘90s, and also into a distinctive jazz vision, one deploying unstoppable technique towards articulating a sensibility that drew on the harmonic lexicon of Bill Evans and the follow-the-line imagination of Herbie Hancock.

Rubalcaba learned the codes of older Cuban styles first hand from his father and his cronies, a veritable who’s-who of Cuban pop. “I saw them discuss how to do this and that, telling the story of how the music was played 30 or 40 years before,” he said. “But I found a sound that matched the time I lived in. Timba is the bolero, cha-cha-cha, rumba, conga, danzon, proposed in a very contemporary way. It extended the tradition. Timba represents the dynamic of Cuban society, the way people think, look at things, make love. It’s also the way they criticize, which is ambiguous, because it’s their only outlet. They use that context to say what they usually cannot say.”

With the government’s permission, Rubalcaba emigrated from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in 1992, and moved to Florida in 1996. “I said that I would never choose the dramatic way—like taking a boat or swimming—to emigrate anywhere,” he said. “I knew the United States was the country where I should live. But I wanted to make that move with my family. To leave them and not know when I could see them again would have destroyed me mentally. So if we can do it together, that’s fine. If not…”

Rubalcaba departed at the onset of Cuba’s “special period,” when the regime, adjusting to the endemic economic and social problems spurred by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the concurrent loss of Russian subsidy, began to treat its musicians as exportable commodities. The repercussions to which he refers began full-force on the occasion of his American debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in December 1993, four years after the U.S. State Department denied him a visa and forced the cancellation of a concert. In a New York Times profile before the event, Paquito D’Rivera, who had defected 13 years earlier under arduous circumstances, stated that the Cuban government was using Rubalcaba, saying, “they want to avoid his escaping, so they give him more freedom than anybody in Cuba has.”

“A few months earlier, I joined a double-bill concert in Valencia with my Cuban Quartet and Paquito’s group,” Rubalcaba recalled. “We saw each other at the soundcheck, and he was very gentle and sweet. I played first and he closed the show. He made a wonderful speech about me in front of the audience. Everything was fine.”

A few days before the concert, Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall invited D’Rivera to an informal welcoming party for Rubalcaba at the label’s offices. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Rubalcaba said. “I saw Paquito arrive. But when the party started, some people asked for pictures. Everybody came together—and Paquito disappeared without a word. It was a strange move. A mystery. I was in the middle of an intense schedule of interviews, and one guy gave me a letter Paquito had written for the New York Times. The minimum thing he said was nasty. I couldn’t respond. I had nothing to respond to.”

“I was among the first invited guests to arrive at the reception,” D’Rivera recalled by email. “Mr. Rubalcaba apparently wasn’t aware that when the press photographers asked for pictures, Don Lucoff, who was doing public relations for the company, discreetly called me to a corner and asked me to please stay away from the cameras, because Gonzalo was nervous that taking his picture with me on it could make it to the newspapers. Humiliated and deeply hurt, I quietly ran out, only to find out that Gonzalo had declared to the media that ‘Life in Cuba is not that bad.’ It was not that bad for him,  authorized by the Cuban dictatorship to reside abroad with his family, while most honorable Cuban families — mine included — were divided by that same government he was representing. I replied throughout the New York Times and other publications.”

Through the ensuing years, Rubalcaba developed and sustained an international career while absorbing slings and arrows from various factions of the Cuban diaspora. “It wasn’t just people involved in politics, but musicians, not only Paquito, but Arturo Sandoval, Manuel Valera, and many others, including people from my generation, people who played with me in Cuba, who know me personally,” he said. “They invented arguments, distorted my life, my essence as a human being. The motivation cannot be personal, because I never had a problem with any of them. I don’t know if it was politics or professional jealousy.

“The people who were forced to leave Cuba in the ’60s and ’70s lost everything, and we should respect their pain. They were separated from their families. They didn’t want to leave. They were forced to do it; they had a different point of view in terms of ideology and politics. I don’t feel able to criticize their position. I just want to know more about them. But this is not their position about the new generation. They attack and criticize. Not only that, they don’t give you space to be part of the society. I think they lost time talking about me, writing little letters. I know what I’m saying is kind of hard, but this is the way that I think.”

“At the beginning, I was a bit rushed, and pushed by the record company,” said Rubalcaba, contextualizing the bravura soloist-over-rhythm section quality of his numerous early ’90s all-star trio albums. “I was still in the process of feeling comfortable and safe. It took time to be part of the musical reality of the States, and meanwhile I was supposed to do something.”

As is evident on the trio disks Inner Voyage (1998) and Super Nova, Rubalcaba worked hard to assimilate the nuances of jazz syntax into his presentation. “Gonzalo just now is getting a real feel for playing trio piano,” said Ron Carter, who is responsible for the more conversational quality of Diz, Rubalcaba’s 1994 trio homage to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “He’s learned not to feel so responsible for all the ideas—all the good nights and bad nights—and to let the chips fall where they may. He understands some things are out of his control, which frees him to be even more creative.”

“I don’t pretend to be the best jazz player in the world,” Rubalcaba said. “A lot of reference and influence comes from jazz, but I am looking for something beyond that. When I heard my father’s records of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, what put me in orbit was the importance of improvisation within the jazz form, how musicians interact and create another story in relation to the main thing, like composing another piece. Everybody was able at the same time to say their speech and their voice, and collaborate as a group. Then the question was to figure out what sign gave them the green light to develop this speech—how they came to play those harmonies and chords, how the bass player decided what line to do behind the saxophone player. With time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but about spirituality, instinct, conversation.”

Rubalcaba referred to a family friend who taught him to read music. “At the beginning he told me: ‘Read music as you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper will say tomorrow. But you get it and start to read.’ The music is an idiom, a language you have to control. Later I had composition lessons with Roberto Valera, a great contemporary Cuban composer. He said, ‘I will give you the tools to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound. But you have to feel the need to say things your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”

Not one to take his creative process for granted, Rubalcaba sustains freshness with a regimen reminiscent of a chess grandmaster.

“I have been touring for many years literally around the world—different contexts, different audiences, different weather,” he said. “But offstage is the time to look inside, to create a platform for developing my thoughts. I have a strict discipline, which I enjoy. At home, I wake up, and spend a minimum of 4-5-6 hours working with the instrument. Sometimes the work is technical. Sometimes I make time to read music that I am not going to play, which helps you think and interpret fluidly. How did composers in a certain period work? What harmonic ideas and harmonic statements did they develop? Why did Bill Evans or Monk or Peterson or Jelly Roll Morton play in the way they did? What historical moment made possible a figure like Duke Ellington? You don’t leave that in the room where you studied. You bring your knowledge with you. It helps you preserve the attitude to try to invent when you’re on stage.

“Talent and imagination is good, but not enough. I believe 100 percent in the history and culture of jazz. But there’s also a lot to learn about our music that nobody knows yet—especially the folkloric, religious music, which is so rich. There is also still a lot to hear from Europe. You find points in common. Roldan and Garcia Cartula were focused on developing their own heritage, but were also open to an interchange of opinions, of tools to do their music. They were fresh until the end of their lives. Everything they did contained something new, some risk, which to me is the most important thing in music.”

It is unclear when Rubalcaba will next have an opportunity to share his explorations with audiences in his homeland, where he has performed only once—at the 2002 Havana Jazz Festival—since he emigrated. “During those years, people around the world asked me, ’Why don’t you play in Cuba?’” he recalled. “I always said, ’Because they don’t want me to play there. When they extend an invitation, we’ll discuss conditions.’ Finally the invitation came, and I said, ’Why not?’ Against many people. But I was not thinking about those people. I was thinking that I had that responsibility. Many people came to see the show. But my feeling about the trip was split. On the one side, I had the joy to see my family, that people who really love me had the opportunity to see me play after many years. I hate to say it, but I also found mediocrity and jealousy, terrible actions from professionals, from musicians. Very sad.

“When the airplane started to fly over the island, when I saw the color of the earth and everything down there, automatically I said to myself, ’That’s Cuba; that’s my country; I feel that I am from here.’ Hours after, I still believed that, but I add something. I know I’m from here. I can feel it and smell it. But I am not any more part of that. It’s a big contradiction.”

At risk of amateur psychoanalysis, one might speculate that Rubalcaba’s Oedipal break from the fatherland has liberated his spoken voice. “I’m very happy saying what I’m thinking now,” he said. “I am not going too far. I think that to speak in this way now gives you the opportunity to speak that way tomorrow.”

 

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Filed under DownBeat, Gonzalo Rubalcaba

For Artie Shaw’s 104th Birthday Anniversary, Two Uncut Interviews From April 2002

In 2002, Jazziz assigned me to interview Artie Shaw for a mid-length piece on the occasion of a self-selected CD box set. I posted the text on the occasion of Shaw’s birthday three years ago, not long after I’d started the blog. At the time, I stated I’d hold off on putting out the raw transcripts until another day… I think you’ll find them entertaining. The first interview happened off-the-cuff; I was calling Shaw’s assistant to set up an interview time, he picked up the phone, and told me to proceed right then and there. For the second one, I had some time to plan. Twelve years later, I have to say I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him at such length.

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-2-02):

TP:    I’ll start with a nuts-and-bolts question.  That question is, very simply, why at this point did you want to put out the box set in the manner that you did it?  Was it a labor of love?  Was there satisfaction in looking back at your work?

SHAW:  Well, call it a cluttering of the desk.  There’s been a lot of clutter about me, all over the place.  Every time I hear something about myself, there’s an element of “I’ve heard this somewhere else,” there’s an element of falseness in it.  And I thought I would get one sort of repository in which I had the stuff that I think is okay, not the stuff that RCA or anybody else thinks is okay.  I think it’s high time that we understood that if a man does something and he does it well — or extremely well, as the case may be — that he be given a version of those things he did that he considers his best, as opposed to other people judging it.

TP:    Did you have very definite ideas on what your best was, or was there a process of discovery involved in going back…

SHAW:  You mean the criteria?  Very simple.  Those things which came closest to what I had in mind when I was in the studio, or those things which came back to me from airchecks or other sources that I thought mirrored what the band should sound like, as opposed to the more or less rigorous demands made upon you in a studio where, as I wrote in my liner notes, it was like putting your foot in cement.

TP:    Putting your foot in cement?

SHAW:  Yeah, a little bit like that.  You put something on a record, in a studio, and it’s going to follow you around for the rest of your life.

TP:    It’s true.  And you were dogged by that.  You’ve been quoting as despising “Begin The Beguine”…

SHAW:  Well, I don’t despise it.  I think it was a helluva good record in its day.  It’s just that I despise it being regarded as the apogee of my work, or as any way symbolic of my work.  It was one record out of many others.

TP:    And it was a great hit.

SHAW:  At the time it was a hit, I think, because… This is hindsight, obviously. But I think that it was a hit because it was so unexpected.  In those days, the so-called thing… I hate the word “jazz.”  The bands that played the music we call jazz did a lot of riffing.  Everything was riff-riff-riff.  And I thought it was nice to play a nice little melody and play it with a beat, with a so-called jazz beat.  That’s that it was.  So it must have come as a great surprise to the listeners.  The other side was supposed to be the hit, “Indian Love Call.”  This was an afterthought.  But the afterthought made more sense than what everybody was going with.

TP:    Let me ask you about the milieu in which you developed your mind.

SHAW:  Oh, God, that’s going on.  That’s not stopped.

TP:     Of course.  But there’s a beginning point.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t know.  I guess the day I drew my first breath was the beginning point.

TP:    I’m talking more about the time and the place and the climate…

SHAW:  I think I was 6 or 7 years old when I began to read, and the idea that somebody could put thoughts down on paper with a series of symbols called language was a remarkable discovery for me.  So I’ve never stopped reading.

TP:    You were born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and lived in New Haven for how long?

SHAW:  Well, I lived in New Haven until I was 15, left home, and never looked back.  Yale cast a great shadow in New Haven.  I was very aware of that.

TP:    So in other words, that gave you an intellectual plane towards which to strive?

SHAW:  A respect for knowledge.

TP:    A respect for knowledge.  When did you begin to play music?

SHAW:  At 15.

TP:    At 15 was when you first picked up an instrument?

SHAW:  Well, I wanted one, but I couldn’t afford it.  My parents and my father always made fun of it.

TP:    What did they do for work?

SHAW:  My mother was a seamstress and my father was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor.

TP:    Had they come here from Russia?

SHAW:  Well, my father came from Russia.  But I learned later that he must have been born in Poland.  I deduced that.  His name was Arshawsky.  That sounded like a Russian name, and he lived in Russia.  It took me fifty years, I was 50 years old before I found out where he lived.  My mother said he lived on a sea.  I said Russia didn’t have any seas.  Finally I said, “Was it the Black Sea?”  She said, “Yeah.”  So I said, “Was it Odessa?”  She said, “Yeah.”  I was 50 by then.  I never got to know him.  He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care.

TP:    Just on a personal note, my grandparents were all born in Russia and Poland between about 1888 and 1895, from Kiev and Tuparov and places like that.  It’s one reason why I’m interested in asking you this and in what the climate was…

SHAW:  I think you’re more interested in it than I am.  I have no regard for antecedents or precursors.  I don’t care about that.  My family thing is totally nonexistent.  I have no family sense.  I feel as though I came out of whatever I came out of, and I managed to get to where I am in spite of anything.  There’s a line I cherish that George Bernard Shaw said.  He said, “Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.”

TP:    When you’re 15 you pick up the alto saxophone or the clarinet?

SHAW:  C-melody saxophone.

TP:    And you had an instant affinity for it?

SHAW:  No!  Not instant at all.  I had to learn to play it. It was a very tricky thing.

TP:    When did you become proficient enough to start doing gigs on it?

SHAW:  Well,there’s never any time.  You start and you get better, and you get a little better and a little better.  If you keep working at something, adding a little bit each time, you finally get to be pretty good.

TP:    But was that in dance bands in New Haven or…

SHAW:  Yeah, there were a lot of little dance bands around, like there always are.  Today it’s guitars and singers.  In those days it was instruments, and we had four or five instruments, and we’d play little bar-mitzvahs and weddings and whatever came along.  So I learned to play.  I listened to other people.  I made a rule at that time: Always play with bands where you can learn something.  If you get to the point where they’re learning from you, move to another band.  Finally it gets kind of lonesome.  There aren’t many you can hear that you can learn anything from.  And eventually I got to the point that I didn’t listen to anybody, because I knew what I was doing.

TP:    How old were you, would you say, when that started to happen?

SHAW:  Oh God.  Until I got to be about 20.

TP:    So 1930 or so, which is when you move to New York and go into the studios.

SHAW:  1929 I  came to New York.

TP:    And you instantly found work.

SHAW:  There was no work.  I couldn’t work for six months.

TP:    Because of the union?

SHAW:  The union!  It was an atrocious thing, one of the most miserable six months I ever spent.  But I learned a few things.  I found my way to Harlem, and I met Willie Smith and started playing with them, up in Harlem.

TP:    Where did you go in Harlem?  Pod’s & Jerry’s?

SHAW:  Pod’s and Jerry’s.  I wrote a piece about that.

TP:    Would you describe the atmosphere there?

SHAW:  I’m sorry.  I wrote that in the short story “Snow/White In Harlem, Circa 1930,” and I can’t go through it again.  It’s the first story in the book, “The Best of Intentions.”

TP:    So you can’t tell me anything about Harlem.

SHAW:  There’s nothing I can tell you anything because I’ll be bored.

TP:    You’ll be bored?

SHAW:  I wrote it.  Once you write something, you don’t want to go back over it.  I’ve discussed it 100 times.

TP:    But it seems like spending the time in Harlem was fundamental to the instrumental language you started to develop.

SHAW:  Well, it is.  But I can’t go into it.  It’s like talking about the War.  I don’t want to talk about World War Two or my part in it.  It’s one of the minions of my life.

TP:    Well, I’m less interested in talking about World War Two than I am in how you became Artie Shaw, the musical personality…

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.

TP:    Art Shaw.  Excuse me.

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.  I wasn’t Artie Shaw.  That was a made-up name once I signed a contract with RCA Records.  My first recording of “Begin The Beguine” was Art Shaw.  Art Shaw was a studio name.

TP:    I understand.  You had to change your name as did many people in show business.

SHAW:  Well, Art Shaw was a changed name.  The “Artie” was added later only for euphonious reasons.  I mean, Art Shaw sounds like a sneeze.  So they changed it to Artie Shaw.

TP:    Since we can’t talk about Harlem…

SHAW:  Well, we can talk about it, but there’s been enough said about that.  And if you read that story, it’s pretty much a fictional version of what happened.

TP:    It’s probably impossible to ask you something you haven’t asked before or that hasn’t been written about before.

SHAW:  What’s that?

TP:    Well, I’m improvising here, because I wasn’t expecting to talk to you today.  But in your process of learning how to play — and learning to improvise — who were the people you listened to?  Who were your stylistic models?

SHAW:  Well, the first ones who were important to me were Bix and Trumbauer.  They were white and I was white.  I had no experience with what they call black today — then it was Colored.  I knew there were colored musicians around, but when I was 16 or 17, playing in Cleveland, before I came to New York, Bix and Trumbauer were the guys I listened to until I discovered a record on which Louis Armstrong played — “Savoy Blues.”  Then from there, I listened to all of his music, including taking a trip up to Chicago to hear him in person.  First thing I ever heard him play was the cadenza at the opening of “West End Blues.”

TP:    Where did you hear him?  What was the venue?

SHAW:  Savoy Ballroom.

TP:    The Savoy Ballroom in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes.  I sat on the bandstand.  It was about 3 feet off the floor, I had a rug on it, and I sat on that, and out he came, and I looked up at this guy who was like God to me.  He played that introduction, and I thought, “Holy Christ, where did that come from?”

TP:    How long did you stay in Chicago?

SHAW:  Long enough to hear him.  Later, when I was 19, I came through Chicago on the way to New York with Irving Aronson’s band.  I had left Cleveland to join the Irving Aronson Band.

TP:    And you heard him again?

SHAW:  We came through Chicago, and we played til 4 o’clock, and after 4 o’clock I’d go all around the South Side of Chicago, and listening to everybody, sitting in with bands like Earl Hines or whomever was around.  I heard Jimmie Noone.  I heard a lot of people.

TP:    I was about to ask you about Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone.

SHAW:  I wrote that in “Trouble With Cinderella.” If you read that, you’ll find out there the answer.  That’s the first book I ever published.  That’s in print.  The publisher is John Daniel.  Daniel & Daniel, in Santa Barbara.

TP:    So your trip to Harlem was not the first time you’d played with black musicians.

SHAW:  Well, there were no other musicians around.  There were a couple of others.  There was Teschemacher, Floyd O’Brien, and there were a lot of guys around — Chicago musicians.

TP:    But I’m saying that for you going to Harlem was a natural thing because you had already played and sat in with black musicians…

SHAW:  In Chicago.

TP:    Yes, in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes, that’s right.

TP:    How did the Harlem scene differ from the Chicago scene?

SHAW:  Not very much.  Just different names, different people, all playing the same generalized kind of improvised music that we call jazz.

TP:    So whatever stylistic differences critics and historians ascertain…

SHAW:  I don’t care about stylistic differences.  I don’t listen to that.  That’s a lot of nonsense.  I play music, and that’s all I care about, is people who play music.  Otherwise, it’s not interesting to me.  I can’t say I dislike Rock.  But I have no use for it.  It doesn’t tell me anything.  It sounds sacrilegious to say, but from the Beatles on, music in America stopped.

TP:    While you were functioning as a working musician, once you got in the studios and became quite busy, did you also have time to study music in a more formal sense?

SHAW:  Well, I didn’t study.  But I listened an awful lot.  I had a phonograph and a lot of records.

TP:    You were listening to Classical music, listening to…

SHAW:  I don’t call it Classical music.  Call it Long Form.  Classical was Bach-Mozart-Haydn.

TP:    Okay.  You were listening to contemporary long-form music?

SHAW:  Yes, I listened to everybody.  I listened to everybody I could get.  From Stravinsky through Debussy, on to Bartok and down through whatever.  I just listened to everything.

TP:    But in the 1930s you probably didn’t have much access to Bartok.  Who were you listening to then?

SHAW:  I listened to whatever was recorded.  If it was any good, I listened to it.  “La Mer.”  I must have played “La Mer” a hundred times.  I would play the records until they were worn out, and then get new ones.

TP:    Did you also play them on clarinet?  Did that become part of your instrumental practice?

SHAW:  That only happened when I had my own band.  The clarinet is a double for saxophone players.  Don’t forget, we’re not talking about jazz.  We’re talking about dance music.  In those days, that’s what we had — dance bands.

TP:    How would you differentiate between jazz and dance music?  What’s the difference?

SHAW:  I don’t know the difference.  People seem to… Always in our country, it’s almost illiterate, you know.  We talk about “jazz,” we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.

TP:    Well, you just made the comment “we’re not talking about jazz, we’re talking about dance music,” so…

SHAW:  Well, that’s what it was.  Now, because you can’t afford to travel big bands around, you’re calling it “jazz” in clubs, and people come in and sit up and applaud no matter what’s being heard.  You know the old joke about the tour guide in South Africa who begins to hear drums, and he puts his hands up to his ears and says, “Oh my God, listen.  Drums.”  And people in the tour say, “What’s going on with the drums?”  He says, “After drums come bass solo.”  That’s jazz.  They don’t know what the hell they’re listening.  We’ve trained an audience to stand up and applaud after every solo.

TP:    Who were some of your contemporaries that you were friendliest with in the ’30s, between arriving and becoming a studio musician, and forming your big band?

SHAW:  I never thought about contemporaries.  All I did was play with the people around who played well where the gigs were.  I played in the staff band at CBS, the radio station, and then later I went out and free-lanced, and I played with everybody in New York.  Wherever I was called, I played.  So I knew Joe Venuti, I knew Tommy Dorsey, I knew Jimmy Dorsey, I knew Benny Goodman — all the guys who were around.  Manny Klein.  Name it.  I knew them all.  I was working with them.  I was the new kid on the block, sort of.

TP:    Did those become social relationships in any way?  In other words, did those become friendships in any way, or were they purely musical relationships?

SHAW:  I knew them, but they were musical relationships.

TP:    One thing that I think is interesting for anyone who takes a cursory look at your career is the avidity of your intellectual interests, which is not necessarily a typical thing for musicians.  I’m wondering if you continued to read and assimilate culture in the same voracious way while you were making your living as a studio musician.

SHAW:  Yes.  That’s what I did.  Constantly!  I read and read and read.  And I’m a loner, so I pretty much did all this alone.  But I’d meet people who I thought knew something, and I would ask them questions — and depending on their answers, I’d learn something.

TP:    What were a few books that made an impact on you?

SHAW:  Oh God.  I don’t know even where to begin.  I’ve been reading all my life.

TP:    For instance, was there a particular author of fiction, whether Dostoevsky or…

SHAW:  I read everything I could find that I thought was interesting.

TP:    Did it all have equal value?

SHAW:  They were all influential one way or another.  I got my name “Shaw” from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called “Kidnapped.”  That was one of the earliest books I ever read.  I was about 7 or 8 at that time.  “Kidnapped” had a man living in the House of Shaws.  Shaw means a thicket of trees.  So I took the name when I went into show-biz.  When I decided to become a saxophone player and play in bands, it was easier to say “Art Shaw” than Arthur Arshawsky.  Plus, in those days there was a great deal of anti-semitism, just as there is today.  But a little more overt in those days.  Why was everybody in Hollywood named after a President back in the ’30s?  I mean, think of it.  Cary Grant, and all of the… Think of it, they’re all… Marilyn Monroe.  There were Jews running the Hollywood thing, and they all used American things.  Julius Garfinkel became Jules [sic: John] Garfield, and on and on and on.  If we wanted to spend enough time, I could give you a hundred examples of that.

TP:    I’m sure you could!  Probably 200 if we spent enough time.

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So basically, during your teens and twenties you’re practicing incessantly, you’re reading voraciously, you’re probably going to the museums in New York and soaking up the art as well…

SHAW:  All of that.

TP:    And you’re living the life of a journeyman studio musician.

SHAW:  You could call me an autodidact.

TP:    I wasn’t going to use the word.  Thank you for using it for me!

SHAW:  Well, that’s what it was.  That’s the word we use.

TP:    I think it was more common in the times you came up in for people to get their education in a more autodidactic manner.

SHAW:  Yes.  Also I have a great distrust of authority.

TP:    Continue.  You have a great distrust of authority.

SHAW:  That’s right.  That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly.  He called it a “blowzer.”  Read “Trouble With Cinderella.”  That’s my first book, in which all of this stuff is expressed.

TP:    He called it a blowzer.  Is that a Yiddish term?

SHAW:  Yes.  I means a blower, a thing you blow into.  Like a kazoo.  He classed it with nothing.  And he made his contempt for it very plain to me.  I’ve often thought since then, whenever some signal honor has been bestowed upon me, “If you were here, Pop, you’d learn what a blowser is.”

TP:    Because the conversation is impromptu, I haven’t read up on my dates.  Did the big band begin in ’36 or ’38?

SHAW:  Mine?

TP:    Yours.

SHAW:  Well, it hit in ’38, but it began in about ’35 or ’36.  I had to kind of do it bootstraps, doing my own arranging and get a bunch of guys together and rehearse, and finally had a band.  You can’t have a band unless you have a job.  Again, if you read my book, you’ll see what happened.  I had that concert at the Imperial Theater, that led to agents, and agents led to my band.  I didn’t want a band.  I got out of the music business shortly before then.

TP:    That’s also in the book, I take it.

SHAW:  Yes, it is.  Try Amazon, you’ll get my…

TP:    Yes, I understand.

SHAW:  You’ll find the answer to a lot of the questions you’ve been asking.

TP:    Absolutely.  I’m interested in getting your responses on tape, but I haven’t been interviewed 18,000 times like you have, so…

SHAW:  Yes.  This is pretty boring, you know.

TP:    I’ll try to change the tenor of my questions.

SHAW:  All right.

TP:    Let me get back to your comment about mistrusting authority and operating within the cultural climate of the ’30s?  Did you become involved in the various political streams of the ’30s as well?

SHAW:  It was a little later.  But as a result of my early upbringing, which was lower middle class, obviously I leaned in that direction.  In other words, I was always a Democrat rather than a Republican.  Actually, my real credo was anarchism.

TP:    Kropotkin and…

SHAW:  I read Thoreau and I read Kropotkin.  I read all those mutual aid books, and all that.  Again, that’s in my book.

TP:    So you never affiliated with Trotskyites or Communists.  You were an anarchist and a lone wolf.

SHAW:  I was called up before the Un-American Activities…

TP:    But you were a lone wolf and an anarchist.

SHAW:  Well, I vary.  I veer between no authority at all and the idea that you have to have some government to deal with this cantankerous creature called a human being in last cause.  Lionel Tiger, who is a good anthropologist, once made a remark which I think is very apt.  He said, “Mankind has evolved into a creature which functions best in bands of 50.”  And we’re functioning in bands of 50 million.  How do we know what we’re doing.  We don’t know who to trust.  Look at the last election we had, this progressive country, which is probably the leading power in the world today.  Look at that election.  We act like we could be called the Disunited States.  There were two countries there.

TP:    I wouldn’t argue with you.

SHAW:  Well, I don’t think anybody in his right mind could argue with that.  There was a red and a blue United States.  It was right there on the map.  And the red part won, so we got George Bush.  The other side would have been Gore.  And I don’t know which would have been better or worse, if there is such a thing.  Calvin Coolidge said once that the business of America is business.  And it seems to function with a lot of Presidents.

TP:    Tell me about entering the role of being bandleader?  Was it comfortable for you?

SHAW:  A band is a group of musicians.  Somebody has to decide which way that band is going to jump.  If you’re going to start a magazine, you’re going to have one guy who edits it.  If you’re going to start a newspaper, it’s the same thing.  The bandleader is the guy who functions as the fulcrum or the center of the group.  The direction of the group is determined by the leader.

TP:    Did you feel that your bands were able to pursue the aesthetic direction that you truly wanted?

SHAW:  You never can fully achieve that, but you try.  You have a general aesthetic that you want to achieve, and the bands you get… Don’t forget, there’s a public there also, telling you what you can and can’t do by not supporting what they don’t want.  So you have to finally mediate.  You have to temporize with what’s there.  When “Who’s Who” asked me for an epitaph… After 50 years they ask you for that.  And I said, “He did the best he could with the material at hand.”

TP:    Was the material at hand satisfactory to you at that time?

SHAW:  Never fully.  You do the best you can with the material at hand.  You’ve got a public on the one side, telling you what they like, and you have your own interests and things, and then you’ve got the group of musicians, all of whom are awfully good or they wouldn’t be there.  You could say they’re all geniuses.  It’s like the New York Yankees.  Think of all the kids who play baseball all year, minor leagues and so on, and then you get to the New York Yankees.  You could say the nine guys up there in the starting lineup are all geniuses.  But then you have the Joe DiMaggio, the Babe Ruth, the Willie Mays.  What are they?

TP:    Well, you’re a kind of equivalent to the people you just named…

SHAW:  I try to be.

TP:    But I mean, in terms of the history of the music and in Popular Culture, you sort of were.  What qualities do you think brought you to that level?

SHAW:  Stubbornness.  Persistence.  A certain amount of high ideals, an awareness that you can’t achieve those, but you can only approximate them ,and the closer you approximate them, the better off you are and the better you feel.  It goes back to the definition of a fugue.  The instruments come in one by one, and the audience walks out one by one.

TP:    Were you always so self-aware?  I mean, you’re looking back at yourself… Did you have a quality of self-detachment, I guess I’m asking…

SHAW:  Well, everything is accident.  Everything is luck.  But yes.  There was a period in which I lost my mind.  Too much success.  I’ve said this often. The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success.

TP:    And you had unmitigated success for a while.

SHAW:  I sure had that for a while.  And it was almost fatal.

TP:    Why was that?

SHAW:  I lost my mind.  I lost who I was.  I lost all sense of purpose.  I didn’t know what I was doing any more. For the audience to stand up and applaud everything, how are you going to know what’s good or not?

TP:    So you believed your press clippings, is what…

SHAW:  Well, I read some of them, but I hated them.

TP:    But I’m saying in a more metaphorical sense, like you don’t believe…

SHAW:  I know what you mean.  I know what you’re saying.  It’s just not true.  I read them, but I mostly thought they were pretty stupid.  There’s a great deal of an attitude on the part of writers for publication who look down… They want to look down on you.  They want you to be the black, sweaty Negro.  If you’re a White “intellectual” and know more than they do, they don’t like you.  So I was a victim of that.  An awful lot of critics, so-called, hated me, because they couldn’t patronize me.

TP:    You mean the purist jazz critics of the ’30s and ’40s.

SHAW:  Well, to this day, that happens.  People expect you to be stupid.  For example, ASCAP gave me an award, and they gave me a statement they wanted me to read, that I was grateful to ASCAP.  I said, “I can’t say I’m grateful to ASCAP, because they wouldn’t have done anything for me if I hadn’t done this.  It’s my doing.”  I’m back to G.B. Shaw’s quotation of… I think it was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s: “Send me a life raft when you reach the shore in safety.”

TP:    But the acclaim you received was enough to throw you out of whack despite all of the defenses you’d undoubtedly built up as a working musician over the years.

SHAW:  Well, for a while it got to be pretty hairy.  But then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality.  When I came back to so-called civilization, and I went into analysis.  Again, that’s in “Trouble With Cinderella.”  Psychoanalysis I think saved my life.

TP:    Was it Freudian psychoanalysis?

SHAW:  The first one was pretty strict.  It was five days a week, every morning.

TP:    On the couch?

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So it was with a Freudian psychoanalyst.

SHAW:  That was, yes.  Whatever that is.  There is no such thing as a Freudian one unless Freud gives it to you.

TP:    Of course.  But in the school of.  And that was in New York?

SHAW:  No.  It was in California first.  Then when I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast!  So I went to a man named Abram Cardiner, a very famous man, who wrote books on… He was the beginning of the Cultural Anthropology idea — Margaret Mead, etcetera.

TP:    So in other words, he could help you put your own…

SHAW:  No.  He kept saying, “Mmm, what does that mean?  What do you mean by that?”  And then you’d say it, and then he’d say, “Well, that’s not what you said.”  And you’d go on and on and on, dissecting everything you thought… You’d come in in the morning and he said, “What happened?”  And you’d tell him.  Then he’d help you pull it apart.  I learned a very important lesson.  It can be summed up in three words.  “Maybe it’s me.”

TP:    That’s a good lesson.

SHAW:  It sure is.

TP:    Another aspect of your place in jazz history is that you were one of the first Caucasian musicians to employ African-American musicians — or “colored” as they call them then.

SHAW:  That’s debatable.  I only had one in the band each time.  But the audience would not hold still.  I was supposed to go on a tour when I had Hot Lips Page in the band.  It was a very lucrative tour in the South, and I agreed to do it and signed the contracts.  Then my agent came to me… It was Tom Rockwell in those days.  It was Rockwell & Keefe.  Remember that agency?  It became GAC, and then the alphabet soup started.  But anyway, he came to me and said, “Artie, we’ve got a problem.”  I said, “What’s that?”  He said, “They don’t want to take Hot Lips in the band when you go down South.”  So I said, “Well, then they don’t have to take the band, because he’s part of my band.”  So he said, “Well, it’s a problem.” I said, “Well, then let’s cancel it.”  So he said, “No-no, wait.”  Then he came back to me and said, “I’ve got a solution.  Lips can go with the band, but he has to sit 15 feet from the nearest man in the band.”  At which point I said, “Screw this.”  The tour was cancelled.

TP:    Did you have problems in the North?

SHAW:  We had problems everywhere.  The black people couldn’t live in the same hotels.

TP:    But in terms of your band specifically, and having a black artist in the band…

SHAW:  It was always a problem for the black guy.  Whether it was Billie Holiday or Hot Lips Page or Roy Eldridge, it was always a problem.

TP:    Did you bring them into the band because of the qualities they embodied musically?  Was that primary reason?

SHAW:  That was the only thing I cared about.

TP:    What were those qualities?

SHAW:  Oh, Jesus.  How do you define “good”?

TP:    Well, in many different ways, because there are so many different ways of being good.  But people project a different energy and aura.

SHAW:  Well, Hot Lips Page was good in a way that Roy Eldridge wasn’t.  Billie Holiday was good in a way that Sarah Vaughan wasn’t.  I mean, what can you say?  You listen to somebody and you say that they’re good.  They know what they’re doing.  I didn’t believe in geniuses. I believed in having the best people I could get.

TP:    Fair enough. Let me push you forward a bit.  On the box set, you devote maybe a disk-and-a-half to material from the 1950’s, those 1954 sessions you did with the reconstituted Gramercy Five.

SHAW:  On, the last ones, with the small group.

TP:    What is it about those sessions that you find so special?

SHAW:  Well, I think I played better clarinet than I ever played before.  I didn’t have any regard for the public and whether they liked it or didn’t like it.  And I was playing with peers.  I had a guy like Tal Farlow, a guy like Hank Jones, a guy like Tommy Potter on bass.  They were all good players, and you had to play very well in order to be what you were.  I was the leader of that group.

TP:    Well, they were all modern players as well.

SHAW:  It was modern days!  I wasn’t going to go back and play music of the ’30s.

TP:    What was your take on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker when you first heard them?

SHAW:  Well, I thought they were remarkable players.  I didn’t see any pertinence or relationship to the audience.  I still don’t.  I think one of the problems with the so-called “jazz” today is that they’re playing for each other.  The audience is left way behind.  The mass audience is listening to Rock.  Jazz is probably 3% of the record-buying public.

TP:    Less than that.  1.8% is the last figure I saw.

SHAW:  Well, that’s what I’m saying.  So you see, what they’ve done is painted themselves into a corner.  The black guys are saying, “It’s our music.”  Well, I don’t know who the hell has a patent or ownership of music.  You’ve got this guy, what’s-his-name, who made the record…

TP:    Ken Burns.

SHAW:  Right.  He don’t know a goddamn thing about it.  So it’s jazz according to Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins.  They dominated the program.  And that wasn’t their doing.  It was his doing.

TP:    But that being said, I want to get back to your own response whenever it was that you first heard them, round about 1945.

SHAW:  …(?)… There again, we’re dealing with reality.  In 1954, when that group was formed, I had quit the business.  But the IRS didn’t want me to quit the business.  They wanted money.  And I had to go and get that.  So I had to get together a band.  The ’49 band I had was called “the bebop band.” Well, there’s the best band I ever had.  If that had stayed together, I don’t know where we would have gone.  But the audience would not accept it.  They couldn’t “dance” to it.  They wanted to dance.  They wanted a dance band.  And by this time, this thing called Jazz had taken over, and it was such a confusion.  You know, we are aliterate people.  Aliterate, not literate.  Not illiterate, aliterate.

TP:    In the sense of amoral or asexual…

SHAW:  That’s right. And musically, we are almost illiterate.  So when you have some really good music, the audience does not respond to that.  Or they respond like apes to it.  They get up and applaud after every solo, whether it’s good or bad.  It has nothing to do with music any more.  I can’t stand going to concerts.  The audiences drive me nuts.  The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity.  I used to say to Woody Herman, who would say, “And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so,” in the middle of the chorus, and I’d think, “Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, and tell the audience to sit down and you’ll introduce the soloists one-by-one.”  He said, “Well, this is what they want.”  I said, “What about what you want?”  He couldn’t understand that.  Or didn’t want to understand it.  It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example.  And if he wants any kind of dignified response to what he’s doing… I mean, can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza.

TP:    I hope you won’t think this an impertinent question.  Were you able to take that stance because of your financial means at the time?

SHAW:  Well, it helps.  If you can’t afford to do something, you don’t do it.  I mean, you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them.  So the audience as it is, imperfect or alien as it may be, is necessary.  And so you’ve got to face the fact that you’ve got to give them… It’s called “three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.”  That’s my mantra.

TP:    One thing that’s so interesting about the totality of jazz is how much beautiful music was created within the parameters of financial necessity.  I mean, someone like Ellington, say, being able to sustain a band for…

SHAW:  Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb and those people were playing for Colored people mostly.  So they could get away with a lot that White bands couldn’t.  They had a hipper audience.  Black people will accept things that White…they did, at least accept things that White audiences wouldn’t in those days.

TP:    What sort of things?

SHAW:  Well, certain extremes of jazz that you played.  I don’t like the word “jazz,” but I don’t know what we could call it any more.

TP:    What sort of extremes?

SHAW:  Well, when Ellington wrote a thing called “Concerto For Cootie,” what audiences were looking for that?  Until it became a song, “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me.”

TP:    I think he disguised it by dipping… He’d have the singer go out, then he’d bring out a more complex instrumental…

SHAW:  I don’t think you can compare Ellington’s situation and the audience he had with my situation and the audience I had.

TP:    Fair enough.  Did you ever play for Black audiences, by the way?  Did you ever go on that circuit at all?

SHAW:  Yes, I would occasionally play for Black audiences. It was always very liberating.  You could do anything you want.  They were much more receptive, and much more aware.  I can’t say intellectually aware, but musically aware.  Like Billie Holiday.  Billie had a natural musical intelligence.  She didn’t know anything.

TP:    But she’d heard it all.  It was part of the fabric of who she was from a very young age, I would think, so she heard it.  It was part of her.

SHAW:  Billie would take a song and make it hers.  She had no regard for what the composer wrote.  I remember I made a recording with her years ago, when she was still recording for Columbia…Brunswick.  Bunny Berrigan and myself and George Wettling I think on drums, and Joey Bushkin on piano — whoever it was.  We made this record called “Summertime” and “No Regrets” and “Did I Remember” and “Billie’s Blues.”  The way she phrased “Summertime”… She made it hers.  So there was a kind of unconscious musical intelligence at work.  She had that to an enormous degree.

TP:    It’s amazing, because she probably would never have seen the songs until she entered the studio, so she was doing it from reading down a lead sheet most of the time.

SHAW:  Well, she had her own way, you see.  And you try to do that.  I had my own way.  With a ballad, for example, I would hear it, and I would hear it the way I wanted to hear it and play it that way.  But it was always recognizable.  Today you don’t even know what the hell they’re playing half the time.

TP:    You mean people don’t concentrate on melody.

SHAW:  Well, it’s important to know what the tune if you’re going to do something.  Why not write your own?  I asked Bud Powell that one time.  He sent me a record called “Embraceable You.”  I met him later, and he said, “What do you think?”  I said, “Well, I don’t know where the hell ‘Embraceable You’ fit in.  Why don’t you call it ‘Opus V?’ and get the royalties?”  He said, “Well, that would have been fraudulent.”  I said, “Well, what you do is fraudulent. You’re playing ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Embraceable You’ is [SINGS REFRAIN].  I don’t know what you’re doing.  You lengthened the bars; instead of 8 bars, you made it 10.  You changed the chords and you changed the melodic structure.  So what the hell does ‘Embraceable You’ have to do with that?”  Well, if he were alive today, I think he’d agree with me.

TP:    Was Roy Eldridge similar to Billie Holiday in the sense of being able to transmute everything into his own voice?

SHAW:  Well, Roy had his own voice.  So did Hot Lips Page.  What they did was different from other people.  What I did was different.  Very few people copied me on clarinet because the sound I got came out of the formation of my embouchure and mouth and jaws, and my own musical ideas of how it should sound.  People are all trying to sound like somebody else.  I don’t know… If I hear two clarinet players in a room, I don’t know which is which outside the room.  In my day, it was Benny Goodman and me, and you could tell instantly which it was.  We each had our own sound.

TP:    Was there any particular clarinetist who was an idol of yours when you were forming a style?  Was Jimmie Noone one?

SHAW:  No.  I didn’t have any idols, except way back when I first listened to Louis.  I mean, I listened to the best ones and I liked them, but I don’t believe in idols.

TP:    How about of the people who followed you on your instrument?  Are there any that you favor?  Do you listen…

SHAW:  I listen, but I don’t much care for what I hear.  I listen to piano players mostly.  Brad Mehldau, for example. Charlap.  Whomever.  Good ones.

TP:    You like them.

SHAW:  Yeah. They’re good.

TP:    But on your instrument, you’re not particularly crazy about…

SHAW:  I haven’t heard anybody that’s done anything to drive me… I like Buddy DeFranco as a guy, and I know he can play clarinet, but it’s not my aesthetic.  It’s a different aesthetic.

TP:    Whereas with a piano player, it doesn’t hit so close to home.

SHAW:  Exactly.  I can listen to the music.  It’s more impersonal.

TP:    On clarinet, you must be thinking, “I would do this, I would do that…”

SHAW:  I do that when I hear me!  Some of the records that people think are great, I think, “Oh, Jesus, I wish I had done this instead of that.”  But then, what I did was, as they say, hip, au courant, whatever you want to call it.  And as the times pass, people would accept more, and your ears change.

TP:    Let me ask your impressions of a couple of iconic musicians in the way the language of the music developed over the last 55 years.  I asked you about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and you said they were great musicians but connected insufficiently with the audience.  Is there anything else you could say about them?

SHAW:  Well, they were remarkable players.  But isn’t it interesting that Dizzy was a virtuoso on his trumpet, and Miles Davis is the one we’re listening to.  Why do you think that is?

TP:    I might contest that.  I think a lot of people listen to Dizzy.  But what trumpet players tell me is it’s because Dizzy is too hard.

SHAW:  I think it’s because Miles has more regard for musical content.  Dizzy had more regard for the trumpet.  It’s like me and Benny Goodman.  Benny was a superb technician, but musically there were a lot of gaps in his awareness.  He was limited. His vocabulary was limited.

TP:    But certainly, in the case of Dizzy, the quality you’re describing — just for argument’s sake — didn’t come out in his compositions.  He wrote beautiful, enduring pieces…

SHAW:  You mean “Tunisia”?

TP:    “Woody ‘n You”, “Con Alma,” things like that…

SHAW:  Well, we know what they are.  But on the large scale… I mean, we’re listening to Rock, don’t forget.

TP:    Well, if we’re talking about the large scale, we can’t really talk about any of these people.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, we can.  We can talk about some of them.  Billie has transcended it.  I transcended it to a degree.  People are still buying my records.  They’re not buying Goodman much any more.  And people aren’t asking for Dizzy’s big band.  You have to have a very specialized audience for that.  Most people don’t realize that these people are speaking to each other.

TP:    What about Charlie Parker?

SHAW:  Well, he had a big influence.  Remarkable.  But I don’t know if for altogether good.  His influence with drugs was as great as his influence with music.

TP:    Well, if we can separate the two, and talk about his influence on music, how would you assess it?

SHAW:  For a while there, every saxophone player was a clone of Charlie Parker.  Is that good?  He enlarged the musical vocabulary of this kind of music.  He did things technically that no one had done before.  He was a very, very accomplished man.  I would call him a genius, in the sense that a genius is somebody who does something for which there is no accounting.  Armstrong was a genius.  When he first started to play trumpet and did things like “West End Blues” back in his early days, that was genius.  There were no predecessors.  So if you come up with something no one has ever done, and you keep doing that, you’re going to make a mark.

TP:    Let me ask you about John Coltrane.  Did you listen to him?

SHAW:  I listened to him, but toward the end he became indecipherable.  When they start talking about “sheets of sound,” you might as well say too many notes.  When he was playing, he was a remarkably good tenor man.  But there are a number of those.

TP:    How about Ellington?

SHAW:  Ellington was a very interesting guy.  He did things that were very good with the big band.  He did some awful things, too.  The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead.  When they were good, they were good; when they were bad, they were horrid.

TP:    I think he had such an eccentric collection of personalities that it couldn’t be otherwise.

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know about that.  But he chose the personalities.  It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write.  A good newspaper is… It’s under a rubric.  Ellington, sometimes his rubric worked, other times it didn’t.

TP:    When you were active as a bandleader, did you have a favorite big band apart from your own?

SHAW:  I don’t know about favorite, but I think the big band with strings, the first one that made “Stardust” and made “Moonglow” and “I Cover The Waterfront” and “Concerto For Clarinet,” that was a helluva band.

TP:    I’m sorry. I didn’t make myself clear.  I was asking apart from your band, were there other big bands…

SHAW:  I liked Lunceford’s band.  Lunceford at his best was awfully good.  And Ellington at times was very good.  There weren’t many big bands that I liked in the sense that I’m qualified.

TP:    How about contemporary arrangers.  You’re talking about Lunceford; hence, Sy Oliver must be someone whose work you admired.

SHAW:  He was good, but he got a little too impressed with himself.  Sy, when he worked for Lunceford, was very good.  Lunceford was a good disciplinarian.  He kept the men in line, and they did what they had to do.  He was very good at that.  Lunceford had a lot of respect for what he did, and I think he imbued the musicians with that.  The leader of the band has a great deal to do with the temper of the band.

TP:    Did you know Ellington?

SHAW:  Yeah, sure.

TP:    Did you know him pretty well? In a casual manner?

SHAW:  Not terribly well.  We lived our own lives.

TP:    Jumping to the here-and-now, you’re still listening to music, you keep yourself apprised, a lot of it you don’t like, there are things you do like, including Mehldau and Charlap…

SHAW:  People send me a lot of recordings.  People send me CDs, and I listen to them, and some — very few — I really like.  Mostly I think, “Well, that’s adequate.”

TP:    And the two artists who come to mind are Brad Mehldau and Bill Charlap.

SHAW:  Well, there are more, but I can’t think off the top of my hand.  I still think that Art Tatum was the standard of a great player. I think that Hank Jones has turned out to be a remarkable player.  There are a number of people that I think are very good at the piano.  There aren’t many horn players that I think are good in the sense of having any connection with the audience.

TP:    In this period, because of the melodic component.

SHAW:  Well, because of the disrespect for the melodies they play.  A guy said to me, I won’t mention his name, but he’s a very, very capable and well-known arranger… I took him to task one time for what he did with a very well-known popular tune.  I think there are certain tunes that should be left alone.  Don’t try to mess around with “Where Or When” or “Dancing In The Dark.”  Those are major melodic statements.  The lyrics, too.  I said to him, “Why do you do this?  Why do you lengthen the bars, change the chorus, why do you change the melody?”  He said, “I reserve the right to do anything I want with any melody.”  I said, “Fine.  You’re reserving the right, then, to be an utter failure.”  And he is.

TP:    I have to say one of my pet peeves with arrangements is cleverness for the sake of cleverness.  I think it’s ridiculous.

SHAW:  That’s it.  Cleverness to impress other arrangers.  There are books like that, writers who write for each other.

TP:    I think this is part of the academization of jazz.

SHAW:  Well, maybe call it the decadence.

TP:    What do you see the function of jazz music as being in this particular period, having observed it for 75 years?

SHAW:  I think it goes in with everything else cultural.  A man named Jacques Barzun wrote a book at the age of 90 called “1500 to Decadence.”  1500 was the Renaissance, and he wrote the history of what we’ve done, Popular and all kinds of Culture, to Decadence.

TP:    Do you think in a compressed manner that a similar argument can be made about jazz, that Louis Armstrong is the Renaissance, and there’s a slope to decadence?

SHAW:  Like everything else, it has a crescendo and a decrescendo.  A crescendo and a waning.  I was interviewed by a guy named Anthony Sommers.  He came from Ireland, he was down here, and we did this.  We talked about Sinatra; he was doing a book on him.  At the end, when it was all spoken and everything was said that we had to say, he said, “Are you in agreement, then, that what you think and what I think is that he was a perfect symbol of the decadence of the last half of the century?”  I said, “Yeah, I think that says it very well.”  We took a plain, ordinary singer, who was a good singer… There was nothing wrong with that.  He was able to sing.  And we made him into an icon.  It had nothing to do with singing.  We made him a crony of Presidents, and then when he couldn’t get along with the President because of his propensity for gangsters, he went to Spiro Agnew.  He was a man with utterly no principle.  That’s a form of decadence.

TP:    Of course, it wasn’t so dissimilar in the ’20s, when you came up.

SHAW:  It was an efflorescence.  We were growing.  And we grew and grew and grew, until finally we reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill.

TP:    Speaking of singers, would you say Billie Holiday is the one you most admire?  I’m putting words in your mouth…

SHAW:  I can’t say “admire,” but put it this way.  When she does certain songs, I have to say that’s pretty good.  “Autumn In New York,” for example, which is not an easy song from chord structure and all that — she did a beautiful job on that.  She’s a good singer.  But Sarah Vaughan was a good singer.  Ella Fitzgerald was a good singer.  There are singers around right now… I listen occasionally at night to a public radio station out here called KCLU, and they play jazz, and occasionally singers come along.  There’s a guy called Kurt Elling.  Kurt is a very good singer.  But he can’t get an audience.

TP:    Well, for jazz these days, he has a pretty good audience actually.

SHAW:  Well, pretty good.  It’s a long way from Sinatra.

TP:    There’s not one male jazz singer who has anything close to that sort of audience, except for Bobby McFerrin, who isn’t really a singer.

SHAW:  Well, Tony Bennett comes fairly close to being a popular idol.

TP:    He does.  I guess I don’t think of him as a jazz singer.

SHAW:  Well, but he does some reasonably accurate facsimile.  There’s no real intellect there.  I asked him one time… We worked together on a series of concerts, the big tents, those great big musical extravaganza places.  My orchestra was rehearsing with him, and after they did “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” he came over to sit with me.  He said, “The band is great” and so on.  I said, “Good, I’m glad you’re happy with it.”  Then I said, “Tony, what goes through your mind when you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?”  He looked at me and said, “What do you mean?”  I said, “Well, you’ve been doing that song, and it expresses at most a meager philosophical statement.  Don’t you ever get a little bored with it?”  “No,” he said.  “I’m very lucky.  The audience…”  I said, “I’m not talking about money or success.  I’m talking about your inner view.”  He didn’t have one.  That’s an interesting gap, you know.  What you could call a mindless man.

TP:    I don’t know that one statement or expression necessarily denotes such an absolute assessment of him.  But maybe it is.

SHAW:  I think it is.  I think it’s a comment on him. It tells me a lot about him.  We did about half-a-dozen engagements.  And I began to realize that this guy was intent on singing, like Goodman was intent on the clarinet.  The philosophical basis for this was totally lost.  They were not aware that there was such a thing.

TP:    And you feel that denoted a character flaw.

SHAW:  Well, I think it’s a lack of understanding, or lack of depth to thinking.  It’s a surface view of life.  Things are not what they seem, and it’s the duty of any person who pretends to be aware to try to understand what it really represents.  It seems to me that’s an obligation.  That’s what I try to do, understand what is going on — in its deepest sense.  What does it say about the human condition?  The point of the words “human condition” I think is lost on a lot of people.  Also, they use language so imprecisely that their thought is imprecise.  We say “jazz.”  What are we talking about?  What is it and what isn’t it?  I mean, the name of the magazine, “Jazziz.”  Jazz is what?  It’s like saying “Bird Lives.”  Well, in that case, Beethoven lives.  What they mean is some of the music lasts.

TP:    Do you play any musical instrument now?

SHAW:  Well, I play piano a little bit.

TP:    Do you practice it?

SHAW:  No.  I did for a while, but I learned that if you want to get a vocabulary on piano, you have to practice it all the time.  And I have a low tolerance for boredom.

TP:    So if you can’t do something well, it holds no allure to you.

SHAW:  Well, I have no interest in half-ass.  I have no interest in being an amateur forever.  I don’t want to be an amateur now.  If I have to do something… I played golf for a while, and I got so bad I realized that the only thing you can do is live on a golf course.  I don’t want to do that.  It’s no fun to me to know that I am not very good at what I’m doing.  We can all be better than we are.

TP:    So you can’t go to the piano and just get some musical nourishment because you’re so conscious of your failings.

SHAW:  I can do it for myself.  Alone.  Yeah, I enjoy that sometimes.

TP:    I wasn’t talking about public performance.  I was talking for your own personal pleasure.

SHAW:  Yes.  I will do this occasionally.  Although lately it’s been difficult, because I’ve been incapacitated by this injury of mine.

TP:    What have you done in your senior years to stay so fit and alert?

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know! [LAUGHS] I just keep reading and thinking and looking and talking to people who know more than I do, or people with whom I can have interesting, speculative conversations.  Most people like to blab.  They get together, and they chatter.  I don’t like that.  I’m a loner.  I’m still alone. And now and then, people come along that I can talk to.  There’s a man who just sent me a computerized picture of a watch he’s developing.  He’s a great watchmaker.  He’s a third-generation watchmaker.  So it interests me, because a great watch is like a work of art.  And so on.  There are people like that, that I like to talk to.  But there aren’t a great many.  There never have been.

[-30-]_

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-16-02):

TP:    Do you recall anything from our last conversation?  The tenor of it?  I realize you’ve spoken with 18,000 people.

SHAW:  I get a little confused with which is which.  Give me a little resume.

TP:    As you may recall, it was an impromptu conversation.  I was calling Larry to set up a time to talk to you, and you grabbed the phone and said, “Let’s talk.”  I was winging it.

SHAW:  It was sort of general, in a way.  That’s fine.

TP:    I asked a few things that you thought were stupid, and there were a few things you didn’t feel like talking about…

SHAW:  I don’t know what those might be.

TP:    One was Pod & Jerry’s and one was World War Two.

SHAW:  World War Two, no. I have a very deep aversion to that whole episode in my life.

TP:    I asked you about certain people you’d encountered.  We spoke about some singers.  You talked about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

SHAW:  Miles?

TP:    You talked about Miles in relation to Dizzy, as someone people are still listening to because of his command of melody.  You felt Dizzy didn’t pay sufficient attention to melody.

SHAW:  Well, he paid very little.  Dizzy was a virtuoso, and he got lost in that sometimes.  It happened to Oscar Peterson, too, often.  A remarkable piano player, but you know, we’re not looking for piano, we’re looking for music.

TP:    And it’s all the more remarkable when you hear him on an occasion that is musical, which does happen.  You spoke some about Sinatra and Benny Goodman, I guess, in a critical way…

SHAW:  Not really.  I think that Benny was a remarkable instrumentalist.  Not much of a musician.  I’m talking about the difference between instrumentalists and musicians.  Anybody can learn to play a horn if he just devotes himself to do that.  But some people are able to do it through that horn, go beyond the notes.  Benny was very good at what he did, but it was limited.  And Sinatra, that’s a bore to me.

TP:    I thought at the end we got into some interesting stuff.  You said that today is an age of decadence, you actually referred to Sinatra…

SHAW:  As a symbol of that. It wasn’t Sinatra, but the idolization of him.  We made him into something larger than life, and he wasn’t.

TP:    Which coincides with the ratcheting up of the apparatus of popular culture, with television.

SHAW:  I think.  The media darling thing.

TP:    Were you ever involved in TV in the early days?

SHAW:  No, I was in radio.  I did the Old Gold show.  But there was no television in my day.

TP:    But you were still active in the early days. Your name still meant something to people.

SHAW:  No.  ’49 was about the end of my big band experience.  That was a very abortive one, because the audience didn’t care for what we did, and I had to break up that band.  It was probably the best band I ever had, and it could have been one of the most remarkable bands that ever was.  But the audience wouldn’t support it.

TP:    Why do you think it had that kind of potential?  Do you feel that you could have developed more had the band…

SHAW:  There’s no question about that in my mind.  If I’d had an audience that would allow me to keep paying the men… Without that you’re dead.  There’s nothing you can do.  If the audience will not support you, you’re out of business.  I keep trying to tell that to modern musicians.  If you play beyond the perception of the audience, you can’t expect them to reward you.

TP:    That band had a very stimulating repertoire.

SHAW:  Well, you only heard one record of it.  That’s all there was.  We had stuff there that was trailblazing.  Nobody had ever done what we did.

TP:    By which arrangers?

SHAW:  Not arrangers so much.  We did Ravel’s, “…(?)… Son D’Abenair(?)”.  We did a sonata somebody wrote for me.  We did things out of tempo.  It was a great band.

TP:    So you were playing your entire repertoire with that band.  You used that band as a vehicle to sum up everything you’d learned in your 25 years…

SHAW:  Well, I was using as much as I could get into a ballroom where… Don’t forget, we were making our living as a dance band.  And the only engagement we ever had with that band that was completely perfect was at the Blue Note in Chicago.  Dave Garroway was a big music fan.  He told me it was the most amazing musical experience of his life to hear that band.

TP:    You never played Birdland with that band or anything like that.

SHAW:  Not Birdland, but we were supposed to go to Bop City.  By that time, I had changed to the worst band I ever had.

TP:    Which band was that?

SHAW:  Oh, not to talk about.  A bunch of guys that could barely read a stock arrangement.  It was a terrible band.  I was doing it as a joke, to see what the audience would like.  If they hated the best band, and I went to the ’38 band and they loved that, then let’s see what happens with the worst band.  And I did that.  And they loved it.  It’s one of the reasons I quit the whole music business.

TP:    We also spoke about Ellington, who you were comparing to Jimmy Lunceford…

SHAW:  Ellington has been hyped.  In the last ten years Ellington has become like the avatar.  He was a good band, but he was one of the good bands.  But then, you know, he was smart.  He did some pretty smart stuff.  The long form things that he did, they weren’t long forms, they were just pastiche, a lot of little short forms put together.  “The Drum Is A Woman,” blah-blah-blah, that stuff.  But the audience bought it.

TP:    He could seduce everybody.

SHAW:  Yes, he did.  He was a very smart guy.

TP:    Do you consider him a master of short form jazz?

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know about a master.  I think there were about five great bands in those days.  There was Goodman, there was me, there was Basie, there was Ellington and there was Lunceford.  That about sums it up.  Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but it wasn’t what you’d call… They weren’t playing jazz.  They were doing a lot of things with big singers… It was known as the General Motors of jazz.

TP:    How would you evaluate Chick Webb’s band in those days?

SHAW:  It wasn’t up to that.  Chick had a good band, but it was not up to that.  Ella was the thing that made Chick.

TP:    How about Earl Hines’ band?  Did you ever get to hear it?

SHAW:  Well, he was never known as a great bandleader.  Hines was a great piano player with Louis.  That’s where he came through.  He was on “West End Blues” and some of those records, and he was a new voice.  So he was very interesting.  But as a bandleader he was not significant, maybe because the big band era was over when he came along.

TP:    Here’s what I was leading to by referring to our having touched on Ellington and Lunceford.  Ellington, as is commonly known, used the band as — and his success in being able to sustain the band with popular songs and having copyrights — a way to sustain his own creativity and keep himself interested, as a kind of vehicle for personal growth.

SHAW:  Ellington said that to me.  When I quit, he said, “Man, you’ve got more guts than any of us.”  I said, “What are you talking about?  You could do the same thing if you wanted to.”  He said, “I wouldn’t know what else to do.”

TP:    But did you see your band as a similar vehicle for you creatively, or potentially so?

SHAW:  That’s what it was.  The band was my instrument.  Instead of playing a clarinet, I had a band, which was my instrument.  I played the clarinet with it.  But it was an instrument.  The orchestra is an instrument.  If you look at a Beethoven score, it’s an instrument.  I mean, a band is not a series of players.  If you do the right thing with them… It’s like a newspaper.  If you run a newspaper, you’ve got a lot of disparate talents in there.  Or a magazine.  Like Harold Ross.  He had Walker Gibbs, he had E.B. White, he had Thurber, he had writers there that he could match.  But he welded them into an instrument.

TP:    I think you made that analogy to Sudhalter.  It’s a great analogy.

SHAW:   It’s a good metaphor.  The bandleader is an editor.  Sometimes he’s a good instrument, but mostly… I mean, Woody had some good bands.  But he was never up to the band.

TP:    But you apparently brought your band up to you.

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  I tried to make them play better than they thought they could.

TP:    How did you go about doing that?  You’re known as being a little…

SHAW:  Cranky.

TP:    …curt with people or…

SHAW:  I’m cranky.

TP:    But musicians seemed not to think that that was the case.  They say you were a taskmaster, but very fair and a good person to work for.

SHAW:  I tried to be fair.  I tried to be reasonable with them. But on the other hand, there’s an old saying, and I believe it’s true: Nothing of any lasting value is ever achieved by a reasonable man.  Somebody once asked me if I considered myself reasonable.  I said, “It depends on what your term ‘reasonable’ means.”  I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road and do the job and be a good insurance man. But if you’re unreasonable, you’re quarreling with everything that is, and you’re going to make it better.

TP:    So your approach would be just to make them do it until they got it right.

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  God, I was a great rehearser.  We would rehearse all the time.  If one guy did something wrong one night, I’d call a rehearsal the next night and say, “Look, we’ve got to fix that.”

TP:    So everybody would be responsible for the one mistake.

SHAW:  Well, not everybody.  But you had to rehearse the band.  The guys didn’t mind it.  They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.

TP:    You also were quite a talent scout, particularly in some of the later bands.  I’m looking at some of the people you brought into the picture, and there was Dodo Marmorosa and Barney Kessel…

SHAW:  Jack Jenney.

TP:    Did you always keep your antennae out?  Did you make it your business to go out and listen?

SHAW:  Well, when I had the men I needed for a band, during the period… The band that made “I Cover The Waterfront” and “Concerto For Clarinet” and “Stardust,” and those, I didn’t mess around with that band.  That was a perfect band for me, as good as you could play and have an audience.  So I didn’t mess around.  But then I had to break the band up, for various reasons, and then I had to put a new one together.  And I couldn’t put the same band together because the men were off doing whatever they were doing.  So you always tried to get the best people you could get to fulfill what you had in mind.

TP:    You remark that the band is an instrument and you played clarinet with the band.  You nonetheless were obsessive in your quest to extract every sound of the clarinet that suited your vision, which entailed being a virtuoso on the instrument.

SHAW:  Well, that only occurred… The business of playing the clarinet to my absolute limits, and I think to the clarinet’s limits, was with the 1954 band, the small group.  There I wasn’t trying to please an audience because we were playing in jazz clubs.  We weren’t playing dance music at all.  The advent of Jazz had taken place, this so-called thing that people call jazz, with audiences listening.  That occurred in about 1953 or ’54.

TP:    You organized that band because of IRS problems.

SHAW:  Well, I put the band together to make some money to pay them.  But that’s not what I was doing.  Once I got the idea that I had to go out there with a band, I didn’t want to bore myself to tears.  So I got the best men I could find.

TP:    Did having been an alto saxophonist first have an impact on your conception of the clarinet?

SHAW:  Well, I think that everything is connected in some way or another.  But I don’t think they were the same.  My view of the alto saxophone… I was a great lead saxophone player, but I also could play jazz.  But in my day, there wasn’t a great deal of jazz being played on the alto sax.  Johnny Hodges was a notable exception.  There were very few  alto players… Like today, you have Phil Woods, you have all kinds of guys playing alto sax… Jackie McLean, etcetera.  In my day, that wasn’t happening.  But I felt that the clarinet would be a little more expressive, and also it could soar above the high brass notes.  So I was able to be heard, which I couldn’t have done with an alto.

TP:    When did you start playing clarinet?  Back in the ’20s…

SHAW:  Oh, you had to play clarinet to make a living.  You had to double.

TP:    So you were doubling on clarinet and alto sax in the dance bands.

SHAW:  Oh gosh, yes.  When I was a kid I started playing clarinet.  But I wasn’t taking it seriously.  I played it as a double.  Then later I got interested in the instrument, and I got better at it.  But then when I got my band, I started to specialize on the clarinet.

TP:    Some musicians say they hear a sound in their mind’s ear before they’re ready to go for it or even know what it is, and they progress toward the sound. Now, maybe they’re mystifying the process somewhat.  But was that the case for you as a…

SHAW:  That is the case with any fine musician.  He hears a sound in his ears and he tries to approximate it.

TP:    This is what happened to you with a clarinet player.

SHAW:  It happens with Heifetz.

TP:    But I’m talking to you about you.

SHAW:  Well, it’s the same thing.  Music is music.  I don’t care who you’re talking about.  If a guy is good, he’s got a sound in his head.  That is not to say that that’s all.  Because what he does with it is also important.  But the sound is paramount, as far as I’m concerned.  You go into a room, and there are two guys playing, and if they both sound the same, then they’re not the same mouth, they’re not the same throat, not the same anything — but they sound the same.

TP:    Did you see the clarinet as an instrument with any limitations on your self-expression?  People speak of the clarinet as being fraught with difficulties, the difficulties of adapting it to be bebop, etc.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t care about those labels.

TP:    But did you ever see the clarinet as posing any limitations?

SHAW:  I felt that I had reached the limitations of the instrument in 1954 with that last group. I don’t think anybody can do more with it in the way of expressiveness.  I mean, there are guys who are virtuosos. I suppose you could be swifter.  You could play from C to C faster.  But that has nothing to do with music.  I mean, it’s not a foot race.

TP:    Would you regard your instrumental personality as being more of a stylist or more of an improviser, if you had to choose those two categories?

SHAW:  I couldn’t choose.  An improviser has to have a style. It’s his style.  If he’s going to make style… The French have a phrase, “Le style est l’homme,” the style is the man, the man is the style.

TP:    Let me put it this way.  The 1949 band, when you played, was it…

SHAW:  Well, I certainly played differently then than I did in the ’38 band.

TP:    But the question I’m going to ask you is: Did you play your solos differently every night?

SHAW:  I had to play some of them a certain way, pretty much standardized.  For example, I couldn’t play “Stardust”… Well, if you listen to the ’49 band, there’s a different chorus of “Stardust” altogether.  But basically, playing for an audience, they would expect to hear certain things that sound more or less the same.

TP:    Like Johnny Hodges had to take the same solo…

SHAW:  Yeah, you freeze something.  You get something that’s so good that it’s recorded and people want to hear that.  After all, you can’t totally ignore your audience, or they won’t support you.

TP:    Would your preference have been to do something different every night?

SHAW:  Oh, sure.

TP:    So that would have been the imperative… Forgive me for bringing back Pod & Jerry’s, but the process you described in your fictional short story about finding yourself someplace you never even dreamed you could go would be the imperative that animated you.

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know if that’s the way to put it.  But something like this is what I’d say.  You have this instrument.  It has its own requirements and its own difficulties.  And you try to do something with it every time you play it that has never been done before.  That’s your aim.  And if you’re successful, which is rare… Mostly you do things, and they’re pretty good, and sometimes, if you’re professional and really good, they’re always good.  But this thing of hitting something that’s never been done before, that happens occasionally, like it did on “Stardust” with me.  There was a phrase in there I played that went on and on and on.  I didn’t know when I set out to make that record that I was going to do that.  That was extemporaneous.  And once I did it, I listened to it, and I go, “It’s not going to get any better than that.”  That’s the one that Sudhalter talks about, for example.

TP:    Two people I didn’t ask you about who I wished I had in the previous conversation were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

SHAW:  Well, they’re the two guys who invented the tenor sax as we know it.  Coleman had one sound, which you could describe as Herschel Evans, and Lester had another sound, which was his.  Lester I prefer, because it was a little purer musically.  But Coleman was a remarkable player. But if you ask me my opinion, which I like better, it would be Lester.

TP:    Hawkins, though, is not unlike you as a musical personality, in that he kept up with every development in the music, and dealt with the younger players…

SHAW:  Yes.  But he didn’t get to where Lester did.  Lester got into a series of areas that Coleman never approached.  If you listen to them, you’ll see what I mean.  Talking about music is limited.  It’s like talking about painting.  You’ve got to look at it finally.

TP:    I’d like to ask you another question about improvising.  There are a number of musicians who when they discuss the process of improvising, say they see sounds as corollary to colors, or that this sort of analogy goes on.  Maybe it’s impossible to articulate this in language. But how did the thought process of working out an improvisation function for you?

SHAW:  You didn’t work out an improvisation.  Improvisation is something that happens while you’re playing.  You don’t know where you’re going.  It’s like jumping off a cliff in the darkness.  You don’t know where you’re going to land.  Along the way, you might find a handle of a tree growing out of it — something.  You grab whatever you can.  And sometimes, the grabbing makes things happen that you would never have done if you’d thought it through.  You’re doing something that has no beginning, middle or end.  You don’t know where you’re going.  When you start out, you’re starting out to play something, and here’s the tune, here are the chords, here is the structure.  “All right, what can I do with this?”  It’s like asking the painter, the dripper…

TP:    Jackson Pollock?

SHAW:  Pollock.  Asking him what he planned.  He didn’t know what he was planning.  He would drip paint.

TP:    Those paintings weren’t improvisations.  When you see the paintings all together in a retrospective, there’s thematic consistency.

SHAW:  They’re all improvisation.

TP:    That may be, but they’re all within a predetermined form.

SHAW:  Well, that was true with what I was doing.  It’s within a form.  If I were playing “Stardust,” I couldn’t do the same improvisation that I could do if I were playing “Traffic Jam.”  There are different moods, different feels, different tempos — different everything.  So you worked within the structure of the piece you were playing, and did what you could with that to make it something of your own.  It requires a certain musical intelligence.  And it requires a certain amount of instinct, too.  You can’t really define this.  The word “define,” people forget that the definition is based on the word “finite.”  So if you define something, you are limiting it.

Language is wiser than the people who use it.  Language has been used for a long, long time by a number of people in different ways.  We are the heirs to that, and if we use language precisely, we have a little better chance of making ourselves clear and making other people understand what we’re doing, than if we use it sloppily, as people do.

TP:    Do you think of music as a language?

SHAW:  Well, it’s a form of language.  Of course it is.  We have three languages.  There’s the verbal one — oral-verbal.  There’s music.  And there’s mathematics.  There are three different languages.  I don’t know of any others.

TP:    Do you see the act of improvising as telling a story, as many musicians like to say?

SHAW:  Those are words.  I don’t know what that means.  You’re saying something.  If that’s telling a story, I don’t know.  The half-chorus I played on “Stardust.”  Everybody says that’s one of the great things they’ve heard.  Well, I don’t know if I told a story.  I was playing something.

TP:    Well, it’s a phrase you’ve undoubtedly heard 18,000 times.

SHAW:  Well, I’ve heard it a million times.  But I have no use for those cliche phrases.  People are saying what they’ve heard instead of saying what they think.  The cliche is based on truth, but it’s somebody else truth.

TP:    Then of course, there are people who invent their own cliches.

SHAW:  I don’t know how to go with that.  The word “cliche” for me means a mindless repetition of something you’ve heard that was once true, because it was uttered by somebody who had something to say.

TP:    Did you feel yourself forced into cliches by the dictates of the market, the aspects of the music business you’ve complained about over the years?

SHAW:  Well, I wasn’t so much complaining about it.  I felt restricted by audience demands.  There’s that line, I think I quoted it to you, and I forget who said it…G.B. Shaw, I believe; “Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.”  I received a lot of advice, and fortunately I ignored most of it.  I tell that to people today who ask me for advice.  I said, “You can’t follow my advice.  Follow your own.  Find out what your deepest instincts are, and follow them.”  Few people know who they are.  I finally came to begin to know who I am.  Musically I knew who I was.

TP:    Musically you knew who you were.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure did.

TP:    When did you start to know who you were musically?  Always?

SHAW:  Oh, not always.  But as I grew older, as I matured… By the time I got my first band, I began to know who I was.

TP:    So you were about 26 years old.

SHAW:  22, 23, 24.  When I played that first Imperial Swing Concert, so-called.

TP:    That was 1936.  You were born in 1910.  So you were 26.

SHAW:  Yes, in 1936, so I was 26.  I wrote a piece for strings and clarinet.  Nobody had ever heard of that before.

TP:    Well, one thing that’s very different about your circumstance than any jazz musician today is that by 26 you were already a veteran professional musician.  You’d been on the road for ten years.  And I think I read that by the time you were 16 or 17 you were making 175 bucks a week?

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  Sure.  In Cleveland.

TP:    That’s amazing.

SHAW:  [LAUGHS] Well, I was apparently worth it to the man who hired me.  I was making arrangements.  In those days you got 25 bucks for an arrangement, you know.  But in those days 25 bucks was the equivalent of $150 today — or more.

TP:    25 bucks a week wouldn’t be a bad salary then.

SHAW:  That’s right.  And when I was working at CBS on the staff band, the scale they paid… Most of the men got 100 bucks a week.  I insisted on $125, because I was angry with them for having screwed me up with the first… They made me audition for the job, and they gave me something to play that made no sense at all, and somebody else got the job.  I didn’t like what they did.  It was very sneaky.  Union stuff.  So when I finally decided to take the job, when I was offered the job, I insisted on 25 bucks a week more.  But that was a significant amount.

TP:    125 bucks a week in the Depression?  My God, you could…

SHAW:  Yeah, right.

TP:    You had an apartment on Central Park West then?

SHAW:  No, on West 72nd Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

TP:    So you’re 21-22 years old, and you’re born to a working-class family, and by age 22 you’re in an upper economic bracket.

SHAW:  I guess so.  I didn’t think of it in those terms, but I was earning money.  The money was there, and I was being paid in accordance with what the leader thought I was worth.  It was in the Wylie Band where I began to really make some money.  I ran his band for him.  He just stood up in front of it and gave downbeats.  Or sometimes I’d beat off the tempo for him on a piece he hadn’t heard yet.

TP:    And you were 16 years old.

SHAW:  16, 17, 18.  I left there at 19.

TP:    And you went out to California, where you joined Aaronson.

SHAW:  That’s right.  I joined the Aaronson band, which was a terrible band, but it was a name band.  They were going to New York, and that was my idea of where I wanted to go.

TP:    And you wrote an essay on how the air show would benefit Cleveland that got you out to California?

SHAW:  The first national air races were held in Cleveland.

TP:    So you flew out to Hollywood in 1929 from Cleveland.

SHAW:  That’s right.

TP:    What was that airplane flight like?

SHAW:  It was pretty weird. [LAUGHS] I was all alone in a tri-motor Fokker plane, a four-metal plane, and they flew me out to Hollywood, and I saw my father.  I wrote this in “Trouble With Cinderella.”  I was out there for a while.  I met some guys I had known from New Haven who were working in the Roosevelt Hotel, which in those days was a pretty sharp place, the “home of the stars” and so on, and it was nothing to go in and be playing and see Clark Gable, or see Howard Hughes with Jean Harlow… It was a pretty posh place.  So I saw these guys, they were Tony Pastor (Tony Pastrito) and Charlie Trotter from New Haven.  We ran into each other.  They heard I was out there, and we met.  And so, when they came to Cleveland, they had talked it up, and Aaronson hired me.

TP:    That was your first time in California.

SHAW:  Yes.  Well, we left California and went to Chicago.

TP:    Then you had a six-week engagement, and you went to the South Side every night.

SHAW:  Yes, at the Grenada Cafe, at 68th and Cottage Grove.  I remember that.  And every night I would go out around the South Side and find somebody to play with.

TP:    You’d drive down to 35th Street and 47th Street, and play… You played at the Apex Club?

SHAW:  Yes, I played with all those people.

TP:    What was your impression of Jimmie Noone?

SHAW:  I just liked the way he played.  He was a legitimate clarinet player.  He knew how to play the clarinet.  He got a good sound out of it and he played  interesting things. Unfortunately, Benny copied him note for note.  Benny did stuff that was Noone’s invention. [SINGS REFRAIN] That was Noone.  Benny got a lot of stuff from him.  I heard him play, and I was influenced by him, but I didn’t believe in direct copying.  It’s the difference between using a quote from a book you’ve read if you’re writing, or another one is plagiarizing… Just using it without saying where it’s from.  I just thought Noone was a very good player, and I realized he did things on the clarinet that I had not done before, that I had not heard done before.  So he opened up doors for me.

TP:    Did you hear Omer Simeon when you were in Chicago?

SHAW:  No, I never did hear him.

TP:    Earl Hines you played with as well.

SHAW:  Oh yes.  I sat in with the band, and I’d look around, and there’d be other guys, like …(?)..

TP:    Were a lot of white musicians sitting in with black musicians on the after-hours scene?

SHAW:  Well, yeah.  You’d sit in wherever they were playing.  The thing about these bands… For example, Earl’s band played until 4 o’clock in the morning.  Some of us played until 6 a.m.  I finished work at whenever it was, and there was no place to go.  I wanted to play somehwere.  And the band I was in, the Aaronson band, was a terrible band.  So I wanted to get some playing done.  That’s what I did, I went to these places, and you could sit in and play whatever you wanted.

TP:    When you did, were you playing alto saxophone or clarinet?

SHAW:  Alto saxophone mostly.  Then I played tenor for a while.

TP:    How did you like playing tenor?

SHAW:  It never did work for me.  I could play the notes, but I didn’t get… It didn’t work for my particular embouchure.  I never could get the sound of a tenor that was comparable, say, to Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins.

TP:    Alto saxophonists all say that the alto is the most difficult to keep up the chops.

SHAW:  All instruments are difficult.  We used to have a saying when I was in the radio business… We were playing with a great pool of musicians.  There was Tommy, Benny, me, Manny Klein, Dick McDonough, Carl Kress — great musicians.  Our saying was “music is a tough instrument.”

TP:    You’re saying that you don’t believe in styles, that it’s all music.  But were the people in Chicago playing music with a different attitude than the people you met in Harlem?

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know.  The so-called Austin High gang, they were out there.  Bud Freeman certainly didn’t sound like anybody else, and Bud and I became good friends and we played together quite a bit.  I mean, jammed together.

TP:    But I’m thinking of the way let’s say Earl Hines thought about music vis-a-vis the way, say, Willie The Lion Smith thought about music.

SHAW:  Well, Willie was earlier.  Willie was one of the early guys.  Earl came along a bit later.

TP:    True.  But Earl Hines was playing professionally from 1923.

SHAW:  Earl came along when Louis started using him in the Hot Five.  That was a whole different era than when Willie Smith was starting.  Willie came out of the James Johnson school of piano, although he wouldn’t have liked to hear that.

TP:    Earl came out of Pittsburgh, more of a midwest tradition.

SHAW:  All you can say is that different people do different things.

TP:    But one thing that’s interesting in looking at the history of this music is the sense of regional difference.  That’s one thing that’s been lost with television…

SHAW:  We’re going towards more and more standardization, more and more cloning.  There’s a book by Jacques Barzun, and the name of it says everything: “1500 to Decadence.”  When you stop to think about it, here’s Shostakovich writing, and here’s Beethoven writing, and here’s Mozart writing.  They all influence each other.  If there hadn’t been a Mozart, there wouldn’t have been a Beethoven — not the Beethoven we know anyway.  Then from Beethoven you’ve got Brahms, and after that you go into Impressionism with Debussy.  Well, they’re all different countries, different cultures.  The music was different.  Each composer had his own particular field.  It’s not much different than the world of jazz.

TP:    In many different circumstances, you describe yourself as being angry about this or that.  Is there something you can pinpoint that precipitated that anger in your life?

SHAW:  Well, I think my anger is because of the cheapness of people, the cheapness of what they will accept.  Today they accept stuff that I wouldn’t dream of doing or having a band do.  And they accept crap.  What you’re hearing is absolute shit.  There are very few people that are popular and making money and making a big audience that are doing anything worth hearing.  I mean, we talk about the Beatles as if they were the anointed of God.  They didn’t do anything I cared about musically.  They wore funny clothes, they looked funny, they wore the same haircuts, and they did things like “Eleanor Rigby.”  Well, there was an American poet who wrote stuff like “Eleanor Rigby.”  He wrote little pieces about people… Edgar Lee Masters.  See, we’re dealing with illiterates.  People are illiterate.  They don’t listen back.  Those who don’t learn from history, etc.

TP:    Sudhalter in his chapters on you pointed out a contradiction, in that you plunged headlong into the music business, where you had to know you were going to be faced with this attitude…

SHAW:  No, I learned that when I got into the radio…

TP:    Oh, you didn’t know about that.

SHAW:  No, I had no idea.  When I was playing in Cleveland and with Aaronson, I just thought the world was wide open. I was young.  I had no idea that music was something that people did or did not understand.  I didn’t know that the great audience in America was aliterate.  There were shows on radio that I would have died if I had to play on.  Shows like “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.”  They were big, big shows.  But they were dreadful music.  I remember George M. Cohan did one show.  Everything was [SINGS PEPPY REFRAIN], “Over there, over there, and the Yanks are coming.”  Such horseshit.  Pure horseshit.  I remember once we were playing, and the band was so loud that I stuck my horn into Larry Binyan’s ear, who was right next to me (tenor man), and I pressed all the keys down, the high notes, and went YAK-YAK-YAK, YAK-YAK-YAK… Nobody heard the difference.  You couldn’t hear it.  It wouldn’t matter what I did.  So musically, that was a horrifying experience.  It paid well, and when you make a certain amount of money you live up to that amount of money, and pretty soon you’re being dictated to by that.  So I stayed in it as long as I could take it.  I quit at the age of 23, moved to Bucks County and tried to write.  Can you imagine my thinking I would write a book and people would buy it?  I had no idea.  I thought I could maybe make a living as a writer.  I had no idea what that entails.

TP:    Do you think of music as a higher form than writing, or writing as a higher form than music?

SHAW:  Literature for me is probably the major art form.  You can do anything with literature.  Painting is limited to the eye, and music is limited to the ear.  But literature appeals to all of us.  You can do anything with literature.  people have done it.  Not many, but some writers have done it.  Thomas Mann comes close occasionally.  Faulkner came close in a story called “The Bear,” one of the great utterances I’ve ever read.  And so on.  These are very complicated subjects to discuss.

TP:    But they’re very interesting and rewarding to discuss.

SHAW:  They’re interesting.  I don’t know whether an audience that buys “Jazziz” would be interested in what I’m talking about.

TP:    You never can anticipate.  You never know.

SHAW:  No, you never know.  All I know is that most people in jazz, or in what we call jazz, have very limited horizons.  They are stuck with that and they don’t know much else.  You’ll notice that, for example, fine painters and fine musicians, so-called legitimate musicians, they read.  They’re interested in what goes on in art forms aside from music.  You talk to the average musician, and he hasn’t read much.

TP:    I have to say that most of the musicians I know 35 and under, the paradigm is different.  They have a very different orientation.

SHAW:  Well, the younger ones seem to have that.

TP:    Someone like Mehldau, for instance, who you spoke of favorably, knows quite a bit about German philosophy and poetry and literature.

SHAW:  I find that encouraging.  So they may do something with music that will not be the same old cliched stuff that we keep hearing.  See, I don’t know what McCoy Tyner is like as a person.

TP:    I take your point.  I’ve met a lot of musicians from different periods.  A lot of older musicians have a great deal of mother wit and knowledge and sophistication about life, but you wouldn’t call them particularly…

SHAW:  They don’t know much else.

TP:    They’re not particularly well-read.

SHAW:  They’re not well read at all!  That was always a very strange thing to me.  How can you live in this world and not read?  For example, I’m reading a book now called The Battle for God, which deals with fundamentalism at war with itself.  You have fundamentalist Islamists, fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Protestants.  I mean, a woman who works for me here, takes care of me at night, she came in the other evening and said, “There’s only one God.”  I said, “what about Allah?  What about Jehovah?”  Well, that gave her pause.  She hadn’t thought about that.

TP:    Would you call yourself at atheist?  An agnostic?

SHAW:  I don’t know.  I would say agnostic is closer.  I believe there’s a force… I was talking to a scientist who visited me here yesterday, who has written some books, and is a very smart guy, and I spent several hours with him.  We talked about the fact that we do not seem to understand that there are many, many approaches to the same goal.  For example, if you wanted to know something about theoretical physics, it would broaden your horizons if you learned about that.  Your horizons no matter what you did.  If you’re a writer, if you’re a musician or if you’re a painter, you look at things differently.  Your horizons broaden.  People don’t seem to understand that.  The more you know about everything, the more resonance there will be in whatever you do.

TP:    It’s an age of specialization.  I think Sudhalter mentions that Jerome Kern, your former father-in-law, wondered why you went after what I think he called “nitpicking knowledge,” and your answer was that given the choice between knowing a lot about a few things or a little about a lot of things, you would prefer the latter.

SHAW:  Yes.  And then keep trying to add layers to your awareness.  Basically, it comes down to seeking… My book, “Trouble With Cinderella,” ends on a simple note.  What is the aim?  And the aim for me is to achieve the highest degree of awareness you can do within the span of a lifetime.

TP:    Which sounds almost Buddhist.

SHAW:  Well, I guess it is Buddhist.  But then, Buddhism was also something that has to do with awareness.  It’s an emotional, religious kind of feeling.  There you come to that famous triptych: Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where are we going?  No one has ever come up with an answer to any of those three questions.  How many musicians in jazz do you know who even concern themselves with that?

TP:    More than you would think.

SHAW:  Well, now they’re…

TP:    Ellington wrote the song “What Am I Here For”?

SHAW:  Well, “Why Was I Born?” was before that.  But that doesn’t… “Why was I born, why am I living, what do I get, what am I giving?” That’s child’s stuff.  That’s high school things.

TP:    In the previous interview, I asked about your parents and where they were from, and I read what you said about your father.  And you said that you’d pretty much sundered your ties and never looked back…

SHAW:  I don’t have anything to do with family.  I really do not care about family.  My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children.

TP:    You’d be losing a lot.

SHAW:  Four 6-hour shifts, and pay people who like kids and have 6 hours with them, and that’s it, and they’re totally devoid of all this sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get today.

TP:    Goodness, why do you feel it’s horseshit?  It’s such a fundamental human imperative.

SHAW:  I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other.

TP:    Psychologically?

SHAW:  Yes.

TP:    That can happen in a collective situation — say in a kibbutz.

SHAW:  Not if you only have six hours with a kid.  You can’t do a lot of damage.  You’ve got another one coming in for six hours, or another… Four 6-hour shifts a day.  Or six 4-hour shifts.  Whatever works.  There’s no reason why a society can’t do that, raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way, rather than the highly subjective bullshit that we get with the average family.

TP:    I don’t know that it’s possible to be objective in raising children, even for the people who are professionals and detached.

SHAW:  I think it is.  If you’ve got a six-hour shift, you can be pretty objective.

TP:    Children need love, though.  They need that sense of belonging to something.  They really do.

SHAW:  You’re generalizing here.

TP:    I’ll just go by my child’s experience.  She has to know that.

SHAW:  You don’t know what damage you’re doing the child.

TP:    I think psychic damage can come from many different places, Mr. Shaw.

SHAW:  I think if people are trained and are taught about pedagogy, and they go on and learn that, and they’re professional people who raise a child because they love children, and they spend six hours… That’s about all you can handle.

TP:    There are techniques and tactics involved in raising children, just as there are in any other craft.  Any parent who is a good parent has to have some objectivity.

SHAW:  I think what you’re saying is that there are flaws, of course.

TP:    We’re human.  The nature of being human is to be flawed.

SHAW:  All right.  So if you take the father and mother away from the child, the chances of flawing are lessened.

TP:    It sounds very utopian.

SHAW:  Read Huxley’s “The Island.”

TP:    I did many years ago actually, in high school.

SHAW:  Well, read it again.  That’s a good book.  He poses a good society.  Also he points out at the end that it can’t succeed.

TP:    Well, we’ve seen what’s happened in your lifetime.  You’ve witnessed the formation of utopian societies, and then their decadence and fall and decline.

SHAW:  It can’t work.  There is no such thing as Utopia.  I agree with that.  I mean, a utopia would be taken over by the first guy with bigger guns.  It’s that simple.

TP:    That’s exactly right.  It took me a long time to come to thinking like this, but it seems that the mess and flux of a market-oriented society and democratic institutions is really the only sensible way for human beings to interact.

SHAW:  Yeah, but if you agree with me that the majority is always wrong, democracy is pretty dangerous.

TP:    Yes, but consider the alternative.

SHAW:  Well, we’ve got Plato.  The Emperor-Philosopher.  Who the minute he becomes an Emperor becomes no Philosopher.

TP:    Well, he becomes the Tyrant, and so there we go.

SHAW:  That’s right.  He doesn’t have to be.  But his son might be.  So we’re back to Nero again.

TP:    Well, you never know.  Then there’s the person with the biggest gun.

SHAW:  Yeah.  All I’m getting at is it’s an insoluble problem.  Governing the human being is impossible.  Human beings are not governable.  That’s the one thing we’ve learned from history.

TP:    But getting back to the question of looking forward and sundering ties with family: Do you consider yourself Jewish?

SHAW:  I don’t know what that means.  I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, and I don’t believe in the stone tablets, and I don’t believe in the Burning Bush, and I don’t believe in any of the myths.  And I don’t know what it means to have a seder, because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting.  I mean, why is this day different from any others?  Well, Jesus, why is July 4th different?  They’re all different.  But I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.

TP:    To me, being Jewish doesn’t mean that you practice the religion.

SHAW:  Well, what does it mean?

TP:    I’m not sure.  I think there’s a set of cultural predispositions and aspirations…

SHAW:  Oh, I think that’s chauvinistic as hell.  In every kind of world there is, there are predispositions.  The Arabs certainly had a lot of predisposition to…remarkable individuals.  I don’t know the answers to that.  I don’t think being Jewish is a specific… I don’t know what it means.  Is Jewishness a tribe?  Is it a nation?

TP:    I’m not sure what it means, but people…

SHAW:  You say you’re not sure what it means.  How can you say I am that?

TP:    I think it means being formed in a certain way…

SHAW:  Well, it depends on which Jewish parents.  There were a lot of ignorant ones.  Mine certainly didn’t give me anything except genes.

TP:    I think those genes are what defines me as Jewish, and you and whomever.  Had we been placed in central Europe when you were in your twenties, we wouldn’t have this conversation.

SHAW:  We’d be dead.  Well, there’s also the business of the expulsion of Jews in 1492. It’s not new.  If you know your history, you’ll know that in 1492 or so, when the Jews were expelled, along with the Moors, the Jews were given an option.  They could stay if they wanted to be baptized.  Many did.  Thousands left.  I would say that the ones who were baptized were smarter.  We still today have great respect for the Sephardic Jew.  The Sephardic Jew is considered a notch higher.

TP:    As opposed to the Ashkenazi Jew?

SHAW:  Culturally.  I don’t know the answers.  These are sects, and I hate the idea that you can typecast people and put them in a case where they won’t have to… It doesn’t work.  Human beings are too malleable, they’re too disparate from each other…

TP:    It’s true, but this is how the world defines us.  When you hired black musicians, they can think of themselves as individual as they’d want, but in the eyes of the world they were still black.

SHAW:  We’re back to the question of being a reasonable man.  I was not reasonable.  So whatever they defined me as, I became an Artie Shaw.  That’s not a Jew.  I don’t know if I told you, but I was on the “Tonight Show” one time, and the conversation got general, which it doesn’t usually.  Johnny Carson got himself into a thing where everybody was talking at once.  And the question came up: What did you want to be when you were young?  What was your ambition?  When it got to me, I said, “I wanted to grow up and be a gentile.”  And the audience cracked up, and so did the band.  There were a lot of Jews in the band.  And then, the laughter died down, and I said, “And I made it.”

TP:    Were you telling the truth?

SHAW:  Yes!

TP:    So you did think of yourself as Jewish.

SHAW:  I made it as a gentile figure.  Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish.

TP:    And were any of your wives Jewish?

SHAW:  Well, one was. [LAUGHS] I didn’t know she was until after we married.  She was half-Jewish.  Betty Kern.  Her father.  I thought he was a Welshman.

TP:    So you did think of yourself as Jewish, and you made it. It was like a big trick on the world.

SHAW:  That’s right.  And I was the only guy who could laugh at it.  But I don’t think that has anything to do with anything — for me.  It’s just one of those things that you happen to have brown hair or dark hair or red hair or whatever.  Red Buttons didn’t choose the color of his hair.  He chose his name.

TP:    People these days tend not to get married eight times; they tend to go from one person to another…

SHAW:  Well, I would have done the same thing back then, but it wasn’t permissible.  I mean, women like Ava and Lana had morals clauses.  If they lived with a man openly, they were subject to being thrown out.  In those days you either married or you divorced.  I was very conventional.  I did both.

TP:    Other musicians have described seeing Ava Gardner as being very enthusiastic about music, seeing her at Birdland and California clubs.  I find her persona so appealing from the films she was in…

SHAW:  Oh, she was the same Hollywood mess as everybody else was.  She told me once that she stood in front of the Queen, in one of those lineups where the women…the celebrities met the Queen.  She didn’t curtsey, she didn’t bow, she said to me rather proudly.  I said, “Well, why did you go there?”  Well, because she considers herself as good as the Queen.  And the interesting thing is, when she died, she had two Welsh Cordies.  Those were the Queen’s dogs.  So you can see there’s some sort of peculiar coincidence there, isn’t it?  I don’t know what that’s all about.  When I met her, she was a young and relatively unspoiled person.  And then she got celebrity, and that can kill you.

TP:    So you met her at the time when her career was beginning to take off.

SHAW:  I helped her.  I helped get started.

TP:    How did you do that?

SHAW:  Well, I was instrumental in getting her into pictures.  “Whistle Stop” was her first starring role.  A friend of mine named Frank Cavett, who is now dead, Frank was a writer, and he knew the guy who was producing it, and they were looking for a female lead to play with George Raft.  He was the star. Ava was the one who was chosen finally, and I had a lot to do with that.  And when she got into “The Killers,” which was her next film, Siodmak was the director of that, and I told him to make her act.  She couldn’t act.  And he got her angry and shot her while she was angry.  And she hated him.  He said, “He’s going to hate me.”  She did.  Anyway, he made her.  So Ava was a product, like any Hollywood star.  If she were not a product, she wouldn’t be there.

TP:    And is that story you told this woman that after your marriage, she asked you if sex was very good, and you answered…

SHAW:  Of course.  She was living with Sinatra.  That’s true.

TP:    I have to say I got a good belly laugh out of that anecdote.  I couldn’t believe she’d said it.

SHAW:  Well, it’s true.  She wanted to know whether she was okay, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless.  Then later, of course, Ava had this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man.  So then she’d make remarks like “he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.”

TP:    About Sinatra?

SHAW:  Yeah.  And I know damn well that wasn’t true.  Because I’ve heard it from other women.

TP:    You were married to your last wife, Evelyn Keyes, though, for 28 years.

SHAW:  That doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.  We just didn’t get divorced.  We weren’t living together.  We were separated after about a year-and-a-half.

TP:    Why was it so hard for you to establish a…

SHAW:  You’d have to know the movie woman, the type of woman that’s made by Hollywood and manufactured by Hollywood.

TP:    Why did you keep going for those sort of women, then?

SHAW:  Those were the ones I met!  And it’s pretty hard to say no when a woman like Ava Gardner comes up to you and says to you, “I like you.”  You’ve got to be a pretty stupid guy to say, “Well, go away.”

TP:    But at a certain point, after eight times, you might think, “Hmm.”

SHAW:  Well, it wasn’t eight, and they weren’t all glamour.  I married Betty Kern, and she was one of the worst.  And Doris Darling, certainly one of the worst.  I don’t know.  You can’t generalize about this.

TP:    Well, I apologize for asking about your personal life, but it’s part of the persona and your legend.

SHAW:  Sure it is.  But I can’t pick and choose why I did certain things.  The only line I can think of is it seemed like a good idea at the time.

TP:    How long have you been living unattached?

SHAW:  Oh, Christ, I can’t think of how… A helluva long time.  Evelyn and I separated I don’t know how long ago.  Many, many years ago.  I’ve been living in this house 22 years.  And I wasn’t unattached.  There were other people.  There were some nice ones, too.  One of them became an academician, and I couldn’t very well go that way, because I would have to live where academicians lived.  So it’s a complicated story.  People talk about doing a film version of my life, and I say, “Which life?”  I’ve seen those pictures.  The Goodman story and Tommy Dorsey and the Battling Dorseys, super saccharine… The Glenn Miller Story.  That’s awful shit.

TP:    Well, if someone like Martin Scorsese made the movie, it would be different.

SHAW:  Well, he doesn’t know about that, and doesn’t want to know.  They know everything.  They made a picture called “Cotton Club,” which was a piece of shit.

TP:    “Cotton Club” wasn’t too good.  He made a movie called “New York, New York,” though, where Georgie Auld trained De Niro.

SHAW:  That was pretty shitty, too.  The one with Georgie Auld playing the bandleader.

TP:    What do you think of the development of cinema since then?

SHAW:  I haven’t seen a movie in about three years except for on my video.  I don’t look at movies any more.  It’s like I woke up one day and I didn’t read any more funny papers.  “Why am I reading about Blondie?” I said to myself.

TP:    But were movies just something that was socially customary for you to do, or did you get something out of them?

SHAW:  Well, movies are a custom.  People go to them as a custom.

TP:    But did any filmmakers or films enrich you in the manner of Thomas Mann or Faulkner?

SHAW:  As in every other endeavor, there are better and worse.

TP:    Well, who are some of the better, in your opinion?

SHAW:  I think Jack Ford was good.  I think Huston made a fine picture with “The Maltese Falcon.”  He made a good picture with “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”  Well, there have been a number of good directors.  But I don’t really care much.  I know too much about the workings of the film business, and I can sort of read between the scenes and say, “Well, he did this because of so-and-so…”  You know, the suits run the business, just like they run the record business today.

TP:    Oh, always.  It’s even more sophisticated than it was with the marketing and the testing and changing the ending and all that.

SHAW:  The record business has suffered enormously because of that?

TP:    Well, what constitutes your pleasure these days?  Is it primarily reading and discussion?

SHAW:  Reading, reading, reading.  Talking to people, having good conversations, looking out at the world, and looking at the sunrise and sunset.  Wild ducks live near my house.  I have a pool back there, and they go in the pool.  I don’t know, what can I say?  You just live your life and do the best you can.  I live with the phenomena of the world, and in some wonder mostly.  I am beset with wonder.

TP:    You’ve been working on a long autobiographical novel for many years.

SHAW:  Well, it’s a novel.

TP:    A long novel.

SHAW:  Yes.

TP:    With someone who may or may not be a protagonist or a stand-in for you or a fictionalized you.

SHAW:  Well, the book is, like any other fictional book, permeated by me.

TP:    Is the book close to completion?

SHAW:  I’ve written it.  It’s 95 pages [sic: chapters] long, and at the end he’s only 25.

TP:    How much have you cut?

SHAW:  I’m cutting, cutting, cutting right now.  I’m up to chapter… Let’s see, what chapter did I just finish cutting.  Chapter 48, I think.  We’re going to try to get down to Chapter 60, and my editor, who is a woman at Knopf, will then take the book and present it.

TP:    You have 60 chapters in… You didn’t say 95 pages, did you?

SHAW:  I said 95 chapters.

TP:    I thought you said pages.

SHAW:  No, chapters.

TP:    I couldn’t quite correlate.  I thought you were joking with me.

SHAW:  It’s a big, big, long tome.  But I can’t write it shorter.  It would not make any sense.

TP:    Do you use the computer?

SHAW:  Yes, when I write.  Right now I’ve got a different system.  Larry, my assistant… I take some material that I’ve got down, and that I’ve edited as much as I can, and pencil out pages, and then I give it to him and he types it up.  He’s got it all in the computer.  So he fixes the pages and sends them back to me.  Two or three exchanges, then I put it away.

TP:    Computers are amazing.

SHAW:  Then you go into the pre-publication trauma of editing and whatever.  Have you read that book of Stephen King’s called “On Writing”?

TP:    No, I haven’t.

SHAW:  It’s a helluva book.  It’s the best book of its kind I’ve read.  He’s a very smart guy.

TP:    Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, Saul Bellow I have reservations about.  Since he won the Nobel Prize.  Before that, he was a good writer.

TP:    Do you think it went to his head?

SHAW:  Well, there’s no question that it did.

TP:    Well, you would know, wouldn’t you.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure do.  I know that you have to be very, very careful about success.  There’s nothing worse than failure, except success.

TP:    Well, you probably haven’t failed at very many things except the marriages.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, I have!  You don’t know about my failures.

TP:    Can you reveal one or two for us?

SHAW:  Well, there are lots of failures that I don’t publicize.  You can’t do everything well.

TP:    As I was researching you on the Web, I found a project that Buddy DeFranco and Tom Rainier are undertaking…

SHAW:  They did do it.

TP:    Is it that they’re extracting your solos from the backdrop and creating new backgrounds for them?

SHAW:  I have certain reservations.

TP:    How did it come about?

SHAW:  Buddy wanted to do it.  His mantra is, “You haven’t heard the end of Artie Shaw yet.”  So this one record they made was on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which is a tune I never played. It wasn’t published while I was playing.  They used various riffs of mine and fit it in.

TP:    And created a solo out of your…

SHAW:  Not a solo, but various fill-ins, and not really… I have very mixed feelings about it.  I think it’s a little creepy.

TP:    Well, this is something that’s almost a commonplace in the digital age.

SHAW:  Yeah.  But it’s going to cost an awful lot to do.  They’ll need a lot of money to do this, because it’s not an easy undertaking.

TP:    You have a very rare perspective on the trajectory of our technology.  You were born around the time when electricity became commonplace, and now you’re living in the age of digital technology still in full possession of your faculties.

SHAW:  Like all things, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

TP:    What do you think are the advantages of digital technology?

SHAW:  The advantages are you can change anything into anything you want.  You can do the same piece and make a different ending, a better ending, and put it on there.  You can make a better riff here.  If a singer misses a high-D, they can put a high-D in there.  All of that is good, I suppose.

TP:    Do you think that’s a good thing, or do you think some imperfection is…

SHAW:  Well, I was coming to that.  It’s good for the singer, but it’s bad in the sense that we don’t get any spontaneity any more.  It’s like Vermeer.  Once a guy starts copying Vermeer, it gets to the point where you never know, when you look at a Vermeer, whether it’s real or a copy.  There’s a rumor out that most of the paintings in museums are copies.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  If you want to democratize art, then I guess it’s good, because anybody can own a Vermeer.  But if you want to see the original, I don’t know the answers.  There’s a certain spontaneity in jazz that is lost.

TP:    On recordings?

SHAW:  Well, when you start doing that, you fix something.  And sometimes the error is part of the deal.

TP:    What do you think you’d have done in 1938 or 1940 if you’d had digital technology available to you?

SHAW:  There were certain things I did that I didn’t particularly care for as much as others.  But I never let a record out that I thought was no good.

TP:    But what I’m getting at is, given the option to use digital technology to create…

SHAW:  I don’t think I would have done that.  I didn’t use digital technology in my last group, and it was available.  The 1953-54 Gramercy 5.

TP:    It wasn’t digital technology.

SHAW:  They had digital technology.  You could cut things out.

TP:    You could splice, but it was a different process.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t know. I get lost in all these…

TP:    Well, it’s easy to get lost in those things.  I’ve taken a lot of your time, and I should probably let you go.

SHAW:  Well, why not?  Maybe you’ll regroup for the next time.

TP:    I’d love for there to be a next time, although I don’t think there has to be for this particular piece.  You were talking about listening to jazz music today…

SHAW:  First of all, I hate the word “jazz.”  I wish we could find a better term.  American improvisational music.

TP:    But we can’t call it that.  Because now we have good musicians from all over the world playing it.

SHAW:  Well, then there’s French improvisation, there’s Dutch, there’s German…

TP:    But it’s a real hybrid.  I don’t know if it’s so evident on the West Coast, but in New York…

SHAW:  The word “jazz” is used as a catch-all, and unfortunately it does not include when you’ve got the extremes today…what’s his name, the alto player who plays with Mehldau…a black alto player… Anyway, if you’re going to include him and you’re going to include Bessie Smith under the same rubric, I don’t know what “Jazz” means.  It’s too broad a word.

TP:    By the way, I gather you were friendly with John Carter, the clarinettist.

SHAW:  I knew him.

TP:    What did you think of the avant-garde music, Ornette Coleman…

SHAW:  I can’t listen to it.  It’s like I can’t read… I’ve tried, but I can’t read William Burroughs.  He’s a good writer, but he writes shit I don’t want to hear about.  Rectal mucus?  I don’t want to hear about that?  I don’t need that.  It’s not what I would consider in any way informative or in any way broadening.  It’s the same thing with a lot of jazz.  I hear it, and I think, “who are they playing for?”  I just threw out a book.  I very rarely do this.  I was talking about yesterday to this scientist, and he said, “Yeah, I know this guy.”  He’s a guy at Yale, and he writes a book called “The Miracle of Existence.”  Well, that’s a good title.  So I pick it up and I find myself reading the same sentence four-five-six times, and saying, “What does that mean?”  I finally concluded that he’s writing for other scientists to show them how smart he is.

TP:    Academicians write for other academicians.

SHAW:  That’s right.  Well, those jazz players are playing for other jazz players.

TP:    You’re referring to a certain group.

SHAW:  I’m talking about the new ones.  People send me CDs of their stuff, and I don’t know what they want me to do.  I ask them, “Why do you send me that CD?  I don’t send you mine.”

TP:    You said that among the people you like these days are Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap…

SHAW:  Phil Woods.  There are good players.  But I don’t know what the hell they expect an audience to do.  I mean, they get off into something that they lengthen the phrases from 8 bars to 10 or 12, they change the chord structure, they drop the melody entirely… And what are they doing?  What is the average person going to make of this?  So they lose their audience.  What they’re doing… I told you my definition of a fugue.  Instruments come in one by one, and the audience walks out one by one.  Well, this is what’s happening with jazz.  They’re down to 3% of the buying public now.

TP:    1.8% actually.

SHAW:  That’s a pretty low percentage.  And see, Rock came along and Rock met a specific need.  You don’t like it, you don’t think they’re doing anything, but they are perceivable.  They are perceptible.  The audience can identify with what they’re hearing.  So I’m afraid that jazz has painted itself into a corner.  It’s okay.  Modern Art did the same thing, and then it got talked up and people are buying it.  That may be true with certain jazz clubs.  But you’re not going to get rich playing modern jazz.

TP:    No, but there are so many people who continue to do it.  It’s a source of fascination to me.

SHAW:  Well, they do it because they have no other choice.  What else can they do?  What, for example…this alto player, I can’t think of his name, a black guy who works with…a young guy… I don’t know what he’s trying to do.  He starts playing harmonics above the alto range, and they play a whole tune on that.  Well, you can do the same thing with a soprano sax.  So I don’t know what the point of that is.  Is it an attempt to show your dexterity?  I’m afraid that’s a large part of it.  Look at how many things I can do on this instrument.  And the audience is not particularly concerned with that.

TP:    It’s interesting, because the act of playing jazz extended the range of many instruments.  The brass instruments and saxophones were certainly taken above their…

SHAW:  I don’t know what the advantage is in playing high F above C.  What is the advantage?  I don’t know why one needs to do that.  It’s dexterity.  “Look what I can do” is what you’re saying.  And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting to the non-playing audience.  So they’ve painted themselves sort of out of an audience.  It’s the same thing as Pollock.  Pollock would never be heard if you haven’t had those Greenbergs and those other guys, the critics…

TP:    But what’s interesting is that now it looks logical to people.  I felt very dubious about Pollock, and I saw the retrospective a few years ago and found myself very moved by it and responding to it.

SHAW:  Well, I find myself saying, “what’s the point?”  The same thing… There’s a guy named Varnedoe…

TP:    Kirk Varnedoe, the curator at MOMA?

SHAW:  Yes.  And he talks about Art and language that I sometimes have to say, “What is he trying to say?”

TP:    He’s trying to market it and up its value and make collectors think they’re doing something daring and ahead of the curve on the ordinary person.

SHAW:  Yes.  He talks about acquiring a Matisse for the Museum of Modern Art.  You show a picture of that Matisse to most people, and they don’t know what they’re looking at.  That doesn’t mean Matisse wasn’t a good painter.  But they call it “ravishing.”  What do you mean by that?

TP:    You quit when you were 44.  Of your audience, how many appreciated you for what you were actually doing, and how many were looking at an image and not understanding anything?

SHAW:  I don’t think that was a question that occurred to me.  I wasn’t thinking in those terms.  I was thinking very privately between me and the men in the band… Like in the last group.  Hank Jones and I had a great rapport, and we did things together that felt right.  If you listen to a record called “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” we did things on that that I don’t think you can do better.  Good record.  So you say, “Well, what can you do more?”  And at the same time, I think it’s musical.  An audience can respond to that.

TP:    Well, it’s a very complex life.

SHAW:  It is indeed.  So we do the best we can, that’s all, and hope for some kind of recognition.  It’s as simple as that.  The bigger the recognition, the better pay you get.  But I am no longer interested in that.  I would like to see the records go out and sell.  But if they don’t sell much, well, so be it — I did the best I could do.

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