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For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

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 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

* * *

Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

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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Filed under Article, Greg Tate, Jason Olaine, Playboy, Touré

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

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.

* * *

“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 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.

[-30-]_

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For Producer Creed Taylor’s 85th Birthday, A 2005 Downbeat Article and A Pair of Interviews Conducted For It

Today is the 85th birthday of Creed Taylor, who put his imprimatur on CTI Records in the early ’70s, after distinguished tenures at Bethlehem, Impulse (which he launched) and Verve. Downbeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature about Mr. Taylor in 2005, when he was launching a new online retail venture. I’m posting the final cut, plus a pair of interviews that I conducted for the piece.

* * *

Known for his implacable self-confidence and laid-back urbanity through a  half-century in the jazz business, Creed Taylor grew up on a farm, a fact made apparent by the wrench-force handshake he offered after lunch on the Friday before July 4th. “I milked cows,” he explained, pointing to his forearm. New Yorkers streamed past towards holiday R&R. Taylor smiled. “I like it better here,” he added. Then he returned to his downtown office to tweak a software glitch that was wreaking havoc on the shopping cart field of his on-line retail business, http://www.ctijazz.com.

During the ‘50s, Taylor learned the ropes at Bethlehem, and built his reputation as a marketing-savvy, high concept producer for ABC-Paramount. In 1960, he convinced his ABC bosses to fund Impulse!, and signed John Coltrane, who would remain at the label until his death in 1967. During four years at the helm of Verve, he launched the Bossa Nova movement with Stan Getz and produced lushly orchestrated best-sellers with Wes Montgomery that remain a template for commercial jazz production. He continued to hone the pop jazz formula during a three-year partnership with Herb Alpert at A&M, and in 1969 launched a successful signature label, CTI (Creed Taylor, Incorporated), whose output of the ‘70s set the template for “smooth jazz.”

Taylor, 76, last produced a record in the mid-‘90s. Now he hires an outfit called Fulfillment House to buy, pack and ship reissues of his classic titles, all branded with his signature and the logo “Creed Taylor Presents.” Owned primarily by Universal and Sony-BMG, the albums reflect Taylor’s singular, detail-oriented aesthetic, built on meticulous ears, marketing savvy, keen design sense, and an intuitive feeling for the zeitgeist.

“The fundamental thing always, whatever idiom of music we recorded, was to go for a groove,” says Taylor, whose sides still resonate with dance-oriented deejays and remixers around the world. “With CTI we might keep the rhythm section playing for an hour on the same 12 bars—when it begins to sound like it’s just about to lock in, then you start to record. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. Now, Jobim was a genius beyond generations, who created melodies and harmonies that made the whole thing so appealing. Still, he would sit at the piano, or guitar, and work a samba groove over and over until it clicked. On Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool, we went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil worked up a little groove with Tony Studd on bass trombone and the drummer. He wrote the chord changes on a four-bar riff on a matchbox, and handed it to Tony, who formed a bass pattern, and did the same with the lead trumpet and reed players. That became ‘La Nevada.’ On Blues and the Abstract Truth, Oliver Nelson knew exactly what he wanted, but it still took time to get the drum patterns down.

“You need a swinging foundation on which to put the improvisation. It’s like batting practice and pitching warm-ups before a baseball game. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.”

The son of a mill owner, Taylor, who worked comfortably with black artists throughout his career, grew up in Jim Crow times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the western, Appalachian section of the state. “There was one black family, and their kids were my playmates,” he recalls. “It was like the racial thing didn’t happen, except for seeing  ‘whites’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains at the Greyhound station, which shocked me.”

Situated “two mountain ridges over” from the Carter family, bluegrass—“hillbilly music, the real folk stuff”—was everywhere, and Taylor didn’t like it. By 10 he was listening to big bands on radio. Soon thereafter, he taught himself to play trumpet, and by16 was hitchhiking to hear every traveling dance band within striking distance. His most frequent destination was Roanoke, Virginia, 75 miles down the road, where such heroes as Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, and Benny Goodman played the all-white auditorium, counterpointing chitlin’ circuit one-nighters by Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Earl Bostic, and Billy Eckstine at a warehouse over the Norfolk & Western railroad tracks.

“The dynamics of my marketing thoughts might have begun then, with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another,” says Taylor, who in the ‘70s created Kudu—named for an African antelope and bearing the colors of the Jamaican flag—as an R&B crossover label to coexist with CTI. “Keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

In 1947 Taylor matriculated at Duke. He graduated four years later with a degree in psychology, played in the school band, and moonlighted on local club and dance gigs. He describes as life-altering a night when pianist Claude Thornhill brought to campus his short-lived band with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Scott, two french horns, and a book that included Gil Evans’ arrangements. Stan Kenton’s trombone-heavy arrangement of September Song, and Stan Getz’s recorded solos on “Early Autumn,” with Woody Herman, and “Autumn in Vermont,” with Johnny Smith, were other taste markers. So were Symphony Sid’s late night broadcasts from the Royal Roost and Birdland, which Taylor monitored; thus inspired, he periodically came to New York to get the sound of bebop first-hand, staying at a hotel near Bryant Park and frequenting the clubs of 52nd Street.

After two years in the Marines, including ten months of combat in Korea, Taylor settled in New York. He hung out, jammed, listened, observed, and formed as a first principle the notion that a recording and a live performance are different entities. Dates on Prestige or Blue Note or Verve might faithfully depict the heat-of-the-moment sound of a band in a Harlem or 52nd Street nightclub, but for Taylor they lacked nuance.

“I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic records, and those extended solos didn’t make it for me,” he says. “The attention span can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about audience participation and the excitement and the show business. The Prestige stuff was so rough. I immediately saw other things that could have been done with great soloists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn by changing the drummer or something. Most records had no bass presence, and I liked the way Rudy Van Gelder could record it.”

Taylor would soon actualize his preference, booking Van Gelder to record a date for Bethlehem, a struggling independent owned by Gus Wildi, a Swiss businessman.“I told Gus I thought I could produce a record very economically,” Taylor recalls. He’d met singer Chris Connor while “hanging out at some recording sessions,” and matched her with pianist Ellis Larkins. “Chris dug up these great songs, and I packaged a ten-inch LP,” Taylor continues. “I got an announcer to introduce her on the record, and did little merchandising things. When she was booked into Birdland I put a life-sized statue out front. Things like that weren’t happening then, so it was a good idea.”

The record took off to the tune of 20,000 units, and Taylor was off and running. Over the next 18 months, he supervised some two dozen Bethlehem sessions by Oscar Pettiford, Carmen McRae, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Mann, often under  the marketing slogan “East Coast Jazz.” He moved to the newly formed ABC-Paramount label as a staff producer, and built a jazz catalog with musicians he’d worked with at Bethlehem, adding artists like Quincy Jones, Lucky Thompson, Don Elliott, and Kenny Dorham. He also oversaw strong-selling concept-driven projects—drinking ditties, World War I songs, flamenco, Montoya & Sabicas, Italian pop singer Nicola Paone, and “Creed Taylor Orchestra” theme albums—that earned him trust from his old-school bosses. This translated into budgetary freedom, and Taylor spent liberally on A-list photographers and classy graphic design to give his product a striking visual identity that augmented Van Gelder’s trademark sound.

At Impulse Taylor parlayed his assets, releasing albums by Jay & Kai, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, and John Coltrane, branding them with gatefold jackets, orange-and-black spines, and the logo “The New Wave of Jazz is On Impulse.” He bet that “by identifying all the records with quality sound and packaging, radio stations that normally wouldn’t play, say, Gil Evans or Oliver Nelson, might go along for the ride”—and won.

In the summer of 1961, Norman Granz, whose laissez-faire blowing dates had alienated Taylor a decade before, sold Verve to MGM. Taylor took the reins. Within a year, Jazz Samba, the Charlie Byrd-Stan Getz collaboration that internationalized  Bossa Nova, was in the can.

“Charlie went to Brazil on a State Department tour, and met Jobim, who gave him these songs,” Taylor recalls. “Charlie recorded sketches, brought them home to Washington, D.C., got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and asked if we were interested in recording them. I said, ‘Stan, let’s go,’ and we hopped on a plane to D.C.

Taylor carefully cultivated relations with Getz, his famously  truculent early idol. “When I came to Verve, I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, ‘I’d really like to do something with Bill Finnegan.’ That was Focus, which couldn’t have been more esoteric—no rhythm, no chords. It was a 10 o’clock date at Webster Hall, and Stan walked in on time with a quart of Dewar’s. He put it on the stool in front of him, put alka-seltzer next to that, got ready, and played. I knew the critics would like it, Stan’s fans would like it, and Stan would appreciate my having gone along with it— Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that. Doing that made it possible for me to say, ‘Let’s do this thing.’”

Asked to compare himself to fellow Van Gelder devotee Alfred Lion, the auteur of Blue Note, Taylor offers a window into his thinking. “Alfred was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense,” Taylor says. “I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might appeal a little more to the general public. Beyond knowing what was good and what was swinging, Alfred didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production, and I don’t think he ever had marketing or packaging per se in mind, although his partner Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer, which gave the package an identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.

“Alfred also didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogerman. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row and B-row of the violins, and who you don’t hire because between takes he plays cards or reads the paper or doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he”s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. At A&M and CTI, we had the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.”

Framing jazz individualists with well-wrought arrangements and danceable grooves on poppish material would become Taylor’s trademark. Still, the legacy of these lucrative years seems somewhat at odds with his personal listening, which spans the piano music of Ravel and Debussy, Focus, Thornhill, Oliver Nelson, Chet Baker, and “anything by Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly.”

“Something that backfired on me is being responsible in a very odd way for smooth jazz, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds,” he says. “When CD-101 started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. and those early CTI things in that vein, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce background music for beautiful people purposes.”

Among active producers, Taylor admires Manfred Eicher. “The discretion—he knows what to leave out and what not to push,” he says. “Everything I’ve heard that he put out has integrity. That doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it. And Quincy always knew the right thing to do, whether I was producing him or he was producing another record. We see music from different angles; I think I’m better positioned to look at it objectively from the outside.”

All in all, Taylor acknowledges, there are there many ways to make a jazz record. Does he think his way was best? “Don’t we all?” he retorts. “Sometimes I wished I’d done it another way, and I sure didn’t make that mistake again. But those mistakes are long gone into my deep subconscious.”

[—30—]

* * *

Creed Taylor (July 1, 2005):

TP:   What occurs to me in thinking about the projects you’ve been involved with is that your aesthetic has been consistent through 51 years in the record business. You seem to have operated on the same core principles, but with very different-sounding music in recordings made under different circumstances. Your consistency is remarkable. I’d like to explore how you came to your principles, how you came to hear the music the way that you hear it. That’s my overriding thought. That quality has stood you in good stead, and it seems that your instincts, which also were tempered by hard work, were quite accurate in each period you operated in. Any reflections on why you heard music the way you did.

CREED:   This is a roundabout…an opinion, as I look back on my early experiences. I grew up in the mountainous part of Virginia, close to West Virginia, and I was inundated with bluegrass. Bluegrass was all around me. This was before Nashville even…the big County movement hadn’t happened. It was the Carter family. The Carter family lived two mountain ridges over from where I grew up, so this was really hillbilly music, the real folk stuff. And I didn’t like it. I remember as a 10-11 year-old, I started listening to the radio, and I heard the big bands, obviously. Records weren’t that available at that point. It was still the 78 era anyway. But time went on, and I was able to start getting broadcasts from Birdland from Symphony Sid…

TP:   You’d have been 19 or 20. Birdland opened in ‘49, and the Royal Roost was in ‘48.

CREED:   Anyway, either I heard it broadcast from the Royal Roost, or… WMCA had a very clear, strong signal in the late hours, when I went to bed. I was listening until 12 or 1 in the morning, and getting up at 6 o‘clock to go to school, of course. But I was hearing those sounds. Then I began to buy records, and I was buying Les Brown, who had a great band, and I would listen to anything I could on the radio, including Sammy Kaye. I lived 75 miles from Roanoke. At that point I was 16-17 years old, and I hitchhiked to Roanoke any time a big band came through and played at the Roanoke Auditorium. That was the closest I could get live to anything remotely connected to jazz. Obviously, where I was, as I said before, there was nothing but bluegrass music.

TP:   Bluegrass was such a popular music. Do you remember what steered you away from it?

CREED:   Actually, it was the nasal, bluesy kind of sound that as an adult I understood, not that I… Later in life, I almost began to like a lot of that stuff. But when I was growing up, it was a very unappealing, rough kind of sound to me. Can’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I couldn’t hear anything else, and as soon as I heard something was not bluegrass, it was like, “Wow, this is the music.” So I was able to hear… Virginia Tech is pretty close by. I went to VPI to hear Boyd Raeburn’s big band, which was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it! Then I heard the Elliott Lawrence Band, which was also a marvelous band, at Virginia Tech. I remember coming out of the armory at Virginia Tech, and there was the big bus sitting there for the band, and as they got on the bus… I’m telling a lot of stuff out of school. I jumped on the bus and told Elliott Lawrence, “I’d like to get an audition on the band.” He gave me a card, and said, “Next time you’re in New York, come by. Call my manager.” I was in no condition to play trumpet on that band, but it didn’t bother me. I understood it. So I figured that I could do it.

TP:   You understood it from listening very closely to the bands on records and taking it apart in a kind of home-grown way? Did you have any theory…

CREED:   No, not at all. I didn’t have any music lessons even. I taught myself trumpet, and then harmony, I could play the chord changes, whatever. When it came time to go to college, I picked Duke University because of the background it had with the big bands. Les Brown came out of there, Johnny Long, and I believe Billy May might have gone there… It was okay with my family because they thought I was going to be a doctor.

TP:   You studied psychology, no?

CREED:   Well, I started out with pre-med to satisfy them, and then I switched to psychology because I couldn’t handle organic chemistry, etc. So at Duke I got on the band, which was really quite a professional band, and I learned a lot there. Then I had my own small group, with alto, bass, drums and piano. We played summers at Virginia Beach…

TP:   Society things?

CREED:   No, we were a bebop band. But then something happened with that band, and we lost that job at Bop City, but I hung around and got a job with a society band, a tenor band as they were called—two tenors, trumpet, trombone. I played the rest of the summer there, and I did that a few times. I was playing with dance bands essentially in Virginia.

TP:   So you came to the record business as someone who knew what it was to be a working musician, a professional musician.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   And by the time you got out of Duke, it sounds like you had a firmly established aesthetic as to what you wanted to hear and present.

CREED:   Oh, absolutely.

TP:   You go into the Armed Forces…

CREED:   I was in the Marine Corps for two years, and then I came back to Duke. I was in Korea.

TP:   In combat?

CREED:   Yes. I had a record player with me, and a 10-inch Mulligan-Baker, the original quartet, and then some Zoot Sims records—actually stuff that was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s. Early on, I listened to Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I loved the solos, and it was at that point… I don’t recall the year…

TP:   He started Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1949.

CREED:   Well, it was something like ‘49 and ‘50. Anyway, before I entered the Service, I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I thought these extended solos and these interminable bass solos or drum solos or whatever, just don’t make it. The span of attention can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking anything about the audience participation and the excitement and all that show business.. But that’s when I seriously thought about recording, not knowing anything about recording, but I… This is reflecting. I didn’t know what I was really learning by doing what I was doing at that time, but I could see that it brought me to the point where I was saying, “This is the way I would like to listen to this record, and I think it should sound this way, and there’s no presence on the bass, and if you’re going to use a bass, it might as well be recorded like Rudy Van Gelder can record it.” Things like that were…

TP:   Were beginning to percolate. You certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. The story you’ve told is that you approached Bethlehem and ABC-Paramount and stepped in and did it…

I don’t think anyone lasts 50 years in the record business without a good sense of detail. You do seem to be an advocate of “God is in the details” as an operative…

CREED:   It happened that way.

TP:   Mr. Taylor was telling me about a problem on the website that he has to attend to later. But I was asking about your initial forays into the business. So for several years you’d be fantasizing about what you’d so if given the opportunity to record the people you were listening to.

CREED:   There are many ways to describe that phase of my mentality, personality, whatever. But I would say naive. It never occurred to me to be bothered about being able to do any of that sort of stuff. I wasn’t feeling competitive, and it wasn’t like I had self-confidence or didn’t have self-confidence; that was not the issue. The issue was to go do it. Apparently, just by not being bothered with “is he going to like me; will he hire me”… All of that never entered my mind.

TP:   That’s not unlike your experience as a musician, learning to play trumpet…

CREED:   That’s right.

TP:   Everything but organic chemistry.

CREED:   There was no doubt on that! It wasn’t a lack of self-confidence. No motivation.

TP:   People who grow up in the mountains are pretty resilient. I’ve spent some time in West Virginia.

CREED:   Well, you know that mentality of the culture.

TP:   I gather that when you came to New York, you spent a lot of time hanging out as well.

CREED:   Oh, yes, constantly.

TP:   Do you recall your first day in New York? Did you know someone? Why did you know where to go and what to do?

CREED:   It was easy. I had a first cousin whose mother came from Virginia, and they lived in New York, and he was an architectural engineer… Anyway, they put me up in a hotel on Bryant Park, and every night I would go to 52nd Street, the clubs that you’ve seen photographs of, and I went from one club to another, the brownstone…

TP:   This was before you entered the Marines.

CREED:   Before. Then I’d go back to Virginia and listen to Birdland. Anyway, I heard Oscar Pettiford, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, you name it. I spent my entire time… As soon as it got dark and the clubs started working, that’s where I’d be, hopping from place to place. Obviously, I had to go up and spend time with my cousins, but that didn’t take much time. Then I got on the train and went back to Virginia…

TP:   And enlisted in the Marine Corps?

CREED:   Was drafted in the Marine Corps.

TP:   Got out in 1952?

CREED:   I believe so. I was in the Pahmunjong area next to an Army unit. But we were constantly being picked on by the Chinese and the North Koreans, and there was a lot of mortar and stuff going on. It was really very combative. But it didn’t bother me too much. Then I came back into Reserve; we had a month off and two months back in Reserve. Lo and behold, they sent me to Yokohama to baseball umpiring school. I was not even a baseball fan, but I had a special services number.

TP:   What rank did you reach?

CREED:   Corporal. That was it. Any longer, and you became a Second Lieutenant, and you’re dead. That’s just about the pattern. So I umpired ballgames and got out of that alive. It was more frightening than the Chinese mortars. Meanwhile, I had my horn with me, and there were other guys who were also players. We had little jam groups. I tried to get the Marine band, but since I had a Special Service number, because of my psychology background, they wouldn’t take me in the band.

Jumping around a bit, I came back to San Francisco to be discharged. I had a whole month, I believe, on Treasure Island, and every night I would go into San Francisco to hear the likes of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, Cal Tjader and all those guys. I also heard the Stan Getz-Jimmy Raney group at that time. It was a very pleasing way to get out of the Marine Corps, I’ll tell you.

TP:   So you eventually settled in New York in ‘52 or’53?

CREED:   I think it was ‘53.

TP:   And you were continuing to pursue a career as a psychologist?

CREED:   Actually, when I got here, the first thing I did was to go out to American Airlines and apply for a job as a personnel tester. During that period, I also ran into this guy who went to Duke who was a drummer (he wasn’t a very good drummer) who had… Don’t quote me on this. This guy conned a Swiss stock market investor into starting Bethlehem. The way he did this was, his girlfriend was a dancing teacher at Arthur Murray, and she was looking out for some guy with some money so the Duke guy could start a record company. So he started a record company, the guy put his money in, and that was Bethlehem Records. They did a few 78 records that were just before LPs were a reality, and they were just about to go broke. I was hanging around…

TP:   Was this a guy named Joseph Muranyi?

CREED:   Out of the past! No, that isn’t the guy. It was Gus Wildi, Swiss. One day, I don’t remember exactly how, but I said, “Hey, Gus, you’re not getting anywhere with these 78s; why don’t you let me produce a record. I can do one very economically.” It turned out to be Ellis Larkins on piano with Chris Connor, and I think some guitar…

TP:   Not unlike what Ellis Larkins had done with Ella Fitzgerald not long before.

CREED:   Exactly. So Chris Connor had the idea to get Ellis to do this.

TP:   How did you know Chris Connor?

CREED:   From hanging out at a couple of recording sessions. Sy Oliver was doing these elaborate big band arrangements, and I met Chris, and talked to her about doing… She has a great sense of song. She dug up all of these…”it’s the wrong time, it’s the…” “It’s All Right With Me.” She found that song, and she found “Cottage For Sale” and… Anyway, we got along very well. We did that, and I packaged the 10″ LP, Lullaby of Birdland, and got an announcer who was on WNEW at the time to introduce her on the record, so that every time the record was played, it was, “This is Bob McGarrity, and you’re listening to Chris Connor sing ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’” So that record took off. I did little merchandising things. Like, when she was booked into Birdland I had a life-sized statue put out front… At that time, things like that weren’t happening, so it was a good idea.

TP:   How did you know about these things? You were 25 years old. Now, you’d seen combat, you were self-sufficient… But how did you know these things about the business?

CREED:   It’s intuitive. Strictly intuitive. It’s reading, looking around, and just being alive. What are you going to do? These people march into Birdland, she’s there. What a great way to promote the album. If they’re on their way in, they say, “Ah, Chris Connor has an LP.”

[PAUSE]

CREED:   …Verve Remix Volume 3 came out. No comment on that.

TP:   What do you think of those remixes. A lot of it comes from your time.

CREED:   Well, on Remix #3, the voice is filtered to the point where it’s not only unobtrusive, but almost unidentifiable. Obviously, I’ve got a bone to pick. It destroyed the essence of it.

TP:   Well, that’s the essence of what deejays do. But I’d like to get back to this question of your aesthetic. You’ve taken me from your formative years to your first producing efforts. And it seems that in your hierarchy of things, arrangement and presentation is primary. A recording is a different entity than a live performance. That’s something you seem to have firmly established early on. As opposed to a lot of Prestige or Blue Notes dates, which show you how someone might have sounded in Harlem or a 52nd Street club.

CREED:   The Prestige stuff is part of what drove me. I probably wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but it was so rough! You had these great soloists, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and then with all the other stuff that could have been done, on the same day, on the same tune, by maybe changing the drummer or changing… I immediately saw what I could do.

TP:   How did you know which arrangers or personnel you wanted to use? Was it from hanging out at the clubs? By ‘52-‘53, 52nd Stret was pretty much gone. The brownstones were going down. You had Birdland and the Broadway strip…

CREED:   The Copper Rail.

TP:   You start to form relationships with musicians. You mentioned that you met Oscar Pettiford and got along…

CREED:   Oscar and I became very good friends.

TP:   Before you were a record producer?

CREED:   No. That’s how I met him, at Bethlehem. But he was such a jolly fellow. He loved life, and… We were just on the same wavelength. Anyway, I should mention that Bethlehem I think was at 1560 Broadway, maybe at 52nd Street, and I only had to go down to the street and walk a half-block into Charlie’s Tavern. This was the place. In Charlie’s Tavern, I met an oldster like Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, and on and on like that. Phil Woods. Once I remember I went into Charlie’s Tavern… Charlie was a jovial fellow sometimes, but other times he was more like George Steinbrenner. Once Charlie Parker was in a booth, and I don’t know what he’d been doing, but he went to sleep on a table. Charlie came over and picked him up and threw him out on the street. I went up to Charlie and said, “Charlie, how could you do that?! That’s Bird!” “Nobody sleeps in my place.” But everybody loved Charlie… Anyway, that’s how I got…

TP:   An equal opportunity abuser.

CREED:   Right! But you’d go out of Charlie’s Tavern, and there was an alleyway back into Birdland. The guys on their break would come into Charlie’s Tavern and have a couple of drinks or whatever. So it was all a very knit community. I found out things like why does Pee-Wee mispronounce guys’ names all the time. Kai Winding told me, “because if you don’t tip him, he will mispronounce your name.” They eventually realized that if they were going to get up there… He could come up with some of the most outlandish versions of a musician’s name just because he didn’t get tipped.

TP:   Also, in a situation like that, you get a sense of who has chemistry with each other, and how to put people together on dates…

CREED:    Sure. Being in the environment on an active basis. Look, I could walk into Birdland, and you went down steps and there was a glass booth over the steps, and there was Symphony Sid broadcasting the music that I’d been listening to in Virginia. When he was playing the records he’d talk about, “Oh, I see down at the bar, there’s Zoot and there’s Kai Winding, and I think Dizzy’s over there…” Ah, this guy! I’ve got to get up to New York and see what’s going on, because that sounds like the place to be.

TP:   Were you meeting people before you were a record producer? Were you already one of these guys who comes to New York and becomes part of the scene? Or did that happen through your professional capacity?

CREED:   That happened after I was in a position to hire people. What am I going to say? “Give me your autograph.”

TP:   So among the first people you worked with were Oscar Pettiford, J.J.  Johnson and Kai Winding… Did Mingus work with you on Bethlehem by the time you left…
CREED:   He did one thing.

TP:   There must be 20-25 recordings you did with them.

CREED:   I would guess so. I can’t remember what they are now.

TP:   I suppose that would teach you every element of the business. Invaluable. There are so many personalities that we could take a whole afternoon. I wrote down a partial list: Chris Connor, Oscar Pettiford, Mingus, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Coltrane, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Jobim, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Gil Evans, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Quincy Jones, Don Sebesky, George Benson, Grover Washington. A lot of people, and that’s just the half of it. But you seem to have developed good relationships with all these people. Alfred Lion did it. I don’t know if Bob Weinstock developed relationships…

CREED:   I never knew him.

TP:   When you were preparing an Oscar Pettiford date, how much of the input would be Oscar Pettiford’s and how much would be yours?

CREED:   That’s a long time ago to really remember the specifics…

TP:   I’m trying to get at when you started to put your own producer imprint on records, and how it began. How it went from supervising a session to putting your personality on all aspects of it, which became your trademark.

CREED:   Well, I liked Chris Connor and enjoyed working with her. She was also a success. I happened to be doing Kai and J.J. at the same time, so I got them together. I would make suggestions at times. Maybe some of the mute changes that Kai and J.J. did… They did a lot of changes in the club. It was a very visual group. I would tell them, “You’ve got such a beautiful sound or blend on this, I don’t think you should use the solo tone mutes.” Being a brass player, I knew  very clearly what the solo tone… I also would have various comments about where they should be in the studio itself. Of course, I also had the good fortune of having a great engineer, Tommy Dowd. Of course, there was Rudy. Rudy has always been a big part of my recording life. He was a trumpet player, too, you know.

TP:   I didn’t know that.

CREED:   Yes. And he had a compelling sensibility about the musicality of the various players. He could put up with any kind of idiosyncratic behavior if he respected the talent. If he got some guy who was acting pretty nuts, then he didn’t work out very well. Anyhow, I formed kind of a buffer between the guys I knew and Rudy. I would not infrequently have conversations with the artist about the date we’re going to do, and there are certain little things that you shouldn’t be doing. So if you know up front, then there’s not going to be any problem. Well, smoking, of course, but back then it was a problem, you don’t smoke in the studio or whatever… The only time I can remember… Quincy and his new wife were living in California, and Quincy came in to do Walking In Space, I think it was, or one of those dates, and his wife came into the control room with a big bag of potato chips and started crunching potato chips. Rudy just was… Never mind the manners or whatever. OUT with the potato chips. She could have been the Queen of England. Out with the potato chips. Rudy appreciated that. And I knew the ground rules…

TP:   How did you meet Rudy van Gelder?

CREED:   I called him up and booked a date in his studio in Hackensack. He used his family living room for a studio. We started talking… He was interested in photography, and so was I and so am I. He liked Mercedes, and so did I and so do I. We became very good friends.

TP:   Both men with an eye for detail.

CREED:   I would say. Definitely.

TP:   Would you before you went into the studio have a very good idea in your mind how the record would sound once the project was complete?

CREED:   I had to say very little. But when I had something to say, Rudy would listen. I stayed very much in the background. That was his department, generally speaking. And it’s continued that way all these years.

TP:   When did the notion of putting your imprint on the entire package start to take form? Was that at ABC-Paramount?

CREED:   Mmm-hmm.

TP:   Was that because you had more resources and you could do it?

CREED:   A combination of factors. ABC-Paramount was recording Paul Anka, Eydie Gorme, all of those Philadelphia rock-and-roll guys, and I didn’t want to be identified with that genre of music. I think that’s what sort of started it. But then I started looking at how the packages looked and sounded, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to put my name on as a signature, as a guarantee to the listener that he’s going to get generally what he expects in quality from this recording.” It was as simple as that.

TP:   But that wound up encompassing the cover design, the whole package…

CREED:   Oh, yes.

TP:   Did a Rudy Van Gelder for Creed Taylor have the same sound as a Rudy Van Gelder record for Alfred Lion?

CREED:   No.

TP:   What’s the nature of the difference?

CREED:   Well, Alfred Lion, for one thing, would take a different rhythm section. He would approach it in a different way. He wasn’t interested in… I certainly respect that. He was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense.

TP:   What were you interested in?

CREED:   I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might have an appeal that might get a little further out to the general public.

TP:   Did that start with Bethlehem, or was that a function of your job at ABC-Paramount? Or were you always thinking about that?

CREED:   I was always thinking about that. But I got to thinking about it more because of radio as being the prime exposure for selling records. It got so that I had to remind myself that you’re not making this record for a radio. You’re using radio, and they will play your record, but be careful that you’re not just going in a direction that you know is going to get it on the radio at the expense of what it should be musically for the audience you’re going for.

TP:   Also at ABC-Paramount, you had to convince your higher-ups that projects were worth taking on. As Ashley describes, they were pretty tough, self-made guys who grew up in the Depression. They describe you as being very quiet. You’d sit back from the table somewhat to force people to pay attention to you, and you would always have a business plan for each record. “I can do this for this,” you’d give them a price, and then if it went over budget, they wouldn’t argue. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   How did you have the confidence to know that you’d be able to back up your words by that point?

CREED:   I’d feel like I was doing the right thing. If I didn’t think I was doing the right thing, I probably wouldn’t have had any confidence.

TP:   How did you know your audience? Through fieldwork? Hanging out…

CREED:   Fieldwork. Radio. Talking to record distributors and all those people. I had this little test store right across the street from the Paramount building, and they sold everything from belly dance to Chinese rock-and-roll or whatever was going on at the time. I’d talk to the owner and go look through the records and see what genre of music might be selling, if it were available. That’s sort of the way I found Nicola Paone. Nicola Paone had a song called “The Telephone Song.” It was a hit. I think it might have been on Columbia. But the owner of the store said, “You know, if you did a record with Nicola Paone, I think it might work.” So I got Harry Levine, my mentor, and suggested he get in touch with Nicola Paone’s manager and tell him to come and make a record. So I put a barbership quartet together with Nicola Paone, and he sang “The Telephone Song,” and we put it in the package. We shipped the 45 up to Buffalo or Rochester. I knew these radio stations up there that played…I wouldn’t call it ‘ethnic,” but Pop, Italian style. It took off in one place. Nicola Paone built his restaurant on 34th Street with the royalties from that record.

TP:   Is that the one on 34th and Madison?

CREED:   Yeah. He used to come down to my apartment. He and Harry Levine and myself would go in, and Nicola would take us back to the kitchen and show us how he prepared chicken cacciatore or whatever. A very friendly atmosphere.

TP:   Are you more proud of any two or three particular records from your Bethlehem years over others? Chris Connor you always come back to in your conversations.

CREED:   Yes. That’s probably because it was the first. But Kai and J.J., of course, and… [END OF SIDE A]…

We had sort of an interesting date that I did with Eddie Condon, a real Dixieland thing. He had a restaurant just off Washington Square, a bar…

TP:   On 3rd Street, right?

CREED:   Yes. I think it was 3rd Street. I enjoyed that because… I’m not saying that because I like to sit around and listen to Eddie Condon now. Well, I might if I had a record. That was Pee Wee Russell, Wild Bill Davidson, George Wettling and Pops Foster, and it was really an eye-opener for me, because I’d never been interested in that kind of stone Dixie kind of… To sit up in the control booth with Tom Dowd and watch those guys go through two quarts of vodka and still be able to sit up and play, I couldn’t believe it.

You talked about merchandising. What sort of started this off was, there was a priest in Chicago named Brother Matthew, and my wife at the time was a reporter for Life magazine, and she said she thought she could get us a story in Life magazine if we could record Brother Matthew on alto sax. So sure enough, we flew him in, and he sat in with this great all-star Dixieland group, and we got a great story. He couldn’t play very well; Brother Matthew was kind of weak. But that was a merchandising approach without thinking about a lot about is he sustainable as an artist.

TP:   Did you have a philosophy, such as Blue Note, where Bruce Lundvall says he pays for more purist albums through sales by Norah Jones or Cassandra Wilson or Diane Reeves? Did you follow the notion of having bigger sellers subsidize more art music?

CREED:   It didn’t work like Bruce Lundvall and his Norah Jones. I can’t go along with that statement. Here he’s got Norah Jones popped out of the blue…

TP:   Well, Cassandra Wilson and Diane Reeves were the people he used to refer to.

CREED:   Well, they didn’t sell enough to make you feel comfortable with the pursestrings until Norah Jones broke loose, and then he could do no wrong. I’m sure there were various stages in my producing life that affected me about whether I could take a chance with some less potential sales, because I liked the way the guy played. Joe Farrell [CTI] was maybe an example, because he was an enormous talent, but he didn’t have any particular idiosyncracies that I thought a whole lot of people would grab onto. But they are great records, I still think.

TP:   By idiosyncracies you mean?

CREED:   Some sound or stylistic… I instantly can listen to a demo and hear or not hear a sound, I think. By now, I’d better be able to.

TP:   Sounds to me like you could do that fifty years ago as well. Anything you’re particularly proud of during your time at ABC-Paramount? Relationships that springboarded into the next decade?

CREED:   Well, I continued with Quincy, for instance, on the Impulse Ray Charles. Quincy did the first arrangement for me in a recording session at Bethlehem with Oscar Pettiford. He hit New York at the same time I did. We were about the same age. I had a house on Waverly Place, and had parties there with Oscar Pettiford, Quincy Jones, Jackie and Roy, all the players and singers and whomever that would come by. It was just a big social thing. It didn’t just happen in the studio and in the office. It was like a  way of life. We all liked the same things.

TP:   The latter part of the ‘50s. That’s when modern jazz moved into the Village. ‘55-‘56, when the Bohemia opened, the Vanguard started being more of a jazz club…

CREED:   I heard Oscar Pettiford at the Bohemia. I used to go to the Bohemia and stay for the last set, then Oscar  would come by my place on Waverly Place, which was two blocks away. They hired Cannonball and Nat Adderley there when they first came to town around that time.

TP:   I’m trying to elicit ways in which your approach was distinct from the other comparable labels of the time. Which is why I’m asking why a Rudy Van Gelder-engineered date with Alfred Lion would differ from you…

CREED:   Well, I don’t think Alfred ever had marketing per se… I never met him. But I don’t think he had marketing per se or packaging in mind. Well, Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer. That really gave the package some identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.
TP:   How about you vis-a-vis the Savoy label, which had a very different culture…

CREED:   With Herman Lubinsky?!

TP:   But he had intelligent producers, like Ozzie Cadena.

CREED:   Ozzie Cadena was intelligent.

TP:   The way you said Herman Lubinsky’s name…

CREED:   He sold used radio tubes during the war. At least Rudy told me that.

TP:   In a broader sense, between ‘54, when you started, and ‘61 when you start Impulse, did the social milieu in which jazz existed change greatly? They were certainly years of great change in the country.

CREED:   At ABC-Paramount, prior to Impulse. That’s when I was doing that research across the street. I noticed that there were no drinking songs LPs, so I don’t remember exactly how I got together with this vocal contractor… I think he went to Duke. A professional jingle singer. So we formed a group which I called The Four Sergeants, and I actually started out… I took a tape recorder to Yale University. I was going to record live from the tables down at…you know, “The Whiffenpoof Song,” that kind of stuff. It didn’t  work out, but it led to hiring professional singers to sing the same stuff. So I had a college drinking song, more college drinking songs, drinking songs sang under the table, and then that drifted into bawdy barrack songs, risque barbershop…

Oddly, one of the most successful… This came from my father, actually, who was in World War One. He gave me a photograph or two of where he was in the trenches. Then I started thinking about George M. Cohan and the great patriotic sentimental stuff. I found some sheet music in the attic in my home in Virginia, really old sheet music, and  we had a photographer do the cover for World War I songs. In World War I songs, aside from all the warhorses, I had a great radio voice recite In Flanders Fields. Do you know that poem? “In Flanders fields, where poppies grow amongst the corpses…” Anyway, I put a lot of reverb on it, and we had a bugle-playing Captain, and I kind of dubbed… It became a good-seller for ABC.

So with a few of these things sort of in my back pocket, Harry Levine was easily able to say to Sam Clark, “Look, why don’t we leave him alone, because look at what he’s doing; he’s building up the LP catalog.” Harry and I became great friends. He was a very quiet, nice old fellow. But he was #2 at ABC-Paramount, and he was the real brain-trust. He was the original booker of the Paramount Theater. He dealt directly with Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, whoever the band or the entertainers happened to be, because he had this quiet kind of… He wasn’t a rough Broadway kind of guy as they are portrayed in the movies or on Broadway. So he was able to talk with the artist and/or the artist’s manager, and arrive at an equitable, fair contract. So we built that sort of thing up to the point where I decided now is a good time to do this thing. Because I had Pete Turner and his great photography talents, and I had Rudy, and I had myself, and the relationship with the top jazz players out there—and it was as simple as that. Let’s put together some sort of an umbrella concept and start putting the stuff out.

TP:   What’s interesting to me and to other people who love the Impulse label… The five first albums were Kai & J.J., Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, Gil Evans, Out Of The Cool, Coltrane, and Ray Charles. From my perspective, apart from Ray Charles, the only one who would appeal to a wider audience would be Kai & J.J.  Coltrane had done the Atlantic records, but he was just becoming a leader. Gil Evans was a kind of esoteric arranger…

CREED:   But he had all that Sketches of Spain behind him. He had a bubbling, and he hadn’t done anything like this, Out of The Cool, with a package like that. So some of the music in that original release was absolutely directed at the broader base and at the radio stations which never played stuff like that, and with the display going along, the Out of The Cool or Oliver Nelson or whatever, which was not thrust up in the kind of pop-jazz crossover thing, would go along for the ride. And sure enough, they did. So by identifying all of these records that had quality sound, quality packaging, the people who normally probably wouldn’t go for something like that, would go for all of the Impulse records at that point.

TP:   Also, by 1960 hi-fi was becoming more popular, and stereo was getting into the marketplace. So good sound actually meant something. I gather that your designer actually shared your office at ABC-Paramount.

CREED:   Fran Scott. She was married to Tony Scott, who was really Tony Sciacca. I met tony Scott at Duke University at a Claude Thornhill dance. In the band, there was Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Tony Scott, and Bernie Glow, and that was the most gorgeous sound I can ever remember hearing. First hearing something like that just made me feel goosebumps.

TP:   Is that an idealized sound in your mind?

CREED:   Oh, I play a Claude Thornhill CD (The Best Of, believe it or not) at home, because it makes me feel good. Fran Warren’s “Sunday Kind of Love.” Just to get away from Debussy or Ravel or something like that.

TP:   What else do you listen to at home?

CREED:   Classical piano stuff. I can’t listen to it all the time when I want to, because I have a daughter and a wife who would like to listen to the blues or whatever the pop stuff is that’s going on. So I’ll go back certainly to Oliver Nelson, and anything by Bill Evans, and anything by Wynton Kelly. That’s the top of my list. Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

TP:   Do you listen to a lot of new releases. Do you hear a fair sampling of what people are putting out?
CREED:   I’m on Universal’s mailing list. Now Universal has the bulk of whatever is jazz or near jazz coming out. So I listen to it, mostly once, unless something comes along. I go back and listen to Focus, Stan Getz. It’s right up there. It could have been recorded yesterday.

TP: Do you feel that you have had an impact on the way today’s producers think about presentation?

CREED:   I’ll tell you something that backfired on me. Being responsible in a very odd way for CD 101.9, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds, smooth jazz… Who’s the sax player they used to really love on CD-101.9?

TP:  David Sanborn.

CREED:   David Sanborn said about a year ago, “they stopped playing my records because I’m too close to jazz.” The fact is, that as they got smoother and smoother… He has an identity and it’s something… When he plays, you listen to it, and that’s not the purpose at that radio station. But when they started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. I know they listened to those early CTI things that were like that, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce music for background for beautiful people purposes. Then I came along, thinking, “What am I going to do, Emulate the stuff that I really started there?” I did a few records that I’m not at all happy with because I was trying to… Why shouldn’t I be able to do… I couldn’t do it. I won’t even records what the records were.

TP:   CTI began as a division of A&M, and then you evolved it into your own imprint?

CREED:   It began as a partnership that lasted two years. It was going great guns. Wes Montgomery was selling up a storm, and then there were good records by Paul Desmond. Again, this is off the record. Herb Alpert had his niche in the music world, in his style, the way he thinks about music, and it became a problem with me because he wanted to talk about musical details about records, and Gerry Moss, his partner, obviously was listening to him, and I found myself listening to him. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be influenced by Tijuana Brass. Enough already.” So it was no big breakup. It was just that  thought that this was something that was hovering…well, that was no good for what I could do. Music when spoken, or spoken about. takes on strange directions.

TP:   CTI was the first time you actually capitalized a label by yourself?

CREED:   Well, in the beginning with A&M, and then it went in…

TP:   But did you buy out A&M?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Your budgets kept getting bigger and bigger as…
CREED:   It started out like this. Wes died in ‘68, and what’s going to be next? They’re looking for billing, and they’ve got Peter Frampton and it’s evolving into a big label. The bigger they got, the more demanding it was to meet the sales quotas. I wasn’t in that party, and it was very comfortable for Gerry Moss to pay me a modest sum to say, “It was fun, but it’s over now.” So I took that and paid for the recording of Red Clay with Freddie Hubbard. It was that simple. I did another record by Kathy McCord, but that wasn’t…

TP:   What did you tell Freddie when you did Red Clay?

CREED:   Freddie had been recording for me, like on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and he was on Quincy’s albums frequently.

TP:   But how did you put your stamp on that sound?

CREED:   “Let’s go in with these players and see what we can get going.” He played that little sketch on “Red Clay,” that funky thing that became so popular, and that was it. Anyway, that was a relatively casual thing, and don’t forget it had Stanley [sic] on it.

TP:   Did you give the drummers instructions on those records?

CREED:   Oh, no. Neither did Freddie. We just knew what he played like. If you hire Idris Muhammad, you know you’re going to get a New Orleans authenticity. You hire a drummer for what he does, not for what you can tell him to do.

TP:   You’re also well-known for having musicians record popular songs of the day, like “A Day In The Life” or  “Let It Be” or “White Rabbit.” Was that organic, just responding to the dictates of the market…

CREED:   I know what you’re talking about. “Let It Be” came to me from Paul McCartney. He sent me the tape before they recorded it, because he liked what Wes did on “A Day In The Life” so much that he said, “Help yourself.” I took it to Memphis, where I’d hired a rhythm section at American Studios, which is where Elvis Presley did all of his stuff, and also Otis Redding. Now, that kind of R&B or blues studio band could just take a sketch and give you a record. Stanley Turrentine didn’t make it the following morning; 10 o’clock wasn’t good, there was something in the contract or whatever. So I called Hubert, and Hubert came down, and we recorded “Let It Be,” and we did the rest of the LP at Rudy’s. But here we had Hubert with the Beatles song, with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section in a Memphis recording studio that is conditioned to have that kind of a dry funk element, including the engineer who did all of the great Otis Redding dates.

“Day In The Life” was a lot of Don Sebesky. Don did these arrangements. Wes came in with a whole studio orchestra, and Don put the part up in front of him… He didn’t know that Wes couldn’t read music, and even if he sort of was suspicious, he thought it would be kind to Wes to make it look like he was reading. The date went on maybe for two hours, and Wes kept getting more and more unhappy. Don talked to him and I talked to him, and he said, “I can’t play this, with all these cats around who can read all this music. I can’t do it.” So he called that, and then we had a meeting with Wes. Don said, “I’ll make a tape before we do the next date of all this stuff.” He made a tape on fender rhodes, mapped out where he plays, and Wes listens to it when he’s on the road or whatever, and when he’s ready to come in, we book a rhythm section only. No strings. That’s the way we proceeded from that point on.

Don worked with me very well. He would bring a complete conductor’s score into the recording booth, give it to me, and when we got to the fourth bar down on letter-B or whatever it was, I would know exactly what to communicate to Don, to say, “Let’s cut it out now so we don’t do it in an editing session.” We communicated over the phone in the studio, so I could talk directly to him and none of the players could hear what I was saying. It wasn’t like I was chopping up Don’s arrangement. But we had a very comfortable relationship like that. Don, aside from being a very talented musician, is a very reasonable, intelligent fellow.

TP:   I’m remiss in not speaking with you up to now about Brazil. For one thing, you had an instinct that it would strike a chord, and didn’t you put in a number of trips to Brazil… Not true?

CREED: No way. Charlie Byrd went down on a State Department tour. He met Jobim. Jobim gave him these songs, and Charlie Byrd recorded sketches of the songs and brought them back up to Washington, and he got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and said, “This is what I’ve got; are you interested in recording?” I said, “Stan, let’s go.” So we hopped on a plane to D.C.  Then the parade of the bossa novas started happening.

TP:   So “Desafinado” is something Stan Getz wanted to do, and you’re his producer, and he trusted you implicitly, and you just went and did it.

CREED:   Here’s why he trusted me implicitly. When I came from across the street at ABC to Verve, here I arrive with a talent like Stan Getz. I’m not going to march in and say, “Stan, why don’t you do buh-ba-buh-ba.” So I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, “What I’d really like to do is something with Bill Finnegan.” Focus couldn’t have been more esoteric. No rhythm, no chords, or anything. Just strings. Well, one cut is Roy Haynes on snare, brushes. But I knew that the critics would like it, Stan’s fans will like it, and Stan will appreciate my having gone along with it, because he couldn’t do something like that with anybody else. I mean, Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that, I know. So that made it possible for me to say, “Let’s do this thing, Stan.” From that point on, everything was cool. We had a couple of little altercations.

TP:   His behavior was still erratic during those years.

CREED:   Yeah. But the way it worked for me was, “Stan, if you keep behaving that way, I’m leaving. I’m just going home. I’ll go home, and if you feel like it, call me. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to this garbage.” So he calmed down. “Stan, look…” We’re at Webster Hall. It’s a 10 o’clock date, and he walks in on time, but he walked in with a quart of Dewar’s, puts it on the stool in front of him, and then he puts next to that alka-seltzer, and then he gets ready to play, and he plays. He made the Focus album like that.

TP:   It was a different time.

CREED:   Quite different.

TP:   People had different tolerances. I recall guys like Art Blakey going three or four days in a row and how they did it. You and Coltrane got along quite well, I gather.

CREED:   Coltrane was so quiet. If anybody walked in and said, “Do something this way,” I’m sure he would have quietly said no. He had a lot of spine.

TP:   You did only the Africa Brass date.

CREED:   Yes. I think Coltrane always wanted Dolphy. Dolphy was amazing. I just attended to the comfort of the musicians and the comfort of Rudy, and let it happen. I wouldn’t have walked into that at all. That’s a very involved, totally artistic kind of idiom. I’m not going to produce Coltrane or anybody else. I wouldn’t try to make a whole concept or anything. Whatever he’s doing at that moment in time is what he does, and that’s how that happened.

TP:   If you had stayed at Impulse, would you have been able to work with what Coltrane eventually evolved into?

CREED:   Of course. Bill Evans was another kind of artist, though. He was totally malleable. I didn’t tell him to do “Washington Square Jump.” It’s based on “Frankie and Johnny.” He also did Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” But he would play anything I asked him to play, within reason, of course.  But the only problem was that Bill had this enormous habit. When we recorded, I’d pick Bill up on the West 98th Street, and we’d drive to Rudy’s, and he’d tell me about the latest book he read, what do you think about who’s running for office, and all this stuff. He was brilliant. We’d go to the studio, and he would record, and everything was beautiful! Then maybe 3-4 weeks later he comes into my office at Verve, and I’m not there, but he sees Margot, my secretary. She gives him any promotion copy that we had around, and he takes it. Once I went up to Harlem, on 125th Street, to a club where they had a glass broadcast booth in the middle, and I’m standing up at the bar, and along comes Bill with his box of records. He’s selling the promo copies to the customers, putting it in his pockets, and then he’d go get his fix or whatever. That’s a strange world.

TP:   I don’t think producers these days have to deal with the same level of eccentricity as back then. What’s it been like for you to work with the younger players? Donald Harrison. Charles Fambrough.

CREED: It’s no different. What’s different is the marketplace and the hardware and the technical downloading, the MP3s. It’s taken part of the packaging of recorded music out of the picture. That’s what I find difficult to deal with. Not the changing styles of music or recording. It’s when you can’t count on being able to make a good-looking package to go with a great-sounding record, and getting it to a normal distribution route. What do you do? That is the real problem. You can’t put your finger on the marketplace.

TP:   You’re saying that you can’t put your finger on the marketplace since the Internet and digital distribution.

CREED:   Yes. And predicting what’s going to happen, or at least betting that this is the way it’s going to be. You don’t know. Because one minute, Sony is Sony; the next minute it’s Sony-BMG. Whatever happened to Impulse? That’s Universal. And where is Verve now, or Motown… It’s just so all over the place from a distribution standpoint. I can tell this from being on a mailing list, that there doesn’t seem to be any plan of what kind of artist, how they’re going to be packaged, the individuality of some kind of series. Nothing that’s going to reach the marketplace, other than that it’s another CD.

Well, I think there’s some hope that a dual disk, a DVD plus the CD. That puts it at another level for the pricing, so the record companies are more interested in dual disks, because they can charge… Also, the coming of the high-definition DVD. Everybody is going to have a high-definition DVD disk for sale.

TP:   Is that what you’re thinking about for your next project?

CREED:   That’s what I’m doing for a project that I’m having converted from the old high-definition format, which is a Japanese 1125-line. It’s being converted to 10-8 (?). Then I’ll remix the surround sound at Rudy’s, and we will then have a truly HD-DVD. When it originally came out in 1992, it was called Rhythm Stick.

TP:   Just about Dizzy’s last date.

CREED:   It was his last date. And Teo. And Bob Berg, who was killed a few years ago. Art Farmer.

TP:   Since 2000 or 1997, how many new projects have you done?

CREED:   None.

TP:   When was the last time you recorded a project?

CREED:   I try not to think about that. [LAUGHS]

TP:   So what you’re doing now is repackaging your old catalog.

CREED:   I haven’t even started that. I’m just working on this high-definition DVD project as a leader. Because there’s other stuff in the can. But this is also an hour of film program that’s really good. Brilliant color. Certainly, one that came out of Brazil, I have a whole hour of filming from Salvador with the northern Brazilan percussion players and Larry Coryell.

TP:   Do you own the CTI catalog?

CREED:   The thing Sony has? Sony owns it.

TP:   Do you own any of the work you produced between 1954 and 1992, from Bethlehem to Rhythm-Stick?

CREED:   No.

TP:   So are you licensing it from…

CREED:   Well, licensing… I use the Fulfillment House. The Fulfillment House buys it from Sony Distribution, and they pack it and ship it. I’m a retailer. On-line retail.

TP:   So CTI is now an on-line retailing service.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Do you find that in any way rewarding? Would you like to get back into producing?

CREED:   Yes. I don’t find it rewarding because I’m not a technical person. I’ve been telling you about the shopping cart going wacko on me.

TP:   Looking at the current landscape, what sort of projects would you like to be doing?

CREED:   Oh, I know exactly what I’d like to be doing.

TP:   But you won’t say, because it would…

CREED:   Well, of course.

TP:   If the opportunity arose, you would come in with your feet on the ground…

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP:   When I asked you about the enduring appeal of Creed Taylor, Inc., you said, ‘Look at the artists.” Obviously, there’s truth to that. You worked with the top-shelf artists of the day, and their work was popular. But the situations in which you put Wes Montgomery have a broader appeal than the things he did for Riverside. The situations you put Stan Getz in have a somewhat broader appeal. They penetrated popular consciousness in some ways others didn’t. We could say this for George Benson’s work. So again, we get back to this question of your aesthetic, and how that aesthetic played out in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s, three very different cultural eras,. Yet your aesthetic is consistent. You’re dealing with different markets, and your persona, your own tonal personality somehow continues to resonate. I’m wondering if you can in any way summarize that Creed Taylor tonal personality.

CREED:   Look, I don’t know what other producers do, because I only occasionally attended other… But the fundamental thing that goes on, whether it’s the Brazilian stuff, or Bob James doing arrangements for another artist, is we go for a groove. Like, Blue Note went for a groove always, but a different type. We might sit there for an hour on the same 12 bars or whatever, with the rhythm section going… I’m thinking specifically about Bob James, Eric Gale, Ron Carter or Gary King on electric bass, and Steve Gadd. You let them keep playing, and then, when it begins to sound like it’s just about to happen—okay. Then you start to record.

I have an idea that most records are not made with a groove being foremost. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. With the Brazilians, everything was made… Jobim was a genius beyond generations. He singlehandedly put the melody there and the harmonies that made that whole time so appealing. But we would still sit there… He would sit at the piano or on the guitar, and he would work at a samba groove over and over until it finally clicked. Then we would start to record.

Jimmy and Wes were just a natural. I mean, they only did that one record, The Dynamic Duo. That was the thing, that Wes and Jimmy would work a little bit before the drummer started doing anything, and then the drummer would start, and then the bassline would come up. But any record date went for the groove, no matter what idiom of music you’re recording.

TP:   Whereas Blue Note with be thinking about an interactive drummer and soloist, and more shifts…

CREED:   Generally speaking, what Alfred was recording was a group that had been performing in the clubs. They’d do that how many nights in the club. So when they’d walk into Rudy’s, Rudy has to get a balance, but they know what the groove is. They have to play it a little bit. But it was like a band. You walk in with Benny Goodman or whomever. It’s all rehearsed, and you don’t have to do this thing that we did, that I was just talking about—getting great players to finally lock in.

A big factor, I’ve got to say… I really miss Eric Gale. He was an absolute genius for groovemaking, whether it was reggae or R&B or whatever. On “Mr. Magic,” Eric, Bob James and the bass player and drummer, had just done a record with Roberta Flack, and they recorded that song the previous day. So the same rhythm section comes in… I’d asked Eric to look out for a song at one of these sessions that… So he brought in a cassette of “Mr. Magic” that the rhythm group had formed. It didn’t happen for them. He handed it to me, and he said, “Creed, here’s the song. It ain’t shit.” “Well, let’s try it anyway.” So they tried it, and they got a groove going, and that became Grover Washington’s mantle. Huge.

TP:   Were those mostly one- or two-day days in the studio dates at CTI?

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   Did you use more studio time than the average jazz date?

CREED:   Yes, definitely.

TP:   So that’s another factor in why all the details are so precise on CTI.

CREED:   Yes. But another atypical session  would be Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool. We went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil was at the piano, and he’s got Tony Studd on bass trombone and he’s got the drummer and… So they finally worked up a little groove, and then Gil took a matchbox, literally, and wrote down the chord changes on a four-bar riff, handed it to Tony Studd, who formed a bass pattern for the thing, and then he did the same thing with the lead trumpet and then the reed players. That became “La Nevada.” I’ve never seen Duke Ellington record, but I understand he recorded in a similar fashion. Strayhorn didn’t come in with big sheets of arrangements, I don’t think. At least he didn’t… When I recorded Strayhorn and Hodges, everything was formal. He came in with complete arrangements. It wasn’t like the Ellington band recording, even though it was the Ellington band.

TP:   But when you were at Impulse and ABC-Paramount, you weren’t spending an hour with the rhythm section looking for a groove. Or  were you?

CREED:   Gil Evans was one of them. Out of The Cool.

TP:   Probably not Blues and the Abstract Truth.

CREED:   Yes, it was. Oliver knew exactly what he wanted, but still took time to get it down. It wasn’t just a matter of reading and telling the drummer to listen to the patterns.

TP:   Probably because it’s Roy Haynes, he makes it sound so spontaneous and organic.

CREED:   Spontaneous, yeah. It’s like practicing the… You’ve got this guy, all the pitchers warming up to come out and win the game. You have to do all the batting practice and everything. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.

TP:   Except that the game doesn’t go according to a script. You have to use your talent to adapt to the situation at hand. If a lefty comes in to face a lefty… So there’s both, isn’t there. There’s preparation, and then responding…

CREED:   True.

TP:   For a successful Creed Taylor recording, what percentage does improvisation play and what role does the preparation and pre-organization play?

CREED:   Well, you’ve got a foundation to put the improvisation on. Once the improvisation is there and swinging, then you’ve got the…

TP:   But the bedrock is always the groove.

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   It’s not the changes, it’s not the voicings…

CREED:   Oh, everything. But if you don’t have the groove and you don’t have the right song to start with, forget it.

Little things just popped into mind about this. The Brazilian rhythm. When I was in high school playing these dances and things, I was always a clave player. That gave me a foundation to rise above the bluegrass or whatever.

TP:   Did you record the Eddie Palmieri-Cal Tjader collaboration? It’s a seminal date in Latin music.

CREED:   Yes. Cal Tjader was one of my favorite artists to begin with. I loved Cal Tjader. That’s the only time I’d ever met Eddie Palmieri, and it was a little bit of… Eddie wanted to go his way, and Cal would go either way. That’s just my general impression.

TP:   You did Willie Bobo also.

CREED:   Oh, yes. I got along very well with Willie Bobo.

TP:   Your groove philosophy really fit in with those guys. Tell me more about the Latin market in New York in the ‘60s. I still think the contribution of Latin players to what jazz sounds like today is very underrated.

CREED:   Oh, sure. All of these great bands would come in… I did a lot of recording at Belltone Studios at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue. On my way out, the Latin band would be on its way in, and I used to listen to those bands, and they were just fantastic! Machito… Oh, we had a Latino hit with Wynton Kelly, called “Little…” What was the name of it… It was a real hit. That came out of a groove, and on the spot, Ernie Royal, the trumpet player, put the lick  together.

TP:   Well, the boogaloo beat became very popular in the ‘60s…

CREED:   Yes, the Afro-Cuban rhythm. Chico O’Farrill did a lot of arrangements for me. In fact, there was one lost in the stacks, a Candido album that he did. It was a Stan Kenton type of thing for Candido. He’s still around.
TP:   He’s 84 now. I interviewed him in January about Paquito. He speaks really good English, he’s in great shape, and he played a solo where he’d emphasize the beats with his head on the conga.

CREED:   I was also into the Flamenco idiom for a while. Montoya and Sabicas. That was great. We’d bring a wooden platform into Bell Sound Studios, and the dancer would come in, and Sabicas would sit there filing his fingernails in between takes. They drink brandy, 10 o’clock in the morning. These things would really get heated up. I mean, that music is intense. And to produce it in a cold studio on early in the morning…

TP:   Was a challenge to your motivational powers. Please don’t take offense at this question. You’re from the Jim Crow South. You worked with black musicians, formed relationships with black musicians immediately upon coming to New York. I don’t want to talk like a northerner stereotyping…

CREED:   You mean  where the guilt factor comes in?

TP:   You seem not to have any guilt factor at all. You seem to relate to people in a natural way, and your rapport seems unusual to me among producers who operated in that environment in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alfred Lion seems not to have had that issue…

CREED:   He was German.

TP:   How did that work for you? Was your community not particularly racist…

CREED:   When I was growing up, it was race-less. There was one black family. And the black family’s kids were my playmates. I didn’t have any white playmates.

TP:   So it was never a factor for you for that reason…

CREED:   I don’t know if for that reason. The only time anything ever occurred to me about the racial thing when I was growing up was going to the Greyhound bus station and seeing “whites” and “colored” drinking fountains. That kind of shocked me a little bit. But it’s almost like it was in the movies, like it didn’t happen, the racial thing. It only really got bad, I think, in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, down…

That’s how the “Red Clay” title came, from Mississippi. Freddie wanted to call it “Slap Your Feet On The Mississippi Mud.” I said, “Come on, that title has no dignity at all, Freddie!” And Red Clay, you know what just happened with Meredith…

The only time I observed anything was at Belltone, when Mingus was on a date…it might have been a Quincy date, and Billy Taylor was playing piano. Mingus was leaving after the date was over, and Billy Taylor said, “See you later, Charlie.” He turned around and said, “If you ever call me Charlie again, you duh-da-duh-da…” Billy was like, “What’s wrong?” “Charles. Charles Mingus.” I figure it comes out of  “Uncle Charlie…” Mingus was a combative person anyway.
TP:   He was also manic, I think. Deep mood swings. Chemical…

CREED:   Like Nina Simone.

TP:   What was it like working with her?

CREED:   That was serious. She had tax problems, IRS problems… Once she played here at the Village Gate, and they took her entire payroll. So she moved to Europe, and the only way for me to make this record was for me to come there. So I brought Eric Gale and Gary King and Dave Matthews, the arranger, to Brussels, put them up in the Brussels Hilton, and every day we would go out to this studio that had been converted to an old barn in Waterloo, and record. She had mood swings you wouldn’t believe! What is that medication that’s supposed to even out the ups and downs…

TP:   I don’t remember. But you were a psychologist. Perfect training to be a record producer.

CREED:   Yeah. She tried to throw a television set out of the window at the Brussels Hilton.

[—30—]

* * *

Creed Taylor (#2) – (July 8, 2005):

CREED:   I started thinking about some of the things you asked about, especially the black and white thing, and the background which produced absolutely no prejudices. I hadn’t thought about this actually… I’d been going to Roanoke, which was absolutely racial…

TP:   You mean it was Jim Crow.

CREED:   Yeah, Jim Crow. That’s a kinder way of putting it. So I went to one auditorium for the big bands, which were all white—by necessity, I guess. I guess Benny Goodman had started having any black guys in the band…

TP:   When you saw him. A little after ‘48 he had Wardell Gray, but not then.

CREED:   Also, I don’t think he would have taken Wardell to the south. Rooming accommodations were one thing. What hotel was going to take a black guy who showed up? Anyway, I started thinking about this. Very nearby… I don’t remember the name of the hall, but it booked all the… That’s why I listed all the guys. I went up there, and it didn’t faze me at all that there were no white people around.

TP:   You were the only white kid?

CREED:   I was the only white kid.

TP:   You could go there.

CREED:   I could go there, sure. It was a one-way prejudice. If anybody looked at me like, “What are you doing; you’re a white kid,” I was not aware of it at all. So at that point, I basically… I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me, actually, that… I thought all of the black people liked this kind of music and all the white people liked the other kind of music, and that’s why they were white down there and they were black up here. Nothing to do with any prejudice floating around.

TP:   This dance hall was on top of the Norfolk & Western railway tracks?

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   Was it a tobacco warehouse?

CREED:   It might have been. It certainly wasn’t an auditorium like the Roanoke Auditorium, which had all kinds of event. Roanoke didn’t have that much tobacco, but it was a warehouse.

TP:   Did you hear that music on the radio, or were you just hearing the bands?

CREED:   A combination. But the most exciting part, of course, was going down and seeing these guys. I heard Louis Jordan on the radio, because he had a couple of big hits, Saturday Night Fish Fry and so forth. I liked the record so much that (I had just got my driver’s license) I got in the car, and went to West Virginia to look for Salt Pork. Actually, there is a Salt Pork, West Virginia. It’s in the corner of Virginia that butts into West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. Up in the mountains.

TP:   What did your father do? Was he musical at all?

CREED:   No, he was not musical at all. He was a businessman. He had a woodworking hobby. He didn’t understand what I was listening to.

TP:   Was he from that area? Did you have several generations back in Lynchburg or that part of Virginia?

CREED:  Oh yes. Several generations back down into Little Rock, Arkansas.

TP:   And your father settled there.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   You’d gone to Duke, so I was wondering what your background was. Later you told me you had a farm. So I suppose it was a hard-working youth.

CREED:   Well, I didn’t like some of it. We had a farm and there was a dam with a mill on it.

TP:   Did he own the mill?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   So your dad owned the mill in town.

CREED:   Yeah. It wasn’t a town.

TP:   He owned the mill. So the mill was the town.

CREED:   Virtually, yes. People used to come up with their bags of wheat, and take them in to the mill and have it made into flour.

TP:   So this was during the Depression. So you were doing, or not terrible.

CREED:   Well, I was doing well enough not to be aware that there was a Depression, let’s say.

TP:   You say you heard Gene Krupa at a warehouse in Princeton, W.V. What else did you want to elaborate on?

CREED:   I was thinking that when I got to Duke, I heard those specific records I listed, and they stuck with me as a stylistic kind of musical taste at the time. Certainly Summer Suite/Early Autumn, the Getz solo on it, and the Stan Getz-Johnny Smith, Autumn In Vermont. Also an atypical Stan Kenton, his September Song was a hit, and it was a band with some kind of studio singers and a huge trombone choir playing unison on September Song. I also heard the band in Raleigh, N.C., which is the next town from Durham, where Duke is. That’s where I also heard the Dizzy Gillespie Band, which was a high point of my musical experience. Chano Pozo, Ray Brown and all those guys.

TP:   It had to have been ‘48. That’s when Chano Pozo died.

CREED:   Must have been. Wonder where they stayed?

TP:   They must have stayed in people’s houses.

CREED:   I don’t think they slept on the bus.

TP:   Well, they were doing a tour of one-nighters. But some of the other notes you wrote: When you were in California in 1950, training to go to Korea, you heard Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Mingus, Mulligan, Shorty Rogers. You heard them live, I guess.

CREED:   Oh, sure. And I talked to them. Shorty Rogers was so nice. I brought a manuscript in with Half Nelson, that Miles Davis tune, and he went through it and analyzed it, and said, “This is what you do when you get here.” I thought, “Wow, here I am talking to Shorty Rogers about this…”

TP:   Did you talk to people when they played at Duke or in West Virginia.

CREED:   Sure. I talked to Thornhill. I met Tony Scott there on the band, because he was playing lead clarinet on the very famous, short-lived edition of the Claude Thornhill band that had two french horns and Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.

I also made a note here, jumping back to Duke, at #8: I actually went to the Durham Armory to see Lionel Hampton. The whole audience was black, and the dance floor was a gym floor—the gym in the armory. Wes Montgomery and Quincy Jones were on that band. I took a photograph of the band. I just looked at the personnel… I did some research, and I remember seeing the guitar player and the trumpet section. I didn’t know his name. I’m just saying it’s a strange world that I sat there and listened to that big band, and then lo and behold, a few years later, I’m recording Wes.

TP:   You were coming up to New York periodically in high school and while you were at Duke, and seeing these cousins and staying at hotels around midtown. When you settled here, where did you live initially?

CREED:   I got my own apartment at 86th Street and Riverside Drive.

TP:   Did you immediately start going out to clubs?

CREED:   Oh, yeah, I sat in with little… There were places to jam in the Village then.
TP:   Do you remember any of them?

CREED:   I can tell you exactly where it was. One was on West Fourth Street off Seventh Avenue. I think it’s still there. I can’t remember the name of the club.

TP:   Was it Arthur’s Tavern?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Randy Weston told me he did his first gig there in 1943 with Lucky Millinder’s guitar player.

CREED:   What do you know?

TP:   Oh, I forgot about the Randy Weston record you did.

CREED:   Right, that was with Freddie.

TP:   Did you keep playing trumpet all the way through?

CREED:   No. After I got connected with Bethlehem, I kind of stopped that.

TP:   So were you getting into the scene as a striving trumpet player? Is that how you started making contacts amongst musicians?

CREED:   Not quite. I got into the thing, and realized just how precocious or presumptuous I was. Thinking I could play with these guys? My God. By then I had a totally different maturity, let’s say. I told you when I jumped on the Elliott Lawrence bus… Nothing would stop me.

TP:   You sound like someone who when you’re determined to do something, you’re not shy.

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   The guy at Bethlehem was named Gus Wildi, and there was a  guy named Red Clyde. Was that the guy whose stripper girlfriend was hustling…

CREED:   No, he was the West Coast guy. I barely knew him. He came in as I was on my way out to ABC.

TP:   So you were there first.

CREED:   Yes. The guy I told you about who got Gus Wildi to come in and put up the money to start the record company was… He came out of Duke, too. He was a drummer. He was a very sad drummer.

TP:   But a good hustler.

CREED:   A good hustler. But the hustler only went so far, and then that’s how I came into the picture.

TP:   But Gus Wildi stayed with the label until the early ‘60s.

CREED:   I guess he did. I lost touch with Gus. I think he sold it in the early ‘60s.

TP:   You also wrote that “the dynamics of marketing thoughts might have begun with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another, and keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

CREED:   Yes. I was just kind of free associating. I never thought about… The CTI-Kudi labels were coexisting. I don’t know if you know about the Kudi side.

TP:   Explain it a bit.

CREED:   In the first place, for Kudu I had black colors, orange, black and… The same colors as the Jamaican flag. So that was deliberate. And the kudu, as you probably know, is an African antelope. There are whole varieties of kudus. So anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to call it Kudu, because it had a nice ring to it and it was African. Anyway, that music was geared to R&B crossover… The R&B stations at that time, by midnight they’d turn to jazz. Fundamentally. So any of the strong-signal R&B stations did have their jazz slot, and the jazz slot kind of went into the… Actually, I thought that the Louis Jordan Tympany Five thing was… Even though he didn’t have extended solos, it was jazz. It was real swinging R&B stuff.

TP:   Then it was certainly jazz? Because what was jazz then? Jazz was swing music. It was dance music.

CREED:   That’s true. And Earl Bostic, certainly… I loved that stuff.

TP:   Earl Bostic was a huge influence on so many musicians. Even a guy like Greg Osby would cite Earl Bostic as an influence.

CREED:   Really.

TP:   His technique. His chops. His ability to play the horn.

CREED:   I never thought about that. I know I walked up the hill and went to the black venue and heard these great guys.

TP:   So Kudu and CTI in the ‘70s… You were talking about keeping the genres clear and easy to find, and you wrote down the names. “East Coast Jazz.” Impulse…

CREED:   At the time, the cool jazz out of California was popular. That was the Chet Baker era, and the Mulligan-Baker Quartet, and the Lighthouse… Anyway, I thought here we are in New York and we’re recording all this stuff; why don’t we start a series and put them in the category of East Coast Jazz? That was just a marketing thing.

TP:   We talked a little about this, but I’m interested in what you think of the music scene today. Is there stuff out there that you like?

CREED:   Sure. I like Bill Charlap. I knew his father. I think his nickname was Moose. He wrote a lot of Broadway musicals. A real nice guy. Kind of a joker. Not as conservative, I think, as a son.

TP:   Why Charlap? What about him do you like?

CREED:   I like the songs he picks. I like the way he plays piano. I just think he’s such a sincere… Great taste. Who else do I like? I don’t know… Name a few people.

TP:   Jason Moran.

CREED:   I like him. I’m not ecstatic.

TP:   Is he someone you could record?

CREED:   Sure.

TP:   Could you record Charlap?

CREED:   Oh, easily.

TP:   John Scofield.

CREED:   I recorded Scofield a couple of times. Actually, he’s on that thing called RhythmStick with Dizzy, but that hardly gave him room to be John Scofield. I don’t like the Ray Charles record he did. I don’t think he needs to go that way. Why warm up Ray Charles, when he is Ray Charles… I just don’t see trying to do something that Ray Charles would have done sort of the same way. It doesn’t ring true to me.

TP:   He’s trying to exploit the movie.

CREED:   Sure. I can’t fault him for that, but I don’t think he did it well.

TP:   How about Greg Osby?

CREED:   I think he’s great.

TP:   Could you work with him?

CREED:   Yeah… I’m hesitating because I’m trying to think of some of the people I don’t like so much. Pharaoh Sanders. I did not like him. Can’t put my finger on why.

TP:   Then or now?

CREED:   I don’t know what he’s playing like now?

TP:   A lot of ballads.

CREED:   He’s mellowed.

TP:   His stuff is very mellow. He would have been great on a CTI record, the way he plays now. He plays a lot of the Coltrane ballad book. All melody and tone and groove.

I suppose what interests me here is that your aesthetic seems to have been very consistent from the time you entered the business, and yet it produced very different-sounding records, according to the times they were done in. You’re still active, and I’m interested in how you see the scene. If you can tell me what sorts of things interest you without giving up anything proprietary, it would be of interest.

CREED: My brain doesn’t start turning until I get into a project. I go, “This drummer would be good with that bass player,” or, “What about the whole rhythm section with this horn player?” Unless I’m focused on some kind of purposeful project, it’s hard for me to generalize on it.

TP:   It seems you were out three-four nights a week, and really in the scene. Someone told Ashley that you always seemed to be out.

CREED:   That was Fran Scott, the designer.

TP:   But I’m assuming you were doing that in the ‘60s and ‘70s as well.

CREED:    I constantly listened, and there were a lot of things to listen to on the radio, for that matter. Unlike today. This age we’re living in is so formatted. I listen to WKCR. Sometimes it’s great.

TP:   But would not being on the scene as much make it more difficult for you to produce records? It seems you’re matching what Joe Lovano calls tonal personalities?

CREED:   That’s a great phrase. If you had a choice between a Stan Getz or Stanley Turrentine and a Mike Brecker or a Joe Lovano, or now you tell me about Pharaoh Sanders… I don’t know. I know if Steve Gadd would leave wherever he’s living now, and come down and record, I would probably build something from there up.

TP:   Steve Gadd is your man.

CREED:   Yes. He’s the greatest. All you have to do is listen to “Candy” on the She Was Too Good To Me album by Chet Baker. Anything in that album that Steve Gadd is playing on is just amazing. But if I had a Kudu project, my first choice would be Idris to this day. I know there must be other drummers out there. But I haven’t listened in an active way about who I would corral to do… What kind of a record? Is there a song to base the whole theme of the CD on? What?

TP:   The criteria have changed somewhat, haven’t they, in the last 25 years.

CREED:   Absolutely.

TP:   Would you have to have your imprint on a record today as much as before? Would you have to exercise the same level of control?

CREED:   That’s a very relative value. The same amount of control in what situation?

TP:   In packaging. CTI is your name, your design, the grooves are set up, there’s an aura that you’re looking to project. I’d say the same thing is true on the A&M records and maybe some of the Verve things. Blue Note wasn’t “Alfred Lion presents.” Blue Note was Blue Note. You were Creed Taylor Inc. I wonder if you still would want that level of control over the entire product today.

CREED:   It really would depend on the project, or proposed project. I couldn’t answer that. I think that I have a great degree of flexibility within a framework. But do I need that framework to work in? Probably.

TP:  Was there anyone you learned from among the other producers of the ‘50s and ‘60s?

CREED:   No.

TP:   Was there anyone you admired?

CREED:   I guess the discretion of ECM. Manfred Eicher. He certainly knew what to leave out and what not to push. Everything I’ve ever heard that he put out has a great deal of integrity to it. That doesn’t mean I liked it necessarily. But as a producer, I thought he was, and I guess he continues to be the real thing—if you like that genre of music.  Quincy.

TP:   Quincy.

CREED:   Certainly Quincy. Although I can appreciate why… I won’t call it going off the deep end, and why should I with Michael Jackson still around with us… Quincy always knew the right thing to do. Whether I was producing him or he  was producing another record… I think I produced better records than he did, but I admired him as a producer.

TP:   Why do you think your records were better?
CREED:   Because I think that he… Well, don’t quote me on this, because Quincy is my friend. But being in the midst of this stuff… We see music from a different angle. He looks at it from the inside and outside, but I think I’m in a position to look at it from the outside.

TP:   Do you think you have a more objective take on what you’re putting out? Is that what that is?

CREED:   I think so.

TP:   Without putting words in your mouth. I can say that?

CREED:   I guess. But don’t compare.

TP:   I won’t say you make better records. Is that okay?

CREED:   That’s okay.

TP:   What did you think of Alfred Lion as a producer? You did record a number of the same people. Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine…

CREED:   Well, look at our backgrounds. Rudy used to tell me… I never met Alfred Lion. He was always in there when I wasn’t, and vice versa, with Rudy. Rudy said Alfred would come out of the control booth and into the studio with no hesitation and say, “It ain’t swingin’,” without any specifics. Obviously, he was a jazz fan from the beginning of his life, and he knew what was good and what was not, what was swinging and what was not swinging. But beyond that, he didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production. Either the band had it, or he would have a soloist with the band and let them as extended as they wanted to me. If it’s 16 minutes, that’s fine; if it’s 5 minutes, that’s fine, too.

TP:   In the ‘60s, he did some things that were not unlike what you did at CTI, with Duke Pearson as the arranger.

CREED:   Duke Pearson was participating not only as an arranger but as a producer.

TP:   I think what you’re saying is that your training as a musician enabled you to give specific inputs into the music that would leave no doubt as to what you wanted and what the sound was supposed to be. Whereas with Alfred Lion, he wasn’t coming at it from quite as informed a perspective.

CREED:   Well, that, and also he didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogermann, for that matter. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row of the violins, who was in the B-row, and who you don’t hire because in between takes he plays cards or he reads the paper or he doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he’s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and he hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. I had a talk with the concert-master, and he said, “No problem, I know what you’re talking about.” So we had a pure…the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.

Did you ever go to a session that involved a lot of orchestral people? If you put elements together that are disparate, like string sections or even woodwinds or whatever, the personality of the players and their interest…even if not as a jazz soloist, their interest in jazz brings to the recording an entirely different kind of approach. All you need is one guy who is not very attentive, whether a string player or wind player, and it’s… It’s like the Yankees. If they’ve got one guy who’s not performing, the whole thing goes to hell.

TP:   Do you feel that this kind of production is one way to get great jazz, or are there many ways to get a great jazz  record?

CREED:   Oh, sure. There are many ways. Absolutely.

TP:   Your way being one of many. Do you think your way was the best?

CREED:   Well, don’t we all? Sometimes I wish I’d done it another way, and I sure won’t make that mistake again.

TP:   What are some things you wish you’d done another way, if I may ask?

CREED:   I think they’re long gone into my deep subconscious.

I just got one of those records I talked about. I’ll take a look at it. Def Jazz with Roy Hargrove.

TP:   Sounds like a remix.

CREED:   Well, a remix or it started out that way. Anyway, the first cut is Roy Hargrove. He sounds good. He sounds like Hargrove. The rest of it sounds not unlike that Verve Remix #3. But this is a better record.

TP:   For instance, M’Shell Ndegeocello has a new record with a bunch of venturesome jazz soloists, and she put down all these grooves. Works really well.

CREED:   I know. I’ve heard it, and I love it. The singer that I like is Luciana Souza. She plays with Romero Lubambo, who’s one of my favorite guitar players. I recorded him… He went down to Salvador to do that thing with the Salvadorian percussionist, and Donald Harrison…

TP:    You worked with Donald, too.

CREED:   Yes. Donald’s such a pleasant fellow. He’ll do anything, within reason.
I’d like to plug my family. Plug it in however…

TP:    All three of your sons are graphic artists?

CREED:   Yes. They used to draw all the time together, and it rubbed off, I think.

TP:   Did they grow up in the Village?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Did they go to P.S. 41?

CREED:   No, they went to City and Country. Blake went to St. Ann’s, John went to Brooklyn Friends, and Creed went to Elizabeth Irwin. Blake was the art director of Fortune magazine. John was art director of This Old House.

TP:   Did you have anything to do with Cecil’s three tunes on Into the Hot?

CREED:   Gil Evans was always a very slow writer. About that time I was getting ready to go to Verve, and he owed Impulse! an album, and he wanted to go to Verve. The only way he could get out of his contract was by giving them another album. So we decided to get Cecil Taylor in on it.

[—30—]

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