Monthly Archives: May 2014

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

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


* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, Gonzalo Rubalcaba

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

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

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-2-02):

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

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

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

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

TP:    Putting your foot in cement?

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

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

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

TP:    And it was a great hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  A respect for knowledge.

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

SHAW:  At 15.

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

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

TP:    What did they do for work?

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

TP:    Had they come here from Russia?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  C-melody saxophone.

TP:    And you had an instant affinity for it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  1929 I  came to New York.

TP:    And you instantly found work.

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

TP:    Because of the union?

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

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

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

TP:    Would you describe the atmosphere there?

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

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

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

TP:    You’ll be bored?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.

TP:    Art Shaw.  Excuse me.

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

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

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

TP:    Since we can’t talk about Harlem…

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

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

SHAW:  What’s that?

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

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

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

SHAW:  Savoy Ballroom.

TP:    The Savoy Ballroom in Chicago.

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

TP:    How long did you stay in Chicago?

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

TP:    And you heard him again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  In Chicago.

TP:    Yes, in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes, that’s right.

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

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

TP:    So whatever stylistic differences critics and historians ascertain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did it all have equal value?

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

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

SHAW:  Yeah.

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

SHAW:  All of that.

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

SHAW:  You could call me an autodidact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Mine?

TP:    Yours.

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

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

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

TP:    Yes, I understand.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  All right.

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

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

TP:    Kropotkin and…

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I wouldn’t argue with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I try to be.

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you had unmitigated success for a while.

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

TP:    Why was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Was it Freudian psychoanalysis?

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

TP:    On the couch?

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So it was with a Freudian psychoanalyst.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That’s a good lesson.

SHAW:  It sure is.

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

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

TP:    Did you have problems in the North?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  That was the only thing I cared about.

TP:    What were those qualities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Ken Burns.

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

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

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

TP:    In the sense of amoral or asexual…

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of things?

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

TP:    What sort of extremes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You like them.

SHAW:  Yeah. They’re good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  You mean “Tunisia”?

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

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

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

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

TP:    What about Charlie Parker?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How about Ellington?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you know Ellington?

SHAW:  Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Well, maybe call it the decadence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you feel that denoted a character flaw.

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

TP:    Do you play any musical instrument now?

SHAW:  Well, I play piano a little bit.

TP:    Do you practice it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * *

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Article, Artie Shaw, Clarinet, Jazziz

For Bill Holman’s 87th Birthday, A Brief Interview From 2011

It’s the 87th birthday of the superb arranger, Bill Holman, who made his name generating charts for Stan Kenton during the early ’50s, and made some of the more phantasmagoric big band recordings of the ’80s and ’90s. I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Holman at the end of 2011 when Jazz at Lincoln Center assigned me to write program notes for a Kenton tribute concert. The unedited transcript follows.

* * *

Bill Holman on Stan Kenton (December 28, 2011):

TP:   Let me ask you a general question. It’s been written about, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask it, but: what do you feel that you brought to the Kenton band, and what do you think Kenton was looking for from you?

BH:   I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this before. I think I brought a little more of a jazz element into the band. Stan kept saying that he didn’t want a swing band, he didn’t want a Tommy Dorsey band or a Count Basie band. He was talking about rhythm, I think, mainly. He didn’t want that dancey, kind of jazz rhythm. He wanted straight eighth notes and everything very serious and solemn. I lightened up the band quite a bit, I think. The contrapuntal approach that everybody talks to was just a feature of the way I wrote. But I actually tried to write more jazz music for the band, and…

It’s funny. I was talking to somebody yesterday about the predicament that Buddy Childress was in. He was the lead trumpet player, he was the concert master of the band, and he was kind of responsible for the way the band phrased and the way the band played their eighth notes. Stan was still insisting that he wanted the straight eighth notes, and I was writing more of a swing feel eighth-note—and the two were different. So Buddy had to figure out a way to kind of get it in the middle, and he came up with a very strange conception that people have since called holding eighth notes. They weren’t mine, really; they were Buddy’s. I think after the first two successful charts that I wrote for the band, Stan probably realized that he was faced with a different kind of conception. He didn’t try to talk me out of it, and kept on with it, and finally, in 1955, a couple of years after I left, he had Al Porcino and Mel Lewis, and it was a swing band. Not one of the swingingest bands, but it was a swing band, and Stan went along with it for a while. Then finally, he had some kind of epiphany or something, and he let Porcino go and he told me to stop writing. It slipped back a little bit, but he was still doing more rhythmic things than he had in the past.

TP:   It seems that what you were doing in ‘52 and ‘53 and ‘54 was very suited to the band’s personnel—a lot of individualistic soloists, influenced very much by Lester Young and Bird and swing music, as you were. So your conception seems to have been a nice for the band.

BH:   I think probably the best arrangements for any band are written by people who are playing in the band, because night after night you get the feeling of what the band does well, and when it takes off, and you hear the soloists and hear what they can do… It’s a big advantage to be a member of a band.

TP:   In the charts you wrote for Lee Konitz, were you taking any particular factors into account?

BH:   No, I just wrote for Lee as a very capable soloist. I didn’t think too much about his…well, what I found out later, that he tries to do things that are completely original. He leaves out most of the jazz vocabulary that we know and love, but he prefers to just start at zero and do his own thing. I didn’t know this at the time. I was pretty young and inexperienced. So I just wrote the best chart that I could, hearing him. It’s funny. When we first rehearsed “In A Lighter Vein,” which was the up-tempo feature for him, he said, “I can’t get any feeling from this melody at all.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Jesus!—it bombed.” Then he turned around and played the shit out of it.

TP:   You and he are the same age, from different parts of the country, but both deeply influenced by the big bands and soloists you heard in your formative years. I know music became your avocation a little late. But were you a fan of the Kenton band in the ‘40s?

BH:   Oh, yeah. I thought they were terrific. I grew up close to the Balboa Rendezvous, where they got their start. We used to hear the band when it still had Lunceford influences. So I was aware of the band from the very start, and I really liked the things that they were doing in the ‘40s, which was before I became a jazz player and found out what real jazz was like, and realized that what they were doing wasn’t jazz.

TP:   Was there any sort of ambivalence for you when you joined the band? I’ve read 4-5 fairly thorough interviews on the Internet, and it seems as though and Kenton had a somewhat ambivalent relationship. Not that this needs to be part of the note… Was there any sense for you, joining the band, that the way you were thinking about things didn’t necessarily sync up with Kenton’s?

BH:   If I had been a functioning writer at the time, more than a player, I think there probably would have been. But I joined the band as a player, and I was just happy to join such a good band with such a great record. I was just happy to be there. I didn’t write for the band for quite some time. I’d written a couple of charts before I joined the band, but they were just total flops. I was trying to do things that I wasn’t hearing. So when I joined the band, I was just happy to be there, and Stan remembered that I was a writer, and pretty soon he started encouraging me to write. He paid me for everything I did. I did several charts before I really connected with the band, and he paid for those, and had them copied, and we rehearsed them and even played them a couple of times. I wrote one chart on “Star Eyes,” and it was just counterpoint from beginning to end. We played it one night, and Stan said, “You know, Holman, that sounds like a merry-go-round.” That’s a pretty good line.

TP:   Was his input helpful to you in developing your style?

BH:   [SIGHS] I’m trying to think, now… He didn’t talk to me much about writing, aside from egging me on to write. He gave me one assignment, which was a thing for Maynard Ferguson and Sal Salvador. It was “Invention For Guitar and Trumpet.” He kind of laid that out, what he was looking for. It turns out to have been a very successful piece, although I don’t like it at all. But it always seems to get put in the reissues and so forth. But mainly, he didn’t talk to me about what he was expecting or needing.

TP:   if I may ask you this for the 8-millionth time, what are some of your favorites of the charts that you wrote for the Kenton band?

BH:   Well, I always liked, “What’s New” and, of course, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which is a lot of people’s favorite. I like “Stella By Starlight” for Charlie Mariano, and “Yesterdays,’ and some of the early things—“Fearless Finlay” and I can’t think of the other name.  Does that give you enough?

TP:   Yes, I think that gives me enough. May I ask a more general question. What do you think were the qualities of Kenton as a personality and bandleader, and the band itself, that made the Kenton band so popular? It was a huge operation. What do you think people were responding to?

BH:   It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. In the ‘40s, he was doing his progressive jazz and the Rugolo thing. It’s hard to say. Maybe the precision and the brassy sound. I don’t really know. It’s a large band. I think large bands tend to be more impressive than small bands to certain people. Kenton’s personality. He was a very striking figure in front of a band. You got me on that one.

TP:   He’s one of these people, like Woody Herman or Ellington, who kept the organization going for years and years and years, building a body of music… If nothing else, it’s a real act of will, I guess. It strikes me in the course of thinking about him for these last few days.

BH:   I think that a lot of people had an affection for Stan, the person. He was always very gracious to the public, and took time-out to talk to people and kids… I meet these people now who come to the Kenton reunion concerts out here that Ken Poston puts on occasionally, and they seem to love the idea of Stan Kenton. He got to these people somehow.

TP:   Apart from the NEA Jazz Masters thing a couple of years ago, when the JALCO played one of your charts, is this your first collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?

BH:   Yes, aside from that one shot.

TP:   Have you followed their history over the last 20 years?

BH:   Pretty much.

TP:   Do you any remarks about the orchestra, and the way they might or might not match up with the way Kenton thought about music?

BH:   Hah. Well, I don’t know. I’m kind of curious about that myself. Their emphasis has been on Duke and mostly black music, and this is the whitest of the white bands, I think.

TP:   Did you say ‘the whitest of the white bands’?

BH:   Yeah.

TP:   Perhaps that phrase might apply a little less to the stuff you put out 55 years ago, and the way the band treated it.

BH:   Yeah, but I think still, Kenton encompasses all of that. Stan Kenton stands for a certain kind of music that is kind of unemotional. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Clean. Well, you know how some musicians use the term “greasy” when they’re talking about funky jazz? Stan’s band was never greasy, regardless of who wrote for it. There, I’ve finally figured it out.

TP:   I guess it will be fascinating to see how the concert goes, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from them after the new year. You’re not presenting anything new for the band…

BH:   No.

TP:   All older stuff.

BH:   Yes.


1 Comment

Filed under Bill Holman, Interview, Stan Kenton

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,

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.”


* * *

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.”


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…


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.


* * *

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Article, Creed Taylor, DownBeat, Interview

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th Birthday, Full Interviews From 2000, 2001, and 2008, plus an 2008 Interview with Manfred Eicher

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th birthday, I’m posting a series of interviews I’ve conducted with him for various articles over the last 14 years. The 2000 interview was for a interview (it seems to be no longer on the Internet) on the occasion of the release of the trio release, Whisper Not. I coalesced this and a fall 2001 interview for a DownBeat piece generated by Jarrett’s earning “Best Acoustic Pianist” Award for 2001. The 2008 interview was generated by Jarrett’s election to the DownBeat Hall of Fame. I also previously interviewed Mr. Jarrett in 2002 for a long DB piece about the late Paul Motian (you can find it at the very bottom of that post). By the way, you’ll notice that the links to the DownBeat articles are contained with a DownBeat “micro-site” that contains DB’s Jarrett archive, beginning with a 1974 interview with the late Bob Palmer, and concluding with a 2013 interview with Ethan Iverson, whose 2009 interview with Jarrett  can be found here. Happy hunting.

* * *

Keith Jarrett (10-10-00):

TP:    The first thing that occurs to me in looking at this CD in relation to the other “standards” CDs is the preponderance of tunes associated with Bebop and the vocabulary of Bebop.  It’s an incredible selection of material.  Can you talk about why you were focusing on this particular repertoire at this particular time when the record was done?

JARRETT:  Well, it’s kind of a long story.  I don’t know how long a story you want.

TP:    I did read a clip on the Internet from an interview you gave an English paper in which you said that this was partly due to your illness, and you don’t have to exert as heavy a touch playing this music — it’s lighter, more dancing, a different quality of effort for you.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  The funny thing is, when I had that theory, I wasn’t prepared to run into the piano in Paris that is on this particular recording! [LAUGHS] It was the least… In general, German Steinways are bad for Bebop anyway, but this particular piano was like a Mack truck, very heavy and thick action.  So I had to throw all that out the window for this concert.  Luckily, it was the last of four concerts in Europe, and I just decided, “Well, I’ll just have to use whatever energy I’ve got, and if I make it through the concert, that’s good; if I don’t, at least it’s the last one.

TP:    Were you playing this repertoire throughout those four engagements?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Actually, you might know that the trio doesn’t normally rehearse.  I’ve said that many times.  The very first time we actually rehearsed was while I was still sick, trying to determine whether I could actually handle playing with them, maybe just the dynamics, you know.  I could play alone a little, but that’s not the same.  Since I had such a long space where I wasn’t playing, it just naturally occurred to me that… Actually, if you think about what we recorded in sequence just before this release, you’ll notice that it was starting to happen anyway.  I mean, we were starting to go in this direction a little more than we had before.

TP:    You played “John’s Abbey.”

JARRETT:  Yes, and even the way of playing.  We’re in time more, we’re not playing around the time as much.  So in one way it was natural, and in another way it had to do with getting back into concerts with a fresh outlook that also fit my energy level at the time.  But then, of course, meeting pianos that I had to work like amazingly hard to get anything out of, that made it beside the point.  Because I think that Bebop players that we’ve heard on record, or if we’re old enough in person… I think probably, without exception, the pianos those guys were playing had been pounded to death, and were probably all fairly light action and, if they were lucky, they were in tune.  But I would guess that the pianos the bebop players used, since they were all club date pianos, had their stuffing knocked out of them before Bebop came along, and those guys might not have been able to play that way at all if they weren’t playing on rather used instruments.

TP:    That’s fascinating.  I’ve never heard it stated like that before, but it certainly does make sense.

JARRETT:  I think it would have to follow also that the sound that we like in their playing has a lot to do with the pianos not being perfect.  If you listen to the way the horn players play in any jazz really, but in Bebop because we’re talking about it, their intonation is dependent on their phrasing.  A piano is a real structured thing, and it’s basically a percussion instrument, and when a piano is in perfect operating condition, let’s say ready for a Chopin recital, it doesn’t have much personality, because it’s so even.  In a funny way, I’m not sure how Jazz would have come about if everything had been perfect from the beginning.

TP:    So it’s a music whose strengths derive from imperfections or even mistakes.

JARRETT:  I would just say that there’s a character that comes about… Well, if you think of human beings and you look at somebody’s face, if they don’t have any lines on their face, you’ll say that their face is sort of characterless.  Well, those lines would be imperfections to a plastic surgeon.  But to you, you’re getting some information about them.  And I think Bebop, because of how fleet-footed it is, if a piano has a… Well, I released this “Deer Head Inn” recording you might be familiar with.

TP:    With Paul Motian on drums instead of Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, that piano was absolutely… I shouldn’t say absolutely terrible, because that wouldn’t be fair.  I mean, it was a club piano.  And I couldn’t have played it louder if… Some people have reviewed it as though I was playing sort of not at the highest dynamic possible.  But I was.  So the problem you encounter with, like, the instruments that are not perfect kind of create a character that is contagious sometimes, and in improvising, an improvisor kind of works with that.

TP:    That said, is there a different aesthetic to performing jazz, to improvising within this vocabulary vis-a-vis dealing with the Classical vocabulary?

JARRETT:  Oh yeah.

TP:    How does the aesthetic diverge?  You’re saying that a lot of the character of jazz comes out of the peculiarities of the situation, whether it’s the particular way in which a particular piano has been pounded…

JARRETT:  Let me interrupt you for a minute.  You’ve probably heard a lot of jazz.  So if you think of some Wynton Kelly solos… If you were listening to them and you knew a lot about how pianos sound and what condition it might have been in, you’d probably realize that almost all the time, when things were really cooking, there was a particular quality of the piano that would never be able to be considered a good quality for anything but Jazz, I guess.  That’s what I was trying to get at.

TP:    How did that operate in these concert halls, then, when you have superb pianos articulating this music?

JARRETT:  Well, this is my special problem and this is my special expertise, I guess.  I’m coming from both places at the same time.  I’m coming from… Maybe if we play a ballad, I need the piano to do things that only an optimally adjusted piano can do.  But when we’re playing a bebop head, I wish the piano could change, like, radically.  And I am probably one of the few players that can move between those two places on the same instrument.  In other words, instead of one of those things not being effective, I’m finding a way more often than not to make the piano do what it actually doesn’t want to do, and sound appropriate for the situation.  It’s almost impossible to talk about it.  I wouldn’t even know how to talk about it to a pianist.

TP:    I actually think I do understand in pretty much of a layman’s way what you said.

JARRETT:  Let’s say you take a stiff thing, a fairly new, perfectly conditioned Steinway, the bushings are all new, therefore the keys are all evenly adjusted.   But when the bushings are new, the keys are tight.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Except that isn’t really great when you want to play like a horn.

TP:    You can’t get that vocal inflection.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  And if you listen to the new CD, if you knew how hard that piano made it for me… Some of these things for me are personal triumphs for me [LAUGHS], just from what I already knew about the instrument.  I was forcing it to start to speak.  Every now and then, I just would be able to get it to speak.

TP:     I’d like to talk to you about the content.  Is this material that you learned and knew and internalized during your early years of playing, during your apprenticeship years?  Are these all tunes that are almost vernacular to you from your beginnings in music?

JARRETT:  No, actually not at all.  One of my sons is studying at NEC, and I think they are more vernacular to him.  For me, I just started to think about going to…for varying reasons, to eliminate the long introductions that I’ve often played before standards, and for the other reasons we spoke about… Moving towards a bebop thing was also good because I wasn’t all that… I hadn’t played these tunes very much at all.  So I knew the tunes from hearing them, but I hadn’t spent any time playing them.

TP:    Ah, so there goes my theory.


TP:    I was thinking that in your Boston days playing in the bar, you had done the various standards and bebop material.

JARRETT:  No.  Actually, I came along around the time when that wasn’t the thing to do any more.  I mean, I don’t know what we were playing.  I’m trying to remember.  Most of the jam sessions I was involved in in the beginning, they didn’t even have pianos, so I was playing marimba a lot. [LAUGHS] But I don’t think we played bebop tunes.

TP:    As a kid, did you listen to a lot of Bud Powell or George Shearing or Ahmad Jamal or Monk?  Was that part of your listening diet when you were first discovering jazz?  Because they were coming out at that time.

JARRETT:  Of those players… I once did a blindfold test in Paris for the Paris jazz magazine when I was with Charles Lloyd, in the ’60s.  And I wrote a list,, before I went in, of people that I was sure he was going to play for me, just to see if it was going to work out that way — just a little projection thing.  One of the names was Bud Powell, but I had never really heard Bud.  But I figured he was going to play them for me because, you know, it’s a legend.  And as soon as he played whatever he played, after the first couple of bars I knew it had to be Bud Powell because it was too good to be anybody else.  So I wasn’t steeped in these guys.  The only one of the people you mentioned, the white album of Ahmad Jamal, the “Portrait” album was something that accidentally came into my hands when I was fairly young, and that remains to me one of the milestones of trio recording — just what the trio can do.

TP:    Is that the one that has the famous version of “Poinciana” on it?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, maybe not.  Maybe that’s on a different release.  But it’s the same series.

TP:    So Ahmad Jamal was an inspiration for you as a younger player.

JARRETT:  Well, it wasn’t so much him as how he used the trio.  I think if there are trios that have created potentials for what that combination can do,, I would say it was his trio, at least in modern jazz, and Bill Evans.

TP:    Well, on “Poinciana,” Jack DeJohnette shows that he paid a lot of attention to Vernell Fournier when he was a young guy in Chicago.

JARRETT:  Well, Jack and Gary and I were together in a van going to a Berkeley, California concert.  This might have been ten years ago or something.  We had already been playing together quite a long time.  And we just were talking about everything, and the past and musicians, and we all ended up talking suddenly about Ahmad.  I mentioned the White album, and they both looked at me, stunned, because all three of us had had the same momentous experience when we heard that particular album.  I mean, we didn’t know each other until years and years later.  But that album meant the same thing to all three of us when we first heard it.

TP:    Well, it’s interesting, because you and Jack DeJohnette both had such significant experiences with Miles Davis, who was also inspired by Ahmad Jamal.

JARRETT:  Well, Miles would say the same thing.  I think Miles would say it was his use of space that he was influenced by, and I would have said more or less the same thing — that what they weren’t playing was very important, too.  The grooves they got with almost no ornamentation was pretty amazing.

TP:    So in dealing with tunes like “Hallucinations” or “Conception” or “Round Midnight” or “Groovin’ High” it’s a very fresh experience for you.

JARRETT:  Yes, that’s true.

TP:    One would assume that someone of your generation and period and what one might assume would be your orientation, would have the iconic versions of these tunes in your head.  But indeed, the tabula rasa approach can actually work for you with this repertoire.

JARRETT:  Yes, it can and it did.  And actually, we’re out of that phase now, and I’m glad we documented it when we did.  I mean, we do some of these things.  But at this moment in time, the summer of ’99, that was the first tour we did since I got ill, and this was the fourth concert.  So I wasn’t steeped in it at all.  I was fresh about it.

TP:    Can you talk a little generally about what the bebop period means to you, either musically or socially or aesthetically?

JARRETT:  Okay.  Well…let’s see…

TP:    Not to give you too specific a question there.

JARRETT:  Well, that makes it harder to answer.

TP:    Well, take any one of those that you care to.  I’m asking you the question because it seems pertinent to the content of this album.

JARRETT:  Well, here’s one thing that no one has mentioned yet in print that I’ve seen, about any of my playing.  Maybe they’re not going to mention it about this either.  But I am much more influenced by horn players than by pianists.  When I feel that I’ve been successful and with the trio in a jazz context, unless it’s maybe one of those long vamps where I am more like a string instrument, but a more primitive one… That happened occasionally on “Blue Note” or some of other releases.  When we’re playing tunes, it occurred to me (I think it was really around the tour this recording comes from, and then it’s continued through to this last summer, where we did another tour) that I was basically hearing Charlie Parker when I tried to play.  I mean it wasn’t like I was hearing what a piano would do.  I was hearing what a horn would do.  And the phrasing from that period has a character that I can’t quite figure out how to describe, but I would say that it’s both soft and hard.  In other words, it seems to have all the elements of jazz.  The Bebop era to me has the elements that all other periods of jazz have used, one way or another.  And it just focuses on the line.  I mean, if you listen to Ornette, there is… If you listen to anybody play jazz who is a good player, somewhere in there, Bebop has the qualities they’re using.  Whereas if you go back to the very earliest playing that we know on recordings, you know, they hadn’t flatted the fifth much yet… There are just these little differences.  But to me, Bebop is somehow center stage to what modern jazz has done even since then.  I don’t think you can really include Albert Ayler in that necessarily [LAUGHS] or a few other guys.  But you know, we’re using the same instruments, we’re using the same configurations.

TP:    I think it’s certainly the case with your quartet with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden and Motian; your point is very operative with that whole body of work.


TP:    In forming your sensibility… I know you’ve been playing since you were unimaginably young.  But did listening to records, did listening to styles, to tonal personalities have a big influence on how your sensibility developed when you were younger, or did it come more from the functional imperatives of performance, applying your fundamentals to any given situation?

JARRETT:  I think you’re asking a bigger question than you intend to.  I was doing a tour once with J.F. Jenny-Clark [bassist] and Aldo Romano [drummer] in the ’60s, sometime like, say, ’67…I can’t really be sure.  Up to that time, I thought that what a jazz player is supposed to do is work on his voice and find out what he actually… Let’s see how to say this.   Up to that time, I was working on who I was musically.  If I’d played something that sounded like somebody else or something else, I think what I used to do would be to say, “No-no, that’s really not me.”  Then next time I’d hope that I could find where I was in that particular piece.  But one evening we were playing, and we took a break, and came back on stage, and when I came back on stage, I realized that what I thought was the last stage in a jazz player’s…what’s the word…in the things you work on… That to find your voice was probably way down the list.  Because once you find your voice, then the imperative is to play, and not think about that.  And so, I’m answering more than your question, but… Maybe I’m not even answering your question.

TP:    Tell me if this is an accurate paraphrase.  Are you saying that you decided to play, and whatever you played would be your voice?

JARRETT:  I think I determined by the time we finished the first set, and by the time I had played that much of my life (which wasn’t that much, but luckily, I started early, as I said), that it was possible to drop that other shit, and just say, “Well, I’m who I am when I’m playing.  I don’t have to be who I am and then make sure I am who I am by playing what I think I am.”  So that freed me to do really whatever I heard.  And it seems to me that if it’s… I don’t know whether it’s a forgotten thing, or whether it’s never been thought of. [LAUGHS] But I think it’s the way it works.  If a player doesn’t do that, if they get stuck in their own voice, then where do they go from there?

TP:    Is that a pitfall that you’ve observed?

JARRETT:  Sure.  You can, too, if you think about all the stylists we’ve had who started out being valuable contributors and then ended up being stylists.

TP:    Or prisoners of their own cliches.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Nature doesn’t follow that rule.  Nature doesn’t say, “I’ve got these materials; I’m only going to use them for one thing.  Make sure it’s me.”  Nature says, “I’m going to do as many things with this as I can, and let’s see how much there is.”

TP:    Let me ask you about this trio.  It’s one of the longest-standing entities in improvised music.  Obviously, each one is a master of their instrument and incredibly resourceful and imaginative.  But what is it about each of them, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, that makes them so suited to interact with you?

JARRETT:  I don’t know!  I guess if you interviewed each one of them, it would be interesting to get their take on this.  Not just mine.  You know the story about when we first recorded and…

TP:    Not really.  Would you care to tell it?

JARRETT:  Well, I guess I did a recording with Gary and Jack of Gary’s music, which was previous to the “Standards” thing.  Then I sort of forgot that happened somehow, and I was thinking I wanted to do… Probably Manfred and I were talking about “what about doing some kind of trio recording?”  He might have suggested Gary.  I don’t even remember who suggested who, or how it came about.  But once it came together… Now, I played with Jack since ’65.

TP:    I didn’t know it went back that far.

JARRETT:  Oh yes, with Charles Lloyd.  The first time I played with Charles Lloyd was in that band.  Jack heard me with Blakey before I met him, and Jack recommended me to Charles Lloyd when Steve…I don’t know, they needed a pianist for some reason.  I heard Gary play with Bill at the Jazz Workshop in Boston with Paul Motian.  I was impressed with Gary, not to mention also the recording “Trio ’64.”  And I don’t know, for some reason, I think we all… So you don’t know the dinner-before-the-first-recording story.

TP:    No, I don’t.  Would you prefer I look it up and not have to retell it?

JARRETT:  Oh, no.  I asked them to have dinner before we started recording, because I wanted to explain to them… You have to remember this was ’83, and it was not hip to play standard tunes in ’83.  It was not at all the thing to do.  Gary had been through the avant-garde quite soundly, and involved in a lot of different music.  Jack was with Sun Ra, and had done a lot of other crazy things.  And I had done a lot of things also.  We were sitting at dinner, and I said, “Okay, this is what it’s about.  We’ve all been bandleaders and we’ve all played our own music, and we’ve all played the music of the other bandleaders we work with.  But when I say you know how freeing it is to be just playing, you guys know what I mean.”  And of course, they knew what I meant.  In other words, not to rehearse your own material, not to say “use brushes here, we’ll go into time here,” the whole kit and kaboodle of that stuff.  I said, “Well, that’s why what I want to do is play standards.”

I think up until that moment Gary thought I was insane, and he couldn’t figure out why I’d want to do that.  I was a young pianist and I was a composer.  Why would I want to do that?  Then we did it, and I think it started to sink in that this was such a special situation that we could actually… Every time we play it’s like a reunion, instead of a program-producing, rehearsing mode thing.  And then I think over the years… There were times in the early years in the trio… First of all, I didn’t think we should play concerts at all.  I thought, “Okay, this is the recording, and that’s it.  Because I don’t want to go into big rooms; I don’t think the music will be happy there.”  So we did a club date at the Vanguard, then I think we noticed how great the music was again.  Then I decided we should do a tour of Japan because the halls in Japan are smaller and much better sounding than any other…well, certainly than our country! [LAUGHS] They are very similar to each other, and they are generally not bigger than about 1500 seats.  Then that worked, and I guess everybody was hooked on this working.  Every now and then, Gary or Jack would say, “You know, maybe we should play some new material.”  And then we’d try some new material, and they’d have the experience of knowing what I was talking about again, at that first dinner, like, “Yeah, here we are working on material.”  Well, playing jazz doesn’t depend on the material.  So what we’re doing, I think, is much more the core of what jazz is.  It’s not like we’re at a jam session, but we’re close.

TP:    Is it like the famous Miles Davis quote that he was… I think you may have expressed this.  That he was paying the people in the band to rehearse.

JARRETT:  You mean every time we played.

TP:    Yes.

JARRETT:  I’m not sure if I said that…

TP:    I don’t know if it was you or someone else who said it.  But I noticed the comment somewhere or another a day or two ago.  But it sounds very much like that same aesthetic or that same imperative.

JARRETT:  Well, I think Miles would have wanted it to be… Yeah, he never wanted to impress material on the band.  He wanted the band to find the material.  It’s only different in the sense that… My thought was, “What if we used material that was so impressed on us already, whether it’s in our head or in our fingers, that we don’t have to worry about it.”  Also, I knew that neither Jack nor Gary had played this stuff for a long time, and neither had I.  So I had the feeling this would be such a short-lived…a good idea but short-lived.  Well, it’s anything but short-lived.  And it got to be a better idea the more we played, and every time we play we find out more about it.

Now, what happened on the last tour is, I talked to Gary and Jack about maybe not playing material of any kind at some of these concerts, just as a theory for the future.  They said, “Yeah, right.”  And I didn’t know what I was talking about either.  We ended up in Montreux, Switzerland, in a hall that had funny sound; not that it was terrible, it was just kind of funny.  The tunes didn’t sound right.  No matter what we did, it just didn’t sound like the right thing for the room.  So I thought this is the time; just pull the carpet out from under ourselves completely.

TP:    That’s something you made a career out of doing as a solo pianist, but I guess not in a group setting.

JARRETT:  Well, in a group it’s a bitch, because I mean, the group has to be like wired together.  You know? [LAUGHS] There’s no format.  We have to be superconductors for each other or something.  And mistakes aren’t the same thing.  I mean, there are no mistakes.  Everything is etched there.  You have to use whatever you play.

TP:    It seems you did something like that on the “Bye Bye Blackbird” record, on that long piece called “For Miles.”

JARRETT:  Yeah, sort of.  But we stayed tonal, and we stayed within a sort of Miles vibe.  At least that’s what we were trying to do.

TP:    I haven’t heard this yet.  Of course, maybe that will be part of your next document.  But are you saying that you’re going back to the full range of all your experiences, that Gary can touch on the things he did with Albert Ayler and you can touch on your… Again, is it encompassing everything from very consonant melody to the most dissonant of timbre-making or something?

JARRETT:  Yeah.  It can be like chamber music for a minute, and then it can just find its way to some other zone, and it can be sounding like we’re playing the blues, but there’s no bar lines.  So yeah.  And that happened a couple of times.  Then in the best tradition of keeping things alive, we didn’t try to do it again.  If it happens again, it will happen again.

TP:    This makes what you’re doing with the songbook and jazz standard material sound as though it’s very consonant with everything you’ve stood for over the years in your approach to music.  It’s the sort of all-material-is-grist-for-the-mill type of principle, and you seem to embody it to the max.

JARRETT:  Well, plus change is the eternal thing.  I mean, the trio has a style in that we can’t play what we don’t hear, and we have limitations because we are human beings, and we only hear what we hear when we’re playing.  So Gary has things his fingers end up playing, and I have things my fingers end up playing, and Jack has ways of playing that are his.  But I think that’s where it ends.  And that’s where it’s supposed to end.  That was what the principle of the thing was.  So whether with material that we’re ultra-familiar with or with no material at all, I did have to say to them, like, “You remember this; you did this; don’t be worried about it. [LAUGHS] We all did this before.”  Because it was like a new thing all of a sudden.  And to me, that’s what’s consonant about it in terms of what I’ve done up to now.  It’s like a menu.  If somebody said, “how do you know you want to order steak?”…you don’t have an answer for that, but you do know.

I think in music, for players one great difficulty is that they get locked into their own food sources.  It’s like a biofeedback.  If you’re stuck in a tape loop, you’re stuck in a tape loop.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a small one or a big one.  It’s the fact of being stuck that makes what you do ineffectual to the listener.  Say somebody is a fan of somebody else.  Well, you can go only so far with that.  That fan can be stupid enough to accept the person they’re listening to doing the exact same thing the exact same way forever.  But what we’re talking about is the creative act, and when you’re trying to let that… The creative act continues to demand different things of you as a player.  It’s like the act asks you.  You don’t say, “I think it would be very creative of me to do this.” [LAUGHS] That’s not how it works.

To get back to the question you asked about why these guys, I think the reason is that it’s been working this long.  If you reverse how these questions are answered, it’s the future that proves the past.  We’re still doing things that knock us out together, and therefore we’re together!

TP:    Is practice and performance very different for you?

JARRETT:  Yeah, practice is… I don’t practice improvising.

TP:    You practice very specific tasks, as it were?

JARRETT:  No, actually I should change that.  I had to practice everything after I was sick.  But I can’t practice much, because it usually gets in the way of my performing.  It’s like it sets up patterns or my ears aren’t as open any more.  When I was a hundred percent fine, health-wise, I wouldn’t listen to piano music at all before solo concerts for months, including my own sometimes.  I would not have played the piano for months before playing Avery Fisher Hall or something.  And in the trio, it’s good to just not develop patterns.  I mean, the whole thing is to… I’ve often said the art of the improvisor is the art of forgetting.  Our brains can probably forget better than our fingers.

TP:    There are a lot of musicians, improvisors, who don’t listen back to their work.  That’s what they tell you anyway.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I am not one of those people.

TP:    You seem to listen voraciously to your output.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I listen more now than I did… When I got ill, I really had no choice but to listen to a lot of things I had done, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything else again.  I was sort of leery of a lot of my choices musically and the ways that I had played.  So that’s another part of the answer to why we changed repertoire, to get out of the… It’s not just that we went to bebop.  It’s also that we went away from something else.  So I didn’t have the option of falling into things that I… I had enough time to erase those patterns, because I hadn’t played piano for a couple of years after I got sick.

TP:    That was ’96 to ’98?


TP:    So no piano for two years.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  I would say I touched the instrument.  Actually, “The Melody At Night With You” was done during those two years.  But I would never have been able to practice or anything like that.


* * *

Keith Jarrett (9-20-01):

TP:    When I spoke with you last year you spoke about moving into the area you’re addressing on Inside Out.  First of all, have your performances during the last 8-9 months basically been a mixture of the free playing and the standards playing, or has it been a mixture?  Is it dependent on the hall and the piano?  How does it play out in live performance which way you go?

JARRETT:  I hesitate to even guess the reasons sometimes, but it’s an improvisational call, just as everything else would be.  In London, when we did that recording… Usually, when we do a soundcheck, we try not to… I mean, we don’t want to play the concert for the soundcheck.  So we might choose some tune to just see how it feels, the way most people probably do soundchecks.  Nothing seemed to feel right.  There are some halls that, for whatever reason, whether they’re too dry or too lively or very… I wouldn’t be able to describe the reasons.  But we then might say to ourselves…I mean, I say to myself this may be one of those times when we can’t trust our usual choices.  That’s how it last began.  When did I speak to you?

TP:    On October 10th, to be precise.

JARRETT:  That was after this tour.

TP:    In this case, the article is going to be about you and the piano and what you’ve been doing in recent years.  Because you won the Readers Poll as Best Pianist, so the people voted for you, and we’re talking about recent activity.

JARRETT:  Well, for one thing, I’ve put all my marbles for the moment into the trio.  So my pianistic… I’m not spreading myself… Although I never was really spreading myself thin, because I’d turn off one thing when I did the other thing.  But I feel that there is much more possibility of focusing on what I do with the piano in this trio context. So that’s one of the things.

TP:    A possibility of focusing on what you do with the piano in the trio context.

JARRETT:  Right.  In other words, if a player decides what he’s doing is the whole… I mean, this is where he has to put his universe.  I’m doing more of that now than I was when I was doing many things within the year, like solo concerts or classical concerts, and then trio concerts too.  In other words, I guess I want to get out of this one context, and that has led to the trio starting… Well, when we went into the Bebop era, and we hadn’t done that.  I changed the way my left hand was behaving a lot of the time.

TP:    You changed the way it was behaving.

JARRETT:  Yes.  In order to feel more appropriate for the different material.

TP:    Did you make it more of a comping function and less of an orchestral function?

JARRETT:   I think I was using… I mean, it’s just a guess because I don’t listen to my old stuff that much.

TP:    Oh, you don’t.

JARRETT:  Not often.  It’s all old.

TP:    I asked you this before: “You seem to listen voraciously to your output,” and you said, “Yes, I listen more now than I did.”  When you got ill, you had  no choice but to listen to a lot of things you’d done because you weren’t sure you’d ever get to do it again.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.  But since we talked, I probably haven’t listened at all.  But when I started to try to play again with the trio, I think I must have told you that gave me an opportunity to rethink, for example, what my left hand’s function would be under certain circumstances.  So in a bebop situation, when I want to feel more of the era that the bop tune might have come from, there are various things that pianists might have been tending to do back in that time.  They might have been using more… Instead of Bill Evans impressionistic middle-of-the-keyboard sound in their left hand, they might have been down lower doing some 7ths or that kind of thing.  So when I would be practicing to try to remember how to play again, since I hadn’t played for so long, I could get rid of a lot of habit patterns, and that was one that I was happy to broaden.  I was broadening the palette of my left hand.  When you’re improvising, you often are only thinking of the line, and with a pianist that would be the right hand — most of the time.  I always thought like a horn player anyway, so I really don’t like thick textures in a rhythm section context.  I don’t like solos that… I mean, I’m not Brubeckian in that sense.  I don’t often feel that way when the trio is all playing together.  But there are other ways of getting a linear thing going without thickening the sauce.  I didn’t want to get in Gary’s way either, so I didn’t want to play obviously loud roots and things in my left hand.  That’s just one of the things that changed.

But then after we started to get into the bebop thing, which felt fresh to us because we hadn’t been thinking about that material for so long, it started to become… Every now and then, at a hall, there was that experience of “Oh shit, there’s nothing really that we can do with this.  I mean, we can give the audience the best we can do, but isn’t there something else we can try?”  I guess none of us had thought about it.  One day on an airplane I just said to Gary and Jack, “Sometime we might just scrap the material.”  That’s how it started.  It wasn’t quite successful the first time.  It was a very cautious thing.

It’s funny, because now when I listen to Inside Out it seems like a prelude to what we’re doing now.  It’s very weird.  I was asked to write an article for the New York Times about free improvisation, and I did, and I just kind of decided I’m temporarily not wanting them to run this.  I was writing it from the point of view of someone who already had gone much further than this recording!  So I was writing about what we were doing instead of what we had done a year ago.

TP:    Further in what sense?

JARRETT:  Further into the head space of free playing.  In other words, I would put it this way.  The uniqueness of Inside Out is that it seems like a suite of pieces.  But that leads to the feeling that there are structures, even though we didn’t have those structures ahead of time.

TP:    It certainly does feel structured.  It seems to me that it’s from the innate musicality of you all working together.  I think the term you used was “as superconductors” for each other.

JARRETT:  Yes, and because of how long we’ve worked together.  If someone were to say, “Why are you still playing with the same two guys?” I could point to this kind of thing and say, “How would anybody do this with people they didn’t trust?”  We’ve learned to trust each other in a very specific and 100% way.  The difference between what we’re doing now and what we have occasionally done since this recording… One of the concerts will be released next probably, the tapes from Tokyo, is that it’s become less and less like a suite and more like… If it’s a suite of anything, it’s a suite of impromptu less structured things.  So in a way it’s freer and in a way it’s not as easy to listen to.

TP:    It’s one long  piece, more or less?

JARRETT:  Often, yes.  Often that’s true.

TP:    When I think of people who are pioneers in playing free, one things of you, because you did this in the ’60s.  One thinks of Paul Bley, who was doing it — and Gary Peacock, for the matter.  One thinks of Cecil Taylor, although he’d say he’s proceeding off of composed structures and these are meta-compositions in a certain way.  One thinks of Sam Rivers, who did the tabula rasa concept with Dave Holland and others.  One difference is that, at least on this record, what you’re doing is quite lyric and consonant and not, for lack of a better word, as “Out” as the others, which gives a somewhat different impression, and is quite logical considering your absorption of a wide template of Western and non-Western musics.

JARRETT:  Yes.   I think it’s accessible also for that reason.  I think what’s interesting is that it will be a direct… It’s as though I’d written a two-volume saga so far, but the next volume isn’t released yet.  When Inside-Out comes out it will be the first volume of a two or three volume meditation on free music.

TP:    Do you see Whisper Not, the process of playing it, as free music, as the tabula rasa concept?  You said a year ago that that concept and aspiration of playing music was operative for that music?

JARRETT:  Maybe you can rephrase?

TP:    To my ears, Inside Out sounds very much like Part 2 of something you began in Whisper Not.  The approach the pieces sounds so unencumbered by anything but pure listening and finding the material in the moment.

JARRETT:  Oh, certainly.  It’s only in the abstract region of analysis that these things are not related.  That’s what’s so funny about the nouveau conservative alienation of free playing from their whole vocabulary.  It’s possible to look at it that way, but it’s also possible to look at it as, you know, just another step.  Or not even that.  The same thing, but without an object.  Long ago I read a book called Consciousness Without An Object.  Just the title describes what free playing can be.  But on Inside Out, as I said in the liner notes, the objects sort of appear before our eyes, and it’s mostly the piano that invokes them.  So I sort of invoke something, in the way I might invoke it in a solo concert.  And they see right away what I am hearing, or very shortly thereafter they see what they are hearing, and we all find the center of that thing.  Whereas in Tokyo and in the recent things, we just go into the ozone immediately.

TP:    May I step back with you for a second?  Can you tell me the circumstances under which free playing became appealing to you in your own development and your own career?

JARRETT:  I think it was when my youngest brother, Christopher, used to play the piano.  I was a middle teenager.  he knew nothing about the instrument.  He was probably 7 or something.  He didn’t know anything about the piano, but I had been playing for…well, quite a long time.  And what he did on it, knowing nothing, was, to me, something that someone who knew a lot about it might not be able to do.  He would just throw his body into it, and something would happen.  It wasn’t all good, but there was stuff there that no one I knew could have had access to if they already knew the piano.  So I guess that was my first experience.

TP:    When did you start incorporating that way of thinking into your approach to the piano?

JARRETT:  Oh, it took a long time.  I had a bass player who asked me once, “do you really want to play that clean all the time?”  I said, “That’s a very good question.  And no, I don’t.”  I was at Berklee, I guess or I had just left Berklee, and I had to work for a long time to get some…I wouldn’t call it dirt, but some imperfections in the technique.  Because that’s where the soul lay, actually.  Now, if you asked a wonderful classical guitarist to transcribe a B.B. King solo and play it, it wouldn’t be convincing, and it wouldn’t be convincing because there would be one thing he’d be doing too correctly.

TP:    So for you there’s been a lot of fighting against technique over time.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.

TP:    It’s as though the technique sometimes is a burden for you.

JARRETT:  That’s true.  It is a burden.  It wouldn’t just be for me.  It would be for anyone who had been trained to be a virtuoso.

TP:    But putting that into your career, trace for me how that became part of the sequence of documents that becomes the oeuvre of Keith Jarrett.

JARRETT:  Ives made a big impression on me.  I heard him supposedly playing studies for some of his pieces, and I knew the pieces on the page… I had studied classically, so I had looked at this music and I knew it pretty well.  And his supposed studies for these written pieces didn’t seem at all even related to the pieces that he wrote!  I just loved the fact that he could disregard entirely what he thought he was trying to do, and there was so much grittiness and passion in it… I think it’s the passion part that you lose if you perfect something.  If there’s too much control, you’re going to lose something.  I mean, that was the great contribution of the ’60s…even those players who couldn’t play anything.  The contribution was that this could actually happen, that drummers could drown out bass players and that bass players didn’t necessarily mid, that there wasn’t a tuxedoed Modern Jazz Quartet mentality of what the possibilities of the music are.  I mean, I love the MJQ; it’s not that (?).

TP:    But was there any mentor figure or leader figure who gave you license to do that?  Was it Charles Lloyd maybe, or did Art Blakey have anything to say about that, or other people who aren’t prominent in your discography?

JARRETT:  Well, before I met Charles and before I was even with Blakey, I remember playing with a vocalist in Boston (I used to like to accompany vocalists; it’s another art, actually), and I was playing on the strings, and I guess Henry Cowell and Ives, and seeing Paul Bley with Jimmy Giuffre….those were important things.

TP:    Those showed you ways to elicit the qualities that you were seeking to elicit.

JARRETT:  Yes, I heard something.  Put it this way.  I heard a lack of something.  That bass player’s question to me started those balls rolling to try to find out what that lack, at least in my case, might be.  What did I really hear?

TP:    I’d like to take you back in another sense, and talking about stylistic influences within jazz.  You’re so much written about, and I know this information is out there.  But in this piece, in the context of Whisper Not, which the readers would have paid attention to in their voting… I asked you this last year, and you said that between Bud Powell, George Shearing, Monk, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, all of whose music you’re performing, Jamal had a particularly visceral impact with the record that had “Poinciana.”  But were you paying attention to these people in terms of trying to assimilate vocabulary?

JARRETT:  No.  That wasn’t what I was doing, I would think.  Each story was different.  But with Ahmad, for example, it was what the trio wasn’t doing that was important to me.  Up to that point, I probably had heard Oscar Peterson and some Andre Previn with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne, and Brubeck.  Then I heard Ahmad’s White Album, and I thought: “This is swinging more than any of the things I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less.  So what’s the secret here?”  I used to practice drums to that album all the time, because there was so much space in it..

TP:    So you and Jack are both influenced by Vernell Fournier.

JARRETT:  All three of us.  In a van going to a Berkeley, California, concert… I might have told you this.

TP:    You did tell me, and Gary Peacock reaffirmed Ahmad Jamal’s impact.  You seem in several records to be delving into the compositions of Bud Powell.  Can you address his impact on you?

JARRETT:  Well, Bud is the passion master.  That’s a terrible word.  I’ve never heard of that word before, so I wish I could think of something better.  I probably told you this, too that I did a blindfold test once…

TP:    I’m going to patch some of those things in.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Probably when it came down to it, if I heard an intensity in the playing, if you think of Ives… With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces actually.  It was the way they played simply that made the swing work the way it did.  There are times when this trio with Gary and Jack gets into a place where we’re swinging, and we know that you can’t get there by willing yourself and deciding you’re going to do it.  We all have to just be familiar with what it feels like when it was going on.  But in general, there was a thing that I got from passion and then there was a thing that I got from intelligence.  So I could say that to me Paul Bley was giving me a message that you could use intelligence in a certain way, back when I heard him with Jimmy Giuffre, and that it didn’t HAVE to swing — because that band did not really swing much! [LAUGHS]

TP:    It was pretty rubato.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But still, if you put all these things together, it does come up with something.  When I listen to Bud, what I hear is this commitment in his playing that is not just fingers coming down on the keys.  It’s coming from more of his body.  So that’s one I got from Bud.

TP:    You did title one of these pieces, after the fact, “From the Body.”

JARRETT:  Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that at all.  I was thinking of the fact that we have to bring this from the body, and not just from our head.

TP:    For you, as a classically trained musician, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make mentally in playing jazz?

JARRETT:  The technique.

TP:    Talk about how the technique is different.

JARRETT:  It’s almost… Mmm. [LAUGHS] Okay, there is a technique to playing Classical music.  The way they differ is that there is no technique that is THE thing to do in jazz.  It is a personal quest to find that.  They are so opposite in that respect that you can’t even compare it.  You can’t compare the techniques.  One is a technique; one isn’t a technique.  So when you’re looking for yourself, which is what the jazz audience would hope you’re doing (I hope they would hope that), you’ve got to throw away all the other rules.  That’s what was really a bitch, because I had already been given all these rules.

TP:    Right.  At the most formative period of your life.

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I was pretty fast… I picked these things up fast, so I went inside and I digested them fast, so I had to regurgitate them over a period of time!

There’s a body language in jazz that you would be avoiding at all costs in classical playing.  And I’m surely not the best representative of that on piano at the moment.

TP:    Of body language?  It’s part of your reputation, I must say.

JARRETT:  I mean, it’s correct that I move like that.  It’s just not correct that it’s a show.  It’s the last thing I’d want to move like; you know, if I was going to decide how to move.  But because you’re dredging stuff up from nowhere most of the time, or seemingly nowhere, you don’t have any chance to be poised and have a good etiquette at the keyboard.  So the technique of getting it out as a pianist in jazz is basically… First of all, you have to not care at all about your own health.  You have to not care about anything but getting out what you hear.  If techniques can differ more than that, I can’t imagine.  In Classical, when you’re rehearsing with an orchestra, you’re not even supposed to listen to the music.

TP:    Say that again.

JARRETT:  I have often been told, “You’re listening too much.”

TP:    When you play Classical music?

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I know what they mean.  I know what the conductor has meant at times.  It’s a bad thing to do, because you get engrossed in the entire affair.

TP:    Then you want to improvise.

JARRETT:  No.  No, but you might not come in on time.  Or you might just be off somewhere in the music.

TP:    Do you practice jazz?

JARRETT:  Well, since I was sick, yes; but before that, no.

TP:    But you practiced Classical music.


TP:    How is practicing jazz different than practicing classical music?

JARRETT:  It feels kind of stupid to practice jazz.

TP:    Is practicing jazz the same as playing?  Barry Harris said that Monk said that.  He said that once he and Monk played “My Ideal” for six or seven hours,  hundreds of variations on it, and that it was the same as playing.  And I’ve heard a similar story from maybe Walter Davis, Jr. on Bud Powell.  They went to his house, Bud was playing something, then they returned much later and Bud was still playing the same thing.

JARRETT:  It is the same, in a way.  I’ve never thought about it at all, but now that you’re telling me this… The thing that makes it the same is that you have to go to the same place to get it happening.  But with Classical, you don’t have to put everything together for sure until you’re performing.  So it is the same thing.  So now, when I go to the studio, I just make sure that I have the strength to do what I might have coming up… If I start playing tunes, if I don’t like what I’m playing, I’m either going to stop or I’m going to make it better.  And then it becomes a performance — for myself.

TP:    Why is jazz for you a trio endeavor vis-a-vis… Well, I guess that’s true on Melody… Let’s erase that question.


TP:    I guess you know where I was going on that one.

JARRETT:  I don’t really know where you were going.

TP:    Where I was going was that jazz to you seems to be a collective endeavor, specifically with this trio, whereas as a soloist it seems peripheral to the totality of your knowledge that’s coming out or that you’re accessing or drawing upon at any given time.  I mean, you hadn’t done standards as a solo pianist until The Melody…

JARRETT:  No, I actually I did a Japanese video that’s released, and I’ve also done it in performance.

TP:    So please allow me to erase that question.  I asked Gary Peacock if he noticed in you or felt any change in your sound in the aftermath of your illness.

JARRETT:  I’m sure he said yes.

TP:    He did.  He said a couple of things.

JARRETT:  He probably said, “Yes, and then it changed again.”

TP:    I’ll tell you what he said.  First he said that on the trio’s first outing after you resumed playing “we consciously tried to tone down the whole volume level of all of us.  His playing was lighter.  He was paying attention to not exerting himself so much physically.  And by quieting it down and getting softer, basically, instead of playing loud or having the volume levels high, what it did was allow his fingers to move in more of a horn-like fashion,” and that your playing sounded like a horn, which is possible to a certain extent when the volume level comes down.  He said that was something which the hall in San Francisco demanded.  Then I asked, “Stylistically is his playing  more compressed or more spare in any ways?” and he said, “No, I think it’s freer.  Less self.  More just the music.”  Do you have any speculations on this, vis-a-vis the tonal personality of Keith Jarrett?

JARRETT:  Well, I probably have speculations.  But  I remember on this last tour, which was in Europe only a couple of months ago: After the first or second concert, Gary said to me, “Your playing….I don’t know what to say about this, but it sparkles in a way that I don’t remember.”  Then later he said, “That wasn’t the right word,” and I can’t remember what he said the better word was.  But I knew what he meant.  There was a kind of… Wow, I wish I could think of adjectives.

TP:    Could it be something to do with cherishing every note?

JARRETT:  Well, it could be.  But I think it’s more of the joy of playing and  not knowing how long that joy will last.  And we all know that, but we don’t know it very well.  But after my illness, I knew it really-really-really well, that it’s always a privilege to be able to play at all.

TP:    And you might have taken it for granted before.

JARRETT:  Well, we all do.  Especially if you’ve played for 50 years!  53 out of 56.  I would say — although this isn’t really on anything that’s out there yet — that my playing has changed even since the time we did Inside Out.

TP:    From my perspective in listening to Whisper Not, it sounded very idiomatic and free as idiomatic music.  The way you put it a year ago was that you were playing more on the time.  I have an affinity for bebop, and it impressed me tremendously, as much as anything I’ve heard from you.  I feel similarly about Inside Out.  I’ve been personally moved by both records.  The words that occurred to me were “compressed,” “honed-in,” or… Well, I don’t know what the words are either.

JARRETT:  There’s a quality that I would call letting-go involved here, too.  When you play a phrase, you might want to… If I studied my own physical moves on a keyboard, I’d probably be making much different ones now if I were to compare them to before I got sick.  Then after I got more well, which still was happening even… This last tour was the first regular-sized tour I think we’ve done, meaning like eight concerts instead of five or three.  I would guess  that I am doing a lot of things differently that I don’t know I’m doing, and the result is that there’s a flow and a… I’m not trying so hard to… Yeah, there’s something about trying in here, too, and I don’t know what it is.

If I see a tennis player or a baseball player and see the way swing… You  know how some of the guys who can’t hit very far look like they’re putting immense energy into their swing, and some guys who do hit well look like they’re not doing that much.  I am still jumping around much more than my doctors would ever recommend.  In fact, probably more.  But where the energy goes is different than before.  So that’s one answer.  I just don’t know how to describe it.

TP:    Do you feel more connected to the tradition and lineage of jazz than you used to?  Or was there a hiatus when you put it aside and maybe came back to it more in dealing with bebop?

JARRETT:  I think a hiatus maybe, yeah.  When I was forced to try to reestablish my playing at home, I was then forced to practice playing tunes, and I never was doing that before.  Since I was alone, I had to make it sound right to myself.  So some of the things I changed because of that.  In other words, the trio wasn’t here every day, so I still had to feel good about what I was doing.  That allowed me to get more connected again to the history of the music and the performance practices of the past that I had already been playing long ago, like stride or… Well, I can’t really do that because my hands are too small, but I do something similar.

TP:    You did it just fine on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.”

JARRETT:  That’s why that tune was done that way, because I had actually been practicing at home, and when I practiced that at home, that’s how I felt it should sound — the way it starts.  Then we go into a more modern way of playing it.  But at Montreux on this last tour… You asked me before what do we do in concert now; do we do it free or is it a mixture?  I can just give you this example.  Because we never know what it’s going to be.  Most of this tour was almost all tunes, and there was not that much so-called free stuff.  Then there was Montreux, when we started playing tunes, noticed that the sound and the piano was a certain way, and it was okay, but then I thought “I’m going to something else,” and we started to play “Ain’t Misbehaving” or something like that in that same stride manner, and then we played three tunes in a row in that style.  Now, this wasn’t the usual fooling around at the soundcheck thing where we often just kid around with that, but it got serious, and we were really playing that way.  After that, we played “Straight No Chaser” and took that  out and we were playing very free off the blues completely.  Then we played more ballads and tunes.  So it was like everything! [LAUGHS]

TP:    So it’s almost as though you’re accessing the full jazz tradition in an idiomatic way as you used to do with classical music.

JARRETT:  Possibly.  I know what you mean.

TP:    A broader question.  Has the experience of the last couple of years, of practicing and relearning, given you a different appreciation as a form unto itself?

JARRETT:  No, I don’t think so.

TP:    Can you address your feeling of what jazz is as a cultural inheritance for us, as a people?

JARRETT:  My writer’s self comes up when you ask me a question like that.  The writer is saying, “Now, you don’t dare answer this with a casual answer.”

TP:    It doesn’t sound to me like you answer anything that casually.

JARRETT:  But when I write I get even worse.  But I don’t know.  All I know is we need it.

TP:    Why do we need it?

JARRETT:  Because I think it may be the only art form at this point in time that asks the player…not the conductor, not any detached entities from the actual playing…that asks the player to find  out who he is and then decide if it’s good enough to speak from that self, and then that player has to live with who he said he was until the next time he plays.  It’s an incredibly rigorous and merciless thing, unless you’re doused with some drugs or something.  And strangely enough, that rigorous thing is the representation in musical form of freedom.  So it is a metaphor for important things.

In life, if you think you’re in control, you usually aren’t.  You’re usually just thinking you are.  If you think you don’t have any control, you usually relinquish all control and let everything happen and therefore have no effect.  To play jazz and make something valuable out of it, takes such a perfect balance of those two things — mastery and the relinquishing of control.

TP:    Many of your generation, yourself included, served consequential apprenticeships with masters.  The oral tradition held.  For you, perhaps that was operative in your brief time with Art Blakey, or maybe not.  You could tell me if it was that way for you with Charles Lloyd.  Were there any other figures like that for you?

JARRETT:  Paul was like younger than I was!

TP:    Well, how about Art Blakey.  A lot of people who passed through the Jazz Messengers say that once a Jazz Messenger, always a Jazz Messenger.  Did he have an effect on the way you think about music or life or…

JARRETT:  Not really.  But he was a sweet guy.  I loved working with him.  But no, I wouldn’t say…

TP:    How about the years with Charles Lloyd?

JARRETT:  Well, Charles gave me carte blanche to do whatever I felt to do.  At the time he wasn’t paying me enough for anybody to do what I was doing, but I didn’t care — I was a young guy.  But that was an important thing, to have no restrictions on what I did.  Very few players get in a situation like that,  that early, and I think it was a fortunate combination for me.

TP:    A combination of the zeitgeist and the personalities in the band.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Jack had just joined, and that’s been a long relationship.  Philosophically, Charles was an astute… This sounds bad, but he was an astute businessman, so he kind of like…if you didn’t have to do it and his band was doing it for him, he probably would let it happen! [LAUGHS]

TP:    When I spoke with you last year, I asked you to pinpoint the qualities in Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock that make you so suited, and you addressed the question by telling me that I should interview them and get their perspective. I asked Peacock, who said that it was ineffable, but that you all share a set of common experiences — Jamal, Miles Davis, etc.  I don’t know if I’m going to get to speak with Jack or not.  Is this a question you can address for me now?

JARRETT:  Well, I had an answer for this years ago, but I’m not as lucid as I was.

TP:    Good.  Then we can create a new one.

JARRETT:  But I’m not as lucid as I was a couple of years ago.  Well, when I think about us as a unit and then as separate personalities, to me it’s as though if we didn’t play together, we would have been making a big mistake.  Each of us would have made a mistake.  Whatever that mistake would be, I don’t know.  But not having played together would have been a mistake.  I don’t sit around and think cosmic things all the time.  But I think we were intended to be playing together.

Jack is an inclusionist.  He is the kind of guy who would not want to say anything bad about another player — or anything.  He would want to give credit to everybody.  Gary is a thinker and a very specific… I had a word for this, but I don’t know what it is any more.  Gary lives in his head a lot.  Jack is a heart guy.  And I am a skeptic. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re the Skeptic, Peacock is the Thinker, DeJohnette is the Heart, the Passion.

JARRETT:  I am skeptical even as far as being skeptical of my own thinking, yes.

TP:    How do you put that aside when you play?

JARRETT:  See, that’s wrong with doing this.  I’m not sure these words are accurate for what I’m thinking.  I’m not thinking of the right adjectives or the right…

TP:    Is the quality of thought different from when you play than when you talk?

JARRETT:  No.  In some funny way we are all so confident… I don’t know what to say about that.  You know how you repealed that one question?   I can’t answer this.  It’s too hard.  It’s like we’re a family, and I can’t come up with the right…

What I’m skeptical about is all belief systems.  Gary has found one for him.  He’s a Zen guy.  And he would say it’s not a belief system.  Jack has found things he believes to help him, the way Gary found something he believes helps him.  And I actually have seen that Zen has helped Gary a lot anyway.  So it’s not a question of whether it’s effective or not.  It’s just that I believe that because there is a practice involved, it is a system.  That’s maybe why I chose the word “skeptic.”  What I mean by “skeptical” in this case is I never want to close a door on something I didn’t include  because my feeling is that it’s not part of my practice or my belief system.  So I am skeptical of all of those, including my own when they come up.

TP:    You have in the past had certainly strongly held belief systems, yes?  Gurdjieff.

JARRETT:  But the funny thing is that if anyone ever looks deeply enough into Gurdjieff, the one thing he was saying is that it isn’t a system.  It’s just that what we’ve gotten, just like with a lot of things… The flak you get back from it is not the real thing.  The rep it has is not what it is.

TP:    In the process of the trio, you said that you invoke and Gary and Keith pick up, and then  it becomes an equilateral triologue.

JARRETT:  In this one recording.

TP:    On the one hand, your sound and predispositions define what the trio does.  On the other hand, there is this constant three-way interplay going on all the time.  To what extent are you the leader and how does that operate?  I know it’s naive question…

JARRETT:  No, that question is not naive.  It would be naive to not have that question! [LAUGHS] I hope that I am the leader in the way I would guess a good leader would be.  I consider Miles to have been an incredible bandleader, in the sense that he never told anybody what to play, but he gave them the feeling that they could find it out for themselves, and when they did, he didn’t say a word to them except, “Let’s play it.”

I am like a guide.  I am a programmatic guide.  I think if I weren’t there, you’d hear some great music, but it might not connect the way it does.  I mean, if I put somebody in my place, a great player… I have instincts about form, even over large periods of time…not architectural form, but what you sense on Inside Out.  It’s kind of a miniature version of what I’m talking about.  I think without my little pushes and pulls, it just wouldn’t cohere.

I can give you a great example.  In Montreux two years ago, that was the first place where we tried to play no tunes.  That was the same tour as this London release, the Inside Out record, and we hadn’t tried it before, and whenever I got soft, so did Jack and Gary.  When I sounded like I was finishing, they went down.  So it was threatening to stop.  The music would keep threatening to be over unless I did something.  So I had to talk to them about it in  London, and I said, “Just remember that you’re not obliged to follow anything.  None of us have to follow each other anywhere.”  That’s when it started to open up more, and that’s one of the reasons we chose this to release rather than Montreux.  So I am leading the band without trying to.

TP:    How much are you feeding off of them in the in-the-momentness of the thing?

JARRETT:  More now than… Do you mean in the free playing?

TP:    I mean in any playing.

JARRETT:  Well, I hope I’m feeding off of them as much as I can!

TP:    It’s another naive question, but I was curious what you’d say.

JARRETT:  Obviously, if I had to have a substitute player for either of them, I would be cancelling the concert.  So I guess I would prefer to be playing with them.

TP:    Jack does magical things.  The sounds he gets out of that drumset… It’s so quick.

JARRETT:  Oh, definitely.  Well, when you hear the Tokyo tapes, we all sound like we disappeared.  But me less than them, because unfortunately it’s pretty hard to make the piano elastic.  It keeps popping back into being a lever system.  But Jack becomes not the “Jack deJohnette, drummer” that everybody knows.  Gary has done a lot of different things, so… But I have the feeling that our identities become erased in the quality of energy we’re working with.  In our situation, though, I still think that because my instrument is the chordal one, if there are any guidelines… I mean, if there’s any moment when there’s a slump coming up or we feel something is not there, the only person who can suggest tonality, or a lack of it, or direction, or motion, or dynamics in any quick and coherent way that could be grasped by the other two is the piano.

TP:    On Inside Out how did you decide on how you sequenced the document?

JARRETT:  It’s in sequence, except that the fadeout then leads to the end of the next night’s set.  The encore was one of the few encores we did.  There wasn’t any more room on the CD.

TP:    On “Riot” are you fading into something or coming out of something?

JARRETT:  We’re fading in on this thing that was already about 25 minutes long.  That was just crazy.

TP:    Were the concerts on the 26th and 28th completely different in pacing, content, etc.?

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the first two tracks are absolutely the way it went down the first night.  So that’s the first set, I think.

TP:    The third piece?

JARRETT:  I think that’s the beginning of the second set the same night.  “Riot” was the second night.

TP:    On Saturday I took my first trip to Manhattan since the bombing.  The only subway line I can now use goes through the Chambers Street station which abutted the World Trade Center.  The first track was on my headphones as I was going through this now ghost station, and it had a quality that made me very happy I was listening to it at that particular moment.  It’s a spooky thing; everyone was dropping their New York attitude and peering out the windows into the station as they’re going through.

JARRETT:  It’s actually a funny album title to be coming out at this exact moment.  Everything has sort of turned that way, hasn’t it.

I don’t think I can do justice to covering these guys’ personalities!  We’ve been together for so long.  I don’t know if I even think of them as…  I had this cutesy way of describing them.  It was in the Downbeat article.  Whatever I said about it then, I guess I must have thought about it ahead of time, and was more correct, at least in a semi-humorous kind of way.  But these are deep players.  Personality is what we’re trying to get away from when we play.  And we’re of course limited by being who we are, but that’s a tough one.  they’re just too beautiful to use an adjective for them.

TP:    There must be some innate characteristic of that personality, because it’s obviously you and it’s obviously Gary Peacock and it’s obviously Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the hardest to describe for any of us would be ourselves.  So I could say that Gary tends to be on the scientific, he-doesn’t-like-belief-systems side of things, which is good for him, and it works for him, and I need that.  Jack is in some ways the… In Gurdjieff there was a thing about Third Force.  There was a positive, negative and harmonizing force.  In some ways, Jack is a harmonizing force, and a…I don’t know what to… An inclusionary… He’s inclusionary.  But nothing is great on its  own.  No one word makes that person as great as I feel they are.  You know what I mean?

But it’s a challenging thing for me to think of.  Because when we play together, there’s an alchemy going on, and that alchemy comes from — to some extent, of course — the chemical and psychological natures of all three of us..  As you said, we are different people.  But it’s that chemical combination that I see more than I see our separateness.  So when I think of us as separate people, yeah, I know what my tendencies are in conversation, and what Gary’s are and what Jack’s are.  If Gary and I are having an intense debate about whether there’s one Truth or many, Jack might be the guy who says, “Okay, let’s go have some coffee somewhere.”  But the thing is that it all drops away when we play.  But on the other hand, those intense conversations don’t happen any more.  We’ve been together for so long and we’ve all learned so much during that time, that we’re now not who we were back at the other Downbeat article.  We’ve grown since then.  When Gary and I talk now, we get to some incredibly beautiful, deep places, and we understand each other’s language.  Sometimes it takes 18 years to understand somebody’s language.

TP:    It can take a lifetime.

JARRETT:  Yeah, and you keep interpreting it wrong.  Gary used to interpret several words wrong, and I think it’s because of his upbringing and religion; he doesn’t have a good feeling about the word “God” or anything like that.  Jack doesn’t mind those words.  I kind of do.  So it’s a nice combination where it all ends up being neutral, and it’s time to play…

TP:    I suppose that process is a metaphor for what happens in the musical language as well over 18 years — the conversation and the dialogue and the understanding evolve to that kind of collective simplicity.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  And trust.

TP:    You cut through a lot of the verbosity or whatever, not that the trio was verbose… That’s an interesting coda you’re giving me.

JARRETT:  I’m trying to.  Because I don’t think that one-word thing is really cool at all.

TP:    Oh, I wasn’t asking for one word at all.

JARRETT:  That was my choice.  I was trying to think of the words I had thought of before.  We’ve been watching each other grow all that time.  So it’s sort of like we’re friends and we’ve been together this long, but it’s also like we were watching kids grow up — and we’re one of the kids.  When we play, we’re morphing into more and more of what we could have been before, but we didn’t know it yet.

TP:    How much more in this year and the early part of next year is the trio scheduled to tour?

JARRETT:  We have five concerts in the States, and that’s it for the rest of this year, and nothing planned for 2002.  I have an ongoing physical monitoring system, and I have to take time off to make sure everything is…

TP:    Can you comment a bit on your physical well-being these days?

JARRETT:  Well, except for these disk problems, which I’ve had for years, which is really on my case, and I’m trying to avoid surgery…

TP:    Was that exacerbated by the CFS?

JARRETT:  No.  That was exacerbated by music.  Better not to put this in the article in case I want to get insurance.  But I am still on the medications for the bacterial parasite that I was being treated for…

TP:    Are those allopathic or homeopathic.

JARRETT:  They’re major medical, like antibiotics and stuff..

TP:    So you’re on a constant diet of antibiotics and stuff.

JARRETT:  All I can tell you is that I believe if I hadn’t gone on this protocol, you wouldn’t have heard any more from me.


JARRETT:  Are you aware of the anagram of “Riot”?  It’s easy but I bet no one is going to think of it.  “Trio.” [LAUGHS] How do you like that?  It’s one of those that’s just too simple.

TP:    Can you tell me what your daily regimen is?

JARRETT:  Besides the 79 charcoal pills?  Now, sometimes because of my shoulder and my back, I have to not have this regimen at all.  But here’s the day.  I get up (I won’t tell you what time, because that’s not fair).  I have breakfast, and then I almost every day take a very brisk treadmill or outdoor walk, depending on the weather, for 2-1/2 miles or so.  Then I do some stretches and exercises for my upper body, which I really can’t… I usually have  to see the chiropractor every day, and I usually practice in the evenings, 45 minutes to whatever amount of time.

TP:    What have you been working on lately?

JARRETT:  Just moving my fingers.  I’ve been just playing tunes in the studio.  Sometimes the Goldberg Variations.  That’s it.  I’m going to get my studio worked on, and I’ll try to get that practicing in before it all goes down.

So it’s a very boring day.  Then I always read at night.  That’s a must.  What am I reading now?  If you saw the house, there are so many books around that people often ask, “Did you read all of these?”  And I have to say, “Not all of them, but more than you think.”  I got involved with a writer named Gene Wolfe, and I am surprised about this guy.  I’m trying to give him as much space and as much time as possible.  If you saw the book in a bookstore… If you were me, you would never buy a book with a cover like these.  They look like these…what do you call them…these Quest novels, like Ursula Leguin type… But the guy is into some stuff that I feel is very good for the mind, and I actually recommend him, but you have to meet him halfway.  So let him do what he’s doing and be patient.  But I think anybody who’s read good writing eventually realizes how great this guy’s writing is.

TP:    Have you tended over the years to be more involved in fiction or non-fiction or both?

JARRETT:  Both.  If I had to say which I’ve read more of, I’d say fiction.

TP:    Any favorite writers?

JARRETT:  A lot of them.

TP:    Tell me a couple.

JARRETT:  Robert Musil.  Calvino.

TP:    A true skeptic, Robert Musil was.

JARRETT:  Yes.  He was also interested in Sufism, which I didn’t realize until I read his book twice.  I read Antonio Demassio, who writes about the brain and how we perceive things  That’s a mindblower in itself.  That’s neuroscience, not fiction.  But one of the books is titled “The Feeling Of What Happens.”

I have two kids.  One of them is 30 already.


* * *

Keith Jarrett (Sept. 9, 2008):

TP:   How does it feel to be inducted into Downbeat’s Hall of Fame?

KJ:   I was getting Downbeat when I was a teenager, and I’m aware of the magazine’s deep roots and history, and of the people who are there. So yes, it’s meaningful, as far as people thinking my work is important. But if I think of what fame means right now, it’s not so meaningful! Years ago, in Vienna, when I was about to do a solo concert, the press was interested in talking to me and I did an interview with Der Spiegel. One of their first questions was, “What is it like to be a star?” I said, “Man, that is out of somebody else’s book, not mine.” Then also, I remember, at the only class reunion I ever went to, the question was, “So, are you successful?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “So are you making a lot of money?” So these words like “fame” and “star” have relative meaning. If you were asking, “What’s it like to get a Grammy?”, I’d think, “No.” It would be the beginning of the descent from the mountain.

TP:    In his biography of you, Ian Carr places the beginnings of your obsession with jazz to your late adolescence in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when your parents divorced, and you began doing little gigs in town.

KJ:   When I was around 14, which is when my parents were having trouble, I had a remarkably good classical teacher, but once a week I had to take a little time off from the end of the school day and to drive to Philadelphia for the lesson. She was a firm believer in my not spreading the peanut butter thin. In other words, she didn’t like that I was interested in anything else but the Debussy or the Beethoven that I was studying with her. Strangely, in about a week-and-a-half in Philadelphia, I’ll be playing again in what turns out to be where she used to live, and it will be jazz.

Allentown was a cultural vacuum. There was one record store, I think, called Speedy’s Record Shop. As a kid, I had an allowance maybe, but we didn’t have much money. Occasionally, I would play classical concerts for the local women’s club, and I’d save as much as I could to look for new things that I knew nothing about. Every now and then my brother and I would try to sneak records out of the stores, because we couldn’t afford them. It’s not easy to steal a record! We got caught once, which wasn’t fun. Of course, the selection for pianists was between Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn, and also Errol Garner and Brubeck. One pivotal moment came when I found the Ahmad Jamal white album. I didn’t know who Ahmad was, but it looked interesting. Years after the trio was already a working band, Gary, Jack and I started talking about the album, and found we’d all had the same experience with it. I was playing drums at the time, and I got my drumming together through emulating Vernell Fournier’s great brush playing in the sparse spaces of Ahmad’s music. It was my introduction to actual jazz versus popular jazz.

After high school, when I was in Boston, trying to go to Berklee, I got a job with a vocalist in the upstairs lounge of the Jazz Workshop. Herb Pomeroy, who was my big band instructor, was playing downstairs, and one night when Ray Santisi, who was one of my piano teachers, hadn’t shown up, Herb asked me if I wanted to play. Pete LaRoca was playing drums, He was my favorite drummer at the time, and this was just too much to conceive of. If Ray hadn’t shown up, I would never have gone back upstairs. It was the most beautiful way to go through the gate, to the nirvana place that one would want to be.  That was my first world-class connection as far as actually playing jazz.

TP:   By then, you were probably up on what Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner were doing…

KJ:   No, I wasn’t. In the beginning, I was pretty conservative. I hadn’t heard Coltrane yet—or at least I hadn’t liked Coltrane yet. People would say, “You must be listening to Bill a lot.” “Bill who?” “Bill Evans.” I had heard him, but wasn’t feeling like I was in that direction. Actually, I’d heard Bill when I came through Boston on a summer bus tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. I won’t make any derogatory statements about that experience, except that it was, in all ways, terrible—except that some of the people were nice. They realized that I was talented. They also respected that I was resisting the urge to do something inappropriate for the musical format, restraining myself from being a crazy person in this situation. That made it worthwhile to do those things for a certain amount of time. I think it’s a mistake for people always to be able do what they want. I think my sons see my career as always having my way. But that’s because they were born after all this other stuff.

TP:   Early on, did you know that music would be your life?

KJ:   Yes. I had a very normal childhood, because that’s the way I wanted it most of the time, and when I did classical lessons, since I wanted to go out and play sports with my friends, I’d turn forward the timer on the kitchen stove, as my grandmother wasn’t paying much attention. But when my mother or father would discover I’d done 2 or 2½ hours instead of the mandatory three, they’d say, “Then we’ll have to sell the piano.” For all I knew, they were serious—my father was a real estate man and probably had enough, but he had five kids, and if the piano wasn’t being used… That stopped me in my tracks. I would think, “No, that’s not an option.” When I was 8, I got my first grand piano, after actually paying for it myself from concerts in Allentown. I slept under it in order to be able to play it immediately upon waking up.

Q: You seem to have been quite focused and mature about how to proceed—resisting the temptation to rebel when playing with Fred Waring, rejecting an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, waiting a couple of years before you matriculated at Berklee.

KJ:  I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I had really good instincts about who I was. I couldn’t have explained why I said no to Nadia—I was looking to study with her! To me, I was not negating an education. But I didn’t want to learn the names of things. I wanted to be involved in a process that was pure, and I didn’t want to get analytical about that process, or have anyone tell me that something wasn’t possible because it wasn’t musical. My ears were going to guide me. I don’t fit that well into any particular category. Whatever musical story I tell is not all jazz; at times, it’s something uncategorizable. If someone started to tell me, ‘Okay, this sound goes with this sound,’ I might believe it, and I might never have experimented putting different sounds next to each other.

When I heard Brubeck’s quartet live the first time, I remember thinking, almost verbatim, “There’s more than this.” There’s always more, and if you get it all down, maybe there isn’t any more. If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure. Inclusion has been what it’s about for me.

TP:   You’ve said that saxophone players influenced you, not pianists.

KJ:   Let’s broaden the statement to include horn players. There’s a fluidity in an instrument that uses air. I’ve always wanted to get as close as possible to subtracting the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair. Now, that may no longer be true. Every little period of time I go through, I reinvent what I do, and will let the piano be a piano. You can see that in my recent solo things.

Early on, my favorite bands were usually pianoless—for instance, the Gerry Mulligan small big band. Strangely enough, I would call Monk’s bands often pianoless—he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more orchestral. Even his solos were not pianistic, because he wasn’t a virtuosic player; he sort of played like a composer. For Ornette, no piano. People whose ears were open always attracted me, and I liked what Paul Bley was doing with the piano, especially when it was a funky instrument. When I heard him on a Bosendorfer on something that was recorded maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I would never have recognized him.

Pianists in jazz do not work on touch. I was lucky that I started with classical hearing. I was also lucky—or smart—to play Mozart around the time that the trio was playing ballads, because Mozart demands a certain refinement of touch that I had not developed until I started to play Mozart. Only since then has my ballad playing been closer to what I hear.

TP:   Can you talk about your conception of the trio with Haden and Motian vis-a-vis the present group?

KJ:   The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that. We were in the midst of that revolution period. and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways. Free playing wasn’t the same as free players thought it was. Most free players couldn’t play time. Most might not even be able to play their own instruments, but they could be extremely influential because they did things that no one was willing to try. If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that. At the Village Vanguard one night, Max Gordon said to me, “Keith, you know, you could get a lot more people here. You guys can really swing; you should do that.” I said, “Max, it’s going to take a while, but the people will come, because we’re doing exactly what we know we should be doing.” Now, how did I know that? I was a young upstart talking to an old club-owner who knew what he was talking about. But my instincts were good. Words come out of your mouth and you don’t remember, “Gee, I’m not sure when I’m going to eat my next meal.”

TP:   That’s how it was during the ‘60s, wasn’t it.

KJ:   That’s right. We were trying to build a tradition. I would say I wanted to be free of everyone’s bullshit, and that included my own. I was never trying to be a stylist. So I wasn’t going to be sparing. I was going to be merciless on myself. If I could write something that could find its way to a different place than everything else, and it was still something I felt very close to, then that would be successful.

Now, how does that pertain to the present trio in 2008? I would say we’re trying to preserve those precious values. As opposed to the ‘60s, now it’s like, if we don’t do it, who’s doing it? If I think of one thing that it is, it’s how Miles attacked the beat on his trumpet. When we went into the studio to do our so-called Miles tribute, Bye Bye Blackbird, a couple of weeks after he died, I talked to Jack and Gary, and I said, ‘We’re not doing a tribute album. Maybe we’re going to play some material that Miles played. But my idea is to play as though I were Miles, not play like a pianist who would play Miles.” If you extrapolate from that to what we do when we play standard material, we’re trying to find this place that we don’t hear many people coming from. We don’t hear people swinging that often, if I can speak for Gary (and maybe Jack, too). What young players know about the music is so stilted somehow. They do their best, and they might be great players, but there’s a lot of wasted energy going on.

TP:   In light of that remark, it’s interesting that so many younger players mention both your American and European quartets as extremely influential. Do you have any speculations on the impact of those explorations on the way jazz sounds today?

KJ:   I don’t. But possibly one reason why I don’t sense it is because it was so personal. One of the reasons why the American quartet was so interesting is because none of us knew what the hell we really were doing. With both quartets, I took into account everything about these guys while writing the pieces. As an example, I did this for Jan Garbarek with strings, on Arbor Zena and Luminescence, where I got inside what I thought was Jan’s way of playing. When he came over to rehearse for Luminescence and look at the sketch, I played it on the piano and did his part. He asked, “Do I play like this pattern?” I said, “Yeah, you do it all the time.” He said, “I had no idea.” There was something like a minor second, and then a third down, and then a second, and then another third, so it was completely out of a key. I heard him do that many times. Another example is that Dewey Redman did not like to play on chords.

TP:   Now, you went from working incessantly with two different groups, after always having worked in groups beforehand, to making solo concerts the focus of your activity. How did the idea of creating form from a tabula rasa begin to gestate for you?

KJ:   I was just curious about the process. So far as I know, no one was investigating it. It happened by accident. After Facing You,  I came on stage after Friedrich Gulda at a festival in Heidelberg. I started playing a song, which I don’t remember, then I attached that, without stopping, to another song. Then there was some kind of transitional material, and it ended up being whatever amount of minutes of that. That led to me to wonder whether those transitions themselves were something, which led me to investigate that. It’s such a different universe. I wasn’t really even ready for this discovery, because only recently did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances! So whatever amount of years I spent doing it, it was as an inferior player to who I am now when I play now.

TP:   By “recently” you mean what?

KJ:   Five or six or seven years ago.

TP:   So not until after you had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

KJ:   Correct. And I worked my ass off in a new way. I realized jazz pianists don’t do their left hand. It gets to be just like an appendage. When they do solo albums, typically what you hear is, “Where’s the bass? I’m waiting for the rhythm section.”

I have to credit the disease with giving me a tremendous amount of creative information—it was a great opportunity to sum up my work. I had no idea if I’d ever play again, so all I had to do was think about what happened to me. When I’d listen to my solo stuff, I’d think, “What the fuck am I doing? There’s too many notes here. If I did this again, no, I’d never play this, I’d never play that.” Over that period of time, I realized that, if I ever returned to playing solo, I’d never do it that way. When I started to practice and was able to play at all, I found myself stopping, because I’d be playing something I didn’t really hear in my head. I didn’t like it any more.

TP:   You went through a similar crisis during the ‘80s, when you made Spirits, and transitioned from one set of habits into a new realm of investigation.

KJ:   That’s correct. Although when you’re sitting at the same 88-key instrument and you’ve got the same two hands to undo the architecture you’ve built up over two decades of doing this thing you thought you understood, it’s a freaky experience to go through. However, the freakiness only lasts a second, and then you realize, “if I have the energy to do it ever again, I at least know where to start.”

TP:   You’ve remarked that you discovered Gurdjieff while you were on the road with Charles Lloyd, and later became involved in Sufism. Did the solo playing have anything to do with constructing some kind of aesthetic philosophy from those investigations?

KJ:   All through my entire history, there’s a mixture of philosophy, spirituality, and just plain musical desire—desire for the instrument. I never took drugs, for example. I didn’t need that. I would see people…I would roll cigarettes for them. I was with the Animals in London. Jimi Hendrix was interested in doing a project, and I was working on ideas of how to work with him. I wanted to do a project with Janis Joplin. There was a rough mix of ingredients in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we really don’t  have now. We might call this the “information age,” but I consider that complete bullshit. What IS the information? Of what value is it if it doesn’t attach itself to something? In the future, I can see that there might be an audience that literally thinks all music is equal, and there’s no such thing as good or bad. So I’m happy to be as old as I am, and I’m happy particularly to get this award while I’m alive, because in that sense it does mean something. Somebody is saying that something is better than something else, and that’s a relief.

TP:   What are your criteria for documentation? It’s different than the actual process of music-making.

KJ:   It’s not all that different, in my life. At this point, I record all solo concerts, and if it’s good enough I might send it to Manfred Eicher—although on a different day of the week, listening to the same music, I might have an absolutely different take on it. I don’t really like to do that. When you’re aware you’re recording, it’s completely different than when you’re not being documented. It changes both the trio and solo music. It’s possible to forget it for a while, but unfortunately, coughs mean something if they happen when you’re recording. They might mean you can’t use this track, and you know that you’ve just played this the best that you’ll ever play it. There’s no second takes.

In 2006 I played a solo concert at La Fenice, which is the opera house in Venice that was totally destroyed by fire, and wasn’t rebuilt for several decades. That concert might never come out, but at the moment it’s at the top of the list. Since 2006, it’s been up there a couple of times, but then I decided, “No, there’s something newer that’s more interesting.” For whatever reason, it did not manage to be the right thing. I am not using that as the Bush version of “the right thing,” that I know what’s right. Just the instincts weren’t there for this to come out, because other things were more timely.

TP:   Although you are always the “decider.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   Why don’t you do studio recordings, by the way?

KJ:   Well (a) I hate studios, and (b) more of the time I feel that what I do is for a public that’s actually in the space. Manfred and I talked about me doing another solo thing in the studio, and I’m open to it, but in general, that vibe is wrong for me. There’s too many wires around. Too many lightstands, too much metal around. The control room and the speakers are usually worse than the ones I have in my house. I don’t know if I could engage that.

TP:   Is there something about performing for an audience that facilitates your focus?

KJ:   No. It’s actually the opposite. It’s harder to be focused. However, given that, I have the valid feeling that there are people there who are ready for whatever happens. That facilitates something, but I can’t call it focus. Focus is easier alone probably.

TP:   Do you have inklings to return to performing classical music?

KJ:   Possibly. I don’t really know. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of recording the Goldberg Variations again, for one example. But I haven’t taken myself seriously enough to undertake it. That would be done in, oh, a hall like the Salle Pleyel, with no audience.

TP:   You’ve been quoted that it’s insane to do both jazz and classical music.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   What in your personality or character allows you to do it?

KJ:   It’s insanity.

TP:   You certainly don’t sound insane.

KJ:   No, that’s one of the great things about insanity! The thing is, you can do it, but you have to do it with scrupulous concern for both your mental focus and the needs of the music you’re about to do. When I was working on Mozart’s concertos before I got sick, I was doing as little of anything that was not Mozart as I could. Many people wouldn’t have that possibility, and if they don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend it. Like, back-to-back, “Okay, this is the classical stuff, then I’ll do improvisation after.” In that sense, even I am not that insane. [LAUGHS] That would be total insanity. Unless you want to strip them both of their innate qualities.

I did a bunch of harpsichord recordings, and you cannot seriously conceive of playing piano when you’re working with the harpsichord. Now, a few days after you’ve finished a harpsichord project, you might want to play a solo piano concert because you’re curious what will come out. The fact that it’s new, that it feels somehow different again, are positives. But I would have to set the stuff up with immense care to be able to do it without going more insane.

TP:   Because of the retrospective nature of this piece, I have to ask about your experience with Miles Davis. It does seem that your time with Miles was crucial.

KJ:   I believe I can call it camaraderie. From the moment I started to play with him, we had an understanding that it was temporary, that I had this other direction that had nothing to do with electronic keyboards, and that I wasn’t at all into that. Around 1967, Miles brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, who is not alive any more, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past the table, and he’d say, “When are you going to play with my band?” I’d say, “Well, I have a lot of work coming up, but I really appreciate that you like the music,” blah-blah-blah. Once I came off the stage from set with Paul and Charlie, and he said, “Keith! You play the wrong instrument.” What could I say? “I know!” So my comments about horns and voice and so on, he was hearing that already, even though we were playing this strange music. A couple of times, he asked me how I could play from no music. I said, “I don’t know. I just do it.”

Once, after we’d spoken, I heard the band with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony at the Village Gate, and Miles played a beautiful short solo—he played all short solos—and then the rest of the band played long solos. He walked off the stage, went to the bar, had some water, stood there for a long time, and then finally went back on stage and played a tune, and then went out. I heard that happen each tune, and I thought, “You know, I’d like to help out somehow, but I’m not sure what that means yet.” When I joined him, the band started turning electric, and I wasn’t sure what my role could possibly be. He asked me which instrument I wanted to play, and I said, “You know, Miles, I hate them equally, so I want both.” “Okay.”

When I say “camaraderie,” I mean that I was meant to be a part of this, and I could tell Miles felt that. What he really needed at the time I joined him was someone on keyboard who could be both challenging and funky, and I think that’s what I contributed. Once the band with Jack and I and Mtume started to play, Miles was staying on the stage the entire time, and going into his crouch—obviously, I made him happy for a while, He didn’t have any question about who should be in that band then.

TP:   Back to your position on the jazz timeline, it’s hard to find anyone under 50 who doesn’t mention you and your fellow sons of Miles as key to the way they think about things. How do you see it?

KJ:   I think they’re right. [LAUGHS] But I think many of us got waylaid. Keyboard players got enamored of electric instruments, and never could go back, and they never have been able to go back since. These are artistic decisions, and you can’t make them lightly. It’s like a painter throwing away their paint, saying, “Well, I want to get these,” but they’re all monotone, and then, “Well, no, I want my old paints back.” Sorry. They went out in the garbage.

My generation’s impact should have been greater, because there were a lot more great players. But Fusion somehow ate them up. I don’t include Miles exactly in that, because Miles got away with being able to play his stuff. I mean, he always wanted to do something different, something new, and if that’s your M.O., it won’t always be correct. Actually, a Japanese producer friend of mine asked Miles if he would sit in with the trio—as Jack and Gary and I all had played with him already—at the Antibes Festival for one or two tunes. I was hoping he’d say, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” I was sure he probably wouldn’t. But I think his answer is very important. He said (of course, through this third party), “No, I already played with Keith.” I wrote him a note back through the same guy, saying, “You played with me, but not on my instrument.”

TP:   Did he respond?

KJ:   No. But he knew what I was talking about.

TP:   It seems like your M.O., rather than that straight line, is more of a circle.

KJ:   Could be.

TP:   Circling back and picking up on things you’d done before in a different context.

KJ:   Yes. I think if I were a different kind of artist, I’d use found objects. I wouldn’t go looking for new technology. I remember seeing Herbie backstage somewhere when he’d just started getting seriously into electronics. Instead of having a conversation, he was saying, “Wow, have you heard this wire, this thing, connected to this and this over here?” I said, “Herbie…no. I don’t want to talk about wires. I really hate seeing them on the stage.”


* * *

Manfred Eicher on Keith Jarrett (Sept. 24, 2008):


TP:   To start, can you tell me how he came to join the label, how you became attracted to his music, and the process by which he began his contractual relationship with ECM?

EICHER:   I first heard Keith live in a festival in Norway with Charles Lloyd, and I heard him again with Charles Lloyd at   the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was very curious about his playing, and I was very moved by the trio as well that played with Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. That was before I even had a record label. I was just a student and playing in an orchestra in Berlin. So I moved around and heard people in jazz festivals. I heard Keith Jarrett also in Bologna in ‘68. Then when I had the label, I wrote to Keith, and sent him some test pressings—of a Chick Corea solo record as well as a Jan Garbarek record, Afric Pepperbird, which was my first recording, that I made in Oslo. Keith wrote back and said he liked this music and the sound, and he would be interested in talking to me. So he came to Munich with Miles Davis, and we met in the park in the afternoon after the concert, and talked about a lot of things, and decided to make a recording together. In my first letter to Keith actually, I introduced to him also a trio record. In fact, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock was the idea. But Gary at that time didn’t play the bass; he came back from Japan and the West Coast, and was not sure whether he should continue or not. I suggested another thing, but he called me back and said he would like to do a solo record first. So he did a solo record in Oslo in ‘70, and Facing You was the first.

TP:   Then he continued for a while under contract to you and to Impulse…

EICHER:   While we talked, this was, so to speak, between the contracts. He left Atlantic, went to Columbia, and then started something for Impulse as well with the American Quartet. But the solo things and the trio, and all those kinds of things, he started to record for ECM.

TP:   It seems with ECM, he was able to do almost anything he wanted, to document almost anything that was preoccupying him at a given time…

EICHER:   I wonder whether it was so easy. It had also to do with what was my aesthetic idea was with the label, how I wanted to introduce music. Keith was the ideal partner. I liked very much his piano playing. I liked his aesthetics. I liked his ideas. The first recording we made was a solo record in the studio, then the next recording was a live recording of a concert in Bremen and Lausanne, which resulted in a trio record set. At that time, it was unusual to have an entire solo concert, live recordings and so on, put in a 3-record box. It was quite new for that time. Then Keith showed me his string quartet writing and he showed me other things, so I became very interested to introduce that kind of work from Keith, which was not the work of a jazz musician per se, but of a wonderful musician and talent who had other talents than playing the piano. So we introduced these things, and they resulted in orchestral recordings with soloists like Jan Garbarek or Charlie Haden, Arbor Zena, for instance, or Luminiscence, and the records with string quartets and quintets with a flute player. So we have a nice oeuvre from the very beginning that introduced the musician Keith Jarrett.

TP:   Can you speak more concretely about how the qualities of his aesthetics merged with your sense of what you wanted to produce?

EICHER:   First of all, I thought his way of phrasing, his touch, his quality of suspension, his way of (?) and rubato playing was very close to me as a European. So I heard many influences of the great American kind of jazz book, and I heard many influences from Chopin, Debussy, and all those kinds of things that I liked and I grew up with. To me, it was an idea of a symbiotic thing, because also his touch had reached me right away and touched me quite a lot from the beginning. So from then on, it was clear that whenever I could work with Keith, I would like to work with him.

I’d also like not to forget his great compositions. His way of writing was very idiosyncratic and special. One could identify a composition immediately when hearing Keith’s work.

TP:   It also seems that the influence of both the American and European quartets has been immense on an international level.

EICHER:   Absolutely. The American quartet consisted of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian and Keith. It was a very individual group with a wonderful individual sound. But Keith also had another side which probably was a bit more virtuosic, more light rhythmically, weighted for the dialogue and interaction with players like Garbarek and Jon Christensen and Palle Daniellsen. When I suggested this group to Keith, he was very open, because he’d heard Jan Garbarek a long time ago, and he heard him again in the Molde Festival in Norway, playing trio with Arild Anderson and Edvard Vesala in a club. Keith and I were together, and he was convinced that this was the sound he would like to write for. So the Belonging group was Keith’s group that he was writing for. All the material that you hear there was around, and played by a lot of young jazz musicians—here, at least, in Europe. Pieces like “Belonging” and so on became classic.

TP:   The American Quartet’s influence has also been immense, maybe more on American musicians…

EICHER:   Not just American musicians. European musicians, too.

TP:   Everyone talks about that group.

EICHER:   A wonderful group. But it was so different. Keith could write for the idiosyncratic personalities in these groups very well. So these groups differ very much. Of course, it was entirely Keith’s introduction of the music, but the individuality of the players couldn’t be more different.

TP:    I was curious why, after years and years of playing in groups (and he seemed to like playing in groups and being in bands), he spent so much time absorbed in the tabula rasa solo concerts. Between 1977 and 1981, almost everything in his sessionography is a solo concerts. Can you discuss your experience of this?

EICHER:   That’s right. He started in the early ‘70s with solos, like Lausanne in 1972 or 1973, then followed by Cologne, the Japanese box, the Sun Bear concerts… There was always a lot of solo between the other groups. But then it became a very solitary thing for him to do solo only for a while, before he formed the trio with Jack and Gary. But I think none of us could have expected such a successful resonance to the first solo concert. These concerts became something different, became something else, because no improviser had played entire concerts before not interrupted by pieces, but entirely concerts that took sometimes 45 to 50 minutes, and maybe then a second set. That was something really new at the time, and it was very successful in Japan and in Europe, and Keith seemed to enjoy very much being on stage alone.

TP:    Do you have any speculations on why it seemed to suit the zeitgeist then?

EICHER:   I don’t know the zeitgeist…it’s still going on.

TP:   I mean, at the time, the late ‘70s…

EICHER:   Well, it’s speculative, because very different people… Like, Peter Stein used the music in Death, Distraction and Detroit, a production with Robert Wilson in Berlin, in the Schaub(?), which was a very advanced and important theater group in Berlin that went for this. Not many people would have used the Köln concert at that time. Marguerite Duras, in her diaries which were introduced in Liberacion, has written about Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert that she hears in France in the summer in different situations. Henry Miller. Many people have written… It was more than the zeitgeist. It was something that was coming out of the time, and blossomed out, and influenced a lot of people from very different genres, different kinds of music. All the art field was checking out what Keith was doing.

TP:   Most of his musical production since he was ill…well, a couple of solo concerts, and the trio is now in its 25th year. Can you speak of your first experience hearing this trio playing standard material?

EICHER:   Before they came together to play standards, we had already a recording under Gary Peacock’s leadership and with his pieces. That was the wished-for combination, the combination that I always wanted to have together in the studio to make this record, and it was something really remarkable, I guess. When I listen back to this record, it has such wonderful pieces, like “Vignette.” The way they played together was like they’d played always together.

So later on, Keith wanted to do a standard trio from the American Songbook, and we decided to do that. The evening before recording in Power Station in New York, we went to an Indian restaurant and talked about a lot of things, and made some plans, and went in the studio with the idea to make one record, but we had studio time for three days, and in those three days, when we came out of the studio, we had made three records, including the mixage. We had recorded and mixed. This process was unbelievable. The interaction between these three people was wonderful. You can hear it in the record which just came out again how close they were already in their understanding of each other, and how beautifully their exposition of each piece came out.

TP:   It’s certainly and developed, and they seem to take as much joy in it now as they did then. He’s also recorded a fair amount of European classical repertoire for you, and recorded as a classical musician. How did that transpire from your perspective?

EICHER:   We did a very special and remarkable recording on the piece of Arvo Pärt, “Fratres,” played together by Gideon Kramer and Keith Jarrett. It was their first meeting and recording, and the last recording. It’s still a classic, I would say, which you can hear on Arvo Pärt’s record Tabula Rasa. It’s an electrifying performance between Gideon and Keith. I would never miss that day and how it happened. It was wonderful.

Then we recorded all the Shostakovich, which still is in the catalog and very successful, and recorded Mozart, and he’s recorded Bach, The Well-Tempered Piano, Book 1 and 2—the second one was recorded on harpsichord. Then we did the wonderful recording with Kim Kashkashian and Keith on the Gamba sonata of Bach, and there are other plans eventually.

TP:   Can you speak to the qualities he brings to classical repertoire?

EICHER:   He plays it very truthfully as a musician without any outside musical ideas about showing his ability to do different phrasings and whatever. He has prepared himself very seriously for all these recordings. Some people thought Keith should maybe include more risky elements such as phrasing, and maybe even some cadenzas improvised, like in the concerts of Mozart. But he didn’t. In all the years after, many musicians, classical musicians talked to me about these recordings and how musical they feel they are. Keith’s approach was very pure and down-to-the-text, so to speak, not more, not less. I tend to listen to his Bach quite often. And to the Mozart…and if you wish, you can go into the whole scale what I listen to. But it’s very truthful, artistically done music, and without speculation for any kind of fashion or trend.

TP:   He said that immersing himself in Mozart was of great value to his jazz playing when he returned to performing after recuperating from CFS, that it developed his musicality, his touch, and also his left hand.

EICHER:   Definitely his touch and his left hand. He had a good partner in developing these things, with Dennis Russell Davis, the great American conductor who always was around when Keith played orchestra music, performing this music in America and Europe together.,

TP:   He said that he feels that his solo performances since the illness are far superior to what he was doing before, partly for the reasons that I mentioned. Can you speak about his personal evolution as a musician, both pianistically and conceptually?

EICHER:   Many things. I’ll relate it to the musical ideas and to the program of a musician. What Keith played in the ‘70s and ‘80s were quite different in musical approach than what he’s doing now, especially in the solo concerts. For me, his technical abilities playing the piano was always on a high level, and I would say that his touch has changed in all these years, and it’s remarkable how it did change this way, small nuances first and more and more into a fine-tuning. But it has also to do with his affinity for certain pianos that speak to him. All this together, I think, in the way he wants to be recorded today and how he was recorded in earlier times, digital, non-digital, piano tuning—all those kinds of things have a certain effect on what is documented, of course. But Keith’s playing these days is on the highest level as a pianist.

TP:   I spoke to him about documentation, and why concerts are successful, why he chooses to document one vis-a-vis another. He said that he records everything, that when he thinks something is good he then sends it to you, and what he decides to release pertains to his state of mind at the time. As an example, a solo concert from the opera house in Venice was at the top of his list, then something struck him as more interesting. How do you interact in determining what gets releases, the sequence of recordings, and the content. You’ve had a professional relationship for so long.

EICHER:   We’ve known each other 40 years or so. It has changed, his approach. In the early days, I was at every recording, and we were very close in deciding every little thing, in the studio and outside the studio, in how we approached it. Now it is not possible for us to be always in the same place. Sometimes we are just in different places, and then he trusts his engineer and manager, who are very important for decision-making. But when the music is done, Keith sends it, and then we start to talk and discuss and sometimes fine-tune on the thing, and then we decide together what to release. But we can always have a good agreement on what to be done. The sequence of releases is also discussed, and since they are concerts that go from A to the end, we don’t have to talk about the sequence inside a recording any more because we take the music as it is. If Keith feels it’s appropriate to do so, we release the music as it is.

TP:   That brings up the point that ECM is so known for the sound of the recordings, the way you address the sound in the studio, and it’s been a long time since he did a studio recording, and he doesn’t like being in the studio so much…

EICHER:   Any more. He used to like the studio very much, and he also has a studio at home. But in recent years…or for many years… It started with the trio. All these recordings are done outside the studio, in concert halls. That’s right. And he likes this approach. I think he needs also the interaction with the audience, and probably the risk of going to the edge there is more appropriate than being in an intimate studio where conditions are always very different. I think it’s not a question of better or worse. It’s a question also of interacting with the public.

Recordings like Belonging and the earlier recordings that we made in studios couldn’t have been made that easily in concert live. We have done wonderful recordings with great balance and sound that would only have been possible to make in a good studio situation. Later on, it did fly into other directions, and that’s also fine. It’s important to assist a musician in his needs and his ideas, and then get the best out of it.

TP:   Most of the Keith Jarrett Trio recordings of this century were made in 2001 and 2002. It seems that 2001 was a very interesting year for him, both as a trio and solo player.

EICHER:    That’s right. I don’t particularly look so much into the recording year. For me, time is flying so quickly that I forget sometimes that all these years have passed already. We are listening at the moment to a tape that we will release in January called Yesterdays, which is a Japanese recording from 2001. It sounds incredibly fresh and good. After he recovered from his illness, new life and new ideas were coming into the trio and the solo playing, so since then we have remarkable recordings already released, and we have still some very good recordings that wait to be released in our archive.

TP:   The Tokyo recording is also a trio date?

EICHER:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Will a solo recording come out in 2009?

EICHER:   I guess so. There will be a solo recording. Since we have not finally decided, Keith and I, I cannot talk about which one it will be, but it looks like there will be another solo record coming out.

TP:   Can you describe your overview of where Keith Jarrett fits into the timeline, both on the jazz stage and on the world stage?

EICHER:   When you think about how long Keith Jarrett already is an influential musician. It started when he played with Charles Lloyd, then later on got a lot of attention in Europe and with Miles and all, and he has written such wonderful songs, and is such a great listener when he plays with other musicians—and for the music always. He is one of the most influential and best musicians that I know. “Best” is always a strange term, but his musicianship and his personality, and also his influence to music-making means a lot to me.



Leave a comment

Filed under DownBeat, ECM, Gary Peacock, Interview, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Manfred Eicher, Paul Motian, Uncategorized

For Ron Carter’s 77th Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From Two Years Ago

Bass maestro Ron Carter turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat assigned me to write two years ago in response to his entry into the DB Hall of Fame.

* * * *

Near twilight on the first Sunday of September at the south corner of 27th Street and Park Avenue, a tall, eagle-necked African-American gentleman with perfect posture and a salt-and-pepper beard,  a pressed white dress shirt, black tie, black pants, and mirror-shined black shoes, stood at the curb by a late-model black Audi, tapping his right index finger on the bowl of his pipe as he spoke quietly into a cell phone. A passerby’s first instinct was to look for a photographer and klieg lights, but both the location and the hour seemed odd for a fashion shoot. Then it clicked that this elegant figure was Ron Carter, the 2012 inductee into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, taking care of business before descending into the Jazz Standard, halfway down the block, for the fourth and final night of his big band’s inaugural engagement.

About an hour later, after a crisp reading of “Caravan,” highlighted by Jerry Dodgion’s soaring soprano saxophone solo, Carter introduced his own “Loose Change” as “my personal commentary on the Republican Medicare plan.” He made his point with a long rubato meditation, teasing “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” out of the harmonies, interpolating the motif of “All Blues,” transitioning to an orotund passage from Bach, then introducing the melody and stating an insistent 6/4 vamp that propelled the funky theme. On “Con Alma,” in lock-step with drummer Kenny Washington, he smoothly propelled his breathe-as-one ensemble through stop-on-a-dime shifts of meter and tempo; soloing on “St. Louis Blues,” which moved from march to swing to stride sections, he signified with various Charlie Parker quotes; in duet with pianist Donald Vega on “My Funny Valentine,” he played the verse unembellished, caressed the melody, then complemented Vega’s inventions—which included a lengthy interpolation of Ellington’s “Single Petal Of A Rose”—with the customized attention of a Savile Row tailor.

On each tune save the latter, Carter fleshed out the versions that appear on the Robert Freedman-arranged 2011 CD Ron Carter’s Great Big Band [Sunnyside] with extra choruses and backgrounds, changing the bass part at will. This is one reason why, after just six sets over three nights, the new ensemble embodied the leader’s tonal personality—no-nonsense and expansive; informed by the notion that virtuoso execution, spot-on intonation, and exacting attention to the minutest details are merely a starting point; telling stories of his own or complementing those of his bandmates with vocabulary and syntax drawn from an encyclopedic database of the jazz and classical canons, with the blues as a default basis of operations.

A few days later, in the public area of his massive Upper West Side apartment, which spans almost half a city block, Carter recalled that he was initially reluctant to embrace the project, due in part to the logistical complexities involved in maintaining and adequately paying a large ensemble. Also, he stated, “I haven’t been interested in playing in the rhythm section of a big band—though I had great times subbing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis when Richard Davis got busy. You get ignored all the time, and you’re at the mercy of the arranger.” In contrast, he said, “the studio is fun—you’ve got very little time and they don’t fool around; you just play the best you can.”

Therefore, Carter added, he decided to treat this orchestra “as a very large trio,” built around Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, his bandmates in the Golden Striker Trio. He does the preponderance of his touring with this group and in a quartet comprising pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Peyton Crossley, and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos.

“In a lot of big band arrangements, the bass parts aren’t so critical to the survival of the piece,” Carter said. “At one rehearsal, I told them, ‘All that changed when you walked in the door. I’m going to make sure the bass part sounds interesting every night. But for you to work from it, I have to have your utter focus.’ That’s my role with this 16-piece band. By Sunday, I thought I’d found enough things to hold their interest—16 points of view, 16 different concepts, 16 different events. My feature is to be playing every chorus of every song. It’s about my desire to let the soloists play something different every night, making the backgrounds feel different every night by my notes and rhythms. I’d much rather be known as the bass player who made the band sound great, but different, every night.”


In a Blindfold Test several years ago, bassist Stanley Clarke commented on Carter’s duo performance of “Stardust” with pianist Roland Hanna (the title track of a well-wrought 2001 homage to Oscar Pettiford):  “Ron is an innovator and, as this solo bore out, a great storyteller. Probably 99.9% of the bass players out here play stuff from Ron. There’s Paul Chambers, and you can go back to Pettiford, Blanton and Israel Crosby, and a few people after Chambers—but a lot of it culminated in Ron, and then after Ron it’s all of us. Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player.”

This remark summarizes the general consensus among Clarke’s instrumental brothers and sisters. For example, on other Blindfold Tests, John Patitucci praised the “the architecture of his lines,” “blended sound,” and “great sense of humor when he plays”; William Parker mentioned Carter’s penchant for “not playing a lot of notes” and “keeping a bass sound on his bass”; Andy Gonzalez noted his “shameless quotes of tiny pieces of melody from all kinds of obscure songs, which you have to know a lot of music to do”; and Eric Revis stated, “He’s gotten to the place where there’s Ronisms that you expect, and only he can do them.”

Per Clarke’s remark, these bassists and their cohort—indeed, several generations of musicians—have closely analyzed Carter’s ingenious walking basslines on the studio albums and live recordings he made between 1963 and 1968 with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who considered it their mandate to relax the rules of the 32-bar song form as far as possible while still maintaining the integrity of the tune in question. They’ve paid equivalent attention to the several dozen iconic Blue Note and CTI dates on which Carter sidemanned for the likes of Shorter, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. They’re on intimate terms with Carter’s creative, definitive playing with a host of trios—grounding Bobby Timmons’ soul unit in the early ‘60s; performing the equilateral triangle function with Williams and Hancock or Hank Jones, and with Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton; or navigating the wide-open spaces with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian—on which he incorporates a host of extended techniques into the flow with a tone that has been described as “glowing in the dark.” They’re cognizant of Carter’s ability to shape-shift between soloistic and complementary functions with such rarefied duo partners as Walton and Jim Hall, and, more recently, Richard Galliano, Rosa Passos, and Houston Person. They respect his extraordinarily focused contributions to hundreds of commercial studio dates on which, as Carter puts it, “I maintain my musical curiosity about the best notes while being able to deliver up the product for this music as they expected to hear it in the 30 seconds I have to make this part work.”

Not least, Carter’s admirers know his work as a leader, with a corpus of more than 30 recordings in a host of configurations, including a half-dozen between 1975 and 1990 by a two-bass quartet in which either Buster Williams or Leon Maleson executed the double bass function, allowing Carter to function as a front line horn with the piccolo bass, which is tuned in the cello register.

Carter first deployed this concept on his debut recording in 1961, entitled Where, with a quintet including Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron and Charlie Persip on which he played cello next to bassist George Duvivier, A son of Detroit, he played cello exclusively from 10 to 17, exhibiting sufficient talent to be “the first black kid” in the orchestra at Interlochen Music Camp, then burnishing his skills at Cass Tech, the elite arts-oriented high school that produced so many of the Motor City’s most distinguished musicians.

“Jazz was always in the air at school, but it wasn’t my primary listening,” Carter said. “I had other responsibilities—the concert band, the marching band, the orchestra, my chores at home, and maintaining a straight-A average. We were playing huge orchestrations of Strauss and Beethoven and Brahms, and the Bach Cantatas with all these voices moving in and out.”  Midway through Carter’s senior year, it became clear to him that more employment would accrue if he learned to play the bass, a decision reinforced when he heard “Blue Haze,” a blues in F on which Miles Davis’ solo unfolds over a suave Percy Heath bassline and Art Blakey’s elemental beat on the hi-hat, ride cymbal, and bass drum. “I was fascinated to hear them making their choices sound superb with the bare essentials,” Carter said. “These three people were generating as much musical logic in six to eight choruses as a 25-minute symphony with 102 players.”

During the summer after high school, Carter became a gigging bassist in Detroit, where he states, the local players were so highly accomplished that, “if they had all come to New York, New York would have sunk.” That fall, he matriculated at Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory on scholarship, where, for the next four years, he fulfilled academic responsibilities during the day, worked as a waiter, and attended “jazz school from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.” in local clubs, where he had the opportunity to back artists like Sonny Stitt and Slim Gaillard, and to be heard, he recalls, by “Dizzy Gillespie’s band with Sam Jones, or Carmen McRae’s band with Ike Isaacs, or Horace Silver’s band with Teddy Kotick and Art Farmer.” He also earned a position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (“I was again the only African-American in this group”), which, towards the end of his senior year performed in New York City for Leopold Stokowki, who, after rehearsal, told him, “I’d like to have you in my orchestra in Houston, but I’m afraid that the Board of Directors are not prepared to accept an African-American musician.”

“I thought, ‘Shit, man, when are you going to be ready?’” Carter recalls. “The jazz community who came through Rochester said, ‘Look, in New York everyone likes a good bass player.’ They had no idea about my classical background, that I’d been turned away. They thought here’s this tall kid from Detroit who has the potential to be a good bass player and he could only do that if he comes to New York.”

A few days after arriving in August 1959, Carter went to Birdland, where he encountered Chico Hamilton, who had auditioned him the previous fall in Rochester, and needed a new cellist who could play his difficult book. After a three-month tour, he settled into a Harlem apartment and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music for a masters degree. Before long, he’d earned respect from a community of bassists whose focus was less on “soloing or playing unaccompanied—although they could do it” and more on “can we make the band swing?” He admired Gene Taylor’s commitment to play Horace Silver’s written basslines, Doug Watkins’ “fabulous tonal quality,” the versatility of Milt Hinton and Joe Benjamin. He reveled in the challenge of analyzing “why Sam Jones’ sound was physically different than George Duvivier’s, or Scott LaFaro’s, or Richard Davis’.” Part of the craft was to use any bandstand performance—most consequentially during his half-decade with Miles Davis—as a laboratory in which to experiment and research alternate changes, “to think through the possibilities,” in his ongoing quest “to find the right notes” for any situation he might encounter.

“I tried to find changes—not from the original chord progression—that would fit if the bandleader or the soloist decided to put the melody over what I was playing,” Carter said. “If the changes worked, that meant there must be another sub-set that would make the melody sound the same, but feel different because of the harmonic underpinnings. When I play these notes that seem pretty far removed from the melody, they aren’t random choices. I’m still playing the melody in my head.  They don’t always work, but I’m OK with that. That’s one choice I don’t worry about tomorrow night. That’s off my list. We’ve got five more tunes; maybe we’ll work with them.”


Asked to express his feelings about the Hall of Fame honorific, Carter replied with characteristic briskness. “To get this award means that there are enough readers of the magazine who have done some homework and some history, and know I’ve been playing this music for a very long time,” he said. “And, as they’ve listened, over time, they’ve found a level of consistency that appeals to them, not just in my performance, but my integrity and my sound. I’d like to thank them for deeming me worthy of a lifetime achievement, but to know that my lifetime is still here. If they have a Part Two, maybe I’ll be up for that.”

His manner was somewhat less composed as he formulated a response to Stanley Clarke’s aforementioned comments on his impact on bass lineage. “I’m embarrassed, actually,” Carter said. He bent his head, contemplating his cupped hands in silence for several seconds before resuming. “I’m from a time when one of the effects of society on African-Americans, especially African-American males, was to not acknowledge your success. Not that you couldn’t be successful, but when you were, you were kind of told not to ‘groove,’ so to speak, on that level of achievement. It’s taken me a while to get past that. African-Americans in my age group will tell you about someone telling them, ‘you can’t do this or that.’ For example, I remember my math teacher in junior high school told the class, ‘Don’t worry about studying Latin, because you’ll never need it—you’ll be digging a ditch.’ I told my mom, and she wigged out. All of us got that kind of response in these situations sixty years ago.

“So when I hear comments like Stanley’s, it floors me that I’ve had that kind of impact on an industry. I say, ‘Wow, I did that? All these guys do this because of my presence?’ It throws me a curve. There’s a list of what they call ten records that are milestones of the music, all different, and I’m on eight of them. When I hear people talk about that, I have to tiptoe out of the room, because it embarrasses me to hear that my impact has been rated as such. I had my hopes crushed at a very early age. I had peeks of what it’s like to play in a great orchestra, and to not be allowed to do that for the simple reason that I’m black … to this day I don’t understand that fuckin’ mindset, man. I don’t know what that’s got to do with playing a B-flat blues, man, or playing the Bach Chorale, or Beethoven, or playing an Oliver Nelson arrangement. But my family went to church every Sunday. We understood that there is somebody upstairs who is really in charge of the ballgame, so to speak. I’ve always thought that I was directed to do this because the Creator thought that I could be important in this industry. And I have to trust that he allows me to go out every night and try to find the best notes I can find. When he tells me, ‘Ok, you’ve had enough,’ then I’ll stop.”

That time hardly seems imminent. Carter has done stretching and free weights with a trainer three mornings a week for the last thirty years, seems not to have lost an inch from his six-and-a-half foot frame, can still palm a basketball, and looks more like a youthful 60 than 75. “Because I’ve found other ways to play the notes I’ve been finding and learned the science of how the bass works even more specifically, it’s less physically demanding to cover the bass than it was ten years ago,” he says. “One of my lessons is to assign students a blues and have them build a bassline out of the changes I give them.  I’ve been playing the blues a very long time, and these guys come up with lines that stun me—not because they’re so great, but that I hadn’t thought about those lines! Seeing this kind of awareness makes 75 feel like 15, when you’re just discovering what the world is like. It makes me feel that I’m just starting to learn the instrument.

“I try not to do stuff just because I can do it—because it doesn’t impact anybody. It doesn’t make a flower that opens. If I can make that flower open, that’s my night. I will go home and watch CNN and  have my yogurt.”


1 Comment

Filed under Article, Bass, DownBeat, Miles Davis, Ron Carter

For Toots’ Thielemans’ 92nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature—and Interview—From 2006

Earlier this year, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, perhaps the foremost practitioner of the harmonica in jazz music for more than four decades, and an equally expressive guitar player, decided to retire from public performance. Thielemans turned 92 on April 29th, a milestone I’m observing by posting a feature article that DownBeat assigned me to write in 2006, and the verbatim interview that I conducted with Toots for the piece.

* * * *

Several  hours into an afternoon conversation at his Upper East Side pied a terre midway through a week-long booking at New York’s Blue Note last November, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, halfway through his 83rd year, might easily have opted for a restorative pre-gig nap over continued interrogation.

Instead, using his dining room table as a prop, Thielemans launched into an impromptu demonstration on blues aesthetics.

“During the ‘60s nobody made a great living playing straight jazz,” Thielemans said, beginning the back story. “I got a call: ‘Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to do a jingle. We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?’ I said, ‘No, sir, I can’t.’ ‘Do you know anyone who does?’ There was maybe one, but my defense mechanism turned on. I said, ‘No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.’ I was living in Yonkers then, and once a week or so I’d go to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. There were two black gentlemen there who played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we want to play like you.’ But I said, ‘Can I hear what you do?’ I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Mechanically, that is; not the voicings and the sound. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.’ I went right to Manny’s Music Store on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. ‘Sir, I am ready for you.’”

Thielemans picked up his chromatic harmonica and blew a pair of nasty 12-bar phrases. “That’s very close, but it’s not funky enough,” he said. Meanwhile, Thielemans’ wife, anticipating his next step, emerged from their bedroom with a black leather bag, which she placed on the table. “Those are my diatonic harmonicas,” Thielemans noted. “I even took that bag to Hollywood for Quincy Jones, in case he needed that sound.” I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.”

Thielemans peeled off the wrapping from the harp. “Have you heard of Howard Levy?” he asked. “He overblows and creates harmonics, and he can play ‘Giant Steps’ on the diatonic. I can’t do it like he does, but I can show what can be done.”

He blew. “That’s too high-pitched,” Thielemans said. He quickly unwrapped another harp, and uncorked a variation, tapping his foot. “If you want to change keys…” Then he unwrapped another, and blew some more. “These guys have tone,” he remarked. He repeated the phrase, bending notes with soulful abandon. “Here you can attack the note,” he said, and offered another passage. “That’s very moody,” he said, before resuming.   “When I overblow like this, you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion.” He elaborated on the sonics. “That’s funky,” he said happily. “Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. ‘Before we say goodbye.’” He stated an emphatic line, put down the harmonica and laughed heartily. “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!”

“Not everybody likes my sound,” Thielemans had remarked early in our chat. “But I can’t help it. A critic in Belgium described me once in Flemish, ‘shameless sentimentality.’ And I admit that I may be shameless. I laugh easily, and I am very close to tears sometimes when I hear those minor-7 chords. Now, if you analyze a minor 7, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy. The top three notes are major. So minor 7 mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, ‘between a smile and a tear.’ It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, ‘Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tonnes pastels,’ ‘give me your pastel tones.’ That’s my nature.”

Forty-eight hours earlier, on the opening set of his opening night, Thielemans and his superb quartet demonstrated this proposition on a program comprising  bebop, chanson, show tunes, and a tasting course of Brazilian musical cuisines. If he served up no small amount of kitsch and schmaltz, he compensated with many creative moments.  On “How High The Moon,” propelled by Airto Moreira’s effervescent hi-hat samba beat, Thielemans danced through the melody, interacting closely on the improv with guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. After a brief turn by pianist Kenny Werner, he reentered with a vengeance, weaving substitute changes into the flow, leaping through the intervals and swinging hard. On Castro-Neves’ “Felicia and Bianca” and Chico Buarque’s “Futbol,” Moreira orchestrated samba school beats on different components of his arsenal, which included a 22-inch bass drum; his opening declamation that provoked Thielemans to respond with train whistle onomatopoeia. After a long Thielemans melody-to-abstraction improv on Sammy Cahn’s “All The Way,” Moreira ingeniously limned the melodic design on caixa, shaker and tom-tom, setting up  an abstract Werner solo.

There was much shameless melody-milking, too, as Thielemans sculpted the phrases of such ballads as Luiz Eca’s luxuriantly melancholic “The Dolphin”—but also on Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade” and “The Waters of March,” Buarque’s “Joanna Frances,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Michel Legrand’s “You Must Remember Spring,” and the set-closer, “God Bless America,” which Thielemans described as “my idea of what would have happened if Irving Berlin had met Milton Nascimento”—to animate the soulful emotions within.

“To me, Brazil is minor-7 country,” Thielemans said at his apartment. Rio-based harmonica player Mauricio Einhorn “sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested in the harmony,” he continued. After he collaborated on Aquarella do Brasil with Elis Regina in 1969, Brazilian musicians began to regard Thielemans as an iconic figure, as was evident in 1990, when he broke bread with Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Buarque, Djavan, Joao Bosco, Dami Caymmi, Ivan Lins and Eliane Elias on a two-volume collection called Brazil Project.

“His heart is Brazilian,” said Castro-Neves. “He understands the idiom with the ease of someone who speaks fluent Portuguese. But also, he is a bottomless well of ideas. After a take with Ivan Lins, you’d say, ‘Great, Toots, let’s do a second take for the sake of it.’ The second take was totally different from the first. If he’d come from the right, he came from the left; if he’d started on the third, he started on the fifth; he’d have a rhythm figure here, he’d start another rhythm figure there. He is incredible.”


“You may have noticed that little change I made to ‘How High The Moon,’” Thielemans informed the Blue Note audience. “The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.”

Thielemans in his teens aspired to be a math teacher; he has the kind of mind that hears harmonic equations as sonic poetry. A native of Antwerp, a bustling North Sea port city, he bought a harmonica not long after Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, and “fooled around by instinct” to Benny Goodman Trio records. He continues: “Then the musicians in Belgium started to say ‘jette se joué,’ ‘throw that toy away and get a real instrument.’” Recuperating from pneumonia with extended bedrest, he taught himself to play guitar—a Macaferri—by ear, copying Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian records. By 1944 Belgium was liberated, and soon thereafter merchant sailors were bringing such early bebop classics as “Groovin’ High” and “One Bass Hit” across the Atlantic. While playing guitar at a local boite with the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Stephane Grappelli, Thielemans began to analyze the musical language of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

“We made acetate copies, although the needles eroded them quickly,” he recalls. “’Groovin’ High’ is ‘Whispering’ in E-flat, and I remember the phrasing Dizzy used to go from A-minor-7 to D-7. I tried to play that phrase – from D-7 to D-minor-7 to G – in every key on harmonica. I continue to find new things. For instance, for sixty years, like everybody else, I played ‘Confirmation’ in F, but recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F.”

He played the “Confirmation” theme in both keys. The version in B embodied the trademark Thielemans sound.

“I first visited the States in ‘47,” he continued. “I was with my uncle in Miami, and we were having a drink at a restaurant where they were playing Nat Cole trio music. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, but I bought the guitar player a drink and sat in.” By happy coincidence, photographer William Gottlieb was at the bar. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re good.’ I looked him up in New York, and he took me to 52nd Street – the Three Deuces. It was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Bags, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, maybe Jimmy Heath, too. Bill took me to meet the band. ‘Who? Belgium?’ The two question marks. ‘What do you want to play?’ In those days, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of ‘I Can’t Get Started.’”

Thielemans demonstrated. “I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine! With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Billy Shaw was there, the agent, the big salesman of bebop. The big cigar.  ‘Shaw Nuff.’ ‘Where you from? You’re good!’ ‘I’m from Belgium.’ ‘Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.’ Typical  Hollywood. ‘Send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.’

While sailing back to Europe—a festival in Nice, where he and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar accompanied Lucky Thompson—Thielemans wrote a progression on Stardust, and recorded it with a string quartet. He played the acetate for Ray Nance, whom he befriended when the Duke Ellington Orchestra visited Belgium in 1948; Nance took it to an agent, who played it for Benny Goodman, then beginning his brief love affair with bebop. In 1949, Goodman summoned Thielemans to London for a gig at the Palladium.

“I played the Charlie Christian chair,” Thielemans says. “After six weeks of touring I said, ‘Benny, I’d like to play another number.’ ‘Play Stardust.’ Benny loved that progression, which went up the chromatic scale instead of down. It worked out well for me. It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, and I had newspaper attention. But I didn’t play the rhythm with the strength Benny wanted, so he didn’t use me after that tour.”

Sponsored by Goodman’s secretary, Thielemans emigrated to New York in 1952 with $2000 in his pocket and  and a burgeoning reputation. While waiting to establish his residence and join the union, he worked for Sabina Airlines, networked at musician bars like the Metropole and Charlie’s Tavern, and played three nights a week at the Downbeat, where he met such fellow progressives as Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz, Billy Taylor, George Wallington and Tony Scott.

“Tony heard that Dick Garcia, who was George Shearing’s guitar player, was  going into the Army, and he brought me to George’s dressing room when he was doing a double bill with Billy Eckstine at Carnegie Hall,” Thielemans recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got the man for you.’ We played Body and Soul together, and George said, ‘If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.’ I knew it by ear. Over the years I developed my guitar chops and got some visibility. On the road we both read the Percy Goetschius book,  Materials Used in Musical Composition—he had it in Braille and I normal. Elementary stuff. Now I can explain every note I play—to which altered scale it belongs, which chord it should go to. When I improvise, I respect the ten commandments of harmony—no parallel fifths, the leading note should go to the tonic, that sort of thing. After a while, George was ready to change faces, and I decided I hadn’t come to the States to be a sideman all my life.”

Instead, Thielemans began to divide his time between New York and Europe, primarily Sweden, where he wrote Bluesette, the breakthrough tune that opened theretofore closed doors in the New York studios. “Talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree,” Thielemans laughed. “I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and everything so I could stay home. But Madison Avenue was looking for different sounds. I’d done some ads where I played guitar and whistled; for the guitar I’d make $37 for 12 weeks, which was scale for an instrumental jingle, but for the whistling I made $50 each time it was heard. Then I got a call for Old Spice. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?’ That was Class A, coast to coast. Staying home, I made $15,000. That was also the time when Johnny Cash made Ring of Fire, with two trumpets, and I decided to do a melody with two voices. I gave it to the publisher who’d just handled Bluesette, he sent it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert heard it. It’s called Ladyfingers, and it went on a record—the one with the chick on the cover wrapped in whipped cream—that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000. Between Old Spice and Herb Alpert, we bought a house in Montauk.”

By 1979, Thielemans’ c.v. included the soundtracks for Midnight Cowboy and Sugarland Express, the harmonica solo on the Sesame Street theme, a slew of Quincy Jones  big band recordings, and one-offs with pop-folk as diverse as Paul Simon, the Brothers Johnson, Ray Charles, and John Denver. “The phone rang—I said, ‘Okay,’” Thielemans recalled. He wasn’t playing much hardcore jazz, though, and when Bill Evans’ manager, Helen Keane, called to ask Thielemans to play on Affinity, Evans’ first album for Warner Brothers, Thielemans hesitated.

“From a pianist, I can almost say that I need Bill Evans as my ground floor,” Thielemans said. “When Bill was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform and a crewcut, to listen to George Shearing rehearse at the Blue Note in Chicago. Afterwards, he said, ‘I hope we play together’—one of those polite goodbyes. Later on the road, I heard him and remembered him, After I left Shearing, I heard Bill playing with Miles, Trane and Cannon at the Showboat, and during a break Miles saw me talking to Bill. ‘What are you talking about?’ We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment. Miles said, ‘You two should play together,’ quick, and he went on by.

“When Helen called, I was playing with good group – Phil Markowitz, Chip Jackson and Joe LaBarbera – and told her to have Bill come to hear us before he made up his mind to have me.  I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and like a piranha Bill jumped on the lead sheet and said, ‘Come Monday.’ After three or four days in the studio, it appeared that I was going to play on every song with Bill instead of just two. I said, ‘Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much. It could be Toots Thielemans featuring…’ Bill said in my ear: ‘I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that.” No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out. He said, ‘Give me a minute.’ He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. ‘We will double your fee.’ I never heard that one before!”


On a Wednesday afternoon early in 1962, after a gig-hunting expedition to the Local 802 headquarters on West 52nd Street, Thielemans heard music from a trumpet store next door, and entered. “It was Donald Byrd, and I saw a piano player from the back,” Thielemans recalled. “It was Herbie Hancock, who had recently come to town. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island, and I asked him if he wanted to do it. Donald said,’Take him! He needs the job.’ We rehearsed, and I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. It wasn’t a jazz job. After ten minutes he said, ‘Hmm, I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.’”

Reminded of the comment last March, Hancock laughed loudly. “It was fun to play with Toots because he would always stimulate ideas and inspire me to pull out more things. Now he works off a much broader palette, from familiar things to the cutting edge. He has his own harmonic stuff, and his sound is so haunting and arresting and warm. On one hand, it’s as sharp as a razor, but on the other hand, as warm as a fireplace.”

It was the end of an all-afternoon rehearsal at Carroll Studios for a tribute concert the following evening at Carnegie Hall at which Thielemans interacted with a rotating cast of characters comprising Hancock, Joe Lovano, Paquito D’Rivera, Ivan Lins, and Eliane Elias. After her opening remarks, co-producer Pat Philips brought out an upholstered chair on which Thielemans sat, smiling broadly, as Hancock improvised a richly harmonic solo meditation. Then the maestro moved to the  center stage stool on which he would perch for the remainder of the evening.

After heady duets with Hancock on “I Do It For Your Love” and “Dolphin Dance,” Thielemans played “Body and Soul” and his own “For My Lady” with Lovano, joined Paquito D’Rivera for a pastel-shaded version of D’Rivera’s “Brussels in the Rain,” and illuminated the weltschmertz melody of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in soaring dialogue with Werner. The Brazilians came out for the second half, on which Elias sang a Jobim tune and an original ballad in a whispery, sensual alto, and Ivan Lins, fighting off a cold, sang two songs, including his early hit Madalena. As always, the house was filled with an international mix; standing ovations were the rule.

“I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion,” Thielemans said, offering a self-description of his magic. “I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always give me a goosebump. Of course, I try to incorporate much of what I hear. I do feel closer to the loose phrasing of today’s rhythms – on Dapp Theory, for instance, which Gregoire Maret gave me – than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago.  I play my songs differently each time. That’s what keeps me interested.”


* * *

Toots Thielemans (Nov. 18, 2005):

TP:   We’re in Toots Thielemans’ apartment, and there’s a wood fire going on in a Manhattan apartment building, and he’s talking about the contents of his I-Pod. Chris Potter is on it? Herbie Hancock.

TOOTS:   Yes, I can show you. Messiaen. In Belgium, they ask what Charlie Haden is reading? The writings of Claude Debussy. Claude Debussy was French-educated, and he writes such elegant French. He was a music critic under the name of Monsieur Croche. “Croche” is eighth note in French. Monsieur Croche. And he writes such beautiful French. Literary French. They are famous letter-writers from Louis XIV time. Madame DeSegueur, La Comptesse de Segueur. The letter exchanges between him and Stravinsky, his first encounter with Stravinsky’s music. He died only in 1917, and I was influenced by Debussy.

TP: Were you listening to Debussy and Messaien when you were young?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. But clearly (?).

TP:   He’s looking at his I-Pod. Is it 40-gig?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I have… This Englishman, Django Bates. I have him here, too. Steve Coleman. I have it here. [5 records] My managers puts it on. I don’t have a computer. But he puts it… I’ll roll it, and you’ll see what you like to talk about. That’s Django Bates. Teri Lyne Carrington. When she came with Cassandra to Brussels, she gave me that CD. It’s great, with some guys… Definitely George Shearing, from my… I spent six years with George. The live takes was fairly recent.

I’m nervous, of course. I appreciate very much your command of jazz, call it that. I read in one of the Downbeats the word Ouillette used, “the jazz police,” talking about Norah Jones. Would she be accepted by the jazz police? That sort of thing. For instance, in Brussels there’s a lot happening. One evening I went to listen to Norah Jones, and the next was Archie Shepp and the pianist who plays the organ, Amina Meyers… A duo. A lady from Chicago.

TP:   How long have you been playing with this band that you’re with this week. Kenny Werner has been your pianist and you’ve done projects with Oscar Castro-Neves.

TOOTS:   Oscar is the one who had the idea to get the Brazilians together. He was a film producer who did some film producing with Miles Goodman in Los Angeles. Miles passed away… They came to Brussels, and the session was produced for a film, Nothing About Love or something. After the (?), Oscar said, “You should make a record with the Brazilians. They all love you.” He mentioned Chico Buarque, Nascimento, Gilberto Gil. “Are they going to do it?” “Yes.” So Oscar set it up. He did all the calling or the fax. “I don’t believe what you say.” “Yeah, they’d all like to play with you.” So we did one session in Los Angeles, which is fantastic…

TP:   You’re talking now about the two Brazil Project records from ten years ago.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then there was Ron Goldstein who had Private Records. We went to Rio, and we did two songs a day with Chico Buarque and the other guys. Vol. 2 is the same as Vol. 1.

TP:  You used Eliane Elias, Oscar, with tunes by Dori Caymmi, Gilberto Gil…

TOOTS:   Recently Gilberto Gil, if you know his story, he was very (how you say) against the regime, and even went to jail. He and Caetano Veloso…

TP:   He gave you the award.

TOOTS:   Yes. Commandadore Orde de Rio Branco.

TP:   Was Brazilian music part of your repertoire at that time? When did you start getting interested in Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   I must say, I have a friend, a harmonica player in Rio, Mauricio Einhorn, and he sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested. In the harmony. I always to say, “to me, Brazil is minor-VII country.” If you analyze a minor VII, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy, and you have a third… The top three notes are major. So minor VII mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, “between a smile and a tear.” It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, “Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tones pastels,” “give me your pastel tones.” That’s my nature. A critic in Belgium, Rob Leurentop, described me once in Flemish, “shameless sentimentality.”

TP: What did you think of that?

TOOTS:   I may be shameless. I am very close to the tears sometimes when I hear some of those minor VII chords. Kenny plays them so well. On my Johnny Mandel left hand!

TP:   So you’ve been hearing and playing Brazilian music…

TOOTS:   Since it came out. Maybe slightly before Stan Getz. I had the records, and then it exploded.

TP:   When did you start playing with Brazilian musicians?

TOOTS:   Oh, Elis Regina.  I made a record for George Avakian in 1955.

TP: This is my collection. They’re all recent. I have 20 selections with George Shearing. With Bill Evans. With Ella.

TOOTS:   Oh, that was pathetic. Norman Granz wanted her to do mostly Jobim, and she had the start of that glaucoma, and of course she didn’t speak Portuguese. So it was like the old TV cue cards with letters like that, and from the booth. She read and sang.

TP:   But Elis Regina got you started. How did that happen?

TOOTS:   That happened in 1969. I was in Belgium, commuting already then, but I didn’t have this apartment that we have. I lived in Yonkers with my first wife. We already had the place in Montauk. I love Montauk. So I went to Sweden. Sweden was the first country… In 1950, I did that tour with Benny Goodman with Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman, Ed Shaughnessy, and a bassist from England. So I was in Europe, and a TV producer… That was the first time Elis came to the MIDEM, that big thing in the south of France, the record…like your NARAS, a big thing. I speak Swedish fluently. He said, “Toots, would you like to make a record? We want to do a show with Elis Regina and you.” They brought Elis’  band. Fantastic. Antonio Adolfo, [(?)Nilson Das Neiras(?)], a drummer. Roberto Scalero(?). He played fantastic guitar. He still does. Then while we were there for the show, the show was presented at the International TV competition in Montreux, “La Rose of Montreux,” ‘the rose of Montreux.” He won the prize with that. While we were doing that TV show, the guy from Philips Records… It was winter, snow, like that. Imagine those Brazilians, used to that heat, in the winter! He said, “You should go in the studio and make a record.” And we did. That was my first.

TP:   Did you take very naturally to the phrasing of Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   Yes. You didn’t hear yesterday… Oscar Castro-Neves… I call him Freddie. Because to Brazilian rhythm, he is what Freddie Greene! [LAUGHS] I sat in the bus so many times next to Freddie on Birdland tours. Across the aisle from Billie Holiday with the chihuahua! Oh, there are so many… But you pick out what you need.

TP: But let’s speak about now.

TOOTS:   Yes, the Brazilians. That is where my first contact with Brazilian lies—Elis Regina. Then I went a few times.

TP:   Have you played with this band a fair amount? Is it a recently formed band? A band you formed a while ago?

TOOTS:   Kenny and I have been touring basically with a duo. Like, in St. Louis a few weeks ago, we did a duo. We have that repertoire. Then I asked Oscar… We had a little budget, and we played Yoshi’s. “Hey, that’s great. Can you come back next year?” That was the suggestion of Yoshi’s, the jazz club there, to add Airto. I never had played with him. [A couple of years ago.] Now we did San Francisco Festival with Airto, we did the Blue Note, and we did the Belgium (?) Festival with Airto…

TP:   So this is basically a new group. Airto makes it a new group.

TOOTS:   Yes. But Kenny is the quarterback, and Oscar can play in that direction. We really never rehearsed. It might not be pure(?) Brazilian music, but you cannot go much… To me, my ears, Jobim, Ivan Lins, and then Chico Buarque. That’s when the record was made, but I haven’t… I played with Maria Schneider. She is my friend. She was very sad. She is going to try to come to the last show Sunday because they are flying in from Europe.

TP: They play next week at the Jazz Standard.

TOOTS:   Yes. But they start Tuesday. We’ll be going back home to Belgium on Monday.
TP:   Ah, you live in Belgium.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   You live in Belgium, you live here, and you live in Montauk.

TOOTS:   No more. We sold Montauk. We were there ten days a year. That’s not enough… With the few pennies we got from Montauk…

TP: It’s not a few pennies in Montauk.

TOOTS:   I love it. And the lobster. Since we were there, Paul Simon, Billy Joel… No, Billy Joel is East Hampton. Did you hear Paul Simon with Herbie on the new record? I think Paul Simon is underrated as a vocalist. He’ll compose and produce or whatever. But with Herbie, he sounds so beautiful. And it’s not his groove. I have a beautiful email from Herbie. I’m very proud…

TP:   Pat told me that he might be in this concert in March.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   With Airto, what does he do for your presentation? What does having a dynamic, creative drummer like that…

TOOTS:   [Huguette speaks] Yes. Quincy says sometimes, “Oh, you don’t need anything, with Oscar, Kenny and you,” and she feels the same. But it’s very exciting.

TP: So your wife feels you don’t need Airto.

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   But that being said, how does having a creative drummer impact your band?

TOOTS:   Oh, he is a creative drummer. You should have heard the second show! Many groups you go to hear and they loosen up. Besides that, I was saying, “Hey, Panken’s here.” [ETC.] I have much respect for Ouillette and you. I watch the signatures on the articles. I do. I don’t mean to rub… “brute(?) la matte(?)” means you flatter.” “Rub the sleeve,” that means flatter. [RUBBING MYSLEEVE]

TP:   For instance, when you’re doing a week at a club, do you do the same set every night?

TOOTS:   Many times we have strong numbers. One of our strong numbers is What A Wonderful World. Yesterday, there were Belgians… When I play in Montreal, when I play Ne Me Quitte Pas, Brel, we’re French territory… A 10-minute standing ovation! It was nice. It was Kenny and I, and we had Fresu and Pat Metheny.

TP: Do you approach the tunes the same way every night?

TOOTS:   According… We had Belgian friends, so I play Brel. I don’t like to tell the joke the same way as I did… You know? [Huguette: didn’t like The Dolphin as on the record. Pas ne meme chose.”] I play once in a while… Not every year. But Quincy and I play sometimes a year apart, two years apart. Quincy said… He was in Hollywood at the Capitol Studio, the tower, and I was in Holland, overdubbing one of his things for one of his projects. At the end, he says, “Toots, each time I hear you, you’ve got some new shit.” That’s a good thing. He knows me; I know Quincy.

TP:   How do you know each other?

TOOTS:   That happened when I was already playing on the Street, on 52nd Street, with Shearing in the early ‘50s, and they started to talk about this cat from Seattle who wrote… I remember I was rehearsing something, and Quincy passed through whatever we were doing, and he told me, “You have the most beautiful humming voice.” But I never sang or anything! But we have a great relationship. A beautiful… One of those things I wish I could have kept. A couple of months before Ray Charles passed away, he was still one-nighting, you know, tours. I got a call on the answering machine in Belgium. We’d come back from a restaurant or whatever. The message was Quincy’s voice. “Hey, Stink!” That’s what he calls me. Or suspenders. He gives me suspenders. Because when you inhale a long note on the harmonica, my pants fall down! We exchange once in a while New Year’s presents. So: “Stink, I’m here with Ray Charles” (in Indianapolis or something) “and we’re talking about your black ass.” Now, Quincy, he don’t call so many guys “black ass” who are not black. He said, “Okay, you may be Belgian, but I’m sure yo mama spoke to a brother.” So these are precious… I feel like wearing that!

TP:   When you started playing harmonica… I don’t know who the predecessors… I think you said you heard Larry Adler in a film.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: But stylistically, did you emulate anybody? Or did you learn how to play and adapt the vocabulary?

TOOTS:   No. I first bought a harmonica during the Occupation… I was trying to become a math teacher.

TP:   Good for harmony.

TOOTS:   Yeah, they say so. I can explain every note I play, to what altered scale it belongs to, and what chord it should go to and whatever. I read the same book as George Shearing. He had it in Braille and I normal. Percy Goetschius, Materials Used in Musical Composition. Elementary. We didn’t go very far. But that’s 50 years ago. Call it conservative; I need an explanation for whatever I do. When they say no parallel fifths, or the leading note should go to the tonic—that sort of thing. The big commandments. The ten commandments of harmony. I respect that, even when I improvise.

TP:   When were you studying that book?

TOOTS:   While I was on the road with George Shearing. We both wanted to know what we were playing, George and I.

TP: Before that, you were playing by ear, more or less?

TOOTS:   Self-taught. Oh, yes. So, chronologically: I bought a harmonica. Then I started, no jazz. Then I heard one record, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, “carry me back…” A 78 with the wind-up phonography. Over sixty years ago! Then I bought other records. People don’t realize that during the German Occupation, Belgium was invaded in 1940. But anything that happened before, we had the records… We had a dear friend, Leon de Mock(?)… He died, but he was a good friend of Clark Terry. And he called to make …(?)… Clark Terry and I somehow project something similar, and Leon, he said, “Clark a ton negatif,” the negative of the photograph. But he had a lot of records. We already had some Benny Goodman Trio, I think. Benny played with Teddy Wilson in the ‘30s. Teddy Wilson, Krupa, Where Or When and things like that.

TP:   Did you know about Benny Carter or Hawkins?

TOOTS:   Yes. Hawkins stayed in Europe.
TP:   Yes, that’s why I asked.

TOOTS:   He stayed in Brussels. He played there for a while. But I didn’t meet him.

TP: Or Bill Coleman or any of those people.

TOOTS:   Yes, the expatriates.  But I had those records, and I started to fool around, not knowing jazz, what to do on blues and so on. But I followed by instinct. Then the musicians in Belgium started to say “jette se joué,” “throw that toy away and get a real instrument.”

TP:   That’s an oft-told story. So you got a guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then, on a bet, I had a friend who wanted to try… He had a lot of money because his uncle sold liquor on the black market during the war, and he wanted to try to play Fats Waller. …(?)… exactly, “want some seafood, mama.” That phrase, if you think, it’s the typical blues phrase. [SINGS IT] I was in bed with pneumonia, and he comes… He had just bought it; this was his day. Wednesday is my day for guitar. I’m in bed, and I play. I said, “Gilbert, je sais joué salon moi dix minutes; je sais joué…” On one string I can play [SINGS REFRAIN], “For the …(?)…, I want some seafood.” Then he gave me the guitar.

TP:   And you taught yourself the guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: You listened to Django records, and you bought a picture of him to see the way he held the guitar, or something… Or did you see Django play?

TOOTS:   Yes, when he played during the war. He just had written Nuages, and he played with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet. Stephane was in England at the time. That was in ‘43 or ‘44.

TP:   So you played accordion as a kid, and when did you start playing harmonica? Before guitar or after guitar?

TOOTS:   Before guitar. Then it was sure that I wasn’t good enough to become a math teacher, and then my parents… My father was very… They spoiled me, allowed me to do what I… And I was practicing the guitar.
TP:   So you played for fun. You played accordion for fun, you played harmonica for fun, you played guitar…

TOOTS:   Yes. Still now. [LAUGHS] I wish that for everybody. First to get to 83. My birthdate is the same as Duke. Stevie Wonder is also Taurus. He told me after one of his shows in Brussels… You know, the blind guys go like that. His firm, his Black Bull publishing firm. He said, “Toots, maybe I’m Black Bull, but you sure are white bull.” [LAUGHS] Isn’t that beautiful?

TP: When did you start playing professionally?

TOOTS:   After liberation. It might have been… No, not during the Occupation. Then I played guitar. Nobody wanted to hear that toy. I had still like a Macaferri guitar, the Django type. It was an acoustic guitar. I saw Django’s concert, one night with the quintet, and he broke strings. Then he gave his guitar to… He had one of his cousins or something that plays rhythm guitar [MIMES boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick, boom…] then he gives it to the cousin, and the song didn’t stop, just that the guy tuned up, and he came back. Django was fantastic.

TP:   When did you start hearing bebop vocabulary? Because Django started to get into…

TOOTS:   No, he wasn’t. Many musicians couldn’t jump… They called it a hurdle for a minute, an obstacle you have to… Charlie Parker. My first bebop records were… We had the French (?)s from Antwerp who knew the sailors, and they brought back Groovin’ High, the historic Guild record, with the yellow; One Bass Hit, both sides, small group and the big band. Then we made acetate copy of that. They didn’t last long, because we used those needles, you know; they erode quickly with it. One historic thing I remember is Dizzy… First of all, Groovin’ High, the phrasing those guys used to go from A-minor-VII to D-VII… Groovin’ High is Whispering in E-flat, and the second time in… I tried to play that phrase in every key. So I went from D-VII to D-minor-VII to G, the VI-V in every key…
TP:   You did it in every key on the harmonica and practiced it.

TOOTS:   Yes. You may have noticed (or maybe you didn’t) that little change I put instead of the normal How High The Moon. The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.

TP: You said that on stage.

TOOTS:   Yes. Once in a while, I find things like that. Or practice… For instance, I play Confirmation, which was another first hurdle through. [sings refrain] I played that for sixty years in F, like everybody. But recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F. I tried to play, and I got… But I am basically a tonal musician. Kenny wants to push me outside of it. [plays theme of Confirmation on harmonica in F.] Now I play it in B. [Plays it in B.]

TP:   That sounds like your sound. It transformed into something I could recognize as you.

TOOTS:   [Continues] Well, these are the things. Also, the release of Cherokee. Even Bud Powell, I think, made the release on the chords of Cherokee.

TP:   So those are the things you practiced.

TOOTS:   Yes. Chico Buarque is fantastic, this song. [PLAYS IT] And here is pure Monk. [plays refrain] That’s so deep, you know. And I did that in every key, too.

TP: Sounds like you keep yourself sharp and alert by doing these mental exercises. It helps you keep your mental agility.

TOOTS:   My strongest (?) is Jaco Pastorius. [Points to ipod] He has those records, Live In New York, and when I had my stroke in 1981, and I was recuperating here in Lenox Hill Hospital… I had played with him on the word of mouth. Herbie was there. The Breckers. How is Michael?

TP:   He just went to Minneapolis for an experimental treatment…

TOOTS:   Anyway, where were we? On Jaco. We had this session. The way I met Jaco, he had just broke up with Weather Report. They’d gone each their own way. And in ‘79, he was alone in Berlin, solo concert. A journalist asked him, “You see here a list of the performers at the festival, Mr. Pastorius. If you were going to do a duo with someone…” He said, “Get me Toots.” That’s how it happened. And I never called Dizzy and said, “Dizzy, hey…” Everybody I played with…

TP:   Why do you think? Being objective about yourself, thinking about the type of musician you are, why do so many people want to play with you?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. Still now. Maybe you should ask some of the people. Maria Schneider… I call Maria very often, or she calls us. I was the first one to ask for Maria. She was in the north of Sweden. They have this bands on salary, this jazz orchestra. Luleå. Anyway, there’s a lady up there who’s booking, and she has a band, but they need soloists. “Mr. Thielemans, would you like to work with Ms. Maria Schneider?” I had heard her on the corner there, where she played every Monday. [Visiones] “Yes, I’d like to!” And we started a correspondence, and that’s where I played with Maria. We have some live tapes here. [points to Ipod]

TP: That’s a virtual mind in that Ipod.

TOOTS:   That’s 60 years. I knew you were coming! So I got a little, just in case something…

TP:   But let’s step back. What you said was fascinating about studying Groovin’ High and Confirmation and the release of Cherokee, and playing them in all the keys. But when Benny Goodman heard your acetates and asked for you, and you wound up playing with him, you’d been doing it…

TOOTS:   I was a full-fledged bebopper then, and that’s already 1950.

TP:   Were there people to play with in Europe at the time?

TOOTS:   In Belgium there were a few. Bobby Jaspar, Rene Thomas, but not many more. I saw Bobby with Miles just before Coltrane!

TP: Rene Thomas was a helluva guitar player.

TOOTS:   Yes. Sonny Rollins liked him. My first visit to the States was in ‘47. I was with my father’s brother in Miami, and there was this “Straighten up And Fly Right” by Nat Cole in the restaurant. Trio music with “Route 66.” That was the era. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, that people don’t want to hear that. Then I buy a drink to a guitar player, and we talk a little bit, “Yeah, I play the guitar and also the harmonica,” and I sat in. But who was there? None other than Bill Gottlieb. So hears me, and he buys me a drink. “Oh, you’re good.” Whatever. Then Bill Gottlieb took me to the Street.

TP:   He heard you in Miami, and then you looked him up when you came to New York.

TOOTS:   I was just having a drink and sitting in. Then he took me to the Street, the Three Deuces.  I think it was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, and Bags, and Jimmy Heath, too, I think. If you ask Bill Gottlieb, he’ll probably remember. He took me to meet the band. “Hey, guys, I’ve got this guy who plays the harmonica.” “Who? Belgium?” The two question marks. “What do you want to play?” In those days, the big identity, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of I Can’t Get Started. [PLAYS IT] I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. That was enough. And I sat next to the piano; I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine? With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Then the agent, the big salesman of bebop then was Billy Shaw. Shaw Nuff. That’s one of the traffic lights! “Where you from? You’re good!” “I’m from Belgium.” “Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.” [LAUGHS] Typical  Hollywood. And the big cigar with it! “Oh, send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.” I swear to you.

TP:   After I Can’t Get Started like that, I can see why.

TOOTS:   No, I was close to that. But the fundamentals were there. Now I’ve got some alternate scales into this, heh-heh. Then I wound up… I had to go back to the south of France with the boat. New York-Genoa, and then go to Nice, where there was a jazz festival, and where I was playing with Bobby Jaspar, representing Belgium. We were also accompanying Lucky Thimpson at that festival. Louis Armstrong was the top. On the boat, I wrote… I will play for you the progression I wrote on Stardust. I did it with Benny Goodman. I can play what Benny heard me play on the acetate there, you know….

TP: 50 years ago.

TOOTS:   55! [PAUSE] For instance, on the day of my birthday, the 29th of April, in a stadium in Norway, a football stadium – soccer. It was cold! I think I had gloves to play the guitar. And Zoot… Roy was there, Zoot was here, and Benny in the middle. Benny would play, and he would turn to the next soloist at the end of his chorus, one way or the other. But in that stadium, I never forgot, Zoot was waiting his time to solo, and he hadn’t played a note. It was freezing. For 15 minutes easy. If you remember Zoot, his horn is hanging and… [TP: Looking blank [HEAD DOWN, STOCK STILL] Then Benny… He didn’t expect to play. Benny turned to his side, and instantly, like a transistor – DOODLE,DA-DA-DA, DE-DE. Typical Zoot. Fantastic. That was my first contact with… I wasn’t in the States really. My first live contact with that kind of spontaneity like Zoot. He was so great. Then, of course. We didn’t play often enough together after that..

TP:   What was Benny Goodman’s demeanor like when you touring with him? You were his guitar player and…

TOOTS:   He wasn’t bad. I played the Charlie Christian chair.

TP:   So you had nothing but good experiences with him.

TOOTS:  Yeah.  And after six weeks touring: “Benny, I’d like to play another number.” Play Stardust. He loved that progression, where the guys went down and chromatically… I went up… That was revolutionary almost. [PLAYS UPWARD CHROMATIC SCALE] That I wrote, so to speak, it was in ‘47. Because I only played it in ‘50 with Benny. I had time to make the record, send it… And Ray Nance…we were buddies. They came to Brussels with Ellington, and I played that… I don’t have that record any more with the strings. I was able to take Duke into a record store, [(?)La Deux Des Midi(?)] in Brussels, and to make him listen to that acetate which wound up on Benny Goodman’s phonograph. Those are great memories.

TP: When was that experience with Duke?

TOOTS:   Oh, I never played with him. In ‘47, I came back…

TP:   Maybe it was ‘49 or so?

TOOTS:   In ‘48. The beginning. So that wound up, and in Europe after that I didn’t play with him. I didn’t play the right rhythm he wanted to hear. Not enough strength. Guys like Bucky Pizzarelli did that much better for him.

TP:   As far as rhythm guitar. So what decided you to come to the States? Did you make a decision to move here?

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. Because I had already applied for the immigration. The secretary, Muriel Zuckerman, who died… [HUGUETTE: She came to our wedding.] She was Benny Goodman’s secretary. She volunteered to be my affidavit…
TP: Your sponsor.

TOOTS:   Sponsor. Made it possible for me… She would be responsible if I did something wrong to the United States life. She would pay… So that was a great responsibility. She became good friends with my wife, Nettie.

TP:   So you came here with your wife…

TOOTS:   Yes, with $2000 in my pocket and a suitcase.

TP:   That wasn’t bad in 1952. That was a lot of money in 1952!

TOOTS:   Then my father… Of course, the regulations of the union were very strict. The Local 802, even if you came from the Chicago local, you had to establish residence in the Local 802 area, and wait for… I made $40 a week sending posters for the Belgian airline, Sabina. But we lived very…it was not…

TP: Not like this.

TOOTS:   No. We paid $20 a week in a hotel that’s a welfare hotel now, the Marquis, at 31st and Madison. The lady at the Belgian Embassy found us a place. Nothing. No cooking, just a hot plate.

TP:   But when you got here, you’d go around to the clubs and hang out.

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. I could work three days… No steady job. Or a record date, but nobody asked me. Also, Monte Kay, who became Diahann Carroll’s manager, and also the Modern Jazz Quartet, he had a club, the Downbeat, where everybody played. I got $15 a night for three nights, and that was a big week. 45 plus 40 is $85! You could eat at least. Some nights there was Mingus. Everybody. Lee Konitz.

TP:   Were you playing guitar or harmonica?

TOOTS:   Both. But mostly guitar. Billy Taylor was there and George Wallington, and Charlie Smith, the left-hand drummer. Billy Taylor, who wasn’t Doctor yet. Slim Gaillard playing piano! [LAUGHS] You know who came hanging around, and we started a friendship which we never developed any further? Paul Bley. He came from Canada. “Bon chez, bon ja(?),” they say, like Papa’s son comes to the big city. We talked a lot. Never technical; “okay, let’s play.” Nothing like that. Then…

TP: So you come to New York and start hanging out with your peer group, or people a bit younger than you…

TOOTS:   I was 30 years old.

TP:   Well, Billy Taylor and George Wallington… But you’re hanging out with the most progressive musicians…

TOOTS:   Yes. Lee Konitz, too.

TP:   They’re hearing you play the harmonica. Were you playing bebop on guitar as well?

TOOTS:   Yes. The next step was George Shearing. Tony Scott was hanging around all the time also, and helping. For instance, they had a party, and Bird was at the party, and get, you know, PUFFS, whatever…the hospitality… And Tony introduced me to some black ladies. [LAUGHS] He said he’d heard that George Shearing was going to lose his guitar player, and Dick Garcia had to go into the Army. George was doing those double-bill things with Billy Eckstine – Billy Eckstine-George Shearing at Carnegie Hall, and touring. This was 1952. Then across at the Metropole or Charlie’s Tavern or one of those bars where musicians hang out between sessions… There were a lot of recording sessions going on then. I went there to try to meet the guys, and Tony said: “Come with me.” He took me to meet George Shearing, and he pushed…at the stage door at Carnegie Hall, all he had to do was say, “Yes, I know so-and-so”… “I am a good friend of Mr. Shearing.” And he pushed me into George’s dressing room. George was relaxing. “George, I’ve got the man for you.” “Ah,” George says. “He plays the guitar, too.” So I played “Body and Soul” together with George in George’s dressing room. Then George says, “If you cut the guitar book…” Those were the words in those days. “If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.”

TP: So you studied the guitar book.

TOOTS:   Well, I knew it by ear. Then there were those big hits by George. Then in the meantime, I had that offer to go with Charlie Parker to Philadelphia, on the Dinah Washington show. George came, too, to double-check on me backstage at the Earle in Philadelphia. We were going to rehearse. There was a Rendezvous Jazz Club in Philadelphia. Ava Gardner used to come listen to George Shearing all the time. Not all the time, but once or twice. Maybe she had relatives in Philadelphia. Then I went to my guitar audition with George, and that started six years.

TP:   Talk about the six years with George Shearing, and how you developed musically. It sounds like that was your first steady gig playing the function in a working band.

TOOTS:   Yes. My only! It was always interesting, because some of those jobs you’d get into, you’d leave one town and drive at night, with no day to rest or anything, and sometimes you arrive in a town at 5 o’clock and you’ve got to play at 7:30. We all were tired, but George always interested me very much. I never was bored.

TP:   You were studying the same harmony book, too.

TOOTS:   That was interesting. And I developed some great chops on the guitar. I mean, my kind of chops.

TP: Did that gig have any impact on the way you conceived the sound of the harmonica?

TOOTS:   I was playing it once or twice a night. I was there mainly for the guitar book. That’s why I’m happy I could play both then. I wouldn’t have a job with harmonica alone. So I learned a lot. It was always interesting. In those days, it was Brubeck, Mulligan and Shearing. Right? And the rest were big bands. I was a major league player.

TP:   Top of the heap.

TOOTS:   I had visibility, call it that, for a minute.

TP:   I don’t know how much you were in direct contact with Charlie Parker…

TOOTS:   Oh, he liked me. I had met him in Paris. Because in Billy Shaw’s office he had heard me. And Al Haig, too, was in Paris.

TP: Was that in ‘49, when he came to the Festival?

TOOTS:   Yes, when they all first came to Paris. Al Haig was there. Miles Davis. Kenny Clarke. James Moody. With Bird, there was Kenny Dorham. They had a thing called “Prince Albert,” a variation on “All The Things You Are.” After the Benny Goodman tour, I had to work. I didn’t have my papers yet to come to the States. I worked in Sweden. They were very responsive. I had newspaper attention. It’s the first time that a European… It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, which Benny was still…

TP:   He had Stan Hasselgard.

TOOTS:   Yes, that was before. Benny tried everything before he found out that Waiting For the Sunrise was what he wanted to play. But he tried everything. But Charlie Parker played in Stockholm while I was playing in Sweden with that Swedish organ player, a Swedish Shearing type, blind – Reinhold Svensson. We were very popular, and I played the guitar, not whistling yet. He heard. “Hey!” And he came to listen to me. I saw him. Of course, our organ player didn’t see him. He was blind. I said, “Reinhold, stop. Bird is in the house.” I went into Lover Man. Those were the days of Camarillo. Bird said, “Hey, how you doin’?” He wanted to give me money.

TP:   He was in a grand mood. Probably drinking schnapps.

TOOTS:   I said, “No, Bird, I’m working.” I have a book, To Bird With Love that Chan did. There’s a letter that I wrote from Belgium to Bird, and thank you, and he kept it, or somebody kept it.

TP: When you played in Philadelphia with Bird, did he call you on it?

TOOTS:   That was just one gig.

TP:   In the ‘60s, you moved back to Europe?

TOOTS:   I didn’t move back. Now we live more there than here. We have a big house and a pool and three dogs.

TP:   Any children?

TOOTS:   No. But then I started to make a living in the States. But still going back a lot to Europe, because it wasn’t so hot in the late ‘50s. A lot of guys like Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, they didn’t do so well in the States. I was doing a movie score. That was in the ‘60s somewhere, and at the session, there was Red Mitchell. He said, “I’m tired politically and I’m disgusted with this country – where should I go?” I said, “Go to Sweden.” I told him! He drove me back to the hotel after the film session, and he moved. The same with Kenny Drew. He also wanted to go. I said, “The two places you could go are either Paris or Copenhagen.” He went to Copenhagen.

TP: How many languages do you speak?

TOOTS:   In Belgium, if you want to be a serious student, you can… I speak French and Flemish. But I’m French-speaking, doing his best in Flemish. But then in English and German, and then, by being so often in Sweden, I can speak Swedish fluently.

TP:   One thing that’s immediately apparent from your repertoire is how many different cultures you draw music from. You deal with chansons and musette, with bebop, with blues, with Brazilian music, with the songbook, with this very harmonic film music…

TOOTS:   Yeah, Midnight Cowboy and Sesame Street!

TP:   Did you write something for Sesame Street?

TOOTS:   No. I didn’t write that. Joe Raposa(?).

TP: But you’ve been addressing this repertoire for a while, and 25-30 years ago it wasn’t so common to hear that sound, but now it seems more…

TOOTS:   The variety.

TP:   The variety of things you play and the many strategies you take to play them.

TOOTS:   I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion. People cry when I play Smile, the Charlie Chaplin thing, or Ne Me Quitte Moi or What a Wonderful World. I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always make my heart…give me a goosebump. Of course, much of what I hear I’d like to incorporate, because… I hear some guys. I don’t want to name names. They’re very famous. But they haven’t changed a note in their language. They use the same… And I know. That’s what I spend time on, to listen to my old records. Even my famous…my big traffic light with Bill Evans, if I played with him today, or played the same songs today, I will play them differently. I like to believe I evolved. Like Quincy said, “Each time I hear you…” It’s not much maybe after fifty years… You can maybe ask a painter what he did fifty years before. But that’s what keeps me interested very much.

TP:   Finding new ways to approach old friends.

TOOTS:   Yes. I’m still trying to capture the Nefertiti album, Miles…

TP: Wayne Shorter you like.

TOOTS:   Wayne! For me, there’s many musicians, and then there’s guys like Hancock and Shorter. I feel I can learn from them. Herbie can play, man! He played with me before he joined Miles. That happened in 1962 in New York. I did everything in ‘62 – Jewish weddings, jingles, everything. Every Wednesday afternoon I went to the union, 252 West 52nd Street. There was the Roseland Ballroom, and there were meetings there, you could find gigs if you wanted to. Then on the way back, there was a trumpet store, Giardelli(?), 10 yards from that union. I passed by, and I hear music. This trumpet store, a repair… They had little rooms where they had a piano, and they’d rent them for rehearsal. I go upstairs. It was Donald Byrd. I see a piano player from the back. It was Herbie. I didn’t know. He’d just got in town then. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island. I said, “Herbie, do you need this piano job on the weekend?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met him. “No, take him! He needs it.” He needs the work, the job. That’s how I met Herbie. So we played and we did the little rehearsal. You’d better check with him if he wants that to be known. After a few checks, you know, on what songs we were going to play… It was not a jazz job. I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. You accept the job, you’re going to do the job, do what is requested. We checked. And after ten minutes he said, “Hmm, I think I’m…” This is Herbie in ‘62. “I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.” In my ear. He sent a nice email about that thing with Stevie Wonder. “I want to do this, but I’m going to…”

TP:   Is Stevie Wonder going to be part of your concert at Carnegie Hall?

TOOTS:   I am not sure. We are afraid to ask that. Now, we could ask Pat Metheny, too. He might like it. I played on his record, too.

TP:   How did you meet Bill Evans? How did that relationship…

TOOTS:   Bill when he was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform… Imagine. A crewcut. A Jack Armstrong crewcut. He came to listen to George Shearing at the Blue Note in Chicago. He admired George. He had respect for George. There was the Blue Note later, but in the basement, in the lower level. We were rehearsing there, like that… Afterwards, he said, “I hope we play together.” One of those polite goodbyes. Then I’m on the road, and I hear this guy. I didn’t know the name. “Hey, that’s my guy.” Then after I left Shearing, Bill was playing with Miles, I think with Trane and Cannon at the Showboat. During a break, I say hello, “Hi, Miles…” Miles sees me talking to Bill. “What are you talking about?” We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment and… Miles said, “You two should play together,” quick, and he went by to the men’s room or whatever. But I remember that. And we wound up doing it in ‘79. Then Helen Keane calls me, and he had just signed the contract with Warner Brothers. It was his first album. Helen calls me and said, “Toots, we’d like you to play a couple of albums on Bill’s upcoming session.” I said, “Helen, I’m not sure if I’m up to date to play with a giant like Bill today.” In ‘79, I was freelancing all over, just playing with Paul Simon and all those movies, all the jingles, like Old Spice and stuff.

TP: So you were on the New York studio scene in the ‘70s.

TOOTS:   Yes. I had a group. There was a club, Trotter’s, very close to the Village Vanguard, the other sidewalk. Slam Stewart played there with Bucky, Stan Getz, and I played there. I’d been teaching for one week, I think, a workshop at Eastman School of Music as a media application, what you can learn to be in the media – jingles, movies and stuff. Phil Markowitz was there. I remembered him from Eastman, so I hired him. My group was Phil Markowitz, Joe LaBarbera and Chip Jackson. That was a good group. I was playing, and I tell Helen, “Before you make up your mind to have me at the session, tomorrow he can come to listen to me.” I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and Bill said… Like a piranha he jumped on the lead sheet by that song of Paul Simon, and he said, “Come Monday.” That’s a great song.

Then in the studio, the only time… I don’t know if it’s to be printed. I played for so many people. But after three or four days in the studio it appeared that I’d play on every song with Bill instead of just two – with Larry Schneider. Then there was Marc Johnson and Elliot Zigmund, I think. Not yet LaBarbera. Bill heard LaBarbera with me. Then I go on a break and I say, “Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much.” It could be Toots Thielemans featuring… Bill said to my ear: “I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that, meaning song… No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out.” He said, “give me a minute.” He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. “We will double your fee.” I never heard that one before!

TP:   That took care of your strictures.

TOOTS:   Of course, that record really gave me a lot of credibility, I guess. Some of your colleagues said, “What the hell did they get Toots Thielemans for?” I read that. This guy Lee Jeske wrote, “The next thing I need is to buy earmuffs so I won’t hear the harmonica.” He was reviewing my Brazil Project in the New York Post.
TP:   You need a thick skin in this business.

TOOTS:   But not everybody likes my sound or whatever. But I feel… I don’t know. I can’t help it. This guy who said, “shameless sentimentality.” I admit it. That’s me. I cry easy and I smile easy. A smile and a tear. I am a minor-VII person. You do what I have to do.


TP: We’re talking about the concert. Stevie Wonder is being approached, Quincy Jones will be in it, Paul Simon wanted to make it, but couldn’t… You told me this anecdote about Stevie Wonder. Did you record with him?

TOOTS:   Never. We’re on the…

TP:   But you’re both harmonica players.

TOOTS:   I learned a lot from Stevie. I play maybe more notes. When he came out, it was more than forty years ago. I am always impressed… First of all, I am very responsive to the black sound, the African-American… Sometimes I say I respond to “What are you thinking,” blah-blah. I would not be the same person or the same musician if it had not for the blue note that came from Africa via America. I feel that way, and I respond that way, and that’s the way people like Quincy responds to me so much, too, apparently. But you’ll have to ask them. “I am so proud of your black ass.” Ray Charles, he called me “Mr. T.”

TP:   Did Quincy Jones get you into soloing on film scores?

TOOTS:   Yes. I have a photograph. It was his first engagement in Los Angeles, the last film that Cary Grant ever made, Walk, Don’t Run. I have been on most of his recordings during the Creed Taylor era, and also in Los Angeles.

TP: He likes to paint pictures with sound, and no one gets that sound but you.

TOOTS:   The harmonica can underline a scene in a movie where not much happens. The last thing, I was very disappointed… They called me. The best movie score financially was in London. I won’t say the name. There was only gunshots. The composer told me, “Play there a little bit something nice” – with gunshots and explosions. But then a guy, one of the composers, he used to be Barbra Streisand’s boyfriends…

TP:   Jon Peters.

TOOTS:   No. He wrote the The Fugitive. Anyway, he said, “Toots, don’t worry. When I make you play, they’re just holding hands and taking a walk in the country” or something like that.

TP:   When you improvise, what are you thinking about? The notes?

TOOTS:   Yes, the notes.

TP: Anything more abstract in your mind?

TOOTS:   It’s an abstract process. But I try to play in a linear way. Make drawings, sound drawings sometimes. Okay, I’m working out… [PLAYS] That’s the introduction to Round Midnight. I try to sing also. When I play Brel, I try to play the words. There’s words like, “I want to be in the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your door. Do not leave me.” [SAYS THEM IN FRENCH]

TP:   Do you think of singers? Is the harmonica sort of a voice?

TOOTS:   Maybe. I like some songs to stay close, like The Nearness of You… If it’s a ballad, to try to make sense according to the lyrics a little bit. But maybe I should play more loose with Kenny. He had take wild chances.

TP:   Did anybody, apart from maybe Larry Adler, influence you on the harmonica?

TOOTS:   No. I am very impressed with Gregoire Maret. He came to the opening night. He gave me that record, Dapp Theory. Are you hip to him?

TP: He plays with Steve Coleman, too, and Cassandra…

TOOTS:   But Andy Milne. I’d like to get…

TP:   That would be a different sound

TOOTS:   I feel, if I may say.. .I feel closer… I can play more myself and closer to the loose phrasing of the rhythm that happens, for instance, on Dapp than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago. The rhythm of today is closer to what I feel.

TP:   A lot of those are odd meters, 7/4, 11/4…

TOOTS:   I’m not so hot with that

TP: You have Steve Coleman on your Ipod. Do you like his music?

TOOTS:   I want to hear it. As I don’t have that much time to play a lot, what… But I bombard  myself with new music, or if not new, at least something I can learn from. Gregoire makes me think, if I make a comparison… 55 years ago, I came to this country, and pretty soon I played with Charlie Parker and then with Shearing. Now he comes, and he’s great. I’d like to hear him in two-three years.

TP:   This brings up a point I touched on before, that the music now is such an international hybrid. Fifty years ago, jazz was coming from blues and the American songbook and so on. But now, things that were exotic many years ago are no longer exotic. In some way, the music has caught up with what you’re doing. It’s a very international proposition now, and there’s something in your tonal personality that embodies that meldjng of cultures.

TOOTS:   The responses I get, if you ask some people around… If you read the liner notes that Kenny wrote about me on our album, “Everybody likes Toots…” I get compliments from David Murray, the saxophone player! “Hey!” I don’t know. It’s not for me to say.

TP:   One thing I’d like you to try to talk about is what you see as your accomplishment. You’ve been a professional musician for almost sixty years – six years in Europe, 53 years in the States. Your sound is a very recognizable signpost on the jazz landscape, and you’ve played with enough people that there will be a Carnegie Hall concert filled with musical celebrities who want to pay homage…

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I was trying to get an answer for myself before you came. I don’t know. Accomplishment? I don’t know. When my wife and I received the title from the Belgian King, Baron… I am a Baron. You need a credo. Like arms.  A coat of arms, whatever. I had met… In Chicago about fifty years ago, somebody said to me, “Oh, man, I just want to be myself.” And then there is a Council of the Arts in Belgium. It can be done in Flemish, in French, or in Latin, one of the three. Then I asked the man, “Can I do it in English? Can I have a full English phrase defining what I…” Then I said, “Be myself, no more, no less.” “Connaitre toi-meme.” Know yourself. Then the man on the panel… They had a discussion, and they told me a few days after they thought that “myself” was too egotistical, too me-me-me. They said, “Mr. Thielemans, would you be satisfied with ‘be yourself, no more, no less’?” That’s what I like to be, and be accepted as.

I don’t know what I accomplished. Judging this, there’s two sides of the coin. Much of the public likes me. They cry when I play… We were in Seattle. Some people drove 500 miles to come and listen to me! Things like that. Oyster Bay, from Oregon or something.  In St. Louis, some guy came from Little Rock, Arkansas. They have my records, my old LPs! In Europe, the same thing. I don’t know what I accomplished. I did my best. Somebody asked Jim Hall, “Did you make concessions?” He said, “Nobody asked me.” Oh, no. “Did you ever sell out?” Jim said, “nobody ever asked me.” So I don’t know what I might have done…

TP: But there’s something about you that’s very individualistic and very selfless at the same time. With Elis Regina, you play yourself and also your own sound. Same thing with Bill Evans.

TOOTS:   My sound. The session started with two numbers. When we’re getting in the studio, he jumps on that Paul Simon song, which Paul redid with Herbie. But for three days I played all through the record, and Bill says, “I want people to know you can play like that.” That’s 1979. So I’m still doing my best.

TP:   Did you do a number of records with Paul Simon?

TOOTS:   I played one solo, and I didn’t think he liked it. It was at the old studio, 48th Street, where the union is now – A&R, West 48th Street.  Phil Ramone calls me. “Toots, can you come and play for Paul Simon?” “Yeah, Phil, but I have to take a plane to go to the Monterrey Festival, but I can be there at 1 o’clock.” If you listen, that was the first record that Paul Simon made on his own, after Garfunkel. There was a late game… Paul is a great baseball fan, and there was a melody…a song about a pitcher who dies on the mound. He makes me fill all the tracks. Paul has a blank face. He is not very demonstrative. There may be an explosion here, and he goes, “Hmm…’ “Can you play a little there,” I play, then “Bye, Toots.” I had to take my plane. I thought, “Jesus, I laid an egg here.” I flunked. I laid an egg. I get to my room in Monterrey. “Please call Mr. Phil Ramone,” they said. Paul had played with all the tracks. “Paul loves you!” Oh, yeah!? That was a great experience. Sanborn. Steve Gadd. Michael… No, I’m not sure if Michael was on it. Hugh McCracken on guitar. I think Ralph McDonald was playing percussion. Anyway, that was fantastic, and we played in England and in Holland and Israel also.

TP:   Oh, you toured with Paul Simon.

TOOTS:   Yes, about 15 days altogether. I learned a lot from him.

TP: What did you learn from Pop music as opposed to jazz? Do you think about a situation like that differently?

TOOTS:   No. The few people I’ve played with, like Paul or Billy Joel, they like what they hear when I play, and they say, “Hey, I want some of that.” I like hillbilly music, too. I have one little trio picking that you won’t believe. I was on that Jimmy Dean Show in the early ‘60s. I was trying to stay home, and Peter Max, the conductor, and Jimmy Dean… It was ABC network. All the guys from Nashville came up. They knew me. “How you’all doin’, Toots? You’all gotta come down and pick with us.”

TP:   You were playing guitar on the JimmyDean Show?

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   You were playing harmonica.

TOOTS:   Things like that. That was in the time when Johnny Cash made records with two trumpets, the Ring of Fire. I said, “Hey, I’m going to write something like that, a melody with two voices,” and then I give that to the publisher, who’d just handled Bluesette, and he sends it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert hears it, and that went on a record that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000.
TP: Bluesette?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. That tune is called Ladyfingers, on Herb Alpert, with the chick on the cover wrapped into whipped cream or whatever. You know? That enabled me… That and some… You talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree. Whistling for jingles. Bluesette comes out and gets a lot of play in ‘63, and Madison Avenue, they look for new sounds, different sounds. John Glenn went into orbit, and the music writer, Jimmy Fagas, he was a fan. I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs and everything – to stay home! Bluesette comes out. “Toots, you’re going to make money.” I never had money outside of working – you work for the money. I sign a piece of paper, and John Glenn goes into orbit – that’s a Class A spot, Screen Actors Guild. If you talk and sing you become a… If you whistle for a commercial, you become a Screen Actor, and that’s another union.  I did some things where I played the guitar and whistled. For the guitar, I received $37 for 12 weeks.
TP:   Scale.

TOOTS:   Yes, scale of the instrumental jingle. For the whistling, I received $50 each time it’s heard! Then when I whistled for Old Spice, in one hour… They asked me, “Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?” [LAUGHS] I already have made a little money, so I knew the rates. “This is for Old Spce, but we look for a sound like the man who gets off the boat and throws the bottle of Old Spice. [WHISTLES REFRAIN] Now I can’t do it any more. When I do that sometimes, in a concert… That followed by [BLOWS ON HARMONICA] “going to Sesame Street.”

TP:   It’s good to get some laughs.

TOOTS:   But for Sesame Street, that’s instrumental and educational. They use it for 15 years. No residuals. But lately they’ve said, “Yeah, we’re going to give a little extra anyway.” So for 15 years of use on TV, maybe I made $500. But for Old Spice, in one hour in the studio… And then at football games, that’s Class A, coast-to-coast. Some of those jingles are only seen in Chicago, but Old Spice is all over. So I made, staying home, $15,000, in the ‘60s. So the combination of that and Herb Alpert, we could buy the house in Montauk.

TP: I guess once you got in the studios, it was hard to get out.

TOOTS:   I had two years where they said, because I don’t read fast enough and all that, and there were better guys for the guitar work… But between the three, the whistle, the guitar and the harmonica, there was a saying, “Call Toots, he’ll find something to do.”

TP:   Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but harmonica players and whistlers are not.

TOOTS:   Yes. So that was the making a living value.

TP:   You’re talking about listening to country pickers and these Nashville guys liking you. Did you ever play the blues? Did you listen to blues harmonica players?

TOOTS:   I listened to them, yeah. Have you heard Howard Levy? He plays chromatic or diatonic. I have him in the IPOD. He’s a great musician. He plays the piano. He composes. He’s amazing. But Gregoire, I’d like to…

TP: But the Chicago blues type of thing.

TOOTS:   No. But these guys do that well, you know.

TP:   How about Bob Dylan?

TOOTS:   Are you ready? Again, I wanted to stay home, not travel. I was mostly in Europe and playing not jazz much in the ‘60s. Nobody made a great living playing straight jazz. So I got a call: “Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to come and do a jingle. Can you play like Bob Dylan? We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?” He had the diatonic. I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” “Do you know anyone who does?” My defense mechanism. There was maybe one. I said, “No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.” Then they called me… I was living in Yonkers then, on North Broadway. I did go once a week or so to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. Blind people enjoyed hearing me, and as a good gesture. There were two black gentlemen, blind of course, both of them, and: “Mr. Thielemans, I want to play like you.” They played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. “Oh, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown…” “We want to play like you.” But that’s another world. “Can I hear what you do?” And I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Not like them. The voicings and the sound, no. But mechanically! I thought, “Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.” [LAUGHS] I rwent right into Manny’s on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. “Sir, I am ready for you.” I got a box… I have a whole bag of the diatonic harmonics. I even took a bag to Hollywood for Quincy, in case he needed that. I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.

TP:   You have to do all that to play in the studios. But in the first few tunes the other night, you take a lot of tonal liberties on the harmonica…

TOOTS:   You bet. Howard Levy, for instance, he overblows, and he can change on the diatonic. When my wife comes, I can show you… Not like he does, but I can show what can be done.

TP: But where I’m going with the question, if you’ll bear with me for one second…

TOOTS:   [BLOWS THE BLUES ON A CHROMATIC]  That’s very close, but it’s not as funky as… Listen. The blues player calls the chromatic “the chrome.” “I don’t play the chrome, but I play the harp.” That’s my Quincy Jones bag. I got them all in the wrong keys.

TP:   A big leather bag of diatonic harmonicas.

TOOTS:   Yes!

TP:   But did this become part of your vocabulary after the ‘60s, or the way you embellish your voice…

TOOTS:   No. [BLOWS] That’s too high-pitched. [UNWRAPS ANOTHER ONE AND BLOWS SOME BLUES, TAPPING HIS FOOT] If you want to change keys… [BLOWS ON ANOTHER ONE]

[BLOWS] He can play Giant Steps on that. But these guys have tone. And here you can attack the note. [BLOWS: BENDS THE NOTES] That’s very moody. [BLOWS] But this guy Levy, he overblows, and then he creates some harmonics I don’t know. I can’t do it. [BLOWS] See, you can blow, but you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion. [BLOWS] [BLOWS] That’s funky, but that’s where… Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. Before we say goodbye. Come on, girls. [BLOWS A BLUES LINE] “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!” [LAUGHS]

TP:   How did the relationship with Ken Werner start? Earlier you played with Fred Hersch and Joey Baron for a long time.

TOOTS:   Yes, when they were available, that was my… Fred, Marc Johnson and Joey. We made a nice record. Where I play Ne Me Quitte Pas for the first time, and where I played with Fred Stardust. We had played in Fort Lauderdale here, and the plane stopped in Washington, and from Washington to Fort Lauderdale. On the stretch between New York and Washington, there was Benny Goodman. He said, “Hey, Gene (he called me Gene), how you doing?” “I’m okay, Benny.” Blah-blah-blah. He was in first class, of course. “Come and sit next to me.” I said, “I am only in economy back there…” “Ah, fuck them. Sit next to me.” He spoke that way in the plane. The hostess comes, and he says, “Oh, this is my dear friend; this gentleman must sit next to me.” I sat there, and I started to talk. Benny was legendary for not paying a cent more than he had to. I said, “I started to make a bit of money, Benny.” He said, “I’m tired.” He had to go to an award thing in Washington at the White House or something. “Yeah, I’m starting to make…” “Oh, really?” he said. “Really?!” One of those. “I’ve got to go to Fort Lauderdale. Bye, Benny.” Then I hear on the media that Benny Goodman died. I have the chorus of Stardust always with me, and in Brussels at the Ballets du Beaux Art, the Carnegie Hall of Brussels, I told the people… I had played the same Stardust, the same chorus that you heard with Benny in ‘50. I told the people, “this is very touching for me; I am sitting here, playing what I played with Benny Goodman forty years ago, and we will play it the same.” You’ve got to hear that.

TP: I want to ask again what you’re looking for in the people who play with you. Ken Werner and Oscar Castro-Neves are very important to the sound you’re looking for.

TOOTS:   From a pianist, I can almost say I need that Bill Evans ground floor.

TP:   Just like Herbie Hancock said.

TOOTS:   Yes. The ground floor. Then it’s like this, but you need your own decoration. But Fred Hersch, the first time I heard him was in Tokyo. He was playing with Red Mitchell and Elliot Zigmund. Then I asked for his phone number. We met here, and I heard this touch. But I’ve played with other guys that get a lot of fame, even win polls, and I don’t hear that ground floor, so I’m not attracted to that so much. Don’t write it, but Kenny Barron doesn’t give me that ground floor. That was my band, Kenny, Ray Drummond and Billy Hart – at Greene Street. But don’t write that. Hank Jones does… Joe Lovano is a great fan of mine. Scofield, too, about my guitar. Last New Year… We were eating New Year’s Day in Brussels, the phone rings, and it was Scofield calling from here to wish me greetings. With Shearing, I had done a great solo, I thought, on Little Niles, Randy Weston’s song. “Hey, Toots! This is Sco.” “Thanks for calling.” “I am listening to what you did fifty years ago with Shearing on the guitar.” So I know where the good stuff is, but my fingers won’t follow.

TP:   I’m impressed with how up to date you are.

TOOTS:   I listen to everything. I have the latest Chris Potter record. [POINTS TO IPOD] I don’t want a computer. Then I get email, and I have to answer. But my manager…

TP: I should give you some rest.

TOOTS:   This is stimulating for me. But I am still very close to Wayne Shorter. All those guys send greetings. And the guys who play with Wayne want to play with me. Patitucci, Danilo and Brian Blade. Bill Frisell. Sco. I played a few times… He was my guest in Montreal.

TP:   Did you do a week…

TOOTS:   No, I just played each time… This time I did a duo with Kenny, and we had Paolo Fresu. He plays good. Pat Metheny. As they say in French, “ne pas frotte(?) la mange,” “I don’t want to rub your sleeve.” One of my first tastes of American humor, with Benny Goodman, at the Palladium: There was a Jewish comedian, Herky Stiles. You never heard of him? “Oh, you should meet my girlfriend. She has only one tooth, but it’s a nice brown one.” You still laugh at that today! Fifty years ago. “Oh, she has the hottest kisses. Why, she never takes her cigar out of her mouth.” “Last year I had a great year. I sold wedding rings to Artie Shaw.” He had one about Les Brown, too. “I used to work for Les Brown, but now I work for less money,” sometimes with Benny Goodman. [LOUD LAUGH] These are my… I know that since ‘49! Things I don’t forget.

In Sweden, I became a matinee idol in a revue, and when I played Brazil, therefore, the first time on the harmonica… I speak Swedish, and they gave me a monologue to say from slang, 300 years ago, the way they spoke in the north of Sweden. How can you compare that? You ask a Frenchman to speak in America with a Nashville accent. A famous Frenchman. It’s called a thing about Napoleon. Napoleon is Bonaparte in Swedish. The guys goes… It was a big triumph, doing that monologue. And in the summer later, after, I went into the parks. I’ve got to play you some of the stuff with whistling and guitar in Sweden. A guy in the back of the hall yelled, “Hey, do your monologue, man!” That was the time, the period… Look, in ‘63, I was trying to hold on to the Coltrane wagon. Giant Steps. [BLOWS Giant Steps] With Kenny we do that on the duo thing, and we make a tribute with Naima. [BLOWS Naima]

Again, I don’t try, but I am very happy… This is no more, no less. You seem to respond to me and the music, but you don’t change your pen for me. Write what you really feel.




Filed under Article, DownBeat, Harmonica, Interview, Toots Thielemans