Category Archives: Jazziz

In Response to the Passing of Bruce Lundvall (Sept. 13, 1935-May 19, 2015), An Uncut Interview From January 2009

It isn’t often that musicians collectively respond with sadness to the death of a music executive, but that is precisely how the artists who knew Bruce Lundvall have reacted to the news of his passing this afternoon,  after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

A mass email from Blue Note announcing the event gives the basic facts:

“A self-described “failed saxophone player,” Bruce took an entry level marketing job at Columbia Records in 1960 and over the following two decades rose to lead the North American division of the label, signing artists including Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson. After launching the Elektra/Musician label in 1982, he received the offer of a lifetime in 1984 when EMI approached him about reviving Blue Note Records which had been dormant for several years. He jumped at the chance, partnering with producer Michael Cuscuna to bring back the label’s earlier stars like Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson & Jackie McLean, and signing new artists including Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Michel Petrucciani, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter and Medeski Martin & Wood.

Under Bruce’s stewardship Blue Note established itself as the most-respected and longest-running jazz label in the world. He presided over a prosperous nearly-30-year period of the label’s history, reaching commercial heights with artists including Bobby McFerrin, Us3, Norah Jones, Al Green and Amos Lee, while recording some of the most important jazz artists of our time including Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Don Pullen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Terence Blanchard, Jacky Terrasson, and many others.”

I didn’t know Mr. Lundvall very well, but had several occasions to hang out with him in one club or another, and, as consequentially, to interview him on several occasions about his life and times. One was a public interview before a rather large crowd at the National Jazz Museum In Harlem, of which I don’t have a tape. A couple of years earlier, on January 9, 2009, I interviewed him for a story in Jazziz at an Italian restaurant near the Blue Note offices. He drank three martinis without batting an eyelash, as he took on the questions. I had to cut 75% of the text for the piece; here’s the entire conversation.

 

Bruce Lundvall (Jan. 9, 2009):

TP: I’ve been trying to think of a phrase or two phrases to encapsulate my impressions of you.

BRUCE: Unh-oh.

TP: One is “survivor” and the other is someone who could be a master diplomat in your ability to balance the dictates of art and commerce. So let me ask you about that. You’ve survived in the record business, flourished in the record business, and made your mark on the record business for close to 50 years. Not an easy feat.

BRUCE: 49 actually.

TP: 49. Since 1960.

BRUCE: Yup.

TP: I’d like to relate that to the state of things right now.

BRUCE: I’ll tell you on Tuesday, because I have an interview with my boss on Monday.

TP: Who is your boss?

BRUCE: Nick Gatfield. He’s the global head of A&R now. They’ve changed the structure of the company completely, as you probably know.

TP: Yes. But I don’t know exactly they’ve changed it and how it affects Blue Note.

BRUCE: Essentially, it affects Blue Note because Blue Note no longer has the staff that it used to. We have an A&R staff, and then we use the services of a marketing staff and the services of an international staff, etc., which handles Blue Note, Capitol, and Virgin. In other words, it’s sort of like a top-down… It would be like, in a way, recreating Columbia Records where they handle Epic and everything else… But Epic had its own staff, so it’s not a good analogy. But there is a common staff now to handle every one of the three major labels—if we’re talking about Blue Note as a major label, Blue Note-Manhattan. So they’ve taken away the idea of having a team of people who are just Blue Note. So Blue Note is now just essentially A&R. So Ian Ralfini runs Manhattan. I run the combination of Blue Note and Manhattan. Eli Wolf is the head of A&R for Blue Note. Lauren is his assistant. And Mike (?) is the guy who does A&R for Manhattan. So that’s kind of like our little staff of people. Then we use the services of people like Zack, J.R., Cem, and so on. Cem has other responsibilities than Blue Note, but only a few. It’s a different structure altogether, but it works the same way.

TP: And you report to Gatfield.

BRUCE: Yeah, Gatfield.

TP: That’s a private equity group?

BRUCE: No. Terra Firma is the private equity group that bought EMI last July and June. So now the guy who runs EMI is a guy named Elio Leoni-Sceti. They hired this guy who worked in a different business altogether to run EMI-Worldwide. So he is the ultimate boss. But the company is owned by Terra Firma. Leoni is a very smart Italian guy from Rome, who has lived in the States before, lives in London now. He is in charge of EMI-Worldwide, but reporting in to the board of Terra Firma.

TP: How long was the previous structure in place?

BRUCE: Forever.

TP: How many different bosses have you worked for over the years?

BRUCE: At least 15 since I came here in ‘84. I’ve had various jobs. It’s always been Blue Note and Manhattan, and then at one point Capitol on the East Coast. I’ve had about 14 or 15 bosses, starting with Bhaskar Menon and Joe Smith… I don’t want to get into a whole list of people. I can’t remember them all.

TP: With all these different bosses, the label has retained a remarkable consistency as far as the face that it presents. It would seem from the outside to be fairly seamless.

BRUCE: We have been left alone for the most part. No one has ever told us to drop an artist. No one has ever told us we’re in trouble. We’ve always made a profit, too. We’ve had a profit every year since ‘85, which is amazing. The advent of the Blue Note catalog. The advent of Blue Note on CDs, of course—people buying their whole collection of LPs on CD. All that is past us now, but that was part of it. Then, of course, the phenomenon of Norah Jones, other phenomenons like US-3 and Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Things like that, that happened and had hits. The basic roster has done pretty well.

[ORDER: Bruce: caprese & orichette w/sausage & broccoli rabe]

TP: You just said that you’ve always made a profit, which would be the reason why you’ve always been left alone?

BRUCE: Well, it’s certainly one of the reasons, I think, with respect to what we do. I think we’ve brought some class to the company, and the fact that some artists really are prestigiously important and artistically important. That’s a good part of it. But the fact of the matter is, the target, it’s hard to say in… We started this in ‘85, when the first releases came out. Then we had Manhattan as our pop label as well. So on balance, Blue Note (not always Manhattan, but Blue Note) has had a profit in each of these years, and the combination has had a profit in most of the years. So therefore, we’re looked upon as a profitable resource for the company. Not like Capitol or Virgin—or Nashville, which is immensely profitable. But we’ve had those big years. When Norah had her big success, my God, we outbilled Capitol and Virgin, and had more of a profit as well. So that helps, certainly.
The fact of the matter is that they’re proud of the heritage of Blue Note and they’re proud of the artist roster that we have, so we’ve been pretty much left alone. Now it’s a little different, because the economy is tough, and they’re looking at every dime that’s being spent, which you have to do, so we don’t have quite the flexibility that we had before. But no one is saying, “You’ve got to get rid of these people” or anything like that, which is good.

TP: Two things come to mind. One is that your own personal management style must have something to do with it.

BRUCE: I can’t speak to that.

TP: Can you describe your management style, though?

BRUCE: Well, I think luck. First of all, I am mostly about music. I have done this long enough that I know about business, too, but I’m not a numbers guy really. But I know what it takes to make money and lose money on a record. The parameters of deals that we should be making. We don’t make any crazy deals. We don’t have any million dollars or anything like that, including the artists that we have on Manhattan. Well, maybe Sarah Brightman, but she pays her way. Those kinds of artists are much more expensive, but they’re profitable artists for us. But normally, we make reasonable deals, intelligent deals, and that’s part of it, and we try to keep our rosters manageable and not let it get too large. Very often, these pop labels, their artist rosters expand and become really bloated, and the cost is so high it’s crazy. That’s not the case any more, right now, but in the past that’s happened. But we’ve already kept our rosters pretty tight. In terms of the number of artists we’re carrying on the roster, we’re very selective.

TP: I’m noticing that there seem to be fewer artists than ten years ago, or is that a mis-assumption.

BRUCE: No, not really. If you just take Blue Note alone, which is what we’re really talking about… Manhattan had a lot of artists when it was a major pop label in New York. Now it’s a smaller… But Blue Note has been pretty much about the same. We have 22 to 25 artists on Blue Note right now. A few people are gone.

TP: But let’s get back to this management style issue. Was there anyone who mentored you, for instance, after whom you modeled yourself?

BRUCE: I had maybe four mentors in my lifetime in the business. The first one was John Hammond. We were very close. The second would be Joe Gallagher, who was head of marketing at Columbia Records and hired me. The third one would be Ken Clancy, who was the head of A&R at one point at Columbia, and then RCA. The fourth one would be…I’d say Clive probably, because Clive helped me a great deal. These are the people I learned the most from, I would say. And others as well.

TP: Did you model yourself after them, or was it always your own personality?

BRUCE: I think I tried to keep my own personality, but a lot of my points of view were either confirmed by the way they behaved or what they taught me. John Hammond was really interesting, because he said, “If you hear someone that’s original, don’t ask any other questions. Just sign the artist period. Don’t ask if it’s going to be successful on radio. Always ask, ‘Does this artist sound like somebody else?’ and if so, don’t bother.” Good lesson to learn. I didn’t learn that just sitting down in two or three words. But he set it by example. He was a guy who produced a lot of records. He wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer. Or, commercially speaking, he wasn’t a great producer, but he was a great signer, certainly. Stick with your convictions, and don’t be influenced by other people saying, you know, ‘You’re full of shit.” I remember when John Hammond came out with Bob Dylan, it became known as “Dylan’s Folly.” Everyone said, “He can’t sing, he can’t write, he can’t play the guitar, blah-blah-blah.” John said, “You’re wrong, he’s a genius and original,” and certainly he was exactly that. He was called “Hammond’s Folly” for the longest time. That happened with other artists with John, too.

TP: Forgive me for not knowing this, but at what time during your tenure at Columbia did you move into A&R and signing artists?

BRUCE: I became the General Manager of the Columbia label in 1970. That’s when I first started being able to sign some artists. The first artist I brought to Clive was Herbie Hancock when he was still on Warner Brothers. I said, “We’ve got to sign this guy.” I said, “Let’s sign him under the name Mwandishi.” That was his Swahili name; he had that group called Mwandishi. Clive wisely said, “Let’s wait til he gets off Warner Brothers.” As soon as he got off Warner Brothers, he was signed. Clive signed him, but I brought him to Clive. I brought Bill Evans to Clive, too. We signed Bill. I was the head of marketing then. The first successful artist I had who I signed on my own was Phoebe Snow. Before her first record came out, On Shelter, there was a lawsuit going out. It came out and did very well. But I had heard it was under litigation. I said, “Well, I have to have this artist.” And we did very well with her, too. We won the lawsuit and we put out two albums that were gold albums, and subsequently two more.

I made a lot of mistakes. Because shoemakers are supposed to stick to their last, as you know the old expression. When I thought I could sign rock-and-roll bands, and I fell on my face. I signed some. I won’t mention who they were, because no one in the world would ever remember except the artists themselves, if they’re still alive. But I was much better at signing, obviously, jazz artists, singer-songwriters, R&B artists, and country artists—of all things.

TP: It seems to me that one accomplishment we can attribute to you is helping to put hardcore mainstream jazz back on the map via large label representation, by signing Dexter Gordon in the mid ‘70s when it was against the grain. Now, this article is about Blue Note, but it’s also about you. I also realize that you’ve recounted this endless times before. But if you could speak to that. Also, during those years, since it pertains so much to your reign at Blue Note, your forays into Cuba and beginning your relationships with Cuban artists.

BRUCE: Obviously, my first love is straight-ahead, serious jazz music. Dexter Gordon was an artist I had never seen, but I had bought his 78s on Dial and Savoy as a kid, and then I bought all his LPs. But I’d never seen him. He was living in Copenhagen. In the Army, I was stationed in Germany, I went to Copenhagen to see Dexter, and he was away on tour. He wasn’t playing at Montmartre. So I missed him there.
I was at John McLaughlin’s wedding in New York at the Plaza Hotel, and I went to the reception, and a guy named Stan Snyder, who was my head of sales, who was a big jazz fan, said, “Dexter Gordon is playing at Storyville,” which was a club that Rigmor Newman was managing on 58th Street. I said, “oh, shit.” So I went there right away. We left the wedding, we made some feeble excuse to leave the wedding reception, and ran over there and caught the first set, or maybe the second set. Dexter was playing brilliantly, and I went backstage. I said, “You don’t know me, but you’re my hero. I want to sign you to Columbia Records.” All he said, “CBS” in that inimitable way. We came in the next day and we signed him.

I signed Stan Getz there, and I saw McCoy Tyner, and Arthur Blythe and Return to Forever. Bob James was a commercial signing. Al DiMeola. Woody Shaw.

TP: A real renaissance in the artistic aspect of the label.

BRUCE: Well, Columbia Records had a great history in jazz, after all, and it was dwindling. Everyone wanted rock-and-roll, and rock-and-roll, and more rock-and-roll. I felt that my contribution could be where my heart was. Essentially, that’s what I did best. I loved that, so I wanted to have those artists on the label, and we did that. I had no resistance at all. The thing that made it interesting is that we didn’t have a jazz label. It was just Columbia Records. It was never the Columbia jazz label, not even a Legacy then. So in a way, when you had the kind of success that the company was having in rock-and-roll music and in pop music generally, if you signed Dexter Gordon, instead of signing 10,000 records, he might sell 40,000 or 50,000. The perception was that we could do anything better than anyone else. The company was an amazing company during those years in terms of their power in the marketplace. So very few of those artists lost money for us.

Who else did we sign? One record with what’s his name, the guitar player..oh my Lord. It doesn’t matter.

TP: In signing Dexter Gordon, you weren’t particularly making any calculations. It was Hammond’s dictum.

BRUCE: Yes, exactly right. I wanted quality, and I loved the music, and I loved Dexter Gordon’s playing, and I said, “My God…” When I heard him that night, there was just no question. No question. You know who called me the next day after he found out that we had signed him, was Ahmet Ertegun. He said, “You’ve done a completely great thing.” I said, “Mr. Ertegun…” I referred to him as Mr. Ertegun). I said, “I did? What did I do?” “You signed Dexter Gordon. We should have done it at Atlantic. We never thought of it, but you did it at Columbia Records.” “Yeah.” I didn’t think there was anything so special about it, but he thought it was. It was an amazing thing for a label like Columbia to sign Dexter Gordon. Dexter himself thought he was going to be signed to an independent jazz label.

TP: What you’re saying bears out that by 1976, you’d already lived through several eras of the music and made your impact felt. I don’t know if there’s anything to ask about that…

BRUCE: You have to remember that I started out as a marketing guy. I wanted to be in A&R, but I didn’t have any real credentials. So they put me in marketing, and I was in marketing up until I became the General Manager of the Columbia label, and then I learned how to sign artists. The first thing that I did, which was a terrible mistake, is… Chip Taylor was the artist, a pop artist who wrote “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” a very talented guy. I said, “We’ll make a four-album firm deal.” The head of business affairs said, “Lundvall, no-no-no!” I said, “What did I do wrong?” “You don’t make a one album firm deal; you make one album with options.” I said, “oh, shit, that’s right.” We got away with it anyway. Not four albums firm, but one album with options, with four options.

TP: How did the record business evolve vis-a-vis the culture of Columbia during the ‘60s?

BRUCE: When I was at Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson was the President of the company, who was a genius and a visionary man, and he felt that art precedes commerce always. You get the art right, the commerce will come with it. But we were late in rock-and-roll because Mitch Miller and the people who were in the A&R staff felt that rock-and-roll was trash. So we were rather late compared to Warner Brothers. We had Bob Dylan, we had Simon & Garfunkel, we had the Byrds, and we had Chad and Jeremy—those were the only rock-and-roll bands. And Paul Revere and the Raiders on Epic. That was the contemporary roster. There was a big battle going in the company. It was a very middle of the road company, with Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, Percy Faith, Jerry Vale, Steve and Eydie, and so on. Very middle of the road, and the A&R staff was very middle of the road for the most part also. The A&R staff was people like Bob Mersey(?—20:27) and Tony Altschuler and Mitch Miller and people like that, who were very much involved with the pop music of the ‘50s and the early ‘60s, and weren’t particularly fond of rock-and-roll music at all.

There was a time when we had an A&R meeting in Miami, and we had a system… The product managers were involved with the A&R department very closely, just doing the marketing after the records were done, and they were talking to the A&R people about the records while they were being made—which is something I think I had a lot to do with. So we were in Miami with a meeting of myself and a couple of the other product managers and the A&R staff, and a big fight ensued at this planning meeting over how deeply we should be involved in rock-and-roll. The young guys, of which I was one of them, all felt we were missing the boat completely, and the older A&R people were saying, “No, we shouldn’t get that deeply involved, because it’s not really good music,” and so on.

So it ended up with a lot of screaming and yelling, and Goddard had to come down from New York to resolve the issues. So Goddard said, right after that meeting, after he calmed everyone down with his great sense of humor and his great erudition, “We have to be in every area of music that counts” and so on, blah-blah. He said, “What I want to do is have at our Columbia Records convention at the Americana Hotel in New York next summer is have a contest, and have one night where we invite the winning high school attend at a gymnasium, and we’ll have all of our rock-and-roll acts.” The reaction was somewhat negative. It was “God, there will be a riot; we’ll have to wear plectron units and all that kind of stuff to police the building,” and all this shit.” “No-no, I’m not worried about that.”

So the convention came along, here it is, 1500 people world-wide, everybody in the company, all over the world, are at this convention. This one night… Every other night, it was Barbra Streisand, Robert Goulet, the Brothers Four, whoever the big artists were that were performing, on the normal nights, on the Americana stage. The other night, the rock-and-roll night, we all went to this gymnasium. We sat in the bleachers, but the kids were on the main floor—standing up, of course. We had Chad and Jeremy and the Byrds and Bob Dylan—it was three acts. The crowd went insane. And the man standing in front of the bandstand, wearing a safari jacket and moving with the music, was Goddard Lieberson. He changed the culture of the company without saying a single word. He was the one that got the company completely into rock-and-roll. In other words, “you see what the impact of this music is; you either get it or you don’t work here any more,” without saying that at all. I have to say, it was a genius stroke. You’ve got to be on board. Whether you really dug the music or not was immaterial, but it’s going where it’s going.

TP: One anecdote that I think is interesting, and also oft-told, is that directly out of college you went to the Blue Note office to ask for a job and were told it was a two-man show. I’d like you to relate that, but also ask if during the ‘60s you developed any relationship with Lion and Wolff.

BRUCE: No, I did not. The first time I ever saw Alfred Lion was at One Night at Birdland, when they were recording it live. I came home for a college weekend, and I was there. I saw the wires going into the kitchen. I said, “What’s going on there?” “Oh, they’re recording live.” So when you hear the applause for those passages, well, it’s my hand on that record!

So anyway, I was there, and I saw Alfred Lion—I didn’t meet him, but I saw him. What happened is that when I got out of college, I went directly to Alfred Lion’s office with my resume. No preceding phone call or setting up a meeting of any kind. I didn’t know any better. I was walking the streets of New York, looking for a job in the record business, and I started at Blue Note. He was very polite. As I recall, the meeting lasted, oh, 5 or 10 minutes. He said, “Just Frank Wolff and me; we do everything ourselves; we don’t need nobody.” I said, “I’ll work for nothing.” He said, “No, we don’t need nobody; it’s just Frank and I. We even put the records in the sleeves and ship them out ourselves.” I said, “Well, I’ll help you.” “We can’t. We can’t do it. I’m sorry.” He was very polite and very nice, but I was ushered out the door. Within five minutes, I was out with my resume in my hand. So I went to Columbia Records, I went to Capitol, I went to RCA—those three. No one was hiring anybody just out of college in those days, because you still had the draft in front of you—there was a mandatory draft in those days. Nobody had a training program either. So I was working for an advertising agency for a year, and then I was drafted myself and ended up going into the Army in 1958.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BRUCE: In Stuttgart. I was in the counter-intelligence agency.

TP: Good training for the record business.

BRUCE: Yeah, right. “Counter-intelligence” is correct, too. It was fun. I had the best time of my life. I was stationed in Stuttgart.

TP: Not so much towards the interview, but I know at the time a number of musicians were stationed in Germany, which made for a fairly active jazz scene.

BRUCE: Who was there at that point?

TP: Don Ellis, Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, people like Roscoe Mitchell and Albert Ayler were and intersected with the Germans… Various prehistories to careers.

BRUCE: Well, in basic training, I used to play a terrible alto saxophone. I’d go to the enlisted men’s club and play with Calvin Newborn. There was a great piano player from Brooklyn who made one record, not as a leader, but as a sideman—Ed Stoudt. A black dude. Good player.

TP: And you went back, and you went to Bucknell. You majored in what at Bucknell?

BRUCE: Commerce and finance.

TP: So you had a business training.

BRUCE: I spent more time with liberal arts courses. I was more interested in literature and philosophy and all that than music courses. But my major was because my father was insistent that I have a career. So I had a Bachelor of Science degree. But I was more interested in the liberal arts subjects, so I took a lot of those.

TP: Was your father a businessman?

BRUCE: He was an engineer, a mechanical engineer. He went to Stevens in Hoboken. He took me down to Stevens for a test, an aptitude test. I was able to con the test. I could tell. He wanted me to be an engineer more than anything else. I had no interest in the sciences at all. I was feeble when it came to math and all that stuff. So I took a preference test with a pin that you hit to answer whether I’d rather be this, this, or this. By the time it was done, I’d rather be… My father and I sat down with the shrink who read back the results. He said, “Your son’s first skills are in music, then literature,” and way down the list was sciences. I said, “Dad, I told you.” I could easily tell where these questions were leading. Because he really was insistent. He was really tough about it. “Be an engineer, a real man’s job.” “ I like this, Dad.”

Anyway, I was a business major. I booked concerts at Bucknell. Every time we’d get a chance, I’d go to Philadelphia to hear Clifford Brown or Brubeck, whoever was playing there, or I’d go home to New York and go to Birdland. Mike Berniker was my roommate. He was a fabulous A&R man. He did all the Streisand records, and he did a lot of jazz records for Epic, too, like One Foot In The Gutter and those things. We were college roommates. We used to share our jazz collection, and we used to run off and drive down to Philadelphia and see Clifford Brown and Max Roach and all that.

TP: So you were the hipsters of the school.

BRUCE: Yeah, we were the hipsters of the school. There was no interest in jazz there.
TP: It’s interesting, because in the ‘60s, while you were establishing your mark on Columbia, Blue Note was at least in its artistic prime, in a lot of ways, or the second wave of its artistic prime.

BRUCE: Yes.

TP: You signed Bob Dylan in ‘64 or ‘65. There may have no better two-year period for Blue Note than those two years.

BRUCE: I didn’t get out as much. I was a new father. In ‘65, our first son was born. When I first got married, I had no money. I would go out as often as I could to see jazz in New York, but normally my wife would come with me. Then I went out to see jazz less frequently, because I had a kid, and when I was in New York, I was a 9-to-5’er. So there were people I really missed. Not missed, but I missed them live.

TP: One thing that Lion and Wolff did, it seems to me, and one reason why the musical production during the ‘60s is so consequential is that they went to the source and trusted the artists to record original music. They showed real faith in them, and it seems that this is something you’ve managed to do at Blue Note even in the changed environment of the ‘80s and ‘90s to the present. That’s a real continuity. I’d like to ask you about this and other continuities between the Lundvall Blue Note and the Lion-Wolff Blue Note.

BRUCE: The simple answer is that I believe that you have to give a real artist artistic freedom. You can’t tell them what to do, you can’t tell them how to make records, and you shouldn’t sign just marketing…we call them marketing…inconsequential marketing records. Marketing confections. I’ve done those in my career. You make real artistic records, and let the artist… The artist knows better than you do. You’re just a middleman. You make the right signing choices and let the artist have the freedom to make the record they believe in—within certain financial parameters, of course. That’s what Alfred and Frank did, I’m sure. That was a lesson I learned through John Hammond and through all the records I bought as a fan.

TP: But in the 1970s, it seems the prevailing ethos was not so much along those lines.

BRUCE: Well, you’re talking about the fusion era, too. We had Bitches Brew at Columbia Records with Miles. It was a landmark record. I signed Return to Forever. Clive…well, somebody else signed Mahavishnu. So we had some of the better examples of fusion music.

TP: Who signed Keith Jarrett, by the way?

BRUCE: Clive did, and dropped him. There was a moment in time, I think… I shouldn’t tell you this, because I don’t want to disparage Clive. There was a moment in time where we had Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and Mingus. They were all dropped in one day. How this happened, I have no idea. I think on the same day all of them were dropped at one point. Keith Jarrett called me… It was the only time I ever really spoke to the man. I was a marketing guy. “You fucking jerks,” and so on. I said, “Listen, I didn’t drop you; I had nothing to do with your contract at all.” But he was very angry at Columbia Records, that’s all.
Bill Evans, whom I had convinced Clive to sign (I was still in marketing then), had won a Grammy for the trio album. He made two albums, the trio album and an orchestral record…

TP: With Claus Ogermann?

BRUCE: Yeah. Anyway, he had won a Grammy for his first album, the trio record, and Columbia Records didn’t win any other Grammies of any consequence that year, and Clive (this is not for the article) walked right by him. Didn’t even say, “Congratulations.” He was so pissed off we didn’t win any pop awards. Bill started crying. I had to stay with him half the night—he and Helen Keane. He was just so upset. The man who’s the President of the company wouldn’t even say “congratulations.” I won this Grammy, one of the few Grammies had won that year. That’s the way it was.

I think what happened is that Clive thought he could do anything. He had all these successful rock-and-roll acts. He was the king of the hill. Therefore, if you sign the jazz artists who were important names, that someone else would tell him were important, that would be great.

TP: I don’t know how accurate Frederick Dannen’s book is, but grandiose notions, grandiose ambitions seemed rife in the overall culture of the record business during those years.

BRUCE: The idea that the executives are more important than the artists, yes.

TP: So you had no relationship with Lion and Wolff, other than that you were probably getting the records at the time.

BRUCE: I got all the records, but I didn’t really know them at all. I knew Ahmet. I knew Creed Taylor. I knew Bob Weinstock from Prestige. I knew Norman Granz. But for some reason, I just didn’t know them. They were rather private people. Apparently, Frank Wolff was a very private man, and Alfred was a shy fellow.

TP: Also, they were emigres, so perhaps felt a bit alienated from the mainstream culture.

BRUCE: Yes. I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I can’t give you an answer. I loved the label. It was always my absolute favorite label, my favorite jazz label by far. I would buy many of the records without even hearing them in the store, even at the time when you could listen to records in the store.

When I finally met Alfred, when we started Blue Note, for the first time really meeting him, we brought him in for the Town Hall concert, he asked me two questions. One, he said, “What are you going to do to make money?” “You’re asking me this? YOU are asking me what we’re going to do to make money, a man who did such great artistic records that probably didn’t make money?” That was the surprise first question. He said, “Yah, you’re owned by EMI, a big corporate company. What are you going to do? You have to make money, or Blue Note will be dead before you know it.”

TP: He experienced that with Liberty.
BRUCE: Sure. So I said, “Well, you’re completely right.” So the first artist that we signed was Stanley Jordan, who sold a half-a-million albums. Alfred loved Stanley’s playing. He thought he was a total original, which he was—but he had certain limitations; we’re not going to talk about him.

Then the second question was, “I want you to use guys who are going to go as far out as we did with Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and these people.” So we did a little bit of that. Not as much as I’d have liked.

TP: Well, you signed Don Pullen in the ‘80s.

BRUCE: Don Pullen George Adams. Andrew Hill we signed back. Andrew Hill was a request of Alfred at Mount Fuji. When he was invited to come to the first Mount Fuji Festival in ‘86, Andrew Hill had all new music, and he had a band with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, and so on. We went to a rehearsal in the afternoon which was extraordinary. Every musician was sitting there, in awe of what Andrew had created. Then came the concert the next afternoon, and there was a huge windstorm, and all the sheet music was blowing off the stage, and these guys were trying to play this very complex by memory. It was kind of disastrous, in a way. It still worked. But had the sheet music not blown away… It was really blowing off the stage. But Alfred said, “The one guy I thought was a total original genius, like Monk and Herbie Nichols and Bud Powell, was Andrew Hill, and I really want you guys to sign him.” And we did.

TP: Before we get to what you did with the label when you assumed your position, could you recount for me (I know it’s for the eight-millionth time) the circumstances that led to the label’s revival and your… You went to Elektra from Columbia, right…

BRUCE: Yeah. I started Elektra Musician…

TP: It was a great label.

BRUCE: Well, thank you. We tried real hard to do something fresh with it, the way we did the covers, the liner notes, and all that stuff. I was very proud of the label, and I was on the RIAA board. The RIAA had quarterly meetings, and we had a meeting down in Washington, and Bhaskar Menon was on the board as well, from Capitol Records. He said, “I’d like to have dinner with you tonight.” So we had dinner. He said, “How would you like to start Blue Note again? It’s been dormant now for about five years.” “What?” “Can you get out of your contract at Elektra?” I said, “Wait, wait, wait-wait.” I hesitated for a moment. I said, “This is my favorite label. Do you know how tempted I am to say yes right now? But I also do pop music on Elektra. I don’t want to stop doing that. I enjoy it.” He said, “Well, we need a catchment center on the East Coast.” “A catchment center? What is that?” “We have two labels on the West Coast, Capitol Records and EMI-America. We have no label on the East Coast. So we could start two labels. We could start Blue Note again and start an East Coast, fully-staffed pop label, not just a vanity label.” I said, “When we do we start?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘we’?” I said, “Michael Cuscuna and I. I want Michael to help me with Blue Note, because he knows… He has Mosaic, so I can’t hire him on staff, but I’d like to hire him as a consultant.”

TP: Did he already have Mosaic then?

BRUCE: Yes. I said, “We can hire him as a consultant.” He agreed to that. So Michael and I together started Blue Note, not just me alone.

TP: What was the original division of responsibility between the two of you?

BRUCE: There was none. Like Alfred and Frank, in a way. Well, I shouldn’t make any comparisons. The first question I said was, ‘How the fuck do I fill Alfred Lion’s shoes? I’m not qualified.” What a challenge. What an opportunity! My favorite label, and I’ve been asked to run it after all these years.” This is what I really wanted to do right when I left college. Now 27 years later, I had the chance to do it.

I realized that my musical interests were focused essentially in jazz. I could do other things, and I wanted to keep doing other things, but I felt you stay true to the art that you grew up with and that you love still, the thing that moves you more than any other kind of music. So I had to do it. Anyway, I had to get out of my contract at Elektra, which had a year to go. So I went to a guy named David Horowitz, who was Steve Ross’ senior executive who handled all the record labels—Elektra, Warner’s and Atlantic. He said, “We don’t want you to leave. Krasnow and you have returned the label to profit.” Which we did. We’d lost a lot of money; we returned it to a profit, luckily, doing the Linda Ronstadt What’s New album and Dick Griffey’s label, Solar, having a lot of success. So we’re doing well, we’re making money again, and they didn’t want me to leave. I said, “I really don’t want to stay here. This is too small a company to have a Chairman and a President.” Krasnow was the Chairman, I was the President. We didn’t really get along very well.

Finally, David Horowitz said, “Look, we never someone to just work against their will. If you really want to talk that badly, you have to talk to… I’ll let Bob Krasnow make the decision.” I said, “oh, good.” I knew what Krasnow would say. I went to Krasnow and said, “I have this opportunity and I really have to take it now.” “You’re right! Good for you, man. Do it, do it!” He wanted me out of there, like, in a flash. By the end of the night, I was gone. I had my farewell party and I was gone.

One of the funniest things that happened was… Krasnow and I had an off-and-on relationship. Difficult man. Good music man, but a difficult guy. We got along, but just barely. So that night at the farewell party, Bill Berger… I don’t know if you know Bill Berger at all. An international guy with a good sense of humor. They had all this talk about me. He said, “I remember when Lundvall got two phone calls on two different lines. One was Michael Jackson, the other was Dexter Gordon. He picked up the phone, he said, ‘Hi, Dexter!’” That summed it up. [Berger: Senior Vice-President of International for Elektra Records and was responsible for all aspects of their artist’s foreign sales, foreign tours and marketing.]

TP: Is that a true story?

BRUCE: True story… I don’t know if it’s true or not. [LAUGHS] But I love that story. “Bruce, I have Michael Jackson on line one and Dexter Gordon on line two.” “Hi, Dex!”

TP: So at Blue Note, you have to form a roster and create a personality for the label, and the challenge not to make it a retro label, but to sort of be what Blue Note would be in its time.

BRUCE: Here’s what we did. Blue Note has to be a label of its time. So the first thing I thought of was: Well, we don’t have Frank Wolff’s photographs. We don’t have Reid Miles, because he’s now making television commercials, making a lot of money, and we can’t afford to hire him to design the covers. And Rudy Van Gelder can’t be the only engineer to make records with the Blue Note artists, because they have the freedom to be on any studio they want to. That’s very clear to me. So what do we do now? I thought we should have Reid Miles do all the covers so we had a consistency. But then I thought, “You know what? It will look like the old records maybe. So maybe it’s better not to have them. If we can’t afford Reid, we can’t afford him.” So I had to use different designers and so on to do the covers. Rudy understood that he couldn’t be the only studio in town. Frank and Alfred owned the label. It was their label; they could do what they wanted. Rudy was my favorite engineer. So some artists would like to record there, and others did not. So I had all these issues. It was really causing lots of problems, just thinking about, “What the hell do I do now?” The answer was, “Just do what you have to do. Be a label for the current time. Sign artists for the current period of time that are moving the music forward, who hopefully are quality artists, and change the cover design to whatever it has to be and go to whatever studio the artist wants to go to.” And they had the freedom to do it.

TP: 1985 is an interesting moment in jazz. Columbia had been in the forefront of the “Young Lions” phenomenon with Wynton Marsalis, and Art Blakey was resurgent and all these young artists were coming through that. Then the artists from the ‘70s fusion and avant-garde areas who were still popular and active, some of whom you signed. There were many factions and styles, some overlapping, some not. I’m interested in how you strategized.

BRUCE: What happened is, there were two artists who had come to me at Elektra-Musician who I wanted to sign, and Krasnow… I don’t want it mentioned in the article. But I was turned down. Put it that way. Jordan came to my office and played for me. He brought his guitar and his little amp on a Pullman cart from the railroad station, and played for me. I thought he was fairly outstanding, pretty unusual. Petrucciani I saw with Charles Lloyd. I thought this guy was an amazing player; long lines, a beautiful, conceptual player, a creative player.

The first artist I signed was probably Stanley, although it might have been Michel. I’m not sure. I knew about them, so those were the first two signings for Blue Note. Then Michael and I decided we should bring back the artists who were still relevant. So we signed Tony Williams, Jimmy Smith, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, to make records again for Blue Note. Which made sense. Then we had the Town Hall concert in 1985, and we brought back as many artists as we could. Now, I told Cuscuna, “We’ve got to do this; we have to relaunch the label with a flair. Let’s have a concert. Do it at Town Hall. Bring back all the Blue Note artists from the past and bring all the new ones on stage that we’ve signed.” Cuscuna thought I was mad. But I said, “We’ve got to do this.”

So Michael did the whole thing. Then he said, “Let me get Alfred to come. His wife will never let him come to New York, because he’s got a bad heart, and half of it probably comes from his experiences with these artists through so many years of sessions every night, and all this stuff.” so I said, “Let’s send him a telegram.” So we sent Alfred a telegram, saying that we were having this concert on February 26th (I think it was, or 22nd, I’m not sure…) at Town Hall to celebrate the rebirth of Blue Note, and we want you to come as a guest of honor, and Rudy Van Gelder, and Reid Miles, and so on.”

The next day, I got a phone call at home. It was a Saturday. He said, “Bruce. It’s Alfred.” “Yes, Alfred. My God, it’s you.” He said, “Do you have a pen or pencil there, and a piece of paper?” I said, “Yes.” “Write this down. We have to have Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley…”—he listed all the tenor players that are on there. “Alto saxophone. Jackie McLean, Lou Donaldson. Drums. Art Blakey.” He went on and on, the whole thing. I said, “I have a list here of about 50 different artists. I don’t think we can have that many of them. We’ll have as many as we can get.’ So we had 35 different musicians, including the newly-signed ones.

Alfred came to New York. We started with a dinner at the Plaza Hotel. At the beginning of the dinner, I saw a tear in Alfred’s eye. I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “You don’t understand that Ruth would never be allowed in this hotel when we had Blue Note.” She’s a black woman, a very light-skinned black woman. “This is the first time she’s ever eaten in this hotel; we always wanted to eat here.” A sad moment.

TP: A poignant moment.

BRUCE: Poignant is right. Then “What are you going to do? Are you going to make it commercial? Are you in tune with the times?” All that kind of stuff. We had a long, wonderful meeting. The next day at rehearsals, he brought his little camera. He had a reunion with all of his friends, Art Blakey and all of those guys, and they rehearsed into the night. Then the night came. It started at 8 o’clock and ended I think at 4 in the morning.

TP: I guess you didn’t care about the union overtime that night.

BRUCE: I said, “Fuck the union now. We’re too late. There’s nothing to do about it. We have three more acts to go on.” So it ended at 3 or 4 in the morning. The only artists who couldn’t play, who really wanted to play… There were two. Milt Jackson we failed to invite—bad mistake. Hank Mobley was too ill. He came and wanted to play alto saxophone, but he wasn’t very well.

TP: so that relaunched the label.

BRUCE: When the concert was over, we had a party with a jam session until 8 or 9 in the morning. It was incredible. Incredible memory. Walking out into the daylight, and “oh my God, what have we been through?”

TP: Some of those guys were used to those hours.

BRUCE: Oh, yeah. But just the idea of “What have we done here?” It took a while to really readjust that we’ve actually relaunched the label. It was great. Not all of the music was great, but most of it was at a high level. Art Blakey forgot his hearing aid. He didn’t hear the rhythm right at first, then he finally caught up right away. Cuscuna could tell you a lot about what happened on the stage and backstage. Then we gave an award to Alfred. I have a lovely tape of Alfred’s speech. Beautiful. He said, “Thirty-five years ago, Art Blakey asked me to be one of his little messengers. I tried to preach the good gospel of jazz for all this time, and I hope Art is happy.” A lovely thing, the way he said it, with the German accent and stuff. He became our spiritual godfather. He was on the phone for most of the week with us at least.

TP: When did he die?

BRUCE: ‘86 or ‘87.

TP: So not long…

BRUCE: No. We brought him to Mount Fuji for the festival. That was another festival. The Japanese were in awe of Blue Note records, which were licensed by King Records in Japan.

TP: They had all the unissued and out of print albums.

BRUCE: Right. All that.

TP: I recall seeing them at Soho Music Gallery in the early ‘80s, when people like John Zorn were fetishistically collecting all this stuff.

BRUCE: Oh, I know. So they decided they would put on a festival, a major television station there, at the foot of Mount Fuji, right at the base of Lake Yamanaka(?) looking out on Mount Fuji. They built this enormous stage, about the size of Woodstock, had a 7-camera shoot over three afternoons and two evenings, and on a smaller stage at the hotel for nighttime jam sessions after the major events were done. It was amazing! Alfred was the guest of honor. The moment that was poignant for me was when Alfred came out and was introduced for the first time—I think it was on Saturday afternoon. These people stood up, and something like 30,000 fans out there… It was like Woodstock. It was incredible. Standing, giving him a standing ovation that must have lasted fully 3 or 4 minutes. He was in tears. He said, “I’ve never been to Japan before, never in my life. To think that now, after all these years, they’d be honoring my label.” So it was a pretty amazing time.

TP: How was all this translating into sales and profitability at the beginning?

BRUCE: At the beginning, mainly it was coming from the reissues, obviously. Stanley Jordan was selling a lot of records. His record was on the Billboard jazz chart for a full year. 51 weeks. Not 52, but 51 weeks. Tom Noonan was running the charts then. Tom cheated us out of the last week. We could have had a full year!

Anyway, his record was selling. The reissues, obviously, of Sidewinder and Blue Train were the key, records that had been big in the past. Song For My Father.

TP: They were big in the past. But it seems that when they were reissued they became recognized as iconic.

BRUCE: Iconic. Exactly right.

TP: I don’t think they’d been iconic before then.

BRUCE: Probably not before then.

TP: So the brand took on an identity of its own. Joe Jackson ripped off the Sonny Rollins album cover. In the postmodern pop world, something about Blue Note resonated as a signifier.

BRUCE: Yes. It became extremely hip. Then the England company started to put out these crazy reissues, Blue Bossa, blue-this, blue-that, about 25 different releases, with hip artwork. They’re fun, and they sold extremely well in the U.K., and they sold a bit here.

TP: I’m going to ask a few of my talking points. One is how you reestablished the Blue Note brand to suit the climate of the early ‘80s. Not that you necessarily thought of it as a brand, but you were a marketing person.

BRUCE: I hate the word “brand”, by the way. It was clear to me that Stanley Jordan, for one, was an artist that had a young appeal—as well as good traditional appeal, to a degree, but certainly a young appeal. At the very least, we were very interested in reaching out to that, as well as retaining the serious, straight-ahead aspect of the label. Then Petrucciani became a bit of a phenomenon in his own way. Then later, Eliane Elias came to the label and she sold the Brazilian stuff very well. Later, in ‘89, Greg Osby did a hip-hop kind of record. We signed Medeski, Martin and Wood; I chased them around for a long time. Then Charlie Hunter. Then Dianne Reeves. Because after all, we didn’t have any… Alfred was not a big fan of vocalists, apparently. I never asked him about this. I should have. I should have, though. He preferred instrumentalists. He recorded one Sheila Jordan album, two albums by Dodo Greene, and that’s about it—unless Babs Gonzalez could be considered a serious singer (I don’t think so).

TP: Bill Henderson on the Horace Silver records.

BRUCE: Yes. But he was apparently not a big fan of vocalists. But it was second nature to me. When I heard Dianne Reeves for the first time… George Duke had called me and said, “You should sign my cousin, Dianne.” I said, “I don’t particularly like the record she made on Palo Alto. She’s a good singer, that’s for sure.” Well, I went to L.A. for a…outside the Wilshire Theater. There was a Duke Ellington tribute that they were videotaping and recording, that never came out, but Dianne Reeves was a guest vocalist on the night, and she sang two solo Ellington pieces and one duet with O.C. Smith, the R&B singer. I fell apart. I raced back to her dressing and I said, “You’re on Blue Note. I’ve got to sign you.” And we signed her then, in ‘87 or ‘88. She was the first major vocalist that we signed, and she’s been with us ever since.

After that, it was Rachelle Farrell, who is an amazing singer with an incredible voice, and she was very successful as well, selling half a million records. Although that was on Capitol; on Blue Note she sold several hundred thousand. Then I brought in Lena Horne at one point, and we made the last record of her career.

TP: Then Cassandra in 1993, who was very successful.

BRUCE: Very, very successful. Cassandra wanted to make a jazz album of R&B tunes. Actually, I heard her perform at an R&B club, owned by a former R&B singer, on 8th Avenue…B. Smith’s. Cassandra was singing upstairs. It was a fusion kind of thing. It was one of her downtown phases. She had a percussionist and a synthesizer player and a very loud guitarist. They all but drowned her out. I met with her the next day. I said, “Cassandra, I didn’t sign a democratic group here. I want you. I signed you. You have a great voice, you write interesting songs. Let’s make an acoustic record. Can we do that?” She was a little insulted. We had a long meeting. “How about doing this album of R&B…” I said, “It’s been done before. It’s ok. I want to make sure you do an album that focuses on you, your voice, your songs, and I want it to be acoustic.” That was my contribution to her career, and that was it. So she came back to me in about a week with two songs, “Tupelo Honey” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, produced by Craig Street, who I didn’t know. I had heard the name, but I didn’t know who it was. He had produced a Jimi Hendrix concert and some other stuff. He was working in construction, living in the same building that she did in Harlem. He had broken his foot, so they used to hang out on the front porch and just talk about music. He’s the one that said to her, “Who were your influences when you were young? You like Joni Mitchell. Why don’t you do one of her songs?” And so on. So when she came in with this demo, I said, “Oh my God, this is the whole plot. We’ve found the plot. Or he did. Or the two of you did. This is the record.” The record was enormously successful for us.

TP: And it established a certain template for ‘90s pop music that remains today. It brings me to another question. Looking at it retrospectively, as someone who has been a fan of the music as long as you have and been involved in it professionally as long as you have… The sound of jazz was changing at the cusp of the ‘90s in a lot of different ways. The vocabulary was becoming more inclusive, more internationalized, with Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music entering the mainstream, hip-hop influences, and so on, and you signed Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Osby, Don Byron…

BRUCE: Chucho.

TP: Ron Carter, too.

BRUCE: We licensed Ron through the Japanese company.

TP: Weren’t Chucho and Gonzalo also through…

BRUCE: No. What happened is, when I was at Columbia Records, we did Havana Jam. I went down there and signed Irakere. I heard how great the musicians were in Cuba, and I became a huge fan of what was going on in Cuban music, and we signed Irakere to Columbia, with Jimmy Carter’s blessing, and we won a Latin Grammy with the first album of Irakere. So with Blue Note, I went back down there and signed Chucho, but I had to sign him through the Canadian company with the embargo. Charlie Haden brought me Gonzalo. He’d just come from the Montreal festival, where they’d done a series of nights dedicated to his music. One night he heard this Cuban pianist. He said, “Have you heard this kid?” I said, “No. Let me come…” Charlie Haden played me a tape. Gonzalo had just gotten off the plane after trying to get to Montreal through Kennedy Airport. They wouldn’t let him stay off the plane. They sent him back to Cuba, and he had a private plane. I heard him, and I thought, “This guy is unbelievable. I have to get down…” So we went down to Havana and signed him, but through the Japanese company, since we weren’t allowed.

TP: So you were able to leverage the international structure of EMI in a creative way.

BRUCE: We also made another album with Irakere. We made an album with Frank Emilio Flynn.

TP: Lovano came on board in 1990. Very long term relationships with these artists.

BRUCE: Well, yeah. The idea is to stay with them as long as you possibly can. Lovano has been with us now for 16 albums, something like that?

TP: I think this will be his 21st.

BRUCE: You’re right. Dianne Reeves since ‘87. Osby had a long run.

TP: So did Don Byron, and Gonzalo has been with you ever since…

BRUCE: Gonzalo ever since the beginning.
TP: Again, this comes back to balancing art and commerce. Through your acumen or luck or whatever it is, you found artists who sold large units, and used one to pay for another, or so it’s said. Is that how you were thinking about it? Speak a bit about the economics of creating art records.

BRUCE: Well, we’ll start with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” as an example. We sold millions of records all over the world. It was a Blue Note record that we put out on the Manhattan label, because we didn’t think it should be in the jazz section of the store. We thought we had a it, and we did. But it was a Blue Note record, actually, because he was signed to Blue Note, but Manhattan was a sister label. It was a matter of marketing technique. We put it on Manhattan, because we didn’t want to be in the jazz section of the store; we wanted to be in the mainstream section of the record store.

Then came US-3 with “Cantaloupe Island,” which was ‘90 or something. That album sold at least 2 million copies. Then between that, we had Dianne Reeves’ very first record, which sold several hundred thousand. So we always had something going like that, starting with Stanley Jordan.

But I didn’t think of it in terms of paying the way for the other stuff. We were able to keep our budgets fairly tight. Some of the artists did lose some money—not a lot. Others made a small profit. It continues that way right now. When Norah Jones came around, she changed the paradigm of everything. That was one of those… People ask how I signed her. I say, “I returned a phone call.” “What do you mean, you returned a phone call.” I said, “So many people in our business are so arrogant, they don’t return phone calls. I return every phone call I ever get, by the end of the day, if possible, and by the end of the week, certainly.” I got a call from some woman in the royalty accounting department whom I didn’t even know. She was an accountant. I said, “Do we have a royalty problem?” She said, “No. I want you to hear this jazz artist that I found.” I said, “Ok, send me something.” She said, “No, I want you to meet her.” I said, “Ok, bring her in on Friday at the end of the day, when things are a little bit more quiet.” So Norah came in… This girl, Michelle White, who is in our royalty department, and like a lot of people in the royalty department you don’t know these people at all. It turns out that her husband, who is a jazz musician, has a downtown band, and Norah used to sit in with the band. He said, “Take her to Lundvall, who runs Blue Note.” Well, after hearing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” one time, I said, “You’re on Blue Note.” She said, “What?” I said, “I don’t even need to hear the other two songs.” I said, “Who’s the piano player? He’s a pretty good piano player.” She said, “Oh, it’s me.” “You’re on Blue Note. Get yourself an attorney.” That’s really how it happened. Then I listened to the other two songs, that were equally good. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” is the one that killed me. It’s a tough song to do. She did it better than almost anyone I ever heard. It was a demo. Then she played me “Walking My Baby Back Home,” which everyone does, and it was fine. Then there was a pop song.

While we waited for her to get a contract, we did a separate demo deal, so she could demonstrate some of the songs that she wanted to think about for her first album. Well, it was all over the place. There were pop songs, there was a Mose Allison song, there was a Hank Williams song, there was Ellington, there was Strayhorn, Bessie Smith (“Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”). They were all this (?—1:12:17), and they’re all terrific in their way. She demoed these songs in one night.

I said, “what kind of record do you really want to make?” She said, “This is the music I want to do.” Anyway, Arif Mardin produced the record, and it had a huge success—20 million records worldwide with that one record. It changed everything. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to be on Blue Note, including Kenny Loggins, whom I knew from Columbia days. I said, “Listen, it’s still a jazz label.” So he came to us as a jazz artist. He didn’t make exactly a jazz record, but jazz-informed, yes.

TP: Is Van Morrison on Blue Note?

BRUCE: Was. One record came out on Blue Note. Looked like a Blue Note cover. That’s his history. He makes one record with each company, and then goes on to the next one. So he has a new one coming out on Manhattan, Astral Weeks: Live At the Hollywood Bowl.

TP: Al Green started resurrecting himself on the label.

BRUCE: We found out that Al Green was ready to make his first secular record in a lot of years. So Michael and I went to Memphis, and Willie Mitchell played us the record with Al. Al is incredible. We had dinner that night. Al was going to make this record on his own vanity label. By the end of the night we’d had a few drinks, and he said, “I think we should be on Blue Note.”

The Anita Baker came along. She wanted to be on the same label that had her favorite singers, Cassandra Wilson and “that young girl, what’s her name…” I said, “Norah Jones.” “That’s where I want to be.” She had a vanity label under her contract, but she said, “I want to be on Blue Note,” so she’s on Blue Note.

TP: So the bottom line is that Norah Jones opened the door for people to see you as a label that could handle them, market them.

BRUCE: They knew the quality of the label, the history of the label. “If I can be on this label, I add to the great quality and artistic history, and they can still sell as many records as Capitol can, or more. Or I want to be on the pop label.” That was really it. Norah Jones made that a very clear example.

TP: Do you think this develoment had something to do with the changing demographics of the listening audience, an aging audience with different tastes and aspirations?

BRUCE: I think so. I think people were getting tired of the quality of the music that they were listening to. Norah summed it up pretty much with one album. Great voice, sensitive, intelligent, very musical, jazz-informed, and yet not inaccessible.

TP: You also had Kurt Elling during these years.

BRUCE: I read a piece in the Chicago Tribune by Howard Reich about the three most important jazz singers of the decade. It was Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Kurt Elling. I said, “Who the hell is Kurt Elling? I never heard of this guy.” So about a week later, I was going to the dentist’s in western New Jersey, and I was going through my bag to look for something to play, and picked a cassette—Kurt Elling. “This is the guy Howard Reich wrote about.. I was curious. I put it on and I went nuts. “Oh my God, this guy’s really fresh and very original.” so I went to the dentist’s office, got my novocaine and all that stuff, drove back to New York, and I’m still listening to it a second time, I’m going out of my mind. I see there’s a phone number on the cassette, and it might be his number, so I dialed it from the car phone. I said, “I’m looking for Kurt Elling.” He said, “This is Kurt.” “You don’t know me. My name is Bruce Lundvall; I’m with Blue Note records.” I said, “I love your record; I’m listening to it now,” and I played it back over the phone.” I said, “When can I see you? I want to see you perform?” “I’m playing Monday night at the Green Mill in Chicago.” This was a Thursday night. “I’ll be there.” “This is just an improvisational thing; it’s not anything planned.” “Even better. I’ll be there.”

So I went. I had Richard Morse with me, who I had signed to Manhattan Records— a pop artist. He lives in Chicago. A great cat. “You want to come with me?” We had dinner, and we went to see Kurt Elling at the Green Mill. Kurt Elling didn’t know who I was. After the first song, Richard said, “You’re going to sign him, aren’t you.” I said, “You’re fucking right, I am.” So we had a handshake then and there, and we signed him.

TP: You’re extremely hands-on.

BRUCE: Yeah.

TP: Well, not everyone who runs a larger label is as hands-on as you. I could be wrong about that.

BRUCE: No, they could be wrong by not being more hands-on. They have to be. If you love the music, you are hands on. Are you going to sit and let someone else do everything? I’ve become a fairly decent delegator at this point in my career after all these years. I was never that good at delegating in the past. But I still want to keep my hand in. I don’t allow anyone to be signed who I don’t approve of. Eli Wolf is becoming a terrific A&R man for us. Terrific. He’s been doing this now for about ten years, and I trust his judgment. But we still work together like that. Michael and I work together like that.

I think what’s happened, in a strange way… I’m writing a little piece for a book that’s coming out in Germany of Frank Wolff’s photographs and Jimmy Katz’s photographs together, which ten years ago is the way we presented the sixtieth anniversary of Blue Note, with the box set and the booklet with his photographs of the current roster and Frank’s photographs of the past. I think Jimmy Katz is becoming our Frank Wolff photographer at Blue Note. He doesn’t do every cover by any means, but he’s fabulous.

It’s interesting, the way things come together in this manner. I feel we’re really a team. It’s not me. It’s a team of people that are friends, who respect one another, that work together very effectively. We have issues, too, that we have to face that are not so pleasant from time to time. But we do have a good team of people who respect one another, and are really first and foremost about the music. That’s what’s made it work. I’d really be embarrassed if I had to tell you that this has been a failure. It’s been successful commercially, it’s been successful artistically as far as I’m concerned. It will never be as successful as what Alfred Lion created in the first place.

TP: Why not? Why couldn’t it be?

BRUCE: I think he had artists that were so one-of-a-kind and had such giants. We have to see how many of our artists become that in time. We’ll see.

TP: What’s your sense of it?

BRUCE: My sense is that there are certain artists we have who will be recognized 30-40-50 years from now. Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano certainly, Gonzalo without question, Jason Moran certain, hopefully Glasper (we’ll see what happens). Who else am I missing?

TP: All of them are high quality artists.

BRUCE: Bill Charlap, too, in his own straight-ahead way, a conservative way, but what a masterful player.

TP: He’s serving as the face of your 70th anniversary at this point.

BRUCE: Yes. Well, he’s really the Musical Director of the Blue Note 7. He’s very anal. He’s very precise. Highly intelligent. So he’s brought a group of guys together in a way that they got very frustrated, but they respect him, and when it was done they said, “We like this record; thank god for Bill.” They all had their own ideas, but they respected him. He handled them very well.

TP: I think he got excellent training for that in booking the 92nd Street Y series.

BRUCE: Yes. He’s an amazing man. Wynton has been a joy to work with. I wish he worked only on making records, and not working on all these other things, like building Jazz at Lincoln Center. But he’s done an extraordinary piece of work with this music, no doubt about it. He’s a great player, no question about it. I wish he had more time to devote just simply to writing and playing.

TP: Then Terence Blanchard, who’s recorded at least one major work for you.

BRUCE: Oh, yeah. Not only that, we’ve signed two artists out of his band, Aaron Parks and Lionel Loueke. So here’s a guy who fosters young talent brilliantly. They’ve stuck with him.

TP: I think Terence hews closely to the Art Blakey dictum of nurturing young players.

BRUCE: Exactly right. When people say there’s no more Art Blakey around, or a school of Art Blakey or a school of Max Roach, or that kind of thing—well, there’s a school of Terence Blanchard.

TP: But again, without trying to butter you up too much…

BRUCE: You can keep doing that. It’s ok.

TP: Ok, I’ll butter you up. It seems that Blue Note under you has been uniquely receptive to the shifting winds. You’re not the most radical label, but in the ‘80s your roster included Don Pullen and James Newton, and Lovano and Gonzalo have done some pretty wild records, Osby never compromised on anything, Jason is conceptually venturesome, Don Byron as well.

BRUCE: You bet.

TP: Again, we get back to you as a kind of diplomat. Not quite akin to sustaining world peace…

BRUCE: World peace I can’t handle.

TP: …but keep the balance between the million-sellers and this sort of…

BRUCE: You have to do that. As Alfred suggested, what are you going to do that keeps the label profitable? Because if you’re not profitable, they’ll close you down. We’ve been profitable every year. Last year was a tough one. We lost a little money last year. That was the first time in… I have a 12-year running tab on our profitability, and we were profitable at least for 12 years. In the early years we were, too, but we were coalesced with the Manhattan label and so on. So we’re separated. We wrote a separate P&L on both labels.

TP: Your brand is so associated with the legacy of music in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and the notion of back catalog.

BRUCE: Yup.

TP: Now, it’s impossible not to notice that even an artist like Joe has only four albums listed on the website, none of Osby’s are listened, only two of Don Byron’s—at least as far as hardcopy.

BRUCE: They will be all available on the Internet.

TP: Let’s speak about the challenge of sustaining the label’s identity in an environment where economics don’t allow much back product to be in print.

BRUCE: The problem really is that there are no record stores any more. It’s as simple as that. Very few. Thank God for J&R Music World and places like that. Borders’ is on the threat of bankruptcy, and Tower is already gone. There are very few Virgin stores left anywhere. So it’s really a tough time for retail. Those are the retailers that carry catalog, carry Blue Note and carry classical music and everything else. They’re not here any more. So the Internet is the way forward. It has to be. There’s no other options. There’s a small market for vinyl. We’re doing vinyl again on a certain level. But we’re talking about something that’s small. Still, it’s encouraging to see that people like the quality of vinyl and they’re buying turntables again. It doesn’t surprise me, but in a way it does.

TP: Do you have any feelings about analog versus digital?

BRUCE: I love the sound of vinyl. I’ll be honest with you. I think the seeds of destruction were built into the CD itself. You get 79 minutes of music. That’s too much music. Less is more. What is art about? Less is always more. You always want the audience waiting for more. You buy an LP, you’ve got 17 minutes on a side, you can turn it over or not turn it over right away, you’ve got a 12″-by-12″ portrait, you had liner notes that you could read even when you got old and your eyes got bad. Now I have to read the notes with a magnifying glass. And the sound is not as good. It just isn’t. Put on an LP, and the warmth of the sound and quality of the sound is quite superior. Even when you hear scratches and ticks, it doesn’t bother you. We’re used to them; at least I was. But I think the CD, as much as it did for the music, it encouraged artists to do more music.

I remember when Stefon Harris said to me, “I filled out every second of music on this CD.” I said, “Why?” First of all, you play the vibraphone with overtones, and it’s very hard to listen to that much vibraphone. Secondly, you don’t have that much good music. I didn’t really say it to him this way. I was more diplomatic than that. But I said, “Less is more, Stefon. If you had five great songs and the record lasted 45 minutes, it would be worth more than the record is now, at 70-75 minutes or whatever.” Now, don’t use the artist’s name, if you don’t mind, but an artist on the label. But I think this is true.

Also, CDs have become very expendable. You come into the office and grab a bunch of CDs. You couldn’t carry that many LPs out of the office. I really think that it encourages artists to be a little sloppy. They think they’re being diligent by offering you more music. It’s funny. If you’re documenting a symphony orchestra or something like that, then a CD that can contain the entire symphony, that’s wonderful. But it’s too much to listen to. No one’s attention span is long enough to sustain listening to 79 minutes of everything.

TP: I think CDs have the advantage in documenting live performance, because it’s a more seamless experience.

BRUCE: That’s true. But 50 minutes is fine. It’s all you need. I’d say, “Oh God, that’s so great. I want to hear more. I wonder what the next one is going to be like.” Rather than being sated by all this endless, endless stuff. After a while, the quality fades.

TP: Your taste notwithstanding, you adapted.

BRUCE: Well, yes. I remember at Columbia Records going to the Museum of Modern Art. We were right around the corner, in the CBS Building in those days. So I’d get a couple of guys in the art department to have lunch at the Museum of Modern Art, and we’d walk around and discuss the exhibits. I like art very much. I remember John Berg, the Art Director, and a woman who was there, too, whose name I’ve forgotten now, saying, “This is terrible, this whole advent of the CD. It’s going to be 5″-by-5″, and you can’t design anything for that size. It’s not going to work, no one will see anything, the LP is perfect…” They were thinking of it in terms of design, as graphic artists. I said, “Technology is going to win; you can’t win this one. You’re right in many respects, but you’re going to have to learn to design for the 5″-by-5″ format.

TP: Apart from questions of CD design, we’re already speaking of old history with digital technology.

BRUCE: Oh, I know.

TP: I just want to note for the record that you grimaced when you said “Oh, I know.” Nonetheless, you’re adapting.

BRUCE: About 16% of our volume now comes from digital technology, from the Internet. I don’t know how much downloading is done without paying for the music. Not too much in jazz, I don’t believe. Still people are buying physical records. But it’s all going to turn digital at one point in time, I think. Not entirely so, but I think 90% of it will be downloading the Internet. So we have to adapt that way. I’m a little bit old for that. I’m not really a technological guy at all. It frustrates me very often, to see people downloading everything and walking around with Ipods. Yes, it’s good in a way, but I think the problem with the computer world is that people spend their time looking into a fucking computer screen, and they can’t even communicate verbally or write a note that you can make sense out of. It’s a weird experience. Frustrating for me. I still write everything down.

TP: You write longhand.

BRUCE: Yes, always. It’s not easy for me now, because I have a little pre-stage Parkinson’s, so my handwriting is very small and illegible. That’s why I talk this way. It’s very strange. Supposedly, it’s not going to get any worse. I take a couple of pills every day, and that’s about it. But it affects your handwriting, it affects your speech, it affects your walking.
TP: You seem to have the discipline to mask it.

BRUCE: That’s good. For three years, I’ve been doing this show on Sirius, on Channel 72, which I do pro bono, of course. But why not? To get an hour, three times a week on the air, promoting Blue Note Records? Why not? It’s not easy for me just to talk into a microphone without an audience, but fortunately, I’ve had good producers like Matt Abramowitz, and now I’ve got Mark Ruffin, since they converted with XM. But the other day I did a show, and I completely lost it in the middle of describing something I wanted to play. It was the last tune on the show. My words just got fuckin’ jumbled. What the fuck is going on? What’s that? I snap into this malady.

TP: It must be very frustrating, after being so in control in your world.

BRUCE: It is. But normally I’m ok, but it will happen when you least expect it. It just happens. Your mind is going faster than your mouth.

TP: Let’s speak a bit more about the implications of the digital world. What to do to ensure Blue Note is around for its 75th?

BRUCE: You find the best and most original artists you can possibly find, and you sign them, and you give them the freedom to make great records. And they’re out there. It’s always a surprise. People like Jenny Scheinman. Fucking incredible artist, by the way. Many, many others.

TP: Did you sign her?

BRUCE: No.

TP: Who are some people out there whom you like?

BRUCE: There are a lot of people developing that I like. I haven’t found a tenor player that really strikes me now. Ravi Coltrane is coming into his own. I’m interested in him now, slowly, after the misjudgment of playing the same instrument his father did. He’s trying to develop now his own voice. But he’s been around for a bit.

Lizz Wright as a singer. She’s done three or four albums, but I think she’s got much more than she’s exhibited on record thus far.

TP: I don’t think she’s been produced properly.

BRUCE: No. Me either. Miguel Zenon. He’s got a great vision. Francisco Mela, this young drummer, is fabulous. I heard him before Joe. I heard him with Kenny Barron, and he just killed me! I thought, “Who the hell is this?” This guy has something special as a drummer. There’s a drummer named Willie Jones. I think the best trumpet player out there among the young guys, who is no longer a kid, is Roy Hargrove. He’s kind of stayed in one place, but still he’s a helluva player.

TP: Quickly, while the check comes, three signings you’re most proud of.

BRUCE: Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Joe Lovano. Not three. I have to give more than three. Jason Moran. Shit, man, that’s not fair. Bill Charlap I’m very proud of also. And Dianne Reeves. You have to include Dianne. She is the greatest singer around.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Bruce Lundvall, Interview, Jazziz

For Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th Birthday, a Blindfold Test From 2007 and a Jazziz Article

In recognition of Hammond B-3 master Joey DeFrancesco’s 44th birthday today, I’ve posted three separate pieces I’ve done with him over the years — a 2007 Blindfold Test for Downbeat, a 2006 profile for Jazziz, and a publicity bio for his 1999 concept album Goodfellas, on Concord.

 

Joey DeFrancesco Blindfold Test:

1. Sam Yahel, “Saba” (from TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Origin, 2007) (Yahel, Hammond B3; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Brian Blade, drums)

That’s nice. That’s got a Larry Young influence. I’m trying to figure out who the horn player is. This is not typical organ stuff, which is nice. Some guys trying to do something different. Once they get into the thing, I might be able to know who it is. There’s a lot of arranging here. It’s a nice sound on the organ. It’s a nice recording. It’s definitely something more modern. It kind of reminds me of Larry Goldings. But is it Sam Yahel? They’re very similar. I knew it was one of those guys. Sounds great. I don’t know who the horn player is. That’s not Josh Redman. Is it Josh? I kind of thought so. But he can play so many ways. Sounded like his sound, though. I love it, man. Who wrote that? Sam did? I like it. It’s a nice piece. It’s difficult. What are they, in 7? It’s all over the place. Brian Blade is on drums. That’s right, this is a group that was working. I don’t have this record, though. Oh, it’s brand-new? It’s nice to hear people doing some different things with the organ like that. It sounds a little like it’s difficult just for the sake of being difficult. But there’s still a great feeling there. I mean, they can do it, so why not? I like Sam. He’s got a lot of facility and a lot of harmony. He reminds me of Larry, but Sam to me has more fire than Larry does. He gets a little funkier sometimes. But I love Larry, too. Sounds great. I love Brian Blade, of course. We’ve never played together, though; that’s one guy I haven’t played with, but he’s a great drummer. 4 stars.

2. Mike LeDonne, “At Long Last Love” (from LIVE AT SMOKE, NYC, Savant, 2006), (LeDonne, Hammond B-3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Cole Porter, composer)

This is the way of recording the organ that… Everybody is really trying to get that old Rudy van Gelder Blue Note sound, because that’s the staple. “At Long Last Love,” that’s the tune. Frank Sinatra, man. “That’s what I’m feelin’, for real…” Yeah! Look out. Is this something new also? Recent? This is traditional here. Good organ music here. Nice guitar. The guitar player sounds NICE. Got a little Grant Green in there. I like when the organ player is playing in that low register. It’s a nice, warm, bell-like sound with the percussion. Ah, Lonnie Smith. No? I’ve got to listen a little more. He’s building it like Lonnie. Tony Monaco? No? Oh. That’s Mike LeDonne. I love Mike, man. See, you’ve got to listen. When somebody’s building, it could sound like a lot of different things, but then there’s signature things, and there it is. He’s got a lot of harmony, and he plays the organ in a swinging tradition. Is that at Smoke? That sounds great. So that’s Pete on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums. I don’t have this record, and I never heard it, but I’ve heard about it. I know about… [BREAK] Whoo! Ha! He’s got a lot like Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith… A lot of similar influences that I have. I guess that we all have. That’s nice. This always feels good. The drummer’s playing what they used to call a conga beat. Hey, man, 4 stars. He’s building and building and building. I’m going to have to get that. Again, really nice recording, and that’s live. That organ isn’t easy to play in there. That B3 organ at Smoke is a tough organ. He plays it all the time, though, so he’s probably really used to it. It’s got a great sound, though, and the way… See, he’s building up to the big full organ… Now, you get the Leslie spinning on tremolo. Everything’s out. All the stops. Smoke was interesting. When I first played there, they took a direct signal out of the organ, straight into the system, as well as miking the Leslie, and that’s how Rudy Van Gelder… That was his big secret, how he recorded, that nobody could figure out all those years—then finally we did. That’s how we play live now, too. Because you get that nice fatness straight out of the organ for the bottom end and all that. That style there comes from Wild Bill Davis—the shout. Because it’s like a big ball when it gets into the shout chorus. This system does sound… Man!

3. Gary Versace, “Gallop’s Gallop”(from Loren Stillman, THE BROTHERS’ BREAKFAST, Steeplechase, 2006) (Versace, Hammond B-3; Stillman, alto saxophone; John Abercrombie, guitar; Jeff Hirschfield, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This has got some nice humor in it. Everybody you’ve played so far uses the Jimmy Smith setting. That’s just a staple. I mean, you’ve got to play with your own style, but as far as how you set the organ, he really set the ground rule. Whoever it is has got some imagination. Yeah! Is this somebody new? [It depends on what you mean…] I don’t know who that is. I liked it, though. The approach is similar to where I’m at, what I’m doing right now, but I’m always thinking different. But I like that. When you say the name, I’ll probably know who it is. I’m not sure, though. I like the saxophone player, but I don’t know. [How do you mean similar to what you’re doing.] Harmonically, going outside the vocabulary with a different language a little bit. He’s got nice technique, too. Who wrote the tune? Monk? I figured it was someone like that. “Gallop’s Gallop” is a rare tune. I’m going to learn this. Well, the bass line isn’t swinging as hard as I would like. But I don’t know if he wants to do that. It might be a kind of implied thing. [polyphonic section] Wow. Definitely a piano player first, whoever it is playing. I can’t recognize anybody. You got me! 4 stars. This tune is a bitch.

4. Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Note Bleu” (from THE DROPPER, Blue Note, 1999 (John Medeski, Hammond B3; Marc Ribot, guitar; Chris Wood, electric bass; Billy Martin, drums)

This sound is a very over-driven sound. That’s what we call that, when you push the Leslie and get that little crunch in the sound. Which is sometimes a cool little effect. There’s a bass player on this one. A minor blues. This guy really likes a dirty sound on the organ. It’s a little too much for me. Too much overdrive—distortion. It’s a little jerky style for me. It’s okay, though. It’s still good. I don’t like all that overdrive, though; it’s just too much. Especially for something like… I mean, if you want to play some high energy rock or something, that’s the sound for that. 3 stars. I don’t know who that is. Medeski, Martin & Wood? That makes sense. Too much distortion, John. That’s his sound, though. But for something a little mellower like that… But he still has the organ set the same way we all do, except he uses a little bit…on the vibrato part, the chorus, he’s got a little bit less depth on it. That’s for the organ geeks out there.

5. Count Basie-Oscar Peterson, “Memories of You” (from NIGHT RIDER, Pablo, 1978) (Basie, organ; Peterson, piano; John Heard, bass; Louis Bellson, drums)

Now, I like this. This is happening. This is old…I think. Is this from the ‘80s? Earlier? I can tell just by the sound. With the piano in there… This is a very old-school style. He’s got the Leslie on tremolo, fast speed. Not as percussive a sound. It’s very pretty. “Memories of You.” Is that Milt Buckner? It’s the older style like that. Is that Ron Carter on bass? Somebody influenced by him, though. That style. It’s definitely an older player. Is the pianist Oscar Peterson? You can tell that. Is it the Count on the organ. Man, I’ve got to get this. I’ve heard about it. That’s Oscar and Count. Is it Bobby Durham on drums. [No, Louis Bellson] And Ray Brown. [John Heard] I have the two-piano things they did, but Count’s playing organ here. I knew it was Oscar, and I knew the organ player was somebody from back in the day. Milt Buckner played with Lionel Hampton, and he kind of played like Count. 5 stars, man. That’s easy. The way he sets the Leslie is very old-school. See, when the Leslie speakers first came out, they weren’t supposed to be turned on and off. They just were on to add tremolo to the organ, to add vibrato to the organ. Then really, the jazz people and the pop people started to think, ‘If we could turn this in and out, it would be very dramatic.” That’s how that started.

6. Larry Goldings, “Sound Off” (from Michael Brecker, TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE, Impulse, 1999) (Brecker, tenor saxophone; Goldings, Hammond B3; Pat Metheny, guitar; Jeff Watts, drums)

Pat Metheny on guitar. That sound is unmistakable. Michael Brecker. Great. Whoo! On the drums, is that Jeff Watts? Oh, and Larry Goldings. I don’t have this record. But everybody on there is so unmistakable, such a strong style. Pat Metheny, Michael, Tain… Tain is killin’, man! The tune has a lot of rhythm in it, there’s a lot of hits, and it’s a little brisk, too. It’s also modal; not a lot of changes in it. A minor kind of thing. Who wrote this? I thought it was Larry. I could tell. It’s his harmonic approach to stuff. Larry’s got a nice bassline. He doesn’t play much foot, though. But he doesn’t like to play it. He don’t want to play it. Now, he can play. I love Larry. He swings. 5 stars. He hasn’t soloed yet, but it’s gonna be good. I want to hear it. I love Jeff Watts. A lot of fire. I’ve played with him quite a bit. I regret that I never played with Michael. We talked about it. We were going to record a record at one time. I often thought about recording two organs with Larry. We’re so different. But same, too, in a lot of ways. He plays perfect, man. Every note is the right note. He’s got wonderful feeling. He’s influenced a lot by Larry Young. Fantastic player. Smooth. Pat’s compin’ nice behind him. I’d like to play with Pat. I’ve never played with Pat either. I’d like to just get in there and play with that whole band. Isn’t Elvin on this record, too. I’m going to have to go out and get this. It’s interesting for Pat Metheny, too, because he doesn’t have his delay and all that shit out. It’s just guitar. And Pat can play his ass off. 5 stars there, man, for sure. A bunch of bad motherfuckers.

7. Melvin Rhyne, “Light Life Love” (from TO CANNONBALL WITH LOVE, King, 1992) (Rhyne, Hammond B3; Carl Allen, drums)

I don’t recognize the tune. I think I might know who the organ player is, but I’m going to listen a little more. It’s a very organic sounding recording. See, there’s a touch of the overdrive I was talking about before, but it’s nice. [That little burry thing?] Yeah. It’s a growl, kind of. It’s an older player, I think. Is this just a duet thing? I don’t hear a guitar comping, but he could be laying out for now. Is it Mel Rhyne? I know his style. When he played with Wes, he had a different sound, and later on, he used different settings. I like it better. But I know his style. Very melodic. Played around the changes. Very bebop, old-school—wonderful style of playing. Who’s on drums? Carl Allen? Ah, now he’s playing the foot with the chords with the left hand and the melody with the right, which is really the legitimate style of organ playing. That’s great. Mel Rhyne, man. 5 stars. Is this a ballad he wrote? Very nice. Wow, I don’t know this record. I don’t know any of these! I mean, I heard of some of the ones you played, but I definitely don’t know this one. It’s happening.

8. Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense” (from David Murray, SHAKILL’S II, DIW, 1991) (Pullen, organ, composer; Murray, tenor saxophone; Bill White, guitar; J.T. Lewis, drums)

Nice. They’re playing something in 5 here. He got a different kind of sound on the organ there! These guys sound a little uptight. They don’t sound relaxed. It’s not swinging. It’s not 4/4, it’s 5/4, but you’ve still got to groove. They’re rushing a little bit. You gotta relax! It’s obvious they know what they’re doing. Who’s the tenor player? David Murray. He knows what he’s doing. But now that I know who he is, he’s going for a more edgy thing. He can play in, but he played more out. He had like a nice combination. He’s playing an organ setting, man. That’s pretty cool. This must be from a while ago. I have a pretty good idea who the organ player is. It sounds like Don Pullen. I have a video of him playing with John Scofield, so that’s how I know. Don was an organ player, man. A piano player, but he knew what he was doing with that organ, too. These are the Out guys playing In. But it’s edgy, man. It’s rushing. It’s not real relaxed. But they didn’t play that way that often. But they knew how to play inside. At one time, probably that’s what they did. For many years, most of David Murray’s stuff was way out. So this is cool. But that’s why I’m hearing that little edgy thing. I’ve still gotta give it 4 stars. I have a lot of respect for these guys, the tremendous body of work and things they’ve done. But I stand by it’s not relaxed-sounding. He’s got some weird sounds on the organ, too. He’s got a weird vibrato, like UHHUUHHHUUHHH… I use that sometimes for an effect. But he’s playing the organ the way you play it, got the left-hand bass going and… There are his Pullenisms. There’s still Jimmy Smith in that. There’s still a Jimmy Smith influence in the style. A lot of people don’t know that Jimmy could be out as could be! He had a very avant-garde approach. If you knew him and heard him play on his own… But a lot of the things Pullen is playing here, you know he definitely dug Jimmy Smith. I mean, I don’t think he could play the organ without… Anybody who says anything different than that, they’re lying.

9. Pete Levin, “Uptown” (from DEACON BLUES, Motema, 2007) (Levin, Hammond B3, composer; Joe Beck, elec. guitar; Danny Gottlieb, drums)

It’s amazing. There really are a lot of organ players. You think there’s not that many, but… I’ve got to figure out who this is. Too much melody, man, for too long! It’s not interesting enough to be that long. I mean, you get into the soloing… All right, here we go. The guitar player went into Wes Montgomery right away—the octaves. A lot of Wes Montgomery influence here, which is great. The organ player is playing too much behind the guitar player. The guitar player is playing block chords. You’ve really got to play minimal, almost no chords, just bassline, and leave it open for the guitar when he’s playing that fat. Otherwise, it gets too busy-sounding. He shouldn’t be playing any chords there—in my opinion. It’s a little corny-sounding. It’s not real greasy. Even if you play out or avant-garde or harmonic, there’s got to be a certain amount of grease in there, funkiness and… This is very choppy. I don’t know who it is. Now, the guitar player was really into Wes. But the organ is real stiff-sounding. It’s not necessarily wrong. But it doesn’t move me. 2 stars. [AFTER] He’s probably not an organ player. Right? I like Joe Beck. Joe sounded like Wes there, man. I did a record with Joe, one of those Japanese releases. It was all songs named after ladies.

10. Trudy Pitts, “Just Friends” (from Pat Martino, EL HOMBRE, Prestige, 1967) (Pitts, organ, Martino, electric guitar; Mitch Fine, drums)

[IMMEDIATELY] Trudy Pitts, Pat Martino, “Just Friends.” I love Trudy. I grew up… Trudy was like a musical mother, man. I know Trudy and Bill Carney, her husband, Mister C, since I was 8 years old. In fact, we just did a concert together… I didn’t have to hear too much of the playing. I just knew what it was right away. [You probably know every note on the solo.] Oh, yeah. Pat plays his ass off on here. His choice of drummer on here… I asked him years later. I said, “That drummer on there wasn’t really up to par, Pat.” He said, “Yeah, but the guy was a sweetheart, and I really liked him, and he was my friend, and he was excited to do the date.” But Trudy sounds great on here, so does Pat. I could do without the bongos. But this is 5 stars easy. I haven’t heard it in years, but this is one of those things you just know. This solo Pat takes here influenced generations of guitar players. For me, this is Pat’s best playing. The feeling he played with, and he was bluesy, and he swung hard, and he listened more. I love this period of Pat. And Trudy is playing so great here. Trudy is underrated. She never got the due she should have. That’s Orrin Evans’ godmother. I’d love to have heard this with a great drummer, though. Pat basically played like Wes Montgomery, but with a pick, and a little more percussive and aggressive attack. But this is definitely out of Wes—totally. Grant Green. He’s probably 19 or 20 there. Swinging like crazy. They did a record, Bar Wars, a Willis Jackson record. That’s some shit there. That’s Charlie Earland and Idris. Charlie Earland was very limited, man, but he could swing like crazy. And you know what? Sometimes that’s what you’d rather hear.

11. Dr. Lonnie Smith, “Invitation” (from Ximo Tebar, GOES BLUE, Omix/Sunnyside, 1998/2005) (Smith, Hammond B3 organ; Tebar, elec. guitar; Idris Muhammad, drums)

Well, there’s no question of the drummer. That’s Idris. I’ve played with him a lot. He just swings his ass off. That’s Ximo Tibar and that’s Lonnie Smith. I’ve played with Ximo and Idris. Boy, listen to Idris. Ximo is directly out of George Benson, Pat Martino…and that’s the Doc. Let it play, though. Ximo’s my man. I love Ximo. Now he lives here. But being Spanish, at this time… I think they made this record before the record we made. He did a lot of funny things sometimes, quotes that… We used to tell him, Idris and I, “Don’t play that, man. That’s corny.” Or “If you go to New York and you play that, they’re going to laugh at you.” He wasn’t aware of certain things. We used to have a lot of fun. One night he said, “I can’t play this. I can’t play that. I can’t play… What am I going to play?” We said, “We’re helping you, man, filter all this shit out so people don’t laugh at you.” He’s such a great player, but he would put little corny things in there. Now he’s even better. Is Lou Donaldson on this record, too? [3 tracks] Of course, this is “Invitation,” a standard. Now, there’s the Doc. I love Doc. Lonnie Smith plays better now than he ever did. In the ‘60s, when he was with George Benson and Lou Donaldson, he was just learning how to play the organ. But he had such a great FEELING that he could pull off… But now…oh yeah, he plays his ass off. 5 stars. Idris and Lonnie, man! Plus Ximo. Lonnie’s got some showbiz in him, too. A lot of showbiz. Lonnie’s from Buffalo, N.Y., and there was a guy in Buffalo named Joe Madison that he learned pretty much everything from, and he does sound a lot like him. My family, except for me, is from Niagara Falls. My Dad kind of learned from the same cat. So Lonnie’s and my father’s groove always reminded me of each other, and then I figured out why. Idris is so lyrical, man. He plays that Second Line and funky stuff just unbelievable. Killing, man. I love that. Lonnie’s playing that full organ sound.

12. Jeff Palmer, “A Happy Trail” (from SHADES OF THE PINE, Reservoir, 1994) (Palmer, Hammond B3; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, elec. guitar; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums)

One thing I know right away, it was recorded at Rudy van Gelder’s. I know that sound. That’s fast, man! Blues in B-flat. Is that Marvin Smitty Smith on drums? Who the heck is this, man? Whoa! John Abercrombie? That’s Jeff Palmer. I’m not aware of anything he’s really recorded. [He hasn’t recorded much since this record.] I have a record he did years ago by himself. It was a solo organ record. I think Marvin Smitty Smith and John Abercrombie played together some. And John did another record with Jeff, and maybe Adam Nussbaum. [He did a few records with Jeff. One with Rashied Ali, one with Victor Lewis.] I want to play with Rashied Ali. Let’s see if I know who the horn player is. Is that Bob Berg? No. Who is it? Oh, is that Bill Pierce? Jeff is a nice player, man. I think underrated. It’s a shame more people didn’t talk about him and he didn’t have more recordings. I like Jeff. 4 stars. He likes to play tempos, man. A man after my own heart. Great, swinging player. He’s got a nice imagination. Doesn’t play the norm. He’s stretching it out nice. He’s got a lot of chops, man. He can play. He isn’t swinging real, real hard, but it’s still happening. I played with John Abercrombie once, and I liked the way he accompanied. He comped real nice.

13. Larry Young, “Luny Tune” (from Grant Green, TALKIN’ ABOUT, Blue Note, 1965/1999) (Young, organ; Green, guitar; Elvin Jones, drums)

This is the shit, man. “Luny Tune.” Larry Young, Elvin Jones and Grant Green. What can I say, man. Larry was influenced by Jimmy Smith, but he took it into a little different vibe, with the influence… When McCoy started playing with Trane, and playing fourths and things like that, that influenced Larry. Grant Green just swings so damn hard. And Elvin… How can you go wrong here? This we’re going to have to give 10,000 stars. This is some of Larry’s best playing on record. Is this Talkin’ About J.C.? I covered this tune on a date for the producer Milan Simich, with Lenny White, Kenny Garrett, and a guitar player, Tony…an Italian name. We did it. It was cool, but nothing’s going to be like this. There’s a warmth and feeling to this. Elvin played so great on here. Just a big huge, rolling sound. That’s such a big pad to play over. You never heard a Rhythm change swing so hard, man. That is really, really swinging! And Elvin’s just stomping that sock cymbal, man—hi-hat as they call it now.

[END OF SESSION]

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Profile for Jazziz in 2006:

It’s noon on the last Saturday of June. Joey Francesco is sitting on a couch in the front section of his bus—a fully outfitted unit in which he sleeps, cooks, showers, and hauls his Hammond B-3—as it ambles along the Delaware River into South Philadelphia.

“I love the B-3,” muses DeFrancesco, who, above his bare feet, is dressed comfortably in a T-shirt and pajama trousers. “They have a certain smell with the motors and the oils and the wood—especially if it was in a smoky club for years. It’s organic, like having an orchestra right at your fingertips. All the sounds and power you can get—very brash or obtrusive, and at the same time mellow and warm, just like a person. It’s a moving, human sound if it’s played right. And it’s the most spiritual of instruments, which is why it’s used in church. I was born to play it. There’s nothing on organ that I can’t do, and a lot of stuff that most guys that play it can’t do.”

Asked precisely what that “stuff” is, DeFrancesco elaborates. “Maybe the way I can play a tempo and the bass line never moves. Then my energy level and the way I never play anything that’s not swinging. I feel so at home behind that instrument. It’s an extension of me. I own it. It doesn’t own me.”

DeFrancesco, who titles himself “The World’s Greatest Jazz Organist,” now owns a dozen or so Hammonds, including a portable 1958 B-3 that Jimmy Smith used on the road for most of his life. Smith gave it to him, along with a baby grand and Yamaha upright piano, not long before he died in 2005, symbolically transferring to his protégé the keys to the organ kingdom.

Originally a pianist out of Norristown, a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, Smith singlehandedly turned the organ trio into a jazz genre with several dozen LPs for Blue Note and Verve between 1956 and 1966. Onto the aggressive, extroverted sound of the popular Wild Bill Davis, who played big, stomping block chords and percussive left hand bass figures, Smith extrapolated the virtuosic single-note approach of Bud Powell, with whom he played when Powell lived in Philadelphia in 1954. That year Smith formed a trio with John Coltrane, and became the first organist to separate the bass and horn functions, conjuring modern basslines to support harmonically sophisticated solos that he executed with impeccable technique and unending groove.

Smith was the right voice for the time. “In the ’50s and ’60s,” DeFrancesco says, “people who owned lounges and beer gardens realized it was cheaper to have someone carry in their own organ than to own a piano. Organ and drums, you have a gig. Add a guitar or saxophone, you have a bigger gig. So every club around Philly had an organ. It was big in the blue-collar world, because they played this very soulful, bluesy, spiritual stuff that moved people when they needed it. It was the same thing they heard in church—that rocking, grooving sound.”

That sound was out of fashion in 1989, when DeFrancesco, 18 and fresh from a year playing keyboards with Miles Davis’ “Amandla” band, signed with Columbia and released the first of five organcentric sessions with the label. Wynton Marsalis, along with various editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, had brought hardcore ’60s jazz back into the consciousness of the post-Baby Boom generation, but as in the years before 1956, the organ was perceived as a poor relation. In the wake of DeFrancesco’s success, such ’60s soul-jazz icons as Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, John Patton, and Shirley Scott—all of whom were recording for small labels and gigging in various hotels and inner-city lounges—found new audiences.

“I was kind of the savior for the instrument,” DeFrancesco says without affectation. “I say that humbly and with no ego—it just happened. I might have played terrible, but it made everybody interested again. My first record sparked an interest. I’d worked with Miles, and things were rollin’ nice. People who’d forgotten about organ said, ‘Wow, that’s a great thing.’ People who still loved it were happy it was happening again, and people who’d never paid attention or younger ones who thought it was brand new wanted to check it out. There was a demand for that sound again. It needed a new face, and I was young and white. As Jack McDuff said, white people never had a white organ player to cheer for.”

DeFrancesco was always much more than a Great White Hope. He started playing at 4, inspired by his father, a gigging Philadelphia B-3 organist known as “Papa John,” who in 1978 took the prodigy to hear—and sit in with—Smith at New York’s Sheraton Hotel. At 10, DeFrancesco bought his first B-3, a used model, for $900. Before puberty, he had played weekend jobs around Philly with the likes of Hank Mobley, Bootsie Barnes, and Philly Joe Jones. How deeply he assimilated their work is apparent on his latest release, [i]Organic Vibes[i] [Concord], titled for the presence of Bobby Hutcherson and also notable for two guest shots by veteran tenor sax virtuoso George Coleman. Playing with authoritative, old master relaxation, eschewing tricks, licks, and long-held notes, DeFrancesco guides the icons through a broad range of genres—Coltranecentric postbop, on-the-one bebop, testifying ballads, travel-the-spaceways funk, pork-chops-and-pasta soul.

The rhetoric of organ marketing rankles DeFrancesco. “Jimmy [Smith] was as sophisticated harmonically as he was soulful,” he says, “but everybody latched onto [i]Back at the Chicken Shack[i]. Of course, Jimmy had a lot to do with that, because he latched onto those hits and had the same set for almost 40 years. I get that, too. Every ad, every marquee, every poster says, ‘greasy, soulful, gutbucket.’ Now, I love the blues. But I’ve played with John McLaughlin, Pharaoh Sanders, and Miles. What about when I play Coltrane tunes? His influence is one reason why I play a lot of notes sometimes. My guitar player’s role is the piano in a quartet. Trane would play a tune’s head, then McCoy built for a while, and Trane entered when the fire was stoked and took off from there. The organ is nice for that.”

But DeFrancesco has few other complaints. “I’ve always pretty much stuck to my guns and done what I wanted to do,” he says. “For some reason, people like it. I played recently in Dayton, Ohio. There was a nice middle-aged to older black crowd who wanted the hits and some white college kids who were calling out all the Wayne Shorter stuff. I catered to them both. As long as everything comes from your heart, you’re going to be okay.”

Sidebar for Jazziz Article

In production from 1955 to 1975, the tone wheel-based, analog Hammond B-3 organ weighed 425 pounds and was a sonic universe unto itself. It had two 61-note keyboards (manuals), and players could incorporate various effects—percussion, chorus and vibrato, adjustable attack and decay. Each keyboard had 9 preset keys and two sets of stops (drawbars), representing the harmonic wave patterns of an orchestral array of instruments. Add to that a two-octave set of foot pedals with two pedal drawbars built into the console, an expression pedal built into the base, and massive Leslie speakers with a pair of rotating treble horns at the top of the cabinet, a pair of rotating horns at the bottom, and a bass woofer that enhance the organ’s vibrato.

“The very early ones sounded good, but the sound we love so much, the way Jimmy Smith sounded when he started recording for Verve, is from the models after 1958,” says Joey DeFrancesco. “They made little refinements to the technology that no one really knew about. But it became too expensive to make them—all handmade, a lot of parts, a lot of screws.”

In 1977, Hammond launched a transistor-based model called the B-3000. “It wasn’t too successful,” DeFrancesco says. “Then they attempted one called the Super-B, which was a nightmare, with all kinds of problems—people still weren’t happy.” In 1988, Suzuki Instrument Corporation bought the name and, as DeFrancesco puts it, “got serious about rejuvenating the legend.” In 1993 they introduced a line of digital, MIDI-adaptable organs, and as the decade progressed, with help from DeFrancesco, continued to work on sampling techniques to tweak the nuances, an effort that culminated in 2002 with the “New B3,” which uses a digital tone generator.

“They’ve come a long way,” DeFrancesco says, of Suzuki’s exertions to replicate the B3’s nuances digitally. “ Now you’d be hard-pressed to tell the old and the new apart.”

While every electromechanical B3 was idiosyncratic, like a piano, the digital iterations are consistent. “That’s good, because I know what each one will sound like,” says DeFrancesco. “On the old model, everybody had their own sound. But these new ones represent the ideal sound that we all love.

“To bend a note before, you’d shut the motor on and off, like Groove Holmes used to do, but now you can actually hold a note—there are pitch bend wheels which weren’t on the original. With MIDI, I can put strings on my lower manual, play the organ on the top, and put an upright bass on the foot. I can switch from organ to piano trio with my own upright bass. Another band.”

Bio for Goodfellas, 1999
“The whole concept of Goodfellas,” organist Joey DeFrancesco comments, “was three Italian guys playing music that we grew up listening to. We all in common love Mafia movies and Italian-oriented films. All the tunes are hand-picked to associate being young as an Italian, growing up with all Italians around, the music that we listened to and played — living the Italian life. The whole thing — the food, the music, and a lotta love.”

Joined by guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola and crisp swing-to-bop drummer Joe Ascione, the 28-year-old South Philadelphia native puts forth a varied paean to the Italian-American experience with musicality and brio, displaying his characteristic blend of jawdropping chops, attention to nuance, and high comfort zone for playing many styles and colors of music with a singular idiomatic voice. “I’ve always been a chameleon with everything I do,” he remarks. “If I’m talking to somebody with an accent, I start talking with that accent. I don’t even do it consciously. And it rubs off in my music. I can get pretty much into any bag with anybody.”

It’s as though DeFrancesco was born to play the organ. His father, “Papa John” DeFrancesco has gigged steadily on the Hammond B-3 around Philadelphia and its immediate environs since the ’60s. “I started playing when I was 4,” he recalls. “I could just play. I was already hearing Jimmy Smith and stuff like that around the house, then one time my Dad brought the organ home from the gig, and when I heard that sound I really got into it. He guided me in the right direction, the dos and the donts, but he was never very forceful about it.” His father began taking the prodigy to clubs at 7 or 8, and he began playing for money on weekend gigs at 10 years old. By high school DeFrancesco was working steadily around Philadelphia, receiving first-hand instruction from the top-shelf organists who populate and come through the City of Brotherly Love, such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and numerous others. During those years his trio was named “Best High School Combo” at MusicFest USA, a student competition; he was also the first winner of the Jazz Society of Philadelphia’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship.

“I went five years to music school,” he recalls. “I didn’t pay attention, never learned how to read a note. I love to play and I love to listen, and pretty much whatever I hear I can play pretty quick. I’ve been influenced by everything — Miles, Coltrane, piano players like Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal. Whatever music is prevalent in my life at the time comes out in my approach. If I’m listening to a lot of horn, I’ll play horn-like, single-note lines; if I’m listening to a lot of piano, I’ll play pianistically. Ray Brown and Ron Carter influenced my bass lines, but I don’t even have to think about them. They’re like another brain that’s just there. I can totally concentrate on my right hand; the coordination has always been easy.

“I love Jimmy Smith; to this day he’s the king. The Blue Note records he did in the late ’50s are very innovative; he was doing things that Coltrane did five-six years later. He’s a great hardbop single-note player with impeccable technique, but blues-drenched with an amazing groove. He’s all-around great! Larry Young’s the one who put the John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner approach to the organ. He didn’t swing as hard as Jimmy Smith, but his touch was so nice.”

You could appropriate DeFrancesco’s description of Jimmy Smith to describe his style. He swings ferociously, executes spot-on single-note lines and imaginative bass lines underneath them, can dig deep into the pocket or float over the time. He’s told his story with equal comfort in a panoramic range of idioms — power postbop, on-the-one bebop, abstract reharmonizations, funk that travels the spaceways and soul jazz of the pork chops-and-pasta variety. His high-visibility career kicked off when Miles Davis asked the 17-year-old organ wunderkind to join his late ’80s band (he appears on Amandla and Live Round The World). Then he signed a contract with Columbia that resulted in five varied records from 1989 to 1994. He’s worked extensively during the ’90s with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin (see After The Rain and The Free Spirits [Verve]), and been a sideman in bands led by guitarists Dave Stryker, Randy Johnston, Jimmy Bruno, Danny Gatton and Paul Bollenbeck, his band guitarist for many years. He’s been in the studio with saxophonists like Houston Person, Ron Holloway, Kenny Garrett, Gary Thomas and Eric Alexander.

Though assembled specifically for the date, the “Goodfellas” trio plays with the synchronous intuition that long-standing interaction imparts to a unit, finding fresh approaches to the classic material. “If something swings, I like it,” DeFrancesco enthuses. “It really doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s grooving. I’m more of a Miles Davis-John Coltrane approach kind of player, but the stuff on Goodfellas is more Louis Prima oriented! It’s grooving. It’s swinging. It’s supposed to be fun, but on the other hand the musicianship is impeccable. We weren’t goofing off and making fun of it.

“Frank Vignola’s sound goes way back into the Swing Era — Freddie Greene, Django Reinhardt. “He’s got a lot of soul and a very clean way of playing that makes me play more in the mode of traditional, older school jazz, like before Bebop, more like Count Basie big band style. I accompany him like I’m the whole horn section, little stabs here and there, comping. Frank brought Joe Ascione on the date; this is the first time we’ve played together. He played great, and he knows this bag very well.

“If you’re going to do an album about Italians and having influence from Mob movies, you’ve got to have the theme song from ‘The Godfather,'” DeFrancesco continues. “Am I right?” Yes, Joey. The trio addresses “Speak Softly Love” with “Jimmy Smith’s version of the Erroll Garner approach; the tune’s probably never been played like that — Frank’s got Freddie Greene happening on it.”

“Volare” evokes images of Italian crooners like Vic Damone and…Jerry Vale. “My favorite!” DeFrancesco laughs. “Those tunes are great. See, I heard jazz all my life, mostly. But when we went over to our family’s houses on Sunday for pasta, sausage or meatballs, this was the stuff that your aunt or uncle or grandmother was playing in the background. That’s part of the tradition.” The band gooses up the tune with a heartbeat-steady up-tempo groove treatment directly out of the Louis Prima textbook.

“Fly Me To The Moon,” “All The Way,” and “Young At Heart” are direct tributes to Frank Sinatra, a huge presence in the aural soundtrack of DeFrancesco’s life. “Sinatra is like a God for Italians, especially from South Philly, where I grew up,” DeFrancesco states. “Now, they liked him more because he was Italian and had a good voice. But when you’re a musician, especially a jazz musician, and you listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane and guys like that, you start to realize how great he was. His phrasing was perfect! He sounded like an instrument. Many of the ballads Miles would play were Sinatra tunes, and Miles played them like Sinatra phrased them. He always credited Sinatra for his phrasing. I really got hip to it when I started playing with Miles. He told me, ‘You’ve got to listen to more Frank Sinatra.’ I said, ‘Well, I do listen to him.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to listen to the way he’s singing those notes.’ He was truly a jazz singer, particularly in the early days, the ’50s and the ’60s. He took a lot from Billie Holiday, too, the way he slides, and from Dorsey with those long notes. He had that sound, and he swung like crazy. That’s why guys like Miles and Trane loved it.

“‘Fly Me To The Moon’ is the Frank Sinatra-Count Basie arrangement in trio form. It’s a great tune. We played ‘All The Way’ very sweet; I like the way it came out. We played the melody of ‘Young At Heart’ straight. It’s one of my Dad’s favorite tunes; he always used to sing it when I was a kid, and the song became one of my favorites.”

The trio swings the “O Solo Mio” aria; opera influences DeFrancesco’s shaping of melody and phrasing. “Opera is very powerful, with a lot of dynamics and emotion. It comes out in my playing. That’s why I play so wild, like such a maniac sometimes, and then I can come down and play something real sweet.”

There’s Italian vernacular (“Mala Femina”, taken as a boogaloo, and an album-closing “Tarantella”), and three originals that take titles from Mafia argot. Ascione’s “Whack ’em,” a blues based on Jimmy Smith’s arrangement of “Organ Grinder Swing,” takes inspiration from hit-man dialogue in the Martin Scorsese film that gives the album its title. “You See What I’m Sayin'” references a trademark declamation by Robert DeNiro, a DeFrancesco hero; “it’s an Uptown ‘Rhythm’ changes with a ‘Jumpin’ At The Woodside’ vibe on it.” The title track is a slow blues in the organ tradition, collectively developed by the trio. The trio is jazz all the way on Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” also known as “Justice,” where DeFrancesco floats with fire over the angular harmonies.

Goodfellas is DeFrancesco’s debut as a leader for Concord, after a sideman appearance with guitarist (and fellow South Phillyite) Jimmy Bruno [Like That, C-4698] and a co-led two-organ date with mentor organist Brother Jack McDuff [It’s About Time, C-4705]. It’s the latest chapter for the protean young veteran with a firm grip of the jazz lingua franca; like all his records, it celebrates the music’s eternal values of communication, intelligence and swing.

 

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For Steve Gadd’s 70th Birthday, a Jazziz Profile From 2013

A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.

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The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.

“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”

It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.

“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”

Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.

During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.

“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.

“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”

Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.

“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”

[BREAK]

The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.

“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”

In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”

Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.

“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”

This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.

“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”

A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”

Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”

“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”

“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”

Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”

For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.

Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”

[BREAK]

James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”

Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”

“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”

When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”

If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”

Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.

Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

[SIDEBAR]

In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.

“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”

Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”

Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.

“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”

At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”

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Filed under Article, Bob James, David Sanborn, Eric Harland, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Larry Goldings, Paul Simon, Steve Gadd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BREAK]

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

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

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

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TS:   We need more everything.

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

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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

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

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

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-2-02):

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

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

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

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

TP:    Putting your foot in cement?

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

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

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

TP:    And it was a great hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  A respect for knowledge.

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

SHAW:  At 15.

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

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

TP:    What did they do for work?

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

TP:    Had they come here from Russia?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  C-melody saxophone.

TP:    And you had an instant affinity for it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  1929 I  came to New York.

TP:    And you instantly found work.

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

TP:    Because of the union?

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

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

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

TP:    Would you describe the atmosphere there?

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

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

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

TP:    You’ll be bored?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.

TP:    Art Shaw.  Excuse me.

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

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

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

TP:    Since we can’t talk about Harlem…

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

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

SHAW:  What’s that?

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

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

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

SHAW:  Savoy Ballroom.

TP:    The Savoy Ballroom in Chicago.

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

TP:    How long did you stay in Chicago?

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

TP:    And you heard him again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  In Chicago.

TP:    Yes, in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes, that’s right.

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

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

TP:    So whatever stylistic differences critics and historians ascertain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did it all have equal value?

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

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

SHAW:  Yeah.

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

SHAW:  All of that.

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

SHAW:  You could call me an autodidact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Mine?

TP:    Yours.

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

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

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

TP:    Yes, I understand.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  All right.

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

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

TP:    Kropotkin and…

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I wouldn’t argue with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I try to be.

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you had unmitigated success for a while.

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

TP:    Why was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Was it Freudian psychoanalysis?

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

TP:    On the couch?

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So it was with a Freudian psychoanalyst.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That’s a good lesson.

SHAW:  It sure is.

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

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

TP:    Did you have problems in the North?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  That was the only thing I cared about.

TP:    What were those qualities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Ken Burns.

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

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

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

TP:    In the sense of amoral or asexual…

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of things?

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

TP:    What sort of extremes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You like them.

SHAW:  Yeah. They’re good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  You mean “Tunisia”?

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

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

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

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

TP:    What about Charlie Parker?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How about Ellington?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you know Ellington?

SHAW:  Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Well, maybe call it the decadence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you feel that denoted a character flaw.

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

TP:    Do you play any musical instrument now?

SHAW:  Well, I play piano a little bit.

TP:    Do you practice it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[-30-]_

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-16-02):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Miles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I think.  The media darling thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That band had a very stimulating repertoire.

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

TP:    By which arrangers?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Which band was that?

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

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

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

TP:    He could seduce everybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Cranky.

TP:    …curt with people or…

SHAW:  I’m cranky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Jack Jenney.

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

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

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

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

TP:    You organized that band because of IRS problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  It happens with Heifetz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Oh, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Jackson Pollock?

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

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

SHAW:  They’re all improvisation.

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

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

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

TP:    Do you think of music as a language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Musically you knew who you were.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure did.

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

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

TP:    So you were about 26 years old.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  Sure.  In Cleveland.

TP:    That’s amazing.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Yeah, right.

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you were 16 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  That’s right.

TP:    What was that airplane flight like?

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

TP:    That was your first time in California.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Yes, I played with all those people.

TP:    What was your impression of Jimmie Noone?

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

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

SHAW:  No, I never did hear him.

TP:    Earl Hines you played with as well.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How did you like playing tenor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You never can anticipate.  You never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  They don’t know much else.

TP:    They’re not particularly well-read.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Which sounds almost Buddhist.

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

TP:    More than you would think.

SHAW:  Well, now they’re…

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

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

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

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

TP:    You’d be losing a lot.

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

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

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

TP:    Psychologically?

SHAW:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  You’re generalizing here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    It sounds very utopian.

SHAW:  Read Huxley’s “The Island.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Yes, but consider the alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Well, what does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    As opposed to the Ashkenazi Jew?

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

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

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

TP:    Were you telling the truth?

SHAW:  Yes!

TP:    So you did think of yourself as Jewish.

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

TP:    And were any of your wives Jewish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I helped her.  I helped get started.

TP:    How did you do that?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    About Sinatra?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How long have you been living unattached?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But did any filmmakers or films enrich you in the manner of Thomas Mann or Faulkner?

SHAW:  As in every other endeavor, there are better and worse.

TP:    Well, who are some of the better, in your opinion?

SHAW:  I think Jack Ford was good.  I think Huston made a fine picture with “The Maltese Falcon.”  He made a good picture with “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”  Well, there have been a number of good directors.  But I don’t really care much.  I know too much about the workings of the film business, and I can sort of read between the scenes and say, “Well, he did this because of so-and-so…”  You know, the suits run the business, just like they run the record business today.

TP:    Oh, always.  It’s even more sophisticated than it was with the marketing and the testing and changing the ending and all that.

SHAW:  The record business has suffered enormously because of that?

TP:    Well, what constitutes your pleasure these days?  Is it primarily reading and discussion?

SHAW:  Reading, reading, reading.  Talking to people, having good conversations, looking out at the world, and looking at the sunrise and sunset.  Wild ducks live near my house.  I have a pool back there, and they go in the pool.  I don’t know, what can I say?  You just live your life and do the best you can.  I live with the phenomena of the world, and in some wonder mostly.  I am beset with wonder.

TP:    You’ve been working on a long autobiographical novel for many years.

SHAW:  Well, it’s a novel.

TP:    A long novel.

SHAW:  Yes.

TP:    With someone who may or may not be a protagonist or a stand-in for you or a fictionalized you.

SHAW:  Well, the book is, like any other fictional book, permeated by me.

TP:    Is the book close to completion?

SHAW:  I’ve written it.  It’s 95 pages [sic: chapters] long, and at the end he’s only 25.

TP:    How much have you cut?

SHAW:  I’m cutting, cutting, cutting right now.  I’m up to chapter… Let’s see, what chapter did I just finish cutting.  Chapter 48, I think.  We’re going to try to get down to Chapter 60, and my editor, who is a woman at Knopf, will then take the book and present it.

TP:    You have 60 chapters in… You didn’t say 95 pages, did you?

SHAW:  I said 95 chapters.

TP:    I thought you said pages.

SHAW:  No, chapters.

TP:    I couldn’t quite correlate.  I thought you were joking with me.

SHAW:  It’s a big, big, long tome.  But I can’t write it shorter.  It would not make any sense.

TP:    Do you use the computer?

SHAW:  Yes, when I write.  Right now I’ve got a different system.  Larry, my assistant… I take some material that I’ve got down, and that I’ve edited as much as I can, and pencil out pages, and then I give it to him and he types it up.  He’s got it all in the computer.  So he fixes the pages and sends them back to me.  Two or three exchanges, then I put it away.

TP:    Computers are amazing.

SHAW:  Then you go into the pre-publication trauma of editing and whatever.  Have you read that book of Stephen King’s called “On Writing”?

TP:    No, I haven’t.

SHAW:  It’s a helluva book.  It’s the best book of its kind I’ve read.  He’s a very smart guy.

TP:    Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, Saul Bellow I have reservations about.  Since he won the Nobel Prize.  Before that, he was a good writer.

TP:    Do you think it went to his head?

SHAW:  Well, there’s no question that it did.

TP:    Well, you would know, wouldn’t you.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure do.  I know that you have to be very, very careful about success.  There’s nothing worse than failure, except success.

TP:    Well, you probably haven’t failed at very many things except the marriages.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, I have!  You don’t know about my failures.

TP:    Can you reveal one or two for us?

SHAW:  Well, there are lots of failures that I don’t publicize.  You can’t do everything well.

TP:    As I was researching you on the Web, I found a project that Buddy DeFranco and Tom Rainier are undertaking…

SHAW:  They did do it.

TP:    Is it that they’re extracting your solos from the backdrop and creating new backgrounds for them?

SHAW:  I have certain reservations.

TP:    How did it come about?

SHAW:  Buddy wanted to do it.  His mantra is, “You haven’t heard the end of Artie Shaw yet.”  So this one record they made was on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which is a tune I never played. It wasn’t published while I was playing.  They used various riffs of mine and fit it in.

TP:    And created a solo out of your…

SHAW:  Not a solo, but various fill-ins, and not really… I have very mixed feelings about it.  I think it’s a little creepy.

TP:    Well, this is something that’s almost a commonplace in the digital age.

SHAW:  Yeah.  But it’s going to cost an awful lot to do.  They’ll need a lot of money to do this, because it’s not an easy undertaking.

TP:    You have a very rare perspective on the trajectory of our technology.  You were born around the time when electricity became commonplace, and now you’re living in the age of digital technology still in full possession of your faculties.

SHAW:  Like all things, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

TP:    What do you think are the advantages of digital technology?

SHAW:  The advantages are you can change anything into anything you want.  You can do the same piece and make a different ending, a better ending, and put it on there.  You can make a better riff here.  If a singer misses a high-D, they can put a high-D in there.  All of that is good, I suppose.

TP:    Do you think that’s a good thing, or do you think some imperfection is…

SHAW:  Well, I was coming to that.  It’s good for the singer, but it’s bad in the sense that we don’t get any spontaneity any more.  It’s like Vermeer.  Once a guy starts copying Vermeer, it gets to the point where you never know, when you look at a Vermeer, whether it’s real or a copy.  There’s a rumor out that most of the paintings in museums are copies.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  If you want to democratize art, then I guess it’s good, because anybody can own a Vermeer.  But if you want to see the original, I don’t know the answers.  There’s a certain spontaneity in jazz that is lost.

TP:    On recordings?

SHAW:  Well, when you start doing that, you fix something.  And sometimes the error is part of the deal.

TP:    What do you think you’d have done in 1938 or 1940 if you’d had digital technology available to you?

SHAW:  There were certain things I did that I didn’t particularly care for as much as others.  But I never let a record out that I thought was no good.

TP:    But what I’m getting at is, given the option to use digital technology to create…

SHAW:  I don’t think I would have done that.  I didn’t use digital technology in my last group, and it was available.  The 1953-54 Gramercy 5.

TP:    It wasn’t digital technology.

SHAW:  They had digital technology.  You could cut things out.

TP:    You could splice, but it was a different process.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t know. I get lost in all these…

TP:    Well, it’s easy to get lost in those things.  I’ve taken a lot of your time, and I should probably let you go.

SHAW:  Well, why not?  Maybe you’ll regroup for the next time.

TP:    I’d love for there to be a next time, although I don’t think there has to be for this particular piece.  You were talking about listening to jazz music today…

SHAW:  First of all, I hate the word “jazz.”  I wish we could find a better term.  American improvisational music.

TP:    But we can’t call it that.  Because now we have good musicians from all over the world playing it.

SHAW:  Well, then there’s French improvisation, there’s Dutch, there’s German…

TP:    But it’s a real hybrid.  I don’t know if it’s so evident on the West Coast, but in New York…

SHAW:  The word “jazz” is used as a catch-all, and unfortunately it does not include when you’ve got the extremes today…what’s his name, the alto player who plays with Mehldau…a black alto player… Anyway, if you’re going to include him and you’re going to include Bessie Smith under the same rubric, I don’t know what “Jazz” means.  It’s too broad a word.

TP:    By the way, I gather you were friendly with John Carter, the clarinettist.

SHAW:  I knew him.

TP:    What did you think of the avant-garde music, Ornette Coleman…

SHAW:  I can’t listen to it.  It’s like I can’t read… I’ve tried, but I can’t read William Burroughs.  He’s a good writer, but he writes shit I don’t want to hear about.  Rectal mucus?  I don’t want to hear about that?  I don’t need that.  It’s not what I would consider in any way informative or in any way broadening.  It’s the same thing with a lot of jazz.  I hear it, and I think, “who are they playing for?”  I just threw out a book.  I very rarely do this.  I was talking about yesterday to this scientist, and he said, “Yeah, I know this guy.”  He’s a guy at Yale, and he writes a book called “The Miracle of Existence.”  Well, that’s a good title.  So I pick it up and I find myself reading the same sentence four-five-six times, and saying, “What does that mean?”  I finally concluded that he’s writing for other scientists to show them how smart he is.

TP:    Academicians write for other academicians.

SHAW:  That’s right.  Well, those jazz players are playing for other jazz players.

TP:    You’re referring to a certain group.

SHAW:  I’m talking about the new ones.  People send me CDs of their stuff, and I don’t know what they want me to do.  I ask them, “Why do you send me that CD?  I don’t send you mine.”

TP:    You said that among the people you like these days are Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap…

SHAW:  Phil Woods.  There are good players.  But I don’t know what the hell they expect an audience to do.  I mean, they get off into something that they lengthen the phrases from 8 bars to 10 or 12, they change the chord structure, they drop the melody entirely… And what are they doing?  What is the average person going to make of this?  So they lose their audience.  What they’re doing… I told you my definition of a fugue.  Instruments come in one by one, and the audience walks out one by one.  Well, this is what’s happening with jazz.  They’re down to 3% of the buying public now.

TP:    1.8% actually.

SHAW:  That’s a pretty low percentage.  And see, Rock came along and Rock met a specific need.  You don’t like it, you don’t think they’re doing anything, but they are perceivable.  They are perceptible.  The audience can identify with what they’re hearing.  So I’m afraid that jazz has painted itself into a corner.  It’s okay.  Modern Art did the same thing, and then it got talked up and people are buying it.  That may be true with certain jazz clubs.  But you’re not going to get rich playing modern jazz.

TP:    No, but there are so many people who continue to do it.  It’s a source of fascination to me.

SHAW:  Well, they do it because they have no other choice.  What else can they do?  What, for example…this alto player, I can’t think of his name, a black guy who works with…a young guy… I don’t know what he’s trying to do.  He starts playing harmonics above the alto range, and they play a whole tune on that.  Well, you can do the same thing with a soprano sax.  So I don’t know what the point of that is.  Is it an attempt to show your dexterity?  I’m afraid that’s a large part of it.  Look at how many things I can do on this instrument.  And the audience is not particularly concerned with that.

TP:    It’s interesting, because the act of playing jazz extended the range of many instruments.  The brass instruments and saxophones were certainly taken above their…

SHAW:  I don’t know what the advantage is in playing high F above C.  What is the advantage?  I don’t know why one needs to do that.  It’s dexterity.  “Look what I can do” is what you’re saying.  And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting to the non-playing audience.  So they’ve painted themselves sort of out of an audience.  It’s the same thing as Pollock.  Pollock would never be heard if you haven’t had those Greenbergs and those other guys, the critics…

TP:    But what’s interesting is that now it looks logical to people.  I felt very dubious about Pollock, and I saw the retrospective a few years ago and found myself very moved by it and responding to it.

SHAW:  Well, I find myself saying, “what’s the point?”  The same thing… There’s a guy named Varnedoe…

TP:    Kirk Varnedoe, the curator at MOMA?

SHAW:  Yes.  And he talks about Art and language that I sometimes have to say, “What is he trying to say?”

TP:    He’s trying to market it and up its value and make collectors think they’re doing something daring and ahead of the curve on the ordinary person.

SHAW:  Yes.  He talks about acquiring a Matisse for the Museum of Modern Art.  You show a picture of that Matisse to most people, and they don’t know what they’re looking at.  That doesn’t mean Matisse wasn’t a good painter.  But they call it “ravishing.”  What do you mean by that?

TP:    You quit when you were 44.  Of your audience, how many appreciated you for what you were actually doing, and how many were looking at an image and not understanding anything?

SHAW:  I don’t think that was a question that occurred to me.  I wasn’t thinking in those terms.  I was thinking very privately between me and the men in the band… Like in the last group.  Hank Jones and I had a great rapport, and we did things together that felt right.  If you listen to a record called “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” we did things on that that I don’t think you can do better.  Good record.  So you say, “Well, what can you do more?”  And at the same time, I think it’s musical.  An audience can respond to that.

TP:    Well, it’s a very complex life.

SHAW:  It is indeed.  So we do the best we can, that’s all, and hope for some kind of recognition.  It’s as simple as that.  The bigger the recognition, the better pay you get.  But I am no longer interested in that.  I would like to see the records go out and sell.  But if they don’t sell much, well, so be it — I did the best I could do.

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For Cecil Taylor’s 83rd Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2001

Master pianist and meta-musician-poet-dancer Cecil Taylor turns 83 today. I had the honor of writing a lengthy feature about him in 2001 for Jazziz, which I’ve appended below, as well as the transcripts of phone interviews that Andrew Cyrille and Tony Oxley graciously gave me towards this  project.

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 “The best preparation for playing with Cecil Taylor is to be fit and open your ears.  Things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make it go where perhaps you want it or where you think it might go.” — Tony Oxley.
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For three weeks in February, in a smallish basement performance space at the Turtle Bay Music School on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street, the meta-virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor guided a hand-picked master class — the final iteration comprised 11 sax and woodwinds, one recorder, one trumpet, one bass trombone, six pianists, one guitar, two violins, two vibraphones, one bass, two trapset, one percussion, one voice, and includes a poet and a painter — through ten intense rehersals of ten of his compositions.  Each musician paid $300 for the opportunity to observe how Taylor organizes material, how he chooses to express it, how he shapes it into strong images, how he makes the drama develop.

Around four o’clock on the final day, the orchestra was concluding their “dress rehearsal” with a spontaneous joyful roar.  After a dinner break, they were to reassemble for a culminating, self-conducted public concert, to be followed by a Taylor performance with as-yet undetermined personnel.  I sat in the pale light of the school’s foyer with Trudy Morse, Taylor’s confidante and frequent liaison to the outside world.  A mother of six with 20 grandchildren, Morse is 82, six months removed from her third near-death experience and three months past major surgery, but her voice is clear, her diction precise, her grip firm, and her eyes probe you like a laser beam.

Shortly after the death of her husband in 1987, Morse traveled to Huddersfield, U.K., to attend an electronic music festival, where she witnessed a concert featuring pianists Roger Woodward — performing Ianis Xenakis’ “Herma,” “Evryali” and “Mists” — and Cecil Taylor.  At the post-concert lecture-interview, she perceived amongst the gathered cognoscenti a tone of condescension towards Taylor as a “jazz artist.”

“This puzzled me,” she relates.  “I stood up and apologized to the scholars, and asked them if they understood Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  One man responded, ‘What are you talking about?’  I said, ‘Well, Heisenberg said that the spectator actually controls the experiment.  I would suggest to you that in music it’s the same.  We bring something to this concert.  That’s the way Cecil Taylor strikes me, although I don’t know him personally.’  Cecil Taylor suddenly looked at me and wondered who I was.  I sat down.  Later I noticed that he kept turning pages of music with very interesting notation.  I said, ‘Mr. Taylor, I don’t mean to be too curious, but what kind of notation and whose works are these?’  From then on, it’s history.  Cecil Taylor puzzled me enough that I accepted his invitation to tour with him.  I’ve been touring ever since.”

Morse met Taylor a little more than a year after the death of his significant other in music, the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his collaborator and alterego since 1961.  From 1964 to 1975, Lyons and the drummer Andrew Cyrille developed with Taylor a way of collectively improvising with furious lucidity off of shapes and structures at whirlwind velocities that picked up where the likes of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Max Roach left off.  Their investigations, documented in the pathbreaking recordings “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador,” inspired musicians around the world as a guidepost to the future.

Over the phone, Cyrille described their process: “As the years went by, after we began to play together consistently, Cecil would say, ‘This is our music.’  He meant ‘our’ inclusively, because we were all creating it from whatever we brought to the table.  I’d say, ‘Is there anything you want me to play in particular?’  I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’  We would rehearse, listen for hours upon hours, days at a time.  It opened me up and allowed me to try things that I had never played before.

No matter how deeply Taylor, Lyons and Cyrille ascended to the outer partials of abstraction, their connection to the jazz lifeblood was implicit.  After 1975, when Cyrille stopped playing full-time with Taylor, the pianist worked with a succession of drummers — Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall — who postulated definite rhythmic ideas, bringing forth a certain tension between the personalities from the contrast, the opposition, the push-and-pull.  After 1986, Lyons was no longer available to demonstrate instantaneously and authoritatively how his notes should be phrased, and Taylor — whose aversion to authority or canons or systems of any sort is legend — had to develop a sort of pedagogy by which he could concretely communicate his intentions and maximize the understanding of the other musicians.

During the ’80s Taylor began to crack open a Pandora’s Box of improvisational possibility in encounters with Max Roach, with AACM individualists like Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Thurman Barker, and with European outcats like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, John Tchicai and Peter Brotzmann.  He increasingly incorporated his authoritative knowledge of Native American, African and Japanese ritual into his performances.  Then festivals in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1986 and 1987 spurred him to focus more steadily on Europe not only as a welcoming theater for his music, but as a source of broadening improvisational nourishment.

Taylor’s inexorable forward march gained irreversible momentum during a June 1988 residency in Berlin that juxtaposed him with the creme de la creme of European free improvisers in a series of concerts documented on 13 CDs on FMP.  There followed consequential [visits] in 1989, 1990 and 1991 that left a permanent mark on the European scene.  During those years Taylor collaborated on several hundred occasions with the English drummer Tony Oxley, whose capacious tonal palette has inspired comparisons to an improvising Varese or Harry Partch.  Taylor now employs in his various units such virtuosi from the European speculative improv community as drummer Paul Lovens, cellist Tristan Honsegger, and soprano saxophonist Harri Sjostrom.  Recent encounters include improvised colloquies with Oxley, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, and the American vibraphonist Joe Locke, three supreme duets with Max Roach, six with Elvin Jones, and a 1998 meeting with Andrew Cyrille.

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalled.  “We had a magical dialogue.  This kind of music and improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a game.  We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation.  We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to create art.  But the way the effort is put forth is so much smoother and nuanced.  We’re so much more confident with the language than we were.”
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The Turtle Bay project gestated prosaically.  At a party in March 1999, Morse met the guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, a faculty member.  She inquired whether the school, which has neither a jazz nor an avant-garde tradition, would be interested in hosting such an event.  Eisenbeil investigated.  The answer was yes, providing Eisenbeil would organize it.  Needing to recruit 20 participants to meet expenses, Eisenbeil sent a mass email announcement to several contact lists and a slew of websites, and received 40 responses.

The age range of the musicians who gathered for the first rehearsal was  12 to 60.  Apart from a few Taylor veterans — violinist Ramsey Ameen (1978-1980) and Elliott Levin (a veteran of a 1973 Taylor workshop at Glassboro State University and of an octet that formed from a huge orchestra project at the Knitting Factory in 1995) — they had no idea what to expect from the maestro, a sylph-like man who retains the elastic musculature of a dancer one month shy of his 72nd birthday.  Dressed for work in stocking feet, black stocking cap, gray sweatshirt tie-dyed orange on one side, pants dyed white-aquamarine on the left and pink-gray on the right, Taylor first asked each participant to take a one-minute solo.  Speaking quietly, in calm, declarative sentences, he dictated a sequence of chords, then sang the line with a variety of attacks.  “Whatever you play, play it so people who hear it can hear the magic,” he urged.  “Try to remain connected; I want you to have control of each note you play.”  The musicians separated into sections; Morse strolled from point to point bearing a pot of hot tea.  With his brisk, precise dancer’s movements, Taylor glided to the trumpets and to the strings, imparted information, then sprang to the stage to recite another chordal sequence, seemingly conjured in instant response to what he was hearing, which he demonstrated with stunning precision on the piano.

“Play notes exactly/the way they are supposed/to be played,” he intoned, punctuating his words with well-timed vertical hand-chops.  “I played you just a single line.  Unless you play this extension chord, you have all sorts of possibilities within that sound.”  After a break, Taylor read off another passage, fine-tuned each section with a total command of detail, then played the passage with his left hand and launched into seven or eight variations.  Tenorist Moshe Ras spontaneously applauded, and embarked on a few minutes of spirit-catching through his horn.

Taylor concluded the session with a statement of purpose.  “There will be time for solos,” he told the ensemble.  “But we have to play so that everybody can get the information.  Each of you has the right to say, ‘I would like to hear this part over again.’  Each section has its technical problem.  What is the relationship of the note to the overall structure?  I can show you where everything is connected, but I don’t want to be in the position of telling you how to play it.  Where do you want to begin?  How do you want to proceed?”
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Over the course of the next nine rehearsals, several key themes emerged.  During the second session Taylor distributed photocopies of his scores, giving the musicians a chance to look at how he thinks about tones.  He divides the scores into small modules, which he calls quadrants.  Each has specific rules, with cues and gestures as to how they can be played, and each fits with the others in some manner.  He uses neither bar lines nor staves, but presents the notes as pictographically arranged hieroglyphs of letters, ascending from A to G and descending from G to A, with register and pitch indicated specifically according to the distance in whole steps from middle C.  They look like the branches of a tree, abstract landscapes of plateaus and mountains and valleys, perhaps a graphic representation of a dance.

“The scores seem to be what I would call fields,” says Dan Marmorstein, a composer-pianist whose friendship with Taylor dates to 1985.  “Each page might have a group of 12 to 20 sections of notes.  Each section might notate a melody or group of melodies (sometimes repeats are specified), but it might also be suggestive of a certain collection of notes that can be treated as a scale or mode.  Part of the fun is too discover the possibilities of combining these notes in different ways.  Soometimes Cecil stacks sequences lines of tones, and you get a sequence of diads or triads or polyphonic chords.  These areas of the score can be very dense, and once again, the player has to keep alert and on his toes and decide whether to deal with the vertical stacks and the horizontal lines as consecutive tones or as simultaneously voiced chords.

“The musicians are asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will according to their own library of experiences.  This being said, Cecil will often play the line on the piano and expect that we will be capable of hearing that this is the way he wants it to sound.  Sometimes you can hear it, but sometimes if he plays it with his own customary incessantly florid fluidity, it can be difficult to hear the bare skeleton; he’s asking us to sketch the daisy when he’s given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids and African violets.  Cecil sometimes simply is playing a melody voiced in four octaves.  Of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano — with authority!”]

Taylor is able to process instantly all the possible permutations of each quadrant, and splice them together in endless combinations.  But how are mere mortals to self-orchestrate?  For example, how to navigate section-to-section transitions?  Once he suggested: “Play it as many times as it is rhythmically of interest.  Play dynamics.  When it’s exhausted, that’s when it ends.  I am only giving you suggestions.”

The essential issue facing the orchestra was how to sustain a dynamic level that kept them dancing in and out of the vortex, like a magician who enters the maelstrom of a column of fire and exits unscathed.  Taylor incessantly emphasized the imperative, in Marmorstein’s words, “to play in such a way that they could leave room, make space, and listen to one another.”  Early on, he offered a lyric sequence at the piano, then asked each section to repeat it.  “Play it as soft as you can,” he told the saxophones.  “Tenors, think of Ben Webster.  Think of the breath.  Whoo-oosh. It should float.”  He distributed the next section, which began with a three-note sequence for the tenors followed by a three-note response by the strings, commenting, “This piece is rather rapid.  After all, that was pastoral.  This is FIRE.”

Attention to breath, the silence before the note, is crucial. As the ensemble worked through possible approaches to Section 10, Taylor gave a telling exhortation.  “After each sound you’ve got do this” — he inhaled — “so that each component becomes very clear.”  One sound is exploding out; the next time when you repeat it, it’s exploding in — in other words, it’s becoming softer.  We want to separate each quadrant, so that it doesn’t become a blur.  It’s the continuation of the piece.”

Occasionally Taylor would decline to demonstrate.  To a saxophonist who asked him to phrase a sequence, Taylor responded, “No, I’ve done that. It’s an emotion; you didn’t just walk into the room.”  But soon after, Taylor stated, “We’re going to change the mood,” and set up a rolling bass line reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” tossing it off on the left hand with flawless nonchalance.  Another time Taylor sang a four-note sequence and asked the group to play it twice.  “But I also want you to break up the rhythm,” he added.  “These notes are divided into different rhythmic registers, and that could be the basis of a whole improvisational…” Rather than complete his sentence, Taylor demonstrated five or six variations at half-speed.  “Anything is possible,” he said.  “Let’s try it.”
_________________________________________________________________

By the day of the concert, Taylor had convinced the ensemble, now winnowed down to 30 members, that anything WAS possible.

Bruce Eisenbeil compared Taylor’s organic process of orchestrating, arranging and composing during the rehearsal, coping with the colors and timbres of every instrument in real time, to the way Duke Ellington would state a chord, play it on the piano, and begin assigning notes to specific members of the orchestra.  “Cecil’s musical vocabulary speaks of what’s going on today,” Eisenbeil said.  “His body of work is idiosyncratic to him, as the music of Ellington and Miles Davis is idiosyncratic to them.  As well as Xenakis, or Bartok, or Stravinsky.  Each has a unique sense of rhythm, full of life and urgency.  When he told the saxophones, ‘I want the breath tone; I want Ben Webster’ — that’s calling on the continuum!  That’s so key and central to what the jazz vocabulary is about.  Older musicians relate how Dizzy Gillespie taught them to play the new language of bebop fifty years ago.  This is what you get when you hang out with Cecil today.”

The ensemble’s cogent, flexible navigation through four Taylor constructs — the emotional landscape spanned signature Taylorian canned lightning bellows to achingly ruminative rubato elegies — showed in a way that the rehearsals could not foretell how deeply they internalized the maestro’s principles.  They played like an organic unit, with restraint, dynamic nuance, and idiomatic articulation; the brainy soloists conjured an array of rhythmic attacks, playing with concision and structural variation, always with the overall narrative in mind.

Perhaps the most startling “piece” was “Ka-Kaba”, a 45-minute masterpiece of tension-and-release.  Pianists Dan Marmorstein and Alex Tarampi stated the core melodic kernel, the horns and violins dialogued over a swelling ensemble tone that ascended to a joyful roar.  Elliott Levin and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh commenced a firebreathing passage which subsided, giving way to a delicate shakuhachi-like recorder solo.  The band clapped and hollered the syllable HA!! over entexturing violins and percussion; from the churning sound emerged a voice-like bass trombone statement.  The band roared the syllable SO!!, counterstated by flutes, vibraphone glisses, pizzicato violins, guitar sonics, sax-breaths, and synth tone-shapes — Levin’s solo brought the section to climax.  Poet Ulla Dydo chanted a Gertrude Stein-inspired poem (“Better and most and yes and yes, Yes and yes and more and yes”) complemented by synth, guitar, drum scrapes and clarinet microtones.  The roar swelled oceanically, was becalmed by precise pizzicato violins and pointillistic piano, then returned with a high-overtone horn ensemble interlude.  Clarinetist Kevin Sullivan floated over synth nachtmusik, John Keith’s malleted tom-toms gently underpinned a lissome bassoon-piano-bass trombone conversation.  Then Rosi Hertlein sang a piercing DRRAAA-HAAA; trumpeter Amir El Saffar answered the call.  She cried A-HA-HAA; the horn section, breathing as one, found a tonal analogue.  The full ensemble reiterated the original theme, decrescendoing until the recorder emerged from the depths to play free rubato melodies with the violins and guitar until nothing was left to say.

For another hour the ensemble conjured fire and air in equal measure over two more Taylor compositions; they left the stage to a well-earned ovation.  Before they could bask in the afterglow, Taylor abruptly strode to the piano, cellist Tristan Honsegger and trapsetter Jackson Krall in tow, to begin a furious fanfare.  Poet Naima Wade embarked on an impassioned recitative about slavery, miscegenation, and hegemony of the master race’s world view.   Honsegger responded with the dagger-like syllables “mata, mata, matamatika!!”, creating long, startling shapes, playing with such intensity that his bow began to shred, yet hitting the notes and tones with the spot-on articulation of a virtuoso.

He inspired Taylor, who may possess more ways of extracting sound from 88 keys and 3 pedals than any pianist in the world.  Playing as though his arms were attached to springs, he deployed an awesome lexicon of meticulously choreographed snatches, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, clips, slides, thrusts, plucks, punches, slaps, thumb glisses, and elbow crashes, each movement honed to micron-precise specificity.  As the poet referred to Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, Taylor answered with blindingly complex right-hand passages, riposting with exquisitely executed left-hand flurries.  Honsegger danced around the cello, Taylor laid down a stride figure, Honsegger stomped, chanted and bowed demonically and consonantly with his decomposing wand.  The poet sat.  Honsegger took a dark solo that turned into a Bartokian stomp, answered by more Taylorian variations, left hand completing long, ascending runs begun by the right.  Krall dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.

There was more.  The unit evoked rainfall, the forest, the sounds of creatures large and small.  They wound down with a collective rubato triologue, Honsegger miraculously conjuring music with his all but disintegrated bow, Taylor’s head cocked to the right, his vigilant left ear attuned to sounds that he might alchemize so as to extend this iteration of his singular ritual.

Indeed, Taylor evoked the mythic half-man, half-dragon persona of Keqrops, the Egyptian who founded Athens in 1600 B.C., whose name titled a composition that Xenakis wrote for Roger Woodward some years after the Taylor-Woodward concert in Huddersfield that Trudy Morse attended in 1987.  We thought of Tony Oxley’s delirious encomium, “To play with Cecil Taylor, you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a God!”

“There was a lot of intensive work during my three years with Cecil,” Ramsey Ameen had stated midway through the rehearsals.  “Now, twenty years later, I see a purification.  Cecil has cleared a path to reach the basic elements of music that go beyond all elements of style, that go to human expression.  Anything extraneous to that is irrelevant.  He’s talking about sound, volume levels, what the ensemble should play very precisely, what they should not play too stiffly, and so on.  I keep thinking I have to go back and read again the Herman Hesse book, Magister Ludi (The Music Master), a person who is constantly deepening into this state of musical grace.”

* * * *

Andrew Cyrille on Cecil (3-16-01):

TP:    Do you perceive any change in the way Cecil approaches music since Jimmy Lyons passed away, conceptually or emotionally or in his inclusiveness of other vocabularies?

CYRILLE:  I don’t know whether it’s changed really in terms of how he prepares.  When I played with him two or three years ago… It must have been ’99 I did that concert in Berlin which was a live recording in Berlin..  We rehearsed, and it was an open kind of improvisation.  I remember years ago… He probably still does this.  I haven’t worked with him since.  He would give out notes.  The last time I saw him giving out notes before a concert we did was in Austria probably in 1987 in Nickelsdorf.  He gave notes out to John Carter, Leroy Jenkins and Roberto Miranda, then later on in the evening we got together and performed the music he had given out.  The last time, Tristan Honsegger was the cellist and a bassist from Curacao whose name I can’t remember.  He lives in Holland.  Anyway, we had a rehearsal, but the rehearsal was based on how we listened to each other and how we would feed each with the music that we made on the spur of the moment.  We rehearsed for hours, I remember, that night.  Then the next day, when we got a good idea of what each other did or could do, then we went ahead and did the concert.

I can say this much.  I think that Cecil was very-very sharp.  His technique had just gotten much better.  He was much more comfortable.  He listened.  I remember he and I on occasion, when maybe the other two would lay out in a performance, we just had this dialogue, and we were having a great deal of fun.  It was magical in terms of what was going on.  Because what happens with us and that kind of music and improvisation, it’s really a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a conversation.  It’s almost like a game, so to speak, where certain things are put forth — certain sounds, certain ideas, certain rhythms, certain kinds of melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements.  It’s how we surprise each other with replies and the ability to continue to evolve within that kind of dialogue.  If anybody is listens closely, they can hear the creativity, the way that we spontaneously play and listen and create this music.  It’s just endless.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, we just go ahead and resolve it as though we’ve finished saying something to each other in some kind of conversational story.  There are so many parallels that can be thought about. It’s almost like a dance sometimes, where we can be inclined(?) with each other, and just move along and glide so easily.

But in order to do that, you’ve got to be on top of your game with your technique, what you want to do, and the other person has to be on top of their own technique.  But it’s a matter of being able to listen and to hear and to create with what’s being delivered.

TP:    Earlier you said that Cecil’s technique has become even better and sharper.  One thing I noticed at  this workshop was how many methods he has of eliciting sounds from the piano, the mechanics of how he does.  I found the following verbs to describe what he does with his arms and hands: snatches, hammers, fences, flutters, clips, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, slides, scrapes, thumb glisses, clusters, slaps, punches, plucks, spooling notes even…

CYRILLE:  That’s right.

TP:    All of those things, and all calibrated to micronic degrees of specificity.  Was he that specific in eliciting sound production 30 years ago, or was it a different quality?

CYRILLE:  No, it was the same.  We were all in a sense, moving in the same direction that way.  But I’d say we’ve gotten better at doing it.  The older you get, as is said, the wiser you’re supposed to be.  I know I’ve accumulated more information and I’ve been able to deliver more information in a wider variety of ways.  I know more about drumming now.  I feel more comfortable about drumming and what I did over the years than I did 20 or 30 years ago.  And the beautiful part of it is that I’m not finished.  I’m still learning and still evolving.

You made a very good analogy with the term fencing.  It was like, “Hey, we’re crossing the floor, and you back up and you thrust it forward, and sometimes you touch somebody and sometimes they touch you, and sometimes you knock the blow away, etc.  So all that can be considered sports-like or dance-like or maybe like a card game.  But it was just delightful!

TP:    Could I paraphrase that both you and Cecil have become more subtle players, more nuanced over the years?

CYRILLE:  I would say yes.  Because we’ve grown.  We’ve matured to some degree; to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to be able to create art.  There’s always a certain amount of effort that one has to put forth.  But the way that the effort is put forth is so much smoother.  And as you say, nuance.  Yes.  Listening to Akisakila, which we did in 1971, if I were to do it again, it would be so much different.  That was formidable, but now there’s so many other things happening.  We’re so much more confident with the language.

TP:    Did Cecil use the notation he uses now when you first met him?  Can you comment on how it evolved?

CYRILLE:  He uses the same method.  But for this particular concert, he did not give out any notes.

TP:    The way he presented the notes to the people in the group, they looked almost like graphic renderings of a dance.  They were like pictograms.  Is that the type of notation he was using 35 years ago?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  See, he gives out notes, and he has his own particular way of drawing the lines.  They may move in a number of different directions, going up, going down, for instance going straight-up vertically, on the other axis going horizontal… They’re like branches, in a sense.  This is how his compositions look.  So when he gives those notes out to the other instrumentalists, he will tell them whether they will be higher or lower or in the same register.  Then the individuals write down the notes that he’s giving, and they play the notes.  Interestingly enough, sometimes there may be unisons and then sometimes there are contrasting rhythmical lines, and sometimes the rhythmical lines are created by the players themselves with the notes.  See, sometimes he doesn’t necessarily give the rhythms.  He lets them decide their own rhythm with the notes that he gives.

TP:    Can you give me the short version of the story of how you first linked up?

CYRILLE:  It was so coincidental.  It was Ted Curson, with whom I went to a rehearsal he was having with Cecil at a school called Hartnett-New York.  This might have been ’57.  I was living in Brooklyn, and that same day I was rehearsing with another pianist named Leslie Braithwaite.  Ted and Harold Ousley heard the music from the street and came to investigate, and Leslie and I were about to wind down our playing for that afternoon, and Ted said he had to go to Manhattan to play with this piano player named Cecil Taylor.  He told me, “You’ve never heard anybody play piano like this guy; come over and check him out.”  So I went with him, and walked into the studio where Cecil was, and he was sitting down at the piano just playing.  Ted said, “This is Andrew Cyrille,” and Cecil looked up and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” and Ted asked him if I could play.  He said, “Yeah.”  So I sat down and started playing.  And to some degree, more or less, it’s like what we do now.  It’s kind of like what we did at the concert in Berlin.  It’s just that now I know, to some degree, what’s happening in terms of how he plays and how I would play with him.  When I first met him, it was a thing whereby you play and you wonder what is it that he would want.  Do I play the rhythms the way that I play with other people?  I guess that is part of it.  But nothing was said, except for the fact that we played with each other and it was something that we wound up exploring.

After that rehearsal, I knew a place up in Harlem… School closed, and I knew this club on Amsterdam Avenue that used to have jam sessions and was a place that had a piano trio with a guy named Cecil Young at night… I knew the bartender because I had gone there several times for sessions.  Cecil and I went up, I asked the guy if we could play, and he said, “Yeah.”  This was late afternoon.  I had a snare drum.  Cecil sat down at the piano and started playing, and I started playing with him.

That’s more or less how we met.  There was never any tension or conflict or, “Man, I don’t know what you’re doing.”  I was listening to him, trying to do what I could with what I heard him play, and I’m sure vice-versa.

As the years went by, after we had begun to play together on a consistent basis, he would say, “This is our music.”  And he meant “our” inclusively, in terms of me and Jimmy and whomever else was playing, because we were all creating the music at that particular moment.  So whatever we brought to the table was ours.  And putting it together, we got this whole.  Yes, of course, he gave us direction so far as allowing  us to do what we wanted to do within the context of the concept.  We would rehearse with each other, we would listen, rehearse, listen, rehearse.  We did a lot of that, days, hours upon hours, within that period of time.

TP:    Was it improvising or was he giving notes?

CYRILLE:  He was giving notes for the players who played those kind of diatonic notes.  But he never really told me to play anything.

TP:    How did it change your conception?

CYRILLE:  It opened me up..  It allowed me to try to play things that I had never played before, some new things.  When we had these rehearsals, in order to make sure that I’d play the same rhythms when he called a particular piece, I’d memorize what I played.  Those things, in a way, became how the heads were made.  It made me feel as though I was really responsible for whether or not this thing came off in terms of what I was adding as a drummer.  I’d say, “Is there anything you want me to play in particular?”  And I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, “Do this” or “Play five beats of this or give three beats of that” or whatever.  He’d say, “Man, you know what drummers do.  You’re the drummer.  You know how to play drums.”

So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  Because this was what was going on in my head.  I did not want to do anything to the tradition and the memory of those guys, and the people whom I learned from, listening to Max and Art and Philly Joe Jones, because it could be said that it wasn’t genuine, that it wasn’t blue-blood so to speak.  So I worked on that stuff, man!  I got my information together, and I brought my information to the table.  “Hey, man, look what I found now.  Check this out!  I worked on this.”  That was on every aspect of the drumset, with the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying, the way that the other members of the rhythm would accompany horn players…. But it was my own sense of how to do it.  It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms that they would play or the way that they would parse the rhythms or how they would organize the rhythms, etc.  But then again, it was!  It was the same but it was different.  Because  I played the same kind of drumset as most of those guys, and on occasion I’d play all kinds of percussion instruments, too.  It’s like when we did that recording, “Niggle Feugle,” for BYG.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test, you made a comment about Cecil with Tony Oxley which was very interesting.  When you play with Cecil, when Max Roach plays with Cecil, when Elvin plays with Cecil, you postulate very specific rhythmic ideas, there’s a counter-dialogue.  Another approach, which Sonny Murray did and Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley, is “matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm,” so there isn’t so much push-and-pull, but it’s more a unison or a synthesis.  Jackson Krall referred to it similarly.  Did your approach change a great deal once you were performing constantly with him?  Was there a difference between the rehearsal and the performance?

CYRILLE:  No.  It’s just that sometimes during the rehearsals, we would play some stuff that I wish would have been played during the performance.  Because it’s improvisation.  So sometimes certain things come to mind that are really gems, etc..  And a lot of times, what also has to be taken into consideration is the way you feel, the sound of the room, where the musicians are located in relationship to each other; in other words, where Honsegger was sitting, where this bass player was standing, where Cecil was, where I was…

TP:    Honsegger is something else.

CYRILLE:  Yes, Tristan is an excellent player.  But I heard Cecil a few years back when he did a solo in Paris, and at the same time the segue to the concert with a group he had that was Honsegger, Harri Sjostrom and Paul Lovens playing drums.  But the solo concert he played was just so magical!  I mean, he just played, and his command of what he was doing… It was almost like a laser beam!  He’d focus on something and he’d go after it and he get it!  It was so pliable!  And the place was packed, SRO, and it was in France.  The people were just enthralled with what he was doing, and then he danced in conjunction and spoke his words, etc.

What I’m saying is that years ago the ideas were there, and we went ahead and did what we wanted to do.  But as the years evolved… It’s like you’re cooking something, and you learn over the years how to make this thing come out and taste a certain way.  It’s like he was the master chef now.  You can put some stuff on the stove and say you’re going to experiment with this and sometimes it comes out beautifully and sometimes not so well and sometimes it’s a bomb.  But on this particular night, it was like he was the master chef, he knew just the exact ingredients to put into the food to make it come out being sumptuous.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the comment that when he was with Cecil, Cecil didn’t say much during the rehearsals.  He said he thought one reason why is because whenever the ensemble needed to know how to phrase a section, Jimmy Lyons would just play it, which would give everyone their cue.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    The implication might be, again, that absent Jimmy Lyons, Cecil had to become more inclusive.

CYRILLE:  That’s just what I was saying before in terms of a strong rhythmical player playing the certain notes.  When you say “phrasing,” what is phrasing?  It’s just make a rhythm out of what you have.  Jimmy Lyons was a master at doing that, because he and Cecil played together in combination longer than any other individuals.  He was with Cecil for 25 years.  That’s double the time I played with Cecil on a consistent basis.

It’s so good.  It feels so good.  Like, if I have to sit down and do something with a big band, whether it be Muhal or John Carter or Murray doing Ellington’s music, you know there are certain things you can do in order to bring the music to the level that it should be.  A certain amount of risk is always involved, but you mature and you bring the weight of that maturity with you.  So if I want to play “Northern Lights,” I do the rhythm with a certain amount of conviction.  It’s not that I’m timidly doing it because I wonder whether this is the right thing to do.  I’m doing it because I know this is the right thing to do!  So it’s the same parallel when I play with somebody like Cecil.  Hey, this is what we’re going to do right now, this is what I’m going to do…

The thing that Cecil also appreciates, which is also why he doesn’t say anything, is because he wants your talent to come forth to inspire him.  And when that happens, that’s when you have this beautiful dialogue where there’s laughter and all these elements of surprise that come up.  It makes you want to continue doing what you’re doing, because it’s evolving on such a high creative artistic level.  And you just don’t want to stop.  It’s fantastic what’s happening at the spur of the moment.  I heard that happen with Max to some degree when he played with Max at Macmillan Hall in 1979.  I haven’t heard him play with Max in duet again since.  And I haven’t heard him play with Elvin.  But all I’m saying is that you have these two giants of the drum coming with all of their artillery, the full weight…the bag of all the stuff, and knowing what’s in that bag and knowing what they can use, and they selectively use whatever they feel is apropos.  I feel the same way at this point.  And as far as I’m concerned, hey, let’s do some more.

TP:    How do you assess Cecil’s stature both in the music’s timeline and vis-a-vis people you’ve worked with, like John Carter or Muhal or Anthony Davis?

CYRILLE:  These people feel as though he is definitely a seminal figure.  He helped change the direction of this music.  Before Cecil, there were certain things that were not happening.  The expanse of the compositional arrangement… In other, it’s not like AABA (though that’s still a viable form, and people use it in many ways).  But the music moves in so  many different directions which aren’t necessarily limited by a prescribed traditional way of playing.  The way, again, he would give out notes and expect people to bring whatever it is that they did to the table.  This is where the weight of the sound, the creativity of his different bands, comes out.  Because he is giving these people the chance to play what they play juxtaposed to what he plays.  Like all those records for FMP with Bennink… He absorbs all of that, and they absorb him, and they juxtapose what they do in relationship.  Now, you can’t find a whole lot of people who would allow all of that on their bandstands and that they would want to deal with.  Then again, you have so many people now who say, “Well, this is the way it goes.  I can do this.  I can play duets with anybody.”  And that’s with anybody on the planet.  A man like Cecil has broadened the palette of technical possibilities — I’m talking about ways of doing things — that was not necessarily available outside of a certain kind of structural way that music had been made or had been produced before.  Another way of manufacturing it.

TP:    The people who played in this master class all paid 300 bucks, and everyone could play.  Some were more adept improvisers than others, but everyone had command of the instrument.  Jackson Krall said he thought that they had a certain focus he hadn’t seen in similar ensembles because they had paid money, and people left their egos at the door, so to speak.  But when I spoke with them how the experience of working with Cecil matched their preconception of who he was, a couple of them were coming at him from a jazz perspective, and seeing him as kind of the apotheosis of the jazz timeline, and others were fascinated with his relationship with European classical music and 20th Century music.  Do you see him as having achieved a sort of ultimate cultural synthesis.

CYRILLE:  I don’t know if I’d use the word “ultimate.”  But he’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country.  There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots.  I’m talking about Native American.  A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also.  Maybe somebody should ask him how much does he feel very close to this that he brings to the surface.  You talk about being integrated and being a true American.  It’s embodied in person like that — and many others also.  When you talk about the synthesis of Europeans and Africans and African-Americans in how all this stuff comes together… All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form.  We get information from that area also.  Africans don’t play the same kinds of chords that Europeans brought to the table of humanity.  They don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff.  That’s not in their vocabulary.  It may come out incidental, but there’s nothing in their vocabulary that says that, okay, now we’re going to play this kind of chord and use this kind of color or voice it like… All that stuff comes out of Europe.

The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling.  The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want.  We’re going to make it ours with what it is that you put on the table.  And it could be because maybe there’s nothing else available.  But we’re going to do it this way.  Then of course, there are other ways of manufacture of clothing by people from Africa, like the robes, free-flowing kinds of dress where you can have air that passes through because it might be a hot, arid place or whatever.  As far as I’m concerned, all of it is valid, because all of it is valid in terms of giving life to human beings in the place where they live — to stay alive!  So one can’t be more important than another.  You wouldn’t wear the same kind of clothes in Northern Europe that you would wear in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The same thing comes about more or less with the music.

All this makes me feel better about myself.  As you ask me these questions and I try to give you some good, qualified answers, it lets me know t some degree that I’m not crazy.  I have more students now than I have ever had who are coming to me, asking me about playing free.  So there has to be a certain kind of qualification and certain parameters.

TP:    I guess the paradox of the notion of musical freedom is the incredible discipline you have to have internalized to be able to do it.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  There is nothing free.  Not really.  Number one, you’re confined by the properties of the instrument you play.  But the reward comes out of finding things in that instrument that bring you to other places.  You say, “Wow, I can do this with the instrument.”  You listen to how you brought forth something you weren’t aware of that you can do with the instrument.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s the beauty of the creativity and the evolution.  Which certain kinds of methods don’t particularly allow you to do.  But within the forms of those methods, you can find certain elements that are magical also.  But you can go beyond that, too.  So for me, that has been the contribution of a person like Cecil Taylor.  I think it’s fantastic.

* * *

Tony Oxley (on Cecil Taylor) – (3-20-01):

TP:    I am interested in what CT has indicated is an aesthetic and personal evolution in the last fifteen years, and it may be that your tonal personality is the one he feels the most affinity towards.  So first: What was your first exposure to Cecil’s music?

OXLEY:  It was in the ’60s, of course, with the legendary records Conquistador and Unit Structures.  Of course, I heard something before that.  I think it was from Denmark.  I remember that showing up in the ’60s as well.  But I think you’ll appreciate that living in Britain at that time, it was not easy to get this music.  In fact, there were various people who worked on the Queen Mary who used to actually smuggle it back from New York — as well as equipment, American drums, Gretsch and stuff like that, which you couldn’t get here.

TP:     People in the ship bands?

OXLEY:  Yes.  So a lot of this early culture and contributions of Cecil… I mean, it would have wonderful to be able hear…. On the few occasions he was working in those days, it would have been wonderful to be able to hear this live.  but the real impact for me was Conquistador and Unit Structures.

TP:    You became interested in speculative improvising at an early period, before those records came out.  How did hearing that, if at all, affect the course of how you approach the drums and spontaneous composition?

OXLEY:  Well, I found it very refreshing, very optimistic.  For me personally… I can tell you that the people who were interested in that music in Britain who I knew used to use it as their standard-bearer, if you like.  If they were trying to inform anyone to what was happening in New York with Cecil’s music, those two records would be the thing they would be talking about.  Of course, people were starting to tape this stuff and send it to each other, because you could only get very few records.  So the impact of it for me… It was an alternative, you see, that was not exploited over here in Europe.  That really comes out of what went on before in New York, a continuation in some ways.  Very surprising.  For me, very different to Ornette Coleman, which was a bit more predictable, in a way.  The rhythmic elements in Cecil’s work had a lot more possibilities, in my opinion.  Ornette’s approach had quite a traditional rhythm moving behind it.  It was well-commented-on.  It was noticed over here.  But Cecil seemed to give the space in every direction for what seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, and the right way to go, and how to respond to the way he was working.  So I think there was a lot more openness in the rhythmic side of the music to match the harmonic side.

TP:    When you’re referring to the music as a continuation of what went on before, are you referring to Cecil’s immersion in Bud Powell and the jazz tradition, or are you talking about the early roots of jazz music in the U.S.?

OXLEY:  I don’t know if he comes out of Bud Powell in a direct line.  I wouldn’t like to speculate about that.  But I do know how much of an admirer of Thelonious Monk Cecil is.  And there might have been some kind of connection between what he does and Thelonious Monk.  Now, of course, that might seem ridiculous on first hearing — kind of the opposite.  But influence works in many ways, and it does not work in imitating, in my view.  The philosophy is the thing you learn from, not the imitation.  I would hesitate to recommend anyone imitating.  But that’s another question.

TP:    If I may go on a tangent, who are the drummers whose aesthetic philosophy you assimilated when you were developing?

OXLEY:  Of course, the big band era was very prominent when I was growing up.  So consequently, the big band drummers were very prominent in the public eye.  But for the more discriminating jazz listener who would be brave enough to look for small groups (because big bands really dominated the scene), I would have to say that, first of all, Art Blakey, and then Elvin Jones, and then Milford Graves in those plays were very influential in showing the real issues in American jazz music.

TP:    The real issues?

OXLEY:  Well ,the reality, if you like.  What was important and how to do it.  How they do it.  Because they were all different.  Roy Haynes was another very interesting player in my development for years.  Of course, we’re always developing.  We never really stop, I suppose.

TP:    Was your development entirely through listening to records, or were you ever able to witness any of these people in Britain?

OXLEY:  I did actually.  Because Norman Granz used to send shows with four or five bands in them around Europe, and fortunately, they showed up in Sheffield, where I lived.  So I was able to hear Monk and Blakey live during that period of time.  But it wasn’t very easy to anticipate what might be coming, because you’d have Ella Fitzgerald on the bill, then Monk or Blakey…a variety of music.  But never Cecil Taylor.

TP:    But also in the ’60s, around the time Conquistador comes out, you’re the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s.

OXLEY:  That was in ’66.  But in ’61 and ’62 and ’63, I did take some work, deputizing for the regular bands on the Queen Mary, and that meant three trips a year because there were three bands that needed to be deputized for.  Of course, on those trips, with the 36-hour turnaround in New York, that 36 hours was consumed entirely by chasing around, looking for the best music we could find.  So as a kind of pattern of activity, I would say to you that it would start in the late afternoon at the Metropole, listening to the Woody Herman Big Band.  The Metropole was just one long bar; the band was all strung out along one line, like washing.  There were mirrors on the opposite wall so they could see each other through the mirrors.  And people stood at the bar, so that meant you’d two yards away from the trumpet section.  That was unbelievable!  Lift you off your feet.  Then we’d move on to Birdland to hear Blakey.  Then we’d move on to the Vanguard and hear Bill Evans or Miles Davis.  Then we’d move to the Five Spot to hear the legendary quartet with Thelonious Monk.  So doing that three times a year, hoping that they would be there…  It wasn’t always Blakey at Birdland when we happened to be in town.  But at the best times we had, it was such a ritual as that.  And that was ’61-’62-’63, so quite early in my active professional life I was able to be exposed to some of the realities of New York at that time.

TP:    And I guess you were able to bring that sensibility back to what you were doing in England.

OXLEY:  Well, it couldn’t be ignored, could it.  It was a very dramatic experience for me, I must confess.

TP:    So in the ’60s you were able to function as both a straight-ahead, timekeeping drummer and as somebody interested in a more open-ended form of pulse and texture with the kit.

OXLEY:  Well, at the same time, I was very interested… In ’62-’63 I was starting to work with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars.  I’d previously been playing diatonically Classical music, i.e., Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Haydn, this kind of area.  I was in the Army, and this was the kind of thing we used to be doing…heh-heh, apart from other things.  Of course, when I came out of the Army, I continued my interest in what’s called Classical music, European Classical music.  So that interest transferred itself to 12-tone music.  So during this time, around ’63, I became very aware of Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and of course, that led to John Cage eventually.  So this was happening at the same time as hearing the developments in improvised music, i.e., Cecil Taylor-Bill Dixon, and my interest was continuing to develop in what’s called Classical music, only the second Viennese School.  So there were a lot of influences going on with me at that time.  And I was very hungry as well to hear it.  I suppose that might answer your question.

TP:    Between then and when you wind up playing with Cecil, it’s another two decades.  When were you first actually able to witness a performance by him?

OXLEY:  It would be in the ’70s at Ronnie Scott’s.  There was a production for a week at Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was included on the program with Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    The Fondation Maeght recordings are from ’69.

OXLEY:  It could have been.  The date I don’t know.  But it was in that area, and there was a whole week of television from Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was  the program with that quartet.  I think I’ve got a recording of it somewhere!

TP:    What was your impression?

OXLEY:  Well, I was more worried about how Cecil was going to find the piano.  Because the kinds of pianos that he needs…really they have to be in very good condition.  This has nothing other to do than that the way he approaches the music, the instrument has got to be in good shape.  And I wasn’t so sure about the piano at Ronnie Scott’s holding up!  We’re talking about the late ’60s now.  But from the musical point of view, of course, I was very happy to be there and hear what waas happening.  I remember speaking to Cecil, but of course he wouldn’t remember that.  Many people were saying “hello” and “how’s things” and how’s… I remember  asking him how was the piano.

So it was the ’70s when I first heard him live.  Then I don’t remember him coming to Britain… .The impact of playing with him in 1988 kind of obliterated any preconceptions I might have had about what the music that he might be playing… It was such an impact, that all my concentrations went onto that and not so much an historical view.

TP:    So in other words, it erased anything but the immediate moment of getting sound out.

OXLEY:  Absolutely.  I felt I needed all my concentration and effort, and to try to put out of my head anything that I’d heard him do with other people on record.  And the only records I had were those two that I mentioned.  I tried to put that out of my head in order to approach it with a cleaner palette.

TP:    Does playing with him demand new strategies and approaches on your instrument?

OXLEY:  The music speaks for itself, you know.  When you’re playing with Cecil Taylor, there is only one Cecil Taylor.  And when you become involved in the music, things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The best preparation I’d say is be fit and open your ears!

TP:    I’ve heard you quoted that you have to have the stamina of an athlete…

OXLEY:  …and the imagination of God! [LAUGHS] You can quote that, if you like.  Well, it’s just to give a sincere answer to a kind of general question, ,to bring it into some kind of perspective.  I think just recently, when we played in the Tonic, I think the power of his work and the power of his imagination was evident.  I thought it was best in ’88 anyway to try to approach it as prepared and unprepared as possible.  Let’s put it that way.  It’s a contradiction, but…

TP:    Over the years have you sustained that strategy of no-strategy?  Do you go into each performance with him with that blank slate?

OXLEY:  Well, I am fortunate, because I love to play with Cecil Taylor and I love to be with him — and so does my wife.  We actually are always together when we are with Cecil.

The joy…and believe me, that word is very, very important when I have to describe the experience of playing with Cecil… The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make the music go where you want it perhaps, or think it might go.  With Cecil you don’t have to have any of those worries.  There is always something happening.  So you can relax and have this experience of working… He has his language.  I have my language.  And we think, I hope…at least  I think that the compatibility is quite special.  That is one of the most important aspects to remember when you’re either listening or thinking about his music.  That’s about the best way I can describe it.

TP:    Can you discuss your philosophy of playing this music?  Do you have a philosophy of playing with Cecil Taylor?

OXLEY:  No.  As I say I don’t have a plan.  I think by whatever grace, whether it’s the grace of God or the grace of whoever, we actually came to the point where we play together.  Now, before that, I don’t know if he had heard  me.  I doubt it.  So I don’t think there’s any answers to this question in that direction.

But I will say to you that when I was growing up, leaving school, I was a steelworker in Sheffield, and I think that that environment, which I paid close attention to, not only listening, but physically it wasn’t, shall we say, something you wanted to jump out of bed to do every morning…but anyway, it had to be done… The sounds and the rhythms of that kind of environment, I’m pretty sure, had more influence on me than I have ever appreciated, and I am starting to think now that maybe that has quite a significant role to play in the way I work with percussion.  For the rest of it, we’ll wait for the book! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some of your interactions with Cecil are totally improvised and some would involve his notation, I imagine, with the larger ensemble perhaps.

OXLEY:  Not very often.

TP:    So you’re the wrong person to talk to about his notation..

OXLEY:  Of course, I’ve been quite close to Cecil since ’88, and I’ve seen him in situations with ensembles.  But to put it on a basic level, it would rather depend on the ensemble.  If people come along and they’re well aware of Cecil… Why would they be up there, I suppose, if they weren’t?  But if they come along with the right attitude and they want to be there…

TP:    Trudy Morse said that one reasons she’s very proactive in instigating these workshops is because she wants to introduce as many musicians as possible to Cecil’s notation.  And having seen a number of the sheets he was passing out, they’re graceful, poetic, dancelike…

OXLEY:  You’re talking about this last project, and of course it would be difficult for me to comment about that because I wasn’t there.

TP:    But there were people who had participated in projects of his from 1970 and 1973 who said that the notation was similar.  I thought you’d be interesting to ask about it because of your immersion in modernist classical music?

OXLEY:  It would be easier to talk to Cecil about that.  Have you tried to approach him about that question? [ETC.] Cecil is one of the most generous, sensitive people I know.  But it has to be respected that he also needs time to himself and he also has his way of dealing with a situation.  He works at his own pace.  But believe me, at the risk of repetition, he is one of the most generous and sensitive people I have ever had the privilege of working with and playing with.  So it’s nothing other than having to catch him at the right time.  Between you and me, when I’m ringing him, which is reasonably often, I can ring three or four times and not even get him on the phone, and the machine comes on, and I’ll leave him a message.  He has his own way of working, and that I respect 100 percent because he gives me the same freedom also.  If I’m not there, I’m not there.

TP:    Let me ask you one more question that I raised in the fax.  You addressed Cecil’s impact on the community of European improvisers in the ’60s.  I’m wondering how his intense interaction with that community in the last 15 years has affected the music in Europe.

OXLEY:  You mean personally or musically?

TP:    Both perhaps.

OXLEY:  It’s hard for me to speak for other people.  But of course, I am aware of the people who have worked with him over here in various things, particularly in that production for FMP, the box, which accounts for quite a few people.  I know quite a lot of them, and I know that the impact was quite surprising.  There are different drummers in the duets who show different ways of approaching the music.

TP:    More generally, can you describe the impact he’s had on the community?

OXLEY:  Different people have different views on it, as far as I can gather, and I would only be prepared to speak for myself on that.  Because people change their views.  And the views that I heard in ’88 would probably be very different now.

TP:    Without quoting anyone, can you tell me what views you heard in ’88?

OXLEY:  This time he spent in Berlin I think left a mark in history that will never be erased, in my view.  I think that’s about as much as I can say there.   Musically, it was absolutely phenomenal.  And after we finished…there were gigs being prepared even before he went there.

TP:    I looked at the website.  I counted 24 different gigs.  Not individual dates, but gigs of varying length between 1988 and 1991.

OXLEY:  Well, that’s only half of them that we did.  There’s a 10-CD production coming out from London which I expect will be called “The London Trios.”  If you think about that, that’s ten CDs, and go  back to the box and also go back to the productions Jost Gebers made outside of the box, which I think there are 7 CDs that I’m on… If you look at that amount of work and that amount of playing, it’s quite a phenomenal achievement, when you think about it.

[ETC.]

TP:    You used to use an enormous…

OXLEY:  A cowbell.

TP:    Well, not just a cowbell.  Your drumset incorporated things that normally wouldn’t be found.  Do you still have such an expansive tonal palette in your drumkit, or  have you pared it down?

OXLEY:  Well, I’ve cut it down, but not from when you heard it in Sweet Basil.  I cut it down from the late ’60s when I had electronics as well.  I actually devised a system of having live electronics with the kit, which there are some records around.  Pity you don’t know them..  But it’s an interesting way of working, and I found it great.  I worked with that until about ’78 or ’80.  If you’ve got February Papers… Some of Howard Riley’s recordings; I played the electronic stuff with his trio.  But anyway, around ’80 I gave up the electronics, and went back to playing acoustic entirely, and that’s the kit I used at Sweet Basil.  More or less.  You change a few things here and there, bring a few different things in.  If you have a sound you want to reproduce, then you have   to find a way of doing it.  If you have to make something, then you make it and then, of course, you add it to your language.

* * * *

Dan Marmorstein on Cecil Taylor (3-29-01):

TP:    A little of your personal history with Cecil.  Where did you first meet?  How did you become involved with his music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I first read about what Cecil was doing in the Leroi Jones book called “Black Music.”  I was largely living on the West Coast then when I was about 14 years old, so for me to read about this phenomenon of this kind of inferno of musical activity that was taking place largely on the East Coast fit in with my mindset, which was that nothing was really happening out there in the suburban West Coast, and I was looking for some kind of sanctum-sanctorum of energy and consciousness, which seemed to be being described in Jones’ book.  I went and got the records.  I guess the first record I got was Looking Ahead, which is still one of my absolute favorite records made by anybody at any time.

TP:    Were you playing piano at this time?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, I’ve always played around on the piano, and I’ve always been involved with the piano enough to feel comfortable on it, but never enough to really call myself a pianist.  That’s still largely the situation.  So my approach to all this stuff is as a composer.  I’ve basically taken the piano thing and written things for other people to play, even on my own releases with my music.

TP:    And was your interest in composition then beginning?  Did it begin with Cecil?  Did it begin before  Cecil?  Was Cecil tangential to it initially?

MARMORSTEIN:  Cecil’s music functioned more as a magnet for me to stay connected and close to the idea and process and activity of making music, whatever that may be, in the way that other things have operated on me as kind of magnets.  I would also call S. Balanchandra, the vina player from Madras, a kind of magnet.  I would also call the Grateful Dead a kind of magnet in the same way.  But in the field of let’s call it modern improvisational American Music, I’m closer to Cecil’s music than I am, for example, to Duke Ellington’s music or, for that matter, even bebop.  Cecil’s music speaks to me more directly in a certain way, and always has.

Starting with Looking Ahead was coming in on a good page.  I think from Looking Ahead I went to Conquistador, which I still think is a beautiful symphonic seance.  That’s what I would call it.  Both sides of it.  The last couple of years I acquired the CD where you have the alternate version of “With/Exit”.  And you can understand why they chose the one that they chose . But even hearing those characters try the same piece twice…things like that brought home to me how compositional Cecil’s music is.  You used the word “structuralist” in one of your questions, and that’s not a word I feel completely facile in using because I don’t know exactly what you meant.

TP:    I’m interested in the way Cecil puts his compositions together, and I thought you’d be the best person to discuss with among the people there.  Because you see the scores and you have a sense of his process and how one process links to another and you attended every one of the rehearsals.  How he presented the material, how the material was received, how the linkages came together, the psychology of the band.  I’m interested in your overview.

MARMORSTEIN:  I’m real qualified to talk about that.

TP:    I know.  First of all, tell me how you met Cecil.

MARMORSTEIN:  My meetings with Cecil as a member of the audience were numerous, before I actually met him personally.  He was already such an object of… There was so much admiration there that I was too shy to approach him or come up to him in several situations, even in several what I would call pretty close encounters.  One the more interesting of the encounters was… Is it okay to say things that I’m not sure if I want…

TP:    Anything you want off the record, just say so.

MARMORSTEIN:  One of the most interesting encounters was when I went to Duke Ellington’s funeral at St. John’s the Divine, which was packed with people, and various artists were performing from the pulpit.  There was no place to sit down.  I came in just as the funeral was starting.  Somewhere about ten minutes into the service, a woman stood up and left, and I decided to grab the seat.  I walked up several aisles in the apse of the church, and turned to the left, and I was about to sit down at the empty place I said to myself, “My God, that’s Cecil Taylor sitting there.”  So I sat next to him for the whole funeral.  And I knew from the things I’d read that for him Ellington was a kind of spiritual father.  So in no way, shape or form was I going to disturb him there.  Then when we left the church I managed to both evade him and take another street down and get away, but when I got on the subway to go downtown, he was on the subway also.  Then I ended up going on the same subway car with him, and we were alone in the subway car.  This would have been my chance to say, “Hey, you’re a big influence in my life.”  But the guy was coming from a funeral and I was coming from a funeral, and it just didn’t seem appropriate.

There were a couple of encounters like that.  Once a guy came to my college and we were going to take a ride to Montreal and Toronto, but on the way we were going to stop off at a little college in Vermont where his brother was teaching, which was Goddard College, and we got to Plainfield, Vermont, which… I’m from New York.  This is in the middle of nowhere, and there was this college, Goddard…oh, and by the way there was a concert there that night.  And who was playing?  Oh, yeah, some guy from New York named Cecil Taylor.  I actually think that concert was recorded and put out on a CD or a bootleg.  It was a stunning concert.  He played solo.  As I remember, there were 50 or 60 people in the audience.  A month later he came to my college, to the music department at Brandeis, and played for less than 50 people with Sirone and Andrew, and then they answered questions.  But Cecil got tired of the public quickly.  Somebody asked him a question, “What kind of musical cues do you give each other?”  Cecil didn’t like the question, and he got very upset at that question, and he let Andrew take over the rest of the question-and-answer session.  Andrew had a very direct and strong way of confronting the audience which impressed me very much.

So there were experiences and close encounters.  But then we have to cut about ten years later.  I was living in New York, and finally I asked somebody who I knew was in touch with him if it was possible to obtain the phone number and phone him.  And I did.  I introduced myself on the phone and told him I was calling him because I had started composing music fairly late in life, but I had been very influenced by his music since I was in my early teens, and I had always wanted to approach him and ask him if I could take a composition lesson with him — or several composition lessons with him.  He said to me, “I don’t give lessons.”  But he said it in a nice way, and we continued to talk for over an hour.  Then he said, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow at around 11 and we can continue this talk.”  I remember I somehow made a reference that I’d be coming over at about 11, but maybe I could stop into this place and some… Then I realized that he wasn’t asking me to come at 11 in the morning.  He was asking me to come at 11 at night! [LAUGHS]

So I came over at 11 that night, and we talked, and we must have talked for several hours.  Around 3 o’clock, he said to me, “Well, this piano piece that you told me about on the phone that you wrote, did you bring it with you?”  I said, “Actually I did.”  Even though he had said he wasn’t going to give me a lesson.  He said, “Can you play the piece yourself?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  He said, “Well, go in the room and play it.”  So he’s got this rather large piano.  I have basically a four-movement piano sonata, and I went in the other room and played it for him.  It took me about 50 minutes to play it.  Then I came back in the other room, and he was sitting there, and he began to talk about the piece.  And he spoke so directly and so insightfully and so analytically and constructively about the piece that it was the lesson that crystallized what I was doing up until that point and which I have continued to draw from since.

We became friends from that meeting, and I never broached the question of having lessons with him again since that.  As you know, Cecil is a guy…

TP:    You approach him at his own pace.

MARMORSTEIN:  He’s a guy who goes at his own pace. [LAUGHS] I’ll just agree with you on that.  And you have to catch it when you can.

TP:    So you’ve had a relationship since you were about 30.

MARMORSTEIN:  Right.  Since about February 1985.

TP:    Just so I get it straight: You are an American who lives in Denmark?

MARMORSTEIN:  I am an American.  I lived in America my whole life until 1982, when I moved to Holland, and lived in Holland for two years, and attended the Stedelink Conservatory and studied with Misha Mengelberg.   I was a guest student in the Improvisational Department.  At the end of that year I had kind of run out of gas in Holland on a lot of levels, especially… Well, that’s a whole other subject.  But then I moved back to New York to tank up, especially economically, and I lived there for a year during which I met Cecil.  I was able to pick up some teaching jobs.  Then the woman who I had when I was in Holland who lived in Denmark came to New York and had an art show there, then we lived together, and in the summer of 1985 I moved to Denmark.  And I’ve been here ever since.

So my contact with Cecil, during the time I’ve known him, has largely taken place when I’m in New York for anywhere between a week or two weeks or a month at a time.  Maybe I’ll see him once or twice.  Maybe I’ll see him more than that.  Very often I don’t see him at all.  I might phone him several times, or we get the machine — and you never get any clue whether he’s around and just not answering the call, or whether he’s out of town.  Since 1989, a lot of my meetings have actually taken place in Berlin.  He’s in Berlin a lot, and Berlin is close enough to Copenhagen.  I’ve been to Berlin to see him three or four times.

TP:    Did you witness the June ’88 event?

MARMORSTEIN:  I wasn’t there for any of the box, but I was there in ’90 when he played at the Bechstein Hall.  I think that concert recently came out on Free Music Productions.  Off the record, I don’t think Cecil is very pleased with the release of that, because I don’t think he authorized it.  That’s the Workshop Orchestra.  I was also there for a concert he played at the Berlin Opera House a year after that, in the summer of 1991.

This invitation to the workshop came as a thrilling surprise to me. I have a computer, it’s hooked up to the telephone, and who knows what’s going to happen?  Usually you turn the thing on, and it’s nothing but a lot of junk mail asking people to do this or do that.  But all of a sudden there was this letter that was forwarded to me from Trudy Morse that had been sent out by Bruce Eisenbeil about the workshop.  It was a very nice thing for Trudy to do.  I had met Trudy in Berlin a couple of times with Cecil.  I responded right away.  I guess first I emailed Trudy and said it sounded really good, and should I really  take this as an invitation.  Because to me this was like rubbing the magic lantern.   This is what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study composition with Cecil Taylor, and to be invited to participate in a master class like that.

So I emailed Bruce, who I’d never met, and said, “I’m not a skilled jazz pianist; I don’t play changes.  I’m not an expert classical pianist.  But that being said, if I am still welcome to participate in the workshop without taking up a place that would be better reserved for a more adept pianist, then I’m in..  I would love to do it.”

I remember Bruce’s response.  He said, “Thanks for your email..  I think you should come to this workshop.  You’ll have a blast and you’ll learn a lot.”

The workshop definitely lived up to that.  I had a great time and I learned a lot.  It was a pleasure.  There was one day when I think you weren’t there when Cecil got a little bit tight, and he kind of scared all of us!  But I think for the rest of it he was in a great mood, and I think he was very-very generous with all of us.

My impression is that he was writing the stuff the night before.  Maybe some of it was old stuff that he had lying about.  But he came in with veritable reams of composition.  I could see from what I could guess that… You can’t talk about pencil markings as being fresh; you can only talk about ink markings that way.  That was my sense, that the graphite was fresh on the paper.  He came in with this stuff day after day.   He brought in about ten compositions which we played….we rehearsed ten compositions over the course of the event, and played four at the concert.

The first day of the workshops, my recollection is that he didn’t give out any paper at all.  He dictated the tones to people.  If you weren’t ready with your pencil and your paper before he started talking and you weren’t 100 percent concentrated as he was talking, then you simply couldn’t keep up with the succession of tones.  He was dictating them really rapid-fire.  So I was actually able to get some of that stuff, and some of the other people in the class were able to get some of the stuff.  So what we were able to practice the first week was pretty much what we were able to get.

Then by the second class he came in and gave us a score, so we were able to look at the score and look at his way of thinking about tones.  There are certain  intervals that he likes.  There are certain links that he likes.  There are certain licks, especially in connection with octaves and how octaves are filled in.  One lick that seems to be quite prevalent in his music is something being voiced in octaves and…

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…middle will stay where it is.  So a lick that turns up a lot in these scores is something like a C to the C above it, with the G in between, and then the C# to the C# above it, but then still with the G in between — or things like that.  Then maybe you’ll go up from the D to a D, and probably keep the G as a pedal tone.  There are a lot of sounds like that.

Also, as a pianist, it was interesting to see that a lot of the power of his playing and his melodic statements have to do with the fact that he simply plays these rather curlicued and very harmonically dense melodic lines, which don’t always follow a diatonic sequence of tones but a much more chromatic sequence of tones, but that these lines are played sometimes as octaves or as double-octaves or, in many cases, simply as triple octaves — Cecil is simply playing a melody over four octaves.  But of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano.  But that gives a color and a dimension.

The scores seem to be what I would call feels.  On the page of the scores, he has a group of anywhere between three or five or as many as ten, and sometimes he may stack sequences of lines, in which case you could have 25 or 30 different tones.  Quite frequently, more than one tone is described.  The way that music is transmitted to the musicians is that the musicians are basically being asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will.  But that being said, with Cecil being there, Cecil will often play the thing on the piano and expect that we can hear that that’s the way he wants it to sound.  And sometimes you can hear that, but sometimes if he plays it with his own floridness, it’s hard to hear the bare skeleton through this beautiful flower.  He’s asking us to sketch the daisy when actually what he’s done is given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the point that before Jimmy Lyons died, basically personnel took phrasing cues from Jimmy Lyons’ articulation of the melodies and lines, that Jimmy’s phrasing would tend to be the authoritative guidepost for the musicians.

MARMORSTEIN:  [ETC. ON JIMMY] I wasn’t around…

TP:    The essential issue with the orchestra seemed to be how to phrase this music and how to create a dynamic level that didn’t keep them in the middle of the fire, but enabled them to maybe go into the vortex and then skip out, and go in and out and in and out like a magician going into the center of a maelstrom of fire and coming out unscathed.

MARMORSTEIN:  I think in this workshop situation, Cecil was sitting back and listening quite a bit.  I think he wanted to hear to some extent how this music would sound in a large group of people, and his coaching of the group tended to be on the minimal side — unless he really felt that it had become messy and that people weren’t listening to each other.  His coaching largely consisted that people should play in such a way that they could leave room for each other, make space for each other, and listen to one another.  That was not always the case in the rehearsals.

The miracle of the concert for me, from where I was sitting, was that suddenly everybody seemed to be listening to each other, and suddenly these pieces really functioned as finished pieces.  Okay, maybe not recording studio quality, but interesting enough for people who hadn’t been part of the building-up process to sit and listen to it.  As you probably know, we didn’t know what we were going to play until just before we played before the public.

TP:    How do sections come together in Cecil’s music?  First, is his notation singular unto him?

MARMORSTEIN:  I’ve never seen it before in any other composer.  But the composer Glenn Spearman had charts which are the only things I’ve seen which look something like Cecil’s composition.  But I know Cecil was doing it before Glenn Spearman was.

TP:    As a composer and someone who is immersed in post-Webern European music, can you speak to the Cecil’s connections structurally and on a more metaphysical level to that music.  I mean, during our conversation he was talking a great deal about Xennakis.

MARMORSTEIN:  And I guess Xennakis died a few days later, on the same day as J.J. Johnson.  He did tell that story about Xennakis being kind to him the way he was.

TP:    Trudy met Cecil on a Xennakis festival. [ETC.] Obviously there are palpable connections.  Without your necessarily going into the details of how that concert was put together, I wonder if you see connections in their musical thinking.

MARMORSTEIN:  I certainly can hear connections in Xennakis’ music with Cecil’s stuff, to the extent that when I first heard Xennakis’ piano music,  I thought this was somebody who was trying to play like Cecil Taylor.  But when I mentioned this to Cecil, Cecil didn’t seem to be too thrilled about that kind of cross-comparison.  I think Cecil… I get this as much from what’s written in the Spellman book than actually talking about it at great length with Cecil.  I think Cecil’s attitude about compositional music that’s built around a system of any kind is…I think he tends to stay away from that.  I think he almost tends to eschew that….

TP:    Are you saying that he tends to stay away from the system or that he’s internalized the system so comprehensively that he is able to use that as a part of his improvising vocabulary without even thinking about it?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, yes, but that still wouldn’t be right, because I think by nature he avoids system.  He would avoid Serialism.  He would avoid any kind of licks stuff.  John Cage’s famous objection to the word “jazz,” as I remember it, is that…

TP:    He said it’s imprisoned by the beat.

MARMORSTEIN:  Did he?  I knew also that he said something about the fact that jazz players learn licks and then stick with that.  I think Cecil is trying in every which way to not be confined to his own shtick as such.  Yet, what I think he tries to do is cultivate a familiarity and an honesty about…you know, definite, clear, sort of subject-predicate-adjective sentences.  I think he tries to say things in music which can only be said through music, a la Schoenberg’s response to Webern’s music when he talked about the Bagatelles — that famous preface.  I guess that’s why I gravitate both to Cecil and to the Webern-Berg Schoenberg thing.  But whereas I would say Webern-Berg-Schoenberg were interested in positing systematization, especially Papa Schoenberg, I think Cecil is not interested in that.  He is not interested in creating a system.  He is not interested in creating a George Russell type theory.  Although I know he respects that thing.  I know he respects George Russell and what he has been doing, by and large.

That’s why it’s a funny thing to be in a workshop situation with Cecil. He doesn’t really want to teach his approach.  What he wants to do is motivate the participants to find their own poetry and their own way of getting started with this stuff.  I think what he wants his compositions to do is to get people to think about music as a process activity and not just a kind of finished product.  I think that’s his game.

I use the word “game” because to me the scores function a little bit like games.  You asked me how did we move from one field to the next.  Cecil gave various directives on that.  In one instance, he simply said, “When you feel that you’ve exhausted the material in one of these melodic sequence fields, when you feel that you’ve said it the way that you wanted to say it with as much variety as you can, especially rhythmic variety, then take a breath and move on.”  That was a very explicit instruction he gave.  Now, how do you translate that when you have 39 participants in the workshop, which had boiled down to about 30 by the time the concert rolled around.

That was funny paradox of the rehearsals at the concert, that for me during the rehearsals it never really-really jelled or was clear.  But somehow, when the public was sitting there, and people were forced to collectively in not an antagonistic us-against-them but in a cooperative us-and-them situation… When you have the performers and the public, you do have an us-and-them situation.  You have the people you’re playing with, and you also have people that you know are listening, who have taken cut these few hours out of their otherwise busy prime-time Saturday night and paid a their money, and you want to offer them something.  You’re not just playing for yourselves.  Now you’re playing for them.  And somehow, like magic, it worked.

Cecil turned to us literally five minutes before the public came in and he said, “Okay, we’re going to play this one and this one and this one and this one.”  Then shortly after that, he said to me, “The first piece is called ‘To be’ and the second piece is called ‘Ka’ and the third piece is called ‘Ka-Ba’ and the fourth piece…”  When he gave those names, that’s the first time I or anyone else had heard those names, and I think it’s the first time that they had names.   So I that the process wad done like that.  It was like finally the creator of the games decided that these four games were the ones that would work best together, and then he gave then names which gives the audience a chance to remember them.

So I’d say each one of the scores has an element of chess or a game of Go, where different variables happen in one area and different variables happen in another area.  In some scores, you’d play through the whole score and then there was a da capo, where you started again and went back to a certain point.  The link between the “Ka” and the “Ka-Ba” pieces, which was the second and the third piece, was something that maybe Cecil had in mind.  I guess he did bring those pieces in on the third day.  But we all could feel that it was a very natural progression from one piece to the other.  But otherwise, the pieces seemed to function as independent… And I use “games” on the highest level I could use the word.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s music is singular in the world of music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I think that’s definitely the case.  I don’t know any music that sounds like that except… I would say that as a pianist, Cecil is the next step from Thelonious Monk.  Also Duke Ellington, but certainly Thelonious Monk, in the same way that for me Eric Dolphy is the next step from Charlie Parker.  It’s a certain way of taking the predecessor, and expanding it and stretching it out and making it little more Gaudi-esque in its shape.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s absorption of architectural shape and form and structure influences the arc of his pieces.

MARMORSTEIN:  Absolutely.  That’s something you know if you talk with him for ten minutes.  And I absolutely think that ballet…dance in general, but for me, his interest in the Classical Ballet…

TP:    It’s like he’s dancing over the piano.  That’s what his gestures are like.

MARMORSTEIN:  His fingers are making the same kinds of leaps that the dancers make in space.  I’m sorry I never saw the duet he made with Baryshnikov.  Another thing that I think is super-important to him these days is singers and vocalists.  So I think we can’t really talk about his piano playing or his composition without talking about architecture, dance and singers, especially the jazz singers, or opera singers, or singers of any kind who have influenced him.  He’s got so many things coming into him.  He’s so hooked up to the outside world and he’s got so much input, that it comes out with this kaleidoscope of stuff which doesn’t sound, to my mind, like what anybody else is doing.  But sometimes, in terms of the internal intelligence and humor in the melodic sequences, you could say that his music is kind of Monkish.  I don’t think Cecil would take too much offense at that.

TP:     I kind of see him as a cross between Monk and Tatum.  I can’t think of any other pianist who ever had that kind of technique.  Of course, he admires Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, who are contemporaries of his.

Can you address Cecil’s relationship to the European improvisers community?  It sounds like you’re an interested observer in that scene, and I think one of the more interesting developments of the last 15 years is the mark Cecil has made on that community, and I think they’ve made quite an impact on him.

MARMORSTEIN:  That’s a tricky question.  I don’t know if I can come up with so much on the last one.  My impression is that Cecil misses some blues in the European music.  He misses some basic things that for him are essential in the music.  He misses some American Indian and he misses some Blues, which to me the European guys often don’t have.  My impression is that the European guys sometimes manifestly eschew it in their way.  They say, “We don’t want to just be like blues guys.  We want to come up with something all our own.”  Of the European guys, there’s quite a few of the drummers that he feels have something very important to offer.  I don’t know his feeling about the wind players and the pianists.

I think the impact Cecil has made on that community is enormous.  But in my opinion, the impact that community has made on Cecil is more social and humanitarian, in a certain way, than musical.  I think Cecil likes the respect and the fair treatment and the admiration that he gets in Europe, which pleases him.  But I don’t know how much of the music itself…

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