Tag Archives: Benny Goodman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Toots Thielemans (Nov. 18, 2005):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   He gave you the award.

TOOTS:   Yes. Commandadore Orde de Rio Branco.

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

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

TP: What did you think of that?

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

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

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

TP:   When did you start playing with Brazilian musicians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: But let’s speak about now.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: They play next week at the Jazz Standard.

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

TOOTS:   Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

TOOTS:   Yes.

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

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

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

TOOTS:   No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:   How do you know each other?

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

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

TOOTS:   Yes.

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

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

TP:   Good for harmony.

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

TP:   When were you studying that book?

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

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

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

TP:   Did you know about Benny Carter or Hawkins?

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

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

TP: Or Bill Coleman or any of those people.

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

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

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

TP:   And you taught yourself the guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: When did you start playing professionally?

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

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

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

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

TP: You said that on stage.

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

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

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

TP:   So those are the things you practiced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOOTS:   That’s 60 years. I knew you were coming! So I got a little, just in case something…

TP:   But let’s step back. What you said was fascinating about studying Groovin’ High and Confirmation and the release of Cherokee, and playing them in all the keys. But when Benny Goodman heard your acetates and asked for you, and you wound up playing with him, you’d been doing it…

TOOTS:   I was a full-fledged bebopper then, and that’s already 1950.

TP:   Were there people to play with in Europe at the time?

TOOTS:   In Belgium there were a few. Bobby Jaspar, Rene Thomas, but not many more. I saw Bobby with Miles just before Coltrane!

TP: Rene Thomas was a helluva guitar player.

TOOTS:   Yes. Sonny Rollins liked him. My first visit to the States was in ‘47. I was with my father’s brother in Miami, and there was this “Straighten up And Fly Right” by Nat Cole in the restaurant. Trio music with “Route 66.” That was the era. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, that people don’t want to hear that. Then I buy a drink to a guitar player, and we talk a little bit, “Yeah, I play the guitar and also the harmonica,” and I sat in. But who was there? None other than Bill Gottlieb. So hears me, and he buys me a drink. “Oh, you’re good.” Whatever. Then Bill Gottlieb took me to the Street.

TP:   He heard you in Miami, and then you looked him up when you came to New York.

TOOTS:   I was just having a drink and sitting in. Then he took me to the Street, the Three Deuces.  I think it was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, and Bags, and Jimmy Heath, too, I think. If you ask Bill Gottlieb, he’ll probably remember. He took me to meet the band. “Hey, guys, I’ve got this guy who plays the harmonica.” “Who? Belgium?” The two question marks. “What do you want to play?” In those days, the big identity, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of I Can’t Get Started. [PLAYS IT] I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. That was enough. And I sat next to the piano; I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine? With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Then the agent, the big salesman of bebop then was Billy Shaw. Shaw Nuff. That’s one of the traffic lights! “Where you from? You’re good!” “I’m from Belgium.” “Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.” [LAUGHS] Typical  Hollywood. And the big cigar with it! “Oh, send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.” I swear to you.

TP:   After I Can’t Get Started like that, I can see why.

TOOTS:   No, I was close to that. But the fundamentals were there. Now I’ve got some alternate scales into this, heh-heh. Then I wound up… I had to go back to the south of France with the boat. New York-Genoa, and then go to Nice, where there was a jazz festival, and where I was playing with Bobby Jaspar, representing Belgium. We were also accompanying Lucky Thimpson at that festival. Louis Armstrong was the top. On the boat, I wrote… I will play for you the progression I wrote on Stardust. I did it with Benny Goodman. I can play what Benny heard me play on the acetate there, you know….

TP: 50 years ago.

TOOTS:   55! [PAUSE] For instance, on the day of my birthday, the 29th of April, in a stadium in Norway, a football stadium – soccer. It was cold! I think I had gloves to play the guitar. And Zoot… Roy was there, Zoot was here, and Benny in the middle. Benny would play, and he would turn to the next soloist at the end of his chorus, one way or the other. But in that stadium, I never forgot, Zoot was waiting his time to solo, and he hadn’t played a note. It was freezing. For 15 minutes easy. If you remember Zoot, his horn is hanging and… [TP: Looking blank [HEAD DOWN, STOCK STILL] Then Benny… He didn’t expect to play. Benny turned to his side, and instantly, like a transistor – DOODLE,DA-DA-DA, DE-DE. Typical Zoot. Fantastic. That was my first contact with… I wasn’t in the States really. My first live contact with that kind of spontaneity like Zoot. He was so great. Then, of course. We didn’t play often enough together after that..

TP:   What was Benny Goodman’s demeanor like when you touring with him? You were his guitar player and…

TOOTS:   He wasn’t bad. I played the Charlie Christian chair.

TP:   So you had nothing but good experiences with him.

TOOTS:  Yeah.  And after six weeks touring: “Benny, I’d like to play another number.” Play Stardust. He loved that progression, where the guys went down and chromatically… I went up… That was revolutionary almost. [PLAYS UPWARD CHROMATIC SCALE] That I wrote, so to speak, it was in ‘47. Because I only played it in ‘50 with Benny. I had time to make the record, send it… And Ray Nance…we were buddies. They came to Brussels with Ellington, and I played that… I don’t have that record any more with the strings. I was able to take Duke into a record store, [(?)La Deux Des Midi(?)] in Brussels, and to make him listen to that acetate which wound up on Benny Goodman’s phonograph. Those are great memories.

TP: When was that experience with Duke?

TOOTS:   Oh, I never played with him. In ‘47, I came back…

TP:   Maybe it was ‘49 or so?

TOOTS:   In ‘48. The beginning. So that wound up, and in Europe after that I didn’t play with him. I didn’t play the right rhythm he wanted to hear. Not enough strength. Guys like Bucky Pizzarelli did that much better for him.

TP:   As far as rhythm guitar. So what decided you to come to the States? Did you make a decision to move here?

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. Because I had already applied for the immigration. The secretary, Muriel Zuckerman, who died… [HUGUETTE: She came to our wedding.] She was Benny Goodman’s secretary. She volunteered to be my affidavit…
TP: Your sponsor.

TOOTS:   Sponsor. Made it possible for me… She would be responsible if I did something wrong to the United States life. She would pay… So that was a great responsibility. She became good friends with my wife, Nettie.

TP:   So you came here with your wife…

TOOTS:   Yes, with $2000 in my pocket and a suitcase.

TP:   That wasn’t bad in 1952. That was a lot of money in 1952!

TOOTS:   Then my father… Of course, the regulations of the union were very strict. The Local 802, even if you came from the Chicago local, you had to establish residence in the Local 802 area, and wait for… I made $40 a week sending posters for the Belgian airline, Sabina. But we lived very…it was not…

TP: Not like this.

TOOTS:   No. We paid $20 a week in a hotel that’s a welfare hotel now, the Marquis, at 31st and Madison. The lady at the Belgian Embassy found us a place. Nothing. No cooking, just a hot plate.

TP:   But when you got here, you’d go around to the clubs and hang out.

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. I could work three days… No steady job. Or a record date, but nobody asked me. Also, Monte Kay, who became Diahann Carroll’s manager, and also the Modern Jazz Quartet, he had a club, the Downbeat, where everybody played. I got $15 a night for three nights, and that was a big week. 45 plus 40 is $85! You could eat at least. Some nights there was Mingus. Everybody. Lee Konitz.

TP:   Were you playing guitar or harmonica?

TOOTS:   Both. But mostly guitar. Billy Taylor was there and George Wallington, and Charlie Smith, the left-hand drummer. Billy Taylor, who wasn’t Doctor yet. Slim Gaillard playing piano! [LAUGHS] You know who came hanging around, and we started a friendship which we never developed any further? Paul Bley. He came from Canada. “Bon chez, bon ja(?),” they say, like Papa’s son comes to the big city. We talked a lot. Never technical; “okay, let’s play.” Nothing like that. Then…

TP: So you come to New York and start hanging out with your peer group, or people a bit younger than you…

TOOTS:   I was 30 years old.

TP:   Well, Billy Taylor and George Wallington… But you’re hanging out with the most progressive musicians…

TOOTS:   Yes. Lee Konitz, too.

TP:   They’re hearing you play the harmonica. Were you playing bebop on guitar as well?

TOOTS:   Yes. The next step was George Shearing. Tony Scott was hanging around all the time also, and helping. For instance, they had a party, and Bird was at the party, and get, you know, PUFFS, whatever…the hospitality… And Tony introduced me to some black ladies. [LAUGHS] He said he’d heard that George Shearing was going to lose his guitar player, and Dick Garcia had to go into the Army. George was doing those double-bill things with Billy Eckstine – Billy Eckstine-George Shearing at Carnegie Hall, and touring. This was 1952. Then across at the Metropole or Charlie’s Tavern or one of those bars where musicians hang out between sessions… There were a lot of recording sessions going on then. I went there to try to meet the guys, and Tony said: “Come with me.” He took me to meet George Shearing, and he pushed…at the stage door at Carnegie Hall, all he had to do was say, “Yes, I know so-and-so”… “I am a good friend of Mr. Shearing.” And he pushed me into George’s dressing room. George was relaxing. “George, I’ve got the man for you.” “Ah,” George says. “He plays the guitar, too.” So I played “Body and Soul” together with George in George’s dressing room. Then George says, “If you cut the guitar book…” Those were the words in those days. “If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.”

TP: So you studied the guitar book.

TOOTS:   Well, I knew it by ear. Then there were those big hits by George. Then in the meantime, I had that offer to go with Charlie Parker to Philadelphia, on the Dinah Washington show. George came, too, to double-check on me backstage at the Earle in Philadelphia. We were going to rehearse. There was a Rendezvous Jazz Club in Philadelphia. Ava Gardner used to come listen to George Shearing all the time. Not all the time, but once or twice. Maybe she had relatives in Philadelphia. Then I went to my guitar audition with George, and that started six years.

TP:   Talk about the six years with George Shearing, and how you developed musically. It sounds like that was your first steady gig playing the function in a working band.

TOOTS:   Yes. My only! It was always interesting, because some of those jobs you’d get into, you’d leave one town and drive at night, with no day to rest or anything, and sometimes you arrive in a town at 5 o’clock and you’ve got to play at 7:30. We all were tired, but George always interested me very much. I never was bored.

TP:   You were studying the same harmony book, too.

TOOTS:   That was interesting. And I developed some great chops on the guitar. I mean, my kind of chops.

TP: Did that gig have any impact on the way you conceived the sound of the harmonica?

TOOTS:   I was playing it once or twice a night. I was there mainly for the guitar book. That’s why I’m happy I could play both then. I wouldn’t have a job with harmonica alone. So I learned a lot. It was always interesting. In those days, it was Brubeck, Mulligan and Shearing. Right? And the rest were big bands. I was a major league player.

TP:   Top of the heap.

TOOTS:   I had visibility, call it that, for a minute.

TP:   I don’t know how much you were in direct contact with Charlie Parker…

TOOTS:   Oh, he liked me. I had met him in Paris. Because in Billy Shaw’s office he had heard me. And Al Haig, too, was in Paris.

TP: Was that in ‘49, when he came to the Festival?

TOOTS:   Yes, when they all first came to Paris. Al Haig was there. Miles Davis. Kenny Clarke. James Moody. With Bird, there was Kenny Dorham. They had a thing called “Prince Albert,” a variation on “All The Things You Are.” After the Benny Goodman tour, I had to work. I didn’t have my papers yet to come to the States. I worked in Sweden. They were very responsive. I had newspaper attention. It’s the first time that a European… It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, which Benny was still…

TP:   He had Stan Hasselgard.

TOOTS:   Yes, that was before. Benny tried everything before he found out that Waiting For the Sunrise was what he wanted to play. But he tried everything. But Charlie Parker played in Stockholm while I was playing in Sweden with that Swedish organ player, a Swedish Shearing type, blind – Reinhold Svensson. We were very popular, and I played the guitar, not whistling yet. He heard. “Hey!” And he came to listen to me. I saw him. Of course, our organ player didn’t see him. He was blind. I said, “Reinhold, stop. Bird is in the house.” I went into Lover Man. Those were the days of Camarillo. Bird said, “Hey, how you doin’?” He wanted to give me money.

TP:   He was in a grand mood. Probably drinking schnapps.

TOOTS:   I said, “No, Bird, I’m working.” I have a book, To Bird With Love that Chan did. There’s a letter that I wrote from Belgium to Bird, and thank you, and he kept it, or somebody kept it.

TP: When you played in Philadelphia with Bird, did he call you on it?

TOOTS:   That was just one gig.

TP:   In the ‘60s, you moved back to Europe?

TOOTS:   I didn’t move back. Now we live more there than here. We have a big house and a pool and three dogs.

TP:   Any children?

TOOTS:   No. But then I started to make a living in the States. But still going back a lot to Europe, because it wasn’t so hot in the late ‘50s. A lot of guys like Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, they didn’t do so well in the States. I was doing a movie score. That was in the ‘60s somewhere, and at the session, there was Red Mitchell. He said, “I’m tired politically and I’m disgusted with this country – where should I go?” I said, “Go to Sweden.” I told him! He drove me back to the hotel after the film session, and he moved. The same with Kenny Drew. He also wanted to go. I said, “The two places you could go are either Paris or Copenhagen.” He went to Copenhagen.

TP: How many languages do you speak?

TOOTS:   In Belgium, if you want to be a serious student, you can… I speak French and Flemish. But I’m French-speaking, doing his best in Flemish. But then in English and German, and then, by being so often in Sweden, I can speak Swedish fluently.

TP:   One thing that’s immediately apparent from your repertoire is how many different cultures you draw music from. You deal with chansons and musette, with bebop, with blues, with Brazilian music, with the songbook, with this very harmonic film music…

TOOTS:   Yeah, Midnight Cowboy and Sesame Street!

TP:   Did you write something for Sesame Street?

TOOTS:   No. I didn’t write that. Joe Raposa(?).

TP: But you’ve been addressing this repertoire for a while, and 25-30 years ago it wasn’t so common to hear that sound, but now it seems more…

TOOTS:   The variety.

TP:   The variety of things you play and the many strategies you take to play them.

TOOTS:   I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion. People cry when I play Smile, the Charlie Chaplin thing, or Ne Me Quitte Moi or What a Wonderful World. I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always make my heart…give me a goosebump. Of course, much of what I hear I’d like to incorporate, because… I hear some guys. I don’t want to name names. They’re very famous. But they haven’t changed a note in their language. They use the same… And I know. That’s what I spend time on, to listen to my old records. Even my famous…my big traffic light with Bill Evans, if I played with him today, or played the same songs today, I will play them differently. I like to believe I evolved. Like Quincy said, “Each time I hear you…” It’s not much maybe after fifty years… You can maybe ask a painter what he did fifty years before. But that’s what keeps me interested very much.

TP:   Finding new ways to approach old friends.

TOOTS:   Yes. I’m still trying to capture the Nefertiti album, Miles…

TP: Wayne Shorter you like.

TOOTS:   Wayne! For me, there’s many musicians, and then there’s guys like Hancock and Shorter. I feel I can learn from them. Herbie can play, man! He played with me before he joined Miles. That happened in 1962 in New York. I did everything in ‘62 – Jewish weddings, jingles, everything. Every Wednesday afternoon I went to the union, 252 West 52nd Street. There was the Roseland Ballroom, and there were meetings there, you could find gigs if you wanted to. Then on the way back, there was a trumpet store, Giardelli(?), 10 yards from that union. I passed by, and I hear music. This trumpet store, a repair… They had little rooms where they had a piano, and they’d rent them for rehearsal. I go upstairs. It was Donald Byrd. I see a piano player from the back. It was Herbie. I didn’t know. He’d just got in town then. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island. I said, “Herbie, do you need this piano job on the weekend?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met him. “No, take him! He needs it.” He needs the work, the job. That’s how I met Herbie. So we played and we did the little rehearsal. You’d better check with him if he wants that to be known. After a few checks, you know, on what songs we were going to play… It was not a jazz job. I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. You accept the job, you’re going to do the job, do what is requested. We checked. And after ten minutes he said, “Hmm, I think I’m…” This is Herbie in ‘62. “I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.” In my ear. He sent a nice email about that thing with Stevie Wonder. “I want to do this, but I’m going to…”

TP:   Is Stevie Wonder going to be part of your concert at Carnegie Hall?

TOOTS:   I am not sure. We are afraid to ask that. Now, we could ask Pat Metheny, too. He might like it. I played on his record, too.

TP:   How did you meet Bill Evans? How did that relationship…

TOOTS:   Bill when he was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform… Imagine. A crewcut. A Jack Armstrong crewcut. He came to listen to George Shearing at the Blue Note in Chicago. He admired George. He had respect for George. There was the Blue Note later, but in the basement, in the lower level. We were rehearsing there, like that… Afterwards, he said, “I hope we play together.” One of those polite goodbyes. Then I’m on the road, and I hear this guy. I didn’t know the name. “Hey, that’s my guy.” Then after I left Shearing, Bill was playing with Miles, I think with Trane and Cannon at the Showboat. During a break, I say hello, “Hi, Miles…” Miles sees me talking to Bill. “What are you talking about?” We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment and… Miles said, “You two should play together,” quick, and he went by to the men’s room or whatever. But I remember that. And we wound up doing it in ‘79. Then Helen Keane calls me, and he had just signed the contract with Warner Brothers. It was his first album. Helen calls me and said, “Toots, we’d like you to play a couple of albums on Bill’s upcoming session.” I said, “Helen, I’m not sure if I’m up to date to play with a giant like Bill today.” In ‘79, I was freelancing all over, just playing with Paul Simon and all those movies, all the jingles, like Old Spice and stuff.

TP: So you were on the New York studio scene in the ‘70s.

TOOTS:   Yes. I had a group. There was a club, Trotter’s, very close to the Village Vanguard, the other sidewalk. Slam Stewart played there with Bucky, Stan Getz, and I played there. I’d been teaching for one week, I think, a workshop at Eastman School of Music as a media application, what you can learn to be in the media – jingles, movies and stuff. Phil Markowitz was there. I remembered him from Eastman, so I hired him. My group was Phil Markowitz, Joe LaBarbera and Chip Jackson. That was a good group. I was playing, and I tell Helen, “Before you make up your mind to have me at the session, tomorrow he can come to listen to me.” I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and Bill said… Like a piranha he jumped on the lead sheet by that song of Paul Simon, and he said, “Come Monday.” That’s a great song.

Then in the studio, the only time… I don’t know if it’s to be printed. I played for so many people. But after three or four days in the studio it appeared that I’d play on every song with Bill instead of just two – with Larry Schneider. Then there was Marc Johnson and Elliot Zigmund, I think. Not yet LaBarbera. Bill heard LaBarbera with me. Then I go on a break and I say, “Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much.” It could be Toots Thielemans featuring… Bill said to my ear: “I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that, meaning song… No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out.” He said, “give me a minute.” He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. “We will double your fee.” I never heard that one before!

TP:   That took care of your strictures.

TOOTS:   Of course, that record really gave me a lot of credibility, I guess. Some of your colleagues said, “What the hell did they get Toots Thielemans for?” I read that. This guy Lee Jeske wrote, “The next thing I need is to buy earmuffs so I won’t hear the harmonica.” He was reviewing my Brazil Project in the New York Post.
TP:   You need a thick skin in this business.

TOOTS:   But not everybody likes my sound or whatever. But I feel… I don’t know. I can’t help it. This guy who said, “shameless sentimentality.” I admit it. That’s me. I cry easy and I smile easy. A smile and a tear. I am a minor-VII person. You do what I have to do.


TP: We’re talking about the concert. Stevie Wonder is being approached, Quincy Jones will be in it, Paul Simon wanted to make it, but couldn’t… You told me this anecdote about Stevie Wonder. Did you record with him?

TOOTS:   Never. We’re on the…

TP:   But you’re both harmonica players.

TOOTS:   I learned a lot from Stevie. I play maybe more notes. When he came out, it was more than forty years ago. I am always impressed… First of all, I am very responsive to the black sound, the African-American… Sometimes I say I respond to “What are you thinking,” blah-blah. I would not be the same person or the same musician if it had not for the blue note that came from Africa via America. I feel that way, and I respond that way, and that’s the way people like Quincy responds to me so much, too, apparently. But you’ll have to ask them. “I am so proud of your black ass.” Ray Charles, he called me “Mr. T.”

TP:   Did Quincy Jones get you into soloing on film scores?

TOOTS:   Yes. I have a photograph. It was his first engagement in Los Angeles, the last film that Cary Grant ever made, Walk, Don’t Run. I have been on most of his recordings during the Creed Taylor era, and also in Los Angeles.

TP: He likes to paint pictures with sound, and no one gets that sound but you.

TOOTS:   The harmonica can underline a scene in a movie where not much happens. The last thing, I was very disappointed… They called me. The best movie score financially was in London. I won’t say the name. There was only gunshots. The composer told me, “Play there a little bit something nice” – with gunshots and explosions. But then a guy, one of the composers, he used to be Barbra Streisand’s boyfriends…

TP:   Jon Peters.

TOOTS:   No. He wrote the The Fugitive. Anyway, he said, “Toots, don’t worry. When I make you play, they’re just holding hands and taking a walk in the country” or something like that.

TP:   When you improvise, what are you thinking about? The notes?

TOOTS:   Yes, the notes.

TP: Anything more abstract in your mind?

TOOTS:   It’s an abstract process. But I try to play in a linear way. Make drawings, sound drawings sometimes. Okay, I’m working out… [PLAYS] That’s the introduction to Round Midnight. I try to sing also. When I play Brel, I try to play the words. There’s words like, “I want to be in the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your door. Do not leave me.” [SAYS THEM IN FRENCH]

TP:   Do you think of singers? Is the harmonica sort of a voice?

TOOTS:   Maybe. I like some songs to stay close, like The Nearness of You… If it’s a ballad, to try to make sense according to the lyrics a little bit. But maybe I should play more loose with Kenny. He had take wild chances.

TP:   Did anybody, apart from maybe Larry Adler, influence you on the harmonica?

TOOTS:   No. I am very impressed with Gregoire Maret. He came to the opening night. He gave me that record, Dapp Theory. Are you hip to him?

TP: He plays with Steve Coleman, too, and Cassandra…

TOOTS:   But Andy Milne. I’d like to get…

TP:   That would be a different sound

TOOTS:   I feel, if I may say.. .I feel closer… I can play more myself and closer to the loose phrasing of the rhythm that happens, for instance, on Dapp than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago. The rhythm of today is closer to what I feel.

TP:   A lot of those are odd meters, 7/4, 11/4…

TOOTS:   I’m not so hot with that

TP: You have Steve Coleman on your Ipod. Do you like his music?

TOOTS:   I want to hear it. As I don’t have that much time to play a lot, what… But I bombard  myself with new music, or if not new, at least something I can learn from. Gregoire makes me think, if I make a comparison… 55 years ago, I came to this country, and pretty soon I played with Charlie Parker and then with Shearing. Now he comes, and he’s great. I’d like to hear him in two-three years.

TP:   This brings up a point I touched on before, that the music now is such an international hybrid. Fifty years ago, jazz was coming from blues and the American songbook and so on. But now, things that were exotic many years ago are no longer exotic. In some way, the music has caught up with what you’re doing. It’s a very international proposition now, and there’s something in your tonal personality that embodies that meldjng of cultures.

TOOTS:   The responses I get, if you ask some people around… If you read the liner notes that Kenny wrote about me on our album, “Everybody likes Toots…” I get compliments from David Murray, the saxophone player! “Hey!” I don’t know. It’s not for me to say.

TP:   One thing I’d like you to try to talk about is what you see as your accomplishment. You’ve been a professional musician for almost sixty years – six years in Europe, 53 years in the States. Your sound is a very recognizable signpost on the jazz landscape, and you’ve played with enough people that there will be a Carnegie Hall concert filled with musical celebrities who want to pay homage…

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I was trying to get an answer for myself before you came. I don’t know. Accomplishment? I don’t know. When my wife and I received the title from the Belgian King, Baron… I am a Baron. You need a credo. Like arms.  A coat of arms, whatever. I had met… In Chicago about fifty years ago, somebody said to me, “Oh, man, I just want to be myself.” And then there is a Council of the Arts in Belgium. It can be done in Flemish, in French, or in Latin, one of the three. Then I asked the man, “Can I do it in English? Can I have a full English phrase defining what I…” Then I said, “Be myself, no more, no less.” “Connaitre toi-meme.” Know yourself. Then the man on the panel… They had a discussion, and they told me a few days after they thought that “myself” was too egotistical, too me-me-me. They said, “Mr. Thielemans, would you be satisfied with ‘be yourself, no more, no less’?” That’s what I like to be, and be accepted as.

I don’t know what I accomplished. Judging this, there’s two sides of the coin. Much of the public likes me. They cry when I play… We were in Seattle. Some people drove 500 miles to come and listen to me! Things like that. Oyster Bay, from Oregon or something.  In St. Louis, some guy came from Little Rock, Arkansas. They have my records, my old LPs! In Europe, the same thing. I don’t know what I accomplished. I did my best. Somebody asked Jim Hall, “Did you make concessions?” He said, “Nobody asked me.” Oh, no. “Did you ever sell out?” Jim said, “nobody ever asked me.” So I don’t know what I might have done…

TP: But there’s something about you that’s very individualistic and very selfless at the same time. With Elis Regina, you play yourself and also your own sound. Same thing with Bill Evans.

TOOTS:   My sound. The session started with two numbers. When we’re getting in the studio, he jumps on that Paul Simon song, which Paul redid with Herbie. But for three days I played all through the record, and Bill says, “I want people to know you can play like that.” That’s 1979. So I’m still doing my best.

TP:   Did you do a number of records with Paul Simon?

TOOTS:   I played one solo, and I didn’t think he liked it. It was at the old studio, 48th Street, where the union is now – A&R, West 48th Street.  Phil Ramone calls me. “Toots, can you come and play for Paul Simon?” “Yeah, Phil, but I have to take a plane to go to the Monterrey Festival, but I can be there at 1 o’clock.” If you listen, that was the first record that Paul Simon made on his own, after Garfunkel. There was a late game… Paul is a great baseball fan, and there was a melody…a song about a pitcher who dies on the mound. He makes me fill all the tracks. Paul has a blank face. He is not very demonstrative. There may be an explosion here, and he goes, “Hmm…’ “Can you play a little there,” I play, then “Bye, Toots.” I had to take my plane. I thought, “Jesus, I laid an egg here.” I flunked. I laid an egg. I get to my room in Monterrey. “Please call Mr. Phil Ramone,” they said. Paul had played with all the tracks. “Paul loves you!” Oh, yeah!? That was a great experience. Sanborn. Steve Gadd. Michael… No, I’m not sure if Michael was on it. Hugh McCracken on guitar. I think Ralph McDonald was playing percussion. Anyway, that was fantastic, and we played in England and in Holland and Israel also.

TP:   Oh, you toured with Paul Simon.

TOOTS:   Yes, about 15 days altogether. I learned a lot from him.

TP: What did you learn from Pop music as opposed to jazz? Do you think about a situation like that differently?

TOOTS:   No. The few people I’ve played with, like Paul or Billy Joel, they like what they hear when I play, and they say, “Hey, I want some of that.” I like hillbilly music, too. I have one little trio picking that you won’t believe. I was on that Jimmy Dean Show in the early ‘60s. I was trying to stay home, and Peter Max, the conductor, and Jimmy Dean… It was ABC network. All the guys from Nashville came up. They knew me. “How you’all doin’, Toots? You’all gotta come down and pick with us.”

TP:   You were playing guitar on the JimmyDean Show?

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   You were playing harmonica.

TOOTS:   Things like that. That was in the time when Johnny Cash made records with two trumpets, the Ring of Fire. I said, “Hey, I’m going to write something like that, a melody with two voices,” and then I give that to the publisher, who’d just handled Bluesette, and he sends it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert hears it, and that went on a record that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000.
TP: Bluesette?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. That tune is called Ladyfingers, on Herb Alpert, with the chick on the cover wrapped into whipped cream or whatever. You know? That enabled me… That and some… You talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree. Whistling for jingles. Bluesette comes out and gets a lot of play in ‘63, and Madison Avenue, they look for new sounds, different sounds. John Glenn went into orbit, and the music writer, Jimmy Fagas, he was a fan. I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs and everything – to stay home! Bluesette comes out. “Toots, you’re going to make money.” I never had money outside of working – you work for the money. I sign a piece of paper, and John Glenn goes into orbit – that’s a Class A spot, Screen Actors Guild. If you talk and sing you become a… If you whistle for a commercial, you become a Screen Actor, and that’s another union.  I did some things where I played the guitar and whistled. For the guitar, I received $37 for 12 weeks.
TP:   Scale.

TOOTS:   Yes, scale of the instrumental jingle. For the whistling, I received $50 each time it’s heard! Then when I whistled for Old Spice, in one hour… They asked me, “Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?” [LAUGHS] I already have made a little money, so I knew the rates. “This is for Old Spce, but we look for a sound like the man who gets off the boat and throws the bottle of Old Spice. [WHISTLES REFRAIN] Now I can’t do it any more. When I do that sometimes, in a concert… That followed by [BLOWS ON HARMONICA] “going to Sesame Street.”

TP:   It’s good to get some laughs.

TOOTS:   But for Sesame Street, that’s instrumental and educational. They use it for 15 years. No residuals. But lately they’ve said, “Yeah, we’re going to give a little extra anyway.” So for 15 years of use on TV, maybe I made $500. But for Old Spice, in one hour in the studio… And then at football games, that’s Class A, coast-to-coast. Some of those jingles are only seen in Chicago, but Old Spice is all over. So I made, staying home, $15,000, in the ‘60s. So the combination of that and Herb Alpert, we could buy the house in Montauk.

TP: I guess once you got in the studios, it was hard to get out.

TOOTS:   I had two years where they said, because I don’t read fast enough and all that, and there were better guys for the guitar work… But between the three, the whistle, the guitar and the harmonica, there was a saying, “Call Toots, he’ll find something to do.”

TP:   Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but harmonica players and whistlers are not.

TOOTS:   Yes. So that was the making a living value.

TP:   You’re talking about listening to country pickers and these Nashville guys liking you. Did you ever play the blues? Did you listen to blues harmonica players?

TOOTS:   I listened to them, yeah. Have you heard Howard Levy? He plays chromatic or diatonic. I have him in the IPOD. He’s a great musician. He plays the piano. He composes. He’s amazing. But Gregoire, I’d like to…

TP: But the Chicago blues type of thing.

TOOTS:   No. But these guys do that well, you know.

TP:   How about Bob Dylan?

TOOTS:   Are you ready? Again, I wanted to stay home, not travel. I was mostly in Europe and playing not jazz much in the ‘60s. Nobody made a great living playing straight jazz. So I got a call: “Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to come and do a jingle. Can you play like Bob Dylan? We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?” He had the diatonic. I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” “Do you know anyone who does?” My defense mechanism. There was maybe one. I said, “No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.” Then they called me… I was living in Yonkers then, on North Broadway. I did go once a week or so to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. Blind people enjoyed hearing me, and as a good gesture. There were two black gentlemen, blind of course, both of them, and: “Mr. Thielemans, I want to play like you.” They played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. “Oh, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown…” “We want to play like you.” But that’s another world. “Can I hear what you do?” And I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Not like them. The voicings and the sound, no. But mechanically! I thought, “Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.” [LAUGHS] I rwent right into Manny’s on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. “Sir, I am ready for you.” I got a box… I have a whole bag of the diatonic harmonics. I even took a bag to Hollywood for Quincy, in case he needed that. I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.

TP:   You have to do all that to play in the studios. But in the first few tunes the other night, you take a lot of tonal liberties on the harmonica…

TOOTS:   You bet. Howard Levy, for instance, he overblows, and he can change on the diatonic. When my wife comes, I can show you… Not like he does, but I can show what can be done.

TP: But where I’m going with the question, if you’ll bear with me for one second…

TOOTS:   [BLOWS THE BLUES ON A CHROMATIC]  That’s very close, but it’s not as funky as… Listen. The blues player calls the chromatic “the chrome.” “I don’t play the chrome, but I play the harp.” That’s my Quincy Jones bag. I got them all in the wrong keys.

TP:   A big leather bag of diatonic harmonicas.

TOOTS:   Yes!

TP:   But did this become part of your vocabulary after the ‘60s, or the way you embellish your voice…

TOOTS:   No. [BLOWS] That’s too high-pitched. [UNWRAPS ANOTHER ONE AND BLOWS SOME BLUES, TAPPING HIS FOOT] If you want to change keys… [BLOWS ON ANOTHER ONE]

[BLOWS] He can play Giant Steps on that. But these guys have tone. And here you can attack the note. [BLOWS: BENDS THE NOTES] That’s very moody. [BLOWS] But this guy Levy, he overblows, and then he creates some harmonics I don’t know. I can’t do it. [BLOWS] See, you can blow, but you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion. [BLOWS] [BLOWS] That’s funky, but that’s where… Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. Before we say goodbye. Come on, girls. [BLOWS A BLUES LINE] “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!” [LAUGHS]

TP:   How did the relationship with Ken Werner start? Earlier you played with Fred Hersch and Joey Baron for a long time.

TOOTS:   Yes, when they were available, that was my… Fred, Marc Johnson and Joey. We made a nice record. Where I play Ne Me Quitte Pas for the first time, and where I played with Fred Stardust. We had played in Fort Lauderdale here, and the plane stopped in Washington, and from Washington to Fort Lauderdale. On the stretch between New York and Washington, there was Benny Goodman. He said, “Hey, Gene (he called me Gene), how you doing?” “I’m okay, Benny.” Blah-blah-blah. He was in first class, of course. “Come and sit next to me.” I said, “I am only in economy back there…” “Ah, fuck them. Sit next to me.” He spoke that way in the plane. The hostess comes, and he says, “Oh, this is my dear friend; this gentleman must sit next to me.” I sat there, and I started to talk. Benny was legendary for not paying a cent more than he had to. I said, “I started to make a bit of money, Benny.” He said, “I’m tired.” He had to go to an award thing in Washington at the White House or something. “Yeah, I’m starting to make…” “Oh, really?” he said. “Really?!” One of those. “I’ve got to go to Fort Lauderdale. Bye, Benny.” Then I hear on the media that Benny Goodman died. I have the chorus of Stardust always with me, and in Brussels at the Ballets du Beaux Art, the Carnegie Hall of Brussels, I told the people… I had played the same Stardust, the same chorus that you heard with Benny in ‘50. I told the people, “this is very touching for me; I am sitting here, playing what I played with Benny Goodman forty years ago, and we will play it the same.” You’ve got to hear that.

TP: I want to ask again what you’re looking for in the people who play with you. Ken Werner and Oscar Castro-Neves are very important to the sound you’re looking for.

TOOTS:   From a pianist, I can almost say I need that Bill Evans ground floor.

TP:   Just like Herbie Hancock said.

TOOTS:   Yes. The ground floor. Then it’s like this, but you need your own decoration. But Fred Hersch, the first time I heard him was in Tokyo. He was playing with Red Mitchell and Elliot Zigmund. Then I asked for his phone number. We met here, and I heard this touch. But I’ve played with other guys that get a lot of fame, even win polls, and I don’t hear that ground floor, so I’m not attracted to that so much. Don’t write it, but Kenny Barron doesn’t give me that ground floor. That was my band, Kenny, Ray Drummond and Billy Hart – at Greene Street. But don’t write that. Hank Jones does… Joe Lovano is a great fan of mine. Scofield, too, about my guitar. Last New Year… We were eating New Year’s Day in Brussels, the phone rings, and it was Scofield calling from here to wish me greetings. With Shearing, I had done a great solo, I thought, on Little Niles, Randy Weston’s song. “Hey, Toots! This is Sco.” “Thanks for calling.” “I am listening to what you did fifty years ago with Shearing on the guitar.” So I know where the good stuff is, but my fingers won’t follow.

TP:   I’m impressed with how up to date you are.

TOOTS:   I listen to everything. I have the latest Chris Potter record. [POINTS TO IPOD] I don’t want a computer. Then I get email, and I have to answer. But my manager…

TP: I should give you some rest.

TOOTS:   This is stimulating for me. But I am still very close to Wayne Shorter. All those guys send greetings. And the guys who play with Wayne want to play with me. Patitucci, Danilo and Brian Blade. Bill Frisell. Sco. I played a few times… He was my guest in Montreal.

TP:   Did you do a week…

TOOTS:   No, I just played each time… This time I did a duo with Kenny, and we had Paolo Fresu. He plays good. Pat Metheny. As they say in French, “ne pas frotte(?) la mange,” “I don’t want to rub your sleeve.” One of my first tastes of American humor, with Benny Goodman, at the Palladium: There was a Jewish comedian, Herky Stiles. You never heard of him? “Oh, you should meet my girlfriend. She has only one tooth, but it’s a nice brown one.” You still laugh at that today! Fifty years ago. “Oh, she has the hottest kisses. Why, she never takes her cigar out of her mouth.” “Last year I had a great year. I sold wedding rings to Artie Shaw.” He had one about Les Brown, too. “I used to work for Les Brown, but now I work for less money,” sometimes with Benny Goodman. [LOUD LAUGH] These are my… I know that since ‘49! Things I don’t forget.

In Sweden, I became a matinee idol in a revue, and when I played Brazil, therefore, the first time on the harmonica… I speak Swedish, and they gave me a monologue to say from slang, 300 years ago, the way they spoke in the north of Sweden. How can you compare that? You ask a Frenchman to speak in America with a Nashville accent. A famous Frenchman. It’s called a thing about Napoleon. Napoleon is Bonaparte in Swedish. The guys goes… It was a big triumph, doing that monologue. And in the summer later, after, I went into the parks. I’ve got to play you some of the stuff with whistling and guitar in Sweden. A guy in the back of the hall yelled, “Hey, do your monologue, man!” That was the time, the period… Look, in ‘63, I was trying to hold on to the Coltrane wagon. Giant Steps. [BLOWS Giant Steps] With Kenny we do that on the duo thing, and we make a tribute with Naima. [BLOWS Naima]

Again, I don’t try, but I am very happy… This is no more, no less. You seem to respond to me and the music, but you don’t change your pen for me. Write what you really feel.




Filed under Article, DownBeat, Harmonica, Interview, Toots Thielemans

On Buddy DeFranco’s 89th Birthday, a 1999 Downbeat article, plus Interview

Clarinet maestro Buddy DeFranco turns 89 today. I had the honor of writing about him during the latter ’90s, once for a publicity bio for a Concord date with pianist Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn, and subsequently for a DownBeat Profile. I’m appending below the final draft of the article and the interview that I conducted  for it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a digital copy of our interview for the publicity bio.

Buddy DeFranco:

Named for a pope, a king and the supreme artist-scientist of the Renaissance, the clarinetist Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo “Buddy” DeFranco came to maturity during the golden age of jazz.  Now 76, he’s the supreme jazz virtuoso of his instrument, an innovator who defies category — and time.

“I had about six careers during the last 60 years,” the 20-time Downbeat Poll winner reflects.  “Periodically I’ll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite.  I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing; that is, the idea of swing and a fundamental approach, especially in stating a melody.”  Nurtured on the driving arpeggiations of Benny Goodman and the sophisticated line of Artie Shaw, DeFranco viewed them through a lens cut and polished by Charlie Parker’s liquid phrasing and harmonic extensions, forging a unique sound and approach.  Known as the first bebop clarinet player, he’s no ideologue about vocabulary.  “I had a wide range of experience in all facets of music,” DeFranco remarks, “and my playing reflects the gamut.  We brain-pick as many people as we can, and make our own voice from what we’ve heard and studied.”

DeFranco draws on resources garnered through six decades on the road in inspired dialogue with piano wizard Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn on “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us” (Concord), a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated 1997 DeFranco-McKenna duo “You Must Believe in Swing.”  On both recordings he takes chances, playing crisply executed lines with impeccable intonation, unfettered imagination and a fiery edge, never losing the arc of conversation.  In short, he conjures the kind of “unedited” improvisations that have been his goal from the very beginning.

Raised in south Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing clarinet at 8, after several years of ear instruction on mandolin from his father, a blind man who played guitar and earned his living as a piano tuner.  “Then I wanted to play saxophone,” he continues.  “My Dad knew many good musicians, who suggested I start clarinet first, and he took the advice and bought me one for $25, which was a lot of money — our family was very poor.  I attended Mastbaum School of Music, a vocational school with a great music course, where I got my basic training and developed my clarinet skills.  I once heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti play at a music store in my neighborhood, and I was overwhelmed by records like Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ and Art Tatum’s ‘Elegie’ and ‘Yesterdays.’  My Dad and uncle loved the big bands, and they bought every record they could by Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb, and took us to hear them.  That’s how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz.

“I decided to play jazz clarinet after listening to Johnny Mince with Tommy Dorsey.  My brother, Leonard, had a good ear, and he and a friend took big band arrangements from the records, like Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Marie’ and ‘Don’t Be That Way,’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’  When I was 13 we organized a big swing band, which played in a South Philadelphia ballroom every Sunday night.  We also had a kiddie band on a Sunday morning children’s hour.  South Philadelphia had an Italian section, a Jewish section and a Black section — we were all friends.  It was very common for kids of all the races to go to somebody’s basement and jam.  There were two jam clubs, one owned by Billy Kretchmer, a terrific jazz clarinet player, and the Downbeat, owned by Nat Segal.  As teenagers, we’d sneak into either club and hear Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, or guys from Benny Goodman’s band coming from the Earle Theater to sit in.  Once in a while on slow nights Billy Kretchmer allowed us to play with the rhythm section he had there.

“Hearing Benny Goodman capped the whole idea of jazz playing — the feeling, the swing idea on clarinet, plus his great technique.  Then I heard Artie Shaw, who was way ahead of his time harmonically, and had the technique and ability to express what he wanted without editing, which is what I expect from someone who handles the clarinet.  His fluency was like a fine violinist; he could navigate all the chord progressions and make them flow.  I liked Buster Bailey, who could have been a great symphony clarinetist, except that he was black, so he couldn’t get a break.  I listened to him because of the purity of his tone and his execution, whereas many other noted clarinetists then were slightly too primitive in their approach to suit me.  I had the so-called “legitimate” background, which is the only way you can play the clarinet correctly.  There’s still a prevalent notion that the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  I disagree with that.”

After graduating from Mastbaum in 1939, DeFranco embarked on a field work apprenticeship in elite dance bands, playing challenging music day-in and day-out for a decade.  While touring with Charlie Barnet’s crackerjack unit around 1943, he heard Charlie Parker’s seminal recordings with Jay McShann.  Only 20 years old, he’d already spent four years with trumpeter Johnny “Scat” Davis (“Hooray For Hollywood”) and Gene Krupa.  With Krupa he met Roy Eldridge, then Krupa’s featured soloist, who DeFranco regards as “at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.  He was a musician’s musician, a creative player with feeling and emotion.  He was a good influence, and I gleaned a lot from him.

“I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating harmonically towards a different way of playing at the same time Dizzy Gillespie was.  I was led by Artie Shaw, while Dizzy was moving to a more modern approach — it wasn’t bebop — out of the Roy Eldridge style, as you can tell from his records then.  It wasn’t until Bird came along that both Dizzy and I said, ‘He wrote the new study book; this is it.’  No horn player at that time used as many alternate chords or that kind of articulation.  I decided to play the clarinet like Bird articulated on the sax.  It wasn’t so easy to imitate Artie Shaw, and even more difficult to copy Bird, because the clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.  Bird was the first almost completely unedited modern jazz player; he had a great embouchure and perfect fingers.  I align Art Tatum with Bird in that regard.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  He and Charlie Parker were the best, on a genius level.  From that point on, we talk about all the other guys who are really good.”

DeFranco’s solo on “Opus One” during the first of three tumultuous stints with Tommy Dorsey led to a Downbeat award in 1945.  “Dorsey was a strict disciplinarian, but one of the greatest musicians ever, possibly the best trombonist I’ve heard,” DeFranco says.  “He was unequaled at playing even a simple melody and making it meaningful, which almost every musician will tell you is the most difficult thing to do.  Technique is something else.  Practice enough and you’ll get a technique.  I learned the feeling of playing a melody and playing long phrases from Tommy Dorsey.”

In 1947 he played with Boyd Raeburn’s adventurous orchestra.  “It was one of the first outside bands I ever heard,” DeFranco recalls.  “It was intellectually unbelievable, like going to a conservatory.  You could play exactly the way you wanted and the writers could write any way they wanted.  We played off-the-wall, space charts by George Handy and Johnny Richards, and a couple by Bob Graettinger; a very difficult, technically challenging library which took great skill to play.  We could empty a room in two minutes.  Announcers used to say, ‘From the Planet Mars, here’s Boyd Raeburn.'”

DeFranco settled in New York in 1948, and joined the 52nd Street mix.  “I played in sessions at the Royal Roost and the Clique Club before it was Birdland.  Once I worked at the Clique with the George Shearing Trio, where Sarah Vaughan was the headliner, opposite the Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, which included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach and Bud Powell.  George Shearing got me a New York union card and a police card, which you needed in those days.  So I got a chance to hear and work with these guys in the very beginning.  In fact, I had Bud Powell and Max Roach in my group for a while.  When Bud was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  It was dazzling.  But when he was strung out or something, he’d get evil.  You’d suffer for a whole set.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could throw you off.  You’d shift with Bud’s emotions.

“By then I was fairly well-known.  I’d started winning polls, and was picked to do Metronome All-Star dates, which is when I really got to know Bird, and we became friends.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was very gregarious and always gracious; he’d talk about philosophies and attitudes toward life.  He seemed to read people quite well, and he was knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  I remember once he told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown — things out of the blue.  Charlie Parker invented the modern concept of playing; I was there when it happened.  There’s something of his influence in all jazz music today, which cannot be said of any other jazz player.  All the guys that got well-known afterward branched off from Bird, but we all live in Bird’s shadow.”

DeFranco’s career was taking off.  After several modernist sides with big band and sextet for Capitol in 1949, he joined the Count Basie Octet in 1950-51.  “Working with them was an education in the idea of swing,” DeFranco emphasizes.  “I’d never realized how much Bill Basie influenced the sound of the band from the piano.  I became more relaxed, more cognizant of a time feeling.”  DeFranco had met Norman Granz by this time, and went out periodically on Jazz at the Philharmonic.  In 1951, a nadir for big bands, he formed his own, following the path of idols Goodman and Shaw — it dissolved in under a year.  During the rest of the ’50s he recorded prolifically for Granz, including numerous dates with Oscar Peterson and documents of a touring quartet between 1952 and 1955 comprising pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, bassists Gene Wright, and drummers Art Blakey and Bobby White.

“I learned more about the idea of rhythm and swing with Art Blakey than any other drummer in my career,” DeFranco states.  “Sometimes when I was really tired and whipped (we were on the road a lot; the band was pretty hot at that time), I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.’  And Art would say, ‘I’ll make you play.’  He meant that.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn, as the saying goes.  Sometimes we’d get static from the ‘civilians’ about having a mixed group; I was the only white guy with three black guys.  Other than that, we had a great time together; we had a terrific relationship.

“The only thing I can say about Black and White is that during those days the black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you, you felt it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions.  The white bands were maybe a little more polished; they’d try to simulate that swing, but never really got it.  Not to belittle the white bands; it’s a simple fact of life.  Tommy Dorsey was aware of that, and once in a while he’d say, ‘We don’t have a swing band; if you want one, go listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does — that’s a swing band.’  I had an affinity with the black bands, because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  That’s the feeling I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I play.”

DeFranco’s interaction with Parker, Basie and Blakey helped him come into his mature sound, a process enhanced by rigorous self-examination.  “I’m from humble circumstances,” DeFranco says, “I was riddled with insecurities; my only security was my playing.  When that was satisfactory, I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and perform and emcee on the microphone, it was painful.  I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, a trumpet player, and decided that when I was in New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.  Frankly, both therapies — Reich and Blakey — brought out in me something that was lacking in my playing and demeanor.”

As DeFranco blossomed, the bebop business withered, and he moved to California in search of work.  He led a succession of cream-of-the-crop combos and worked in studio orchestras led by Nelson Riddle.  In 1956, Norman Granz offered DeFranco the ultimate improvitorial challenge, pairing him with Art Tatum for a recording.  “Tatum made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats,” DeFranco laughs.  “Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything; even when you soloed, you accompanied Art Tatum.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was gratified.  It was fun to him.  Even the highly technical things were kind of a game, and he’d show off.  Now, showing off is part of playing jazz.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  On the stage you show what you can do.  A lot of people scoff at that.  They said, ‘Well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.’  Well, of course he was!  It was his inner voice.”

Accessing his own inner voice is the quest that’s sustained DeFranco through good times and bad.  A quixotic project with Polytones, a quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina that “focused on polychordal music which we learned from the old masters — Prokofiev, Shostakovich and the movie writers, like David Raksin,” was a creative peak and a financial disaster.  DeFranco led the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 to 1974, and even stopped playing by around 1970.  He resumed his jazz career in 1975, and he’s maintained a dual track of working steadily with small units and presenting numerous clinics, many in conjunction with Yamaha, his clarinet-maker.  He recently published “Hand In Hand With Hanon,” an acclaimed study book for woodwind players.

Our third conversation finds DeFranco off the road from a 10-day Swedish tour with clarinetist Putte Wickman, followed by four days at Hilton Head, S.C. with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, a frequent partner of the last two decades.  “Over the years people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music — or myself — too seriously,” DeFranco confesses.  “With your own group, there’s a certain tension because everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  Terry is funny and clever, and the attitude — not the music — is lighter.  The sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton connotation, and we manage to play pretty much what we want when we solo.

“All the players who contributed to the idea of jazz are analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something different, however minimal, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, ‘That’s who it is.’  That’s Bird.  That’s Art Tatum.  That’s Oscar Peterson.  That’s Buddy.”


* * * *

DEFRANCO:  Then the thing is this.  I’ll just briefly tell you that my recent history in the past couple of years has been one of the most interesting of my careers…

TP:    you said you had about six of them.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I’m starting another one.

TP:    You’ll have to tell me exactly which six they are.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I can’t really tell.  They go up and down.  I guess that’s nothing unusual with people in the music business.  Phil Woods gets discovered every three years.

TP:    Oh, when you say you’ve had six careers, you mean you keep getting rediscovered.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, rediscovered.  Fall down and go broke, and sometimes…and then back again.  That’s happened quite a bit.


DEFRANCO:  I’ve done a lot of music festivals and also music clinics, mostly for Yamaha.  They make a great clarinet.  I’ve played it for about 25 years. What I find appealing about the Yamaha is it suits my needs almost to a T, as they say.  It’s a very classical instrument.  It has a nice tone quality… Of course you have to produce that.  But built in is a good tone quality, and a very exact scale, even scale.  It also affords a flexibility that I need to play jazz.

TP:    What are the dynamics of the instrument that do this?  You went into some description of this in our interview.

DEFRANCO:  I did.  Yes, not too many clarinets are flexible enough to where you could play as close to what they used to call “legitimate”…I hate to use the term, but “legitimate,” symphonic music.  Then you use the same instrument to feel the freedom of playing jazz, the flexibility.  Yamaha does that for me.

Also, toward the mid-’50s, when Rock-and-Roll got very big and jazz was really pushed out of the picture, almost totally… The only guys who were really popular were Miles Davis, the top guys, Stan Getz… They were still making money and doing very well.  They were really the stars of the jazz world.  Everybody else kind of fell apart.  And I was bemoaning my fate to Stan Kenton one time, and Stan Kenton said, “Instead of crying, let’s get together.  I’ve started a program with Dr. Gene Hall of North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, Texas.”  He said, “Gene Hall is the first guy to let the students obtain credits for jazz in a college or university.  He said, “We’re doing clinics, and we’re doing them all over the country; in fact, all over the world.  We get the young people.”  He said that the tie-in was the band directors who remember the big bands and jazz, who have a stage band (so-called; it’s really a swing band).  He said that we go in and we impart as much knowledge as we can, and keep the idea of swing bands and jazz alive, and the band directors respond to this because they remember when.  He said, “That way we get to the youngsters, because we cannot get to the youngsters through television or radio now” [at that time he was speaking] or recording.”  So there were very few jazz recordings being made.

So he said, “Try that,” and I did.  It was the best advice I think I’d had in many years, because I found out that the youngsters in the bands respond to what you’re doing, but the band directors are the ones who kept jazz alive, underground, all these years.  Not too many people acknowledge that fact.  It’s guys like Gene Hall and Matt Benton and Stan Kenton, the band directors through all the high schools and universities and colleges who have kept jazz going, even though in the public eye it was finished.  So that’s a very important thing, and I am still doing those clinics.

TP:    This was still in the ’50s, when you started?

DEFRANCO:  Around ’54, somewhere…

TP:    So this dovetails with when you moved to California.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I actually moved to California because I thought maybe with some friends I could get some work there.  Which I did.  I got the studio work from Nelson Riddle.

TP:    Oh, just playing in the section.

DEFRANCO:  Just clarinet, but playing behind, you know, TV shows.  I did all the segments of “Route 66” and I did “Profiles In Courage” and all those things where Nelson Riddle wrote the scores…

TP:    Oh, were on the Sinatra sessions.

DEFRANCO:  “Oceans 11.”  And I was on two Sinatra sessions.

TP:    Do you remember which ones?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t remember. [LAUGHS] Also, last September Yamaha and I got together, and we did the first Buddy De Franco-Yamaha Jazz Festival in Panama City, Florida.

TP:    Is that on your web-site?

DEFRANCO:  I think so.

TP:    Did you have any input into the specifics of making this clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  No.  None whatever.

TP:    Do a lot of other jazz clarinetists use it?

DEFRANCO:  They have.  I don’t know if they still do.  I know Eddie Daniels used it for a time, but he’s now using another clarinet that he says functions the same way — Blanc(?), I believe.  But a lot of professional clarinet players have used it.

TP:    Do you keep up with the current state of the clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  I have to.  I listen to them all.

TP:    Who are some of the people you like these days?

DEFRANCO:  I like Eddie Daniels.  I like Ronnie Eldridge.  He’s a periodontist, and a fine clarinet player.  I like Putte Wickman.  I’ll be playing with Putte in Sweden.  We leave tomorrow.  We’ll do 11 concerts and a CD in Sweden.  Putte Wickman is one of the best.

TP:    Ken Peplowski?

DEFRANCO:  He’s a good player.

TP:    Alvin Batiste?

DEFRANCO:  Well… I’ll pass.

TP:    I was just wondering about your current taste.

DEFRANCO:  When I talk about clarinet players, I must include the fact that they are more than just competent players, because if you go along with the competent players, you’ve got a big list.

TP:    Did you like John Carter, by the way?

DEFRANCO:  No, I did not.  See, as a clarinetist, I’m pretty critical.  There are two aspects of playing the clarinet, as in all jazz; two diametrically opposed fields and schools of thought in jazz.  On the one hand, people say, “Don’t study too much because it will ruin your jazz playing.”  In fact, years ago it was an old story.  The band director said, “Can you read music?” and he said, “not enough to hurt my playing.”

TP:    Most of the great players I’ve talked to wouldn’t think that was much of a notion, I think.

DEFRANCO:  Well, that’s still prevalent in jazz where the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  And I disagree with that.  I’ll give you a good example in the piano world.  One of my favorites of all time, of course, has been Oscar Peterson, mainly because of what he plays and how he plays it, the dexterity he has.  He has such a great technique.  So I’ve kind of aligned myself with him because I had a technique.  I love his playing, as opposed to, say, Thelonious Monk, who had no technique… I’ll quote Oscar Levant.  “He played piano with arthritic abandon.”  That’s not to say that he doesn’t play jazz.  He was a force in jazz.

TP:    Did you like Monk?

DEFRANCO:  I liked what he was getting at and I liked his songs.  I couldn’t play with him and I did not like his playing, because it lacked the proficiency that I am used to hearing.  Then there’s for instance the later Miles Davis as opposed to Freddie Hubbard.  My bet would go with Freddie Hubbard, see.  Because he’s a trumpet player and a jazz player and a more than competent execution in his playing.

But there are two schools.  Years ago in clarinet, everybody said Benny Goodman was the greatest, Artie Shaw was the greatest; and the other school of thought, like in the Thelonious Monk camp, would be Pee Wee Russell.  There are people who swear by him.  They think he’s the greatest clarinet player who ever lived.  And I pass on that.

TP:    Well, you made the comment in our interview that you liked… I asked you if you’d listened to Jimmie Noone and Johnny Dodds and those guys, and you said no, because of your technique, but you loved Buster Bailey.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, he had an excellent technique.  He was a fine clarinetist.

TP:    I’d like you to talk more about Charlie Parker.  We can relate this to the technique question.  You said that he was the first unedited player, that his technique enabled him to be an unedited player.

DEFRANCO:  I’ll qualify that.  Modern jazz player.  Because Art Tatum was that.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his recordings and you hear different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  So I align he with Bird.

TP:    Tell me what you remember about the session you did with Art Tatum.  I know you said you were sick and that you weren’t at your best.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Norman Granz wanted to know if I wanted to cancel, and I did not cancel because I knew that would be the only time I would ever get to play with Art Tatum.  I just had to do it.  I’m not sorry I did, because a lot of it came out good.  But if I were feeling better and if it were later in my career I could have played substantially better.

TP:    You’d feel more equipped to have played with Tatum, say, 20 years later just because of general knowledge and…

DEFRANCO:  Right.  I’ll give you a good example of my thinking.  Somebody said to me, “Who’s the best?”  Well, that’s silly because, in a way… I’ll quote Eddie Daniels.  If you go into an art gallery and you see Van Gogh, and then you stop and you see Gauguin, and then you’ll see Da Vinci, who is going to say who is the best?  It depends on what you derive from that particular thing.  They’re all good.  They’re all genius.  So if somebody said to me, “Who is the best?” it’s hard to say.

However, when you talk about what I consider the best, on a genius level, I’d have to say Art Tatum and Charlie Parker.  Immediately.  That’s it.  From that point on, then we talk about all the other guys who are really good.

TP:    Do you remember anything about Tatum’s demeanor during that session or the process of putting it together?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats.  It was very difficult, very hard.  He sometimes would suggest a strange key to play the tune in.  Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything, so that when you played with Art Tatum it was his ballgame.  You were there almost accompanying him, even when you were playing your solos.  But I expected that, and I didn’t care because I just admired him so much.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was very gratified with that.

He was terrific.  It was fun to him.  His attitude was great.  Even on the highly technical things, it was kind of a game to him, and he’d show off.  But there again, that’s part of playing jazz — showing off.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  What you do on a stage is show off.  You show what you can do.  That’s part of playing jazz.  And a lot of people scoff at it.  They say, “Oh, well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.”  Well, of course he is!  Just like Oscar Peterson.

TP:    Well, I guess he just internalized it.  He didn’t get all that technique separate from his inner voice.  That was his inner voice.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  It was his inner voice, that’s for sure.

TP:    You said that you first heard “Hootie Blues.”  Can you put a date on it?  You said 1941, so you must have been with Johnny “Scat” Davis?

DEFRANCO:  Or Charlie Barnet’s band.

TP:    The encyclopedias say that you joined Charlie Barnet in ’43.

DEFRANCO:  That can’t be.

TP:    That’s not true?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t think so.  They might be right because my recall isn’t… But in ’43, it seems to me, I was in Tommy Dorsey’s band.

TP:    I’ll read you what the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz says.  “Scat Davis in late ’39.  Gene Krupa ’41-’42.  Ted Fiorito, who is a new one on me, in ’42.  Charlie Barnet ’43 and ’44.  Tommy Dorsey ’44 and ’46.  You settled in California.  Boyd Raeburn.  Return to Dorsey ’47-’48.  Then you go to New York, small combos in New York and Chicago and I guess traveling.  Count Basie Septet in ’50.  Big band in ’51. Then you start with the quartet from ’52 to ’55 or so.

DEFRANCO:  That’s pretty close to it, except that in the early years… I have a feeling that in the latter part of ’41 and part of ’42 I was with Barnet, and then in ’43 I was with Tommy Dorsey.  It seems to me that I was with Tommy Dorsey from ’43 to ’48 three times.

TP:    Three times in that period.  I’m not interested in splitting all the hairs.  But in terms of the Charlie Parker thing, when you say you heard Charlie Parker’s “Hootie Blues” when you were with Charlie Barnet, what impact did that make on you?  Did it sound like anything you had heard before?


TP:    Why?

DEFRANCO:  Well, by virtue of the fact that the articulation of what he was doing was completely different, and the chord progressions that he used, even at the very beginning…the substitute chords were different than most people were using, with the exception of Art Tatum.  But no horn player used at that time as many alternate chords, and no horn player used that kind of articulation.  It had never been done before.  So in my humble opinion, Bird wrote the book.

TP:    So you were well-schooled enough to hear what Charlie Parker was doing because of the high quality of education you’d had at Mastbaum.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, I would say that.  Not only that, I was playing… I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating towards more modern playing while I was with Charlie Barnet at the same time that Dizzy was.  Dizzy grew out of the Roy Eldridge style.  But when you listen to some of his stuff during that time, he was gravitating toward a more modern approach to playing.  It was not Bebop.  And my case was the same way.  Harmonically I was gravitating towards something else, in a way.  But it wasn’t until Bird came along that both of us said, “He wrote the book; this is it; this is the new study book.”

TP:    I guess Dizzy got that close-up proximity to Charlie Parker with Earl Hines…

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  He got hold of Bird, listened to that, and it was immediate.

TP:    Dizzy had some other qualities, particularly his assimilation of rhythm and being able to codify Latin rhythms into…

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  He was the first I can remember playing modern jazz like that…

TP:    But if Dizzy came out of Roy Eldridge doing that, was your assimilation of Benny Goodman leading you in that direction?

DEFRANCO:  It was Artie Shaw leading me.

TP:    Talk more about Artie Shaw, who obviously had a profound influence on you.

DEFRANCO:  Well, I would say the way he executed the clarinet, and harmonically he was way ahead of his time.  His approach to playing, the fluency that he had was like a fine violinist.  That impressed me.  If you listen to his early records with his bands, when he played, he played more modern than the whole band, than anyone in the band.  Also, when he started playing, he changed the color of the band just by playing, so that the concept was much more advanced.  Then when he stopped playing, the band would seem to go back to its old symmetrical and angular way of playing.  So I always admired Artie, the way he made all those chord progressions that he did and made it flow.

TP:    Then I guess you could also say that Coleman Hawkins was implying the modern style as well.

DEFRANCO:  yes, absolutely.  No question about that.

TP:    Were you influenced by saxophonists as well as clarinets?  You did say that your concept of clarinet was playing the clarinet but thinking saxophone.

DEFRANCO:  Thinking saxophone.  But no, my major influences were more than likely piano players.

TP:    Primarily Tatum or other piano players?

DEFRANCO:  All of them.  Teddy Wilson and Dodo Marmarosa.

TP:    We didn’t discuss Dodo Marmarosa in the previous interview, and I know you were very close to him.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, We lived together in California for about a year, and we played in about five different bands together.  He was a great influence in my playing.

TP:    You played together with Dorsey.

DEFRANCO:  Well, we played in Johnny Scat Davis’ band together, Gene Krupa’s band, Charlie Barnet’s band, Ted Fiorito’s band, and then Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    So you really hung together.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He was also in the same kind of state of flux that I was, playing.  We wanted a more modern approach to playing, and he played his piano in a more advanced modern way, but did not play bebop at that time.  We both heard Bird together, and we both decided this is the way it’s going to be.

TP:    So when you heard “Hootie Blues” you were with Dodo Marmarosa.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Well, more than “Hootie Blues,” but all the stuff that he played.

TP:    If it was in 1941, then “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Blues,” “Swingmatism,” the only records he was featured on.  But when did you first meet Charlie Parker?

DEFRANCO:  ’42.  End of ’42, beginning of ’43, somewhere in there.

TP:    Was he with Earl Hines?

DEFRANCO:  No, he had left Earl Hines.

TP:    Did you hear the Earl Hines band with Bird and Diz?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah.  I thought it was the forerunner, or one of the forerunners of the big swing band idea.  They were ahead of their time — at the time.  Very few bands were playing with anything that resembled the modern concept.  Earl Hines did.  Jay McShann.

TP:    Did you hear McShann live?


TP:    With the White big bands, would your paths intersect with the Black big bands?

DEFRANCO:  Well, you see, the White… I hate to talk about Black and White because they’ve been intermingled for so long that you can’t say this… But the only thing I can say about Black and White is during those days the Black bands had a feeling, a swing feeling that would…I don’t know, that would grip you.  You could feel it in your hips, the depth of your emotions — the swing.  The Black bands had the swing, and the White bands had maybe a little more polish, but they tried to simulate that swing, but never got it.  They never really got it.  And Tommy Dorsey was one who was aware of that, and he used to say once in a while, “We don’t have a swing band; if you want to have a swing band go and listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does, because that’s a swing band.”  Glenn Miller had the same thing.  He said, “I have a commercial band; I don’t have a swing band.  Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the swing bands.”

TP:    Jimmy Crawford and Jo Jones.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, boy.  Jimmy Crawford was marvelous.

TP:    So you really loved the big bands.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, of course.  Well, mainly because my Dad, who was blind, he and his brother, my uncle, loved the big bands.  When they caught on, they bought every record that they could.  They especially liked Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie and Chick Webb — those bands.  Well, there again, they had the feeling.  This is not to belittle the White bands.  It’s a simple fact of life.  Black bands had the feeling there.

TP:    Of a lot of the prominent White improvisers who came up when you came up, I can’t think of another one who worked as seamlessly with Black musicians as you did.  People have told me that Art Blakey would speak glowingly about you.  Now, he didn’t do that about everybody!


TP:    So it seems as though you were very much truly accepted by the black musicians, who didn’t necessarily open their arms to everyone who was coming along.

DEFRANCO:  That’s true.  I simply had an affinity with those swing bands.  Because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  They were swinging.  That’s the feeling that I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I played.  And playing with different people through the years, like Jimmy Jones and Sid Catlett on drums, or John Simmons, these kind of players years ago, playing with them when I was a kid…

TP:    When did you play with Sid Catlett?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I sat in with him many times.  There’s a good example of a feeling, a rhythmic feeling and concept opening the door for you.  When I played with Sid Catlett and a few other drummers during my career, and of course Art Blakey… I can quote Art Blakey.  Sometimes when I was really tired and beat (we were on the road a lot, the band was pretty hot at that time — a lot of recording), I’d say, “Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.”  And Art would say, “I’ll make you play.”  He meant that.  He did.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn as they said.

TP:    Let’s get back to Charlie Parker.  Talk about the relationship you had with him.

DEFRANCO:  Well, when I first met him, Dodo and I were just overwhelmed at what he did.  It was a very brief meeting.  But then later on, he got very popular, then I got fairly well known as a jazz clarinetist and started winning polls, and so we were both picked to do the Metronome All-Star dates (I think we did two together), and that’s the point in time when I really got to know Bird.  From that point on we were friends, and every chance I got, I went to hear him.  Sometimes if I would play somewhere and he would be in the same town at another club or even in a nearby city, I would go to hear him.  And we got friendly.  So we spent some time together.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was like Art Tatum.  He was very gregarious.  Knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  And was always-always-always gracious.

TP:    It sounds like he showed different sides of his personality to different people.  I mean, there were certain people he would not be around when he was strung out, and there were people he did that with.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that’s true.  Also, he was well aware of being victimized by that drug.

TP:    He talked about it?

DEFRANCO:  He talked about it, and he told young people to stay away from it.  “Don’t even start.”  I can remember that distinctly when Bird… He’d almost get hostile.  “Don’t even start.  Don’t think about starting it.”

TP:    And a number of the younger musicians who did get strung out said he would treat them with no mercy once that happened to them.

DEFRANCO:  Well, they got started because they thought he’s the guy who…

TP:    Well, we don’t have to talk about that aspect of Bird.  But apparently he had many interests and much knowledge of matters outside of jazz as well.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.

TP:    Do you remember what sort of things he’d talk about?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he’d talk about certain philosophies of life and attitudes of life.  He had a good perception of people.  He could seem to read people quite well.  I remember him telling me one time… I don’t know what the circumstances were.  He told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown.  Things just out of the blue.  I guess I told the story about “Skinning Rabbits.”  Those were the type of thing…

And another time, coming home from some town outside of New York on a train with Bird.  It was a Sunday morning.  We had played and then hung out all night or something.  Sunday morning we got a train back to New York.  It was a time when you could move the seat back and forth and face the other way.  We had a Sunday paper, and he read through the whole paper.  Then a guy came in, and I don’t know if he was a workman or a farmer or something, kind of a little cardboard suitcase, what we would call in those days a real square…

TP:    A hayseed.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, a hayseed.  But Bird said hello to him, and started talking with him, and “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”  Then finally Bird said, “Come on, sit with us,” and he got up and moved his seat, the other seat, so that we faced each other.  He began telling this guy about the record date that he’s planning with strings.  He was telling me as well, because I didn’t know that he was going to do a date with strings.  He told me that Mitch Miller was going to be the A&R guy.  The funny thing is that he said several times to me, “And Buddy Rich is on drums.”  I said, “yeah.”  And he repeated it like I didn’t hear him.  “Buddy Rich is on the drums, and I’m going to do it with strings.”  And he started talking about how eager he was to work with strings.  He liked the idea.

That was a strange session because it wasn’t the greatest string section, and not the greatest rhythm section really.  But Bird was like a shining star.  He just made the whole thing come together with his playing.

TP:    Did you play on the same bill with him on 52nd Street?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I had my group and he had his group.  Sometimes, even in the summertime…two times I remember that Bird liked my rhythm section a little better than he had.  Who knows why?  And he’d come down with his horn and sit in with me.

TP:    Well, that’s because you had Bud Powell, Max Roach… This was after Max Roach left him, right?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I had Max Roach and Bud Powell; I had a lot of guys.

TP:    So you had Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Max Roach as your rhythm section.  What was that like for you?  You were talking about the technical difficulties of the clarinet.  Was there a volume problem?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I could project.  I needed a microphone because these were heavy players.  But I could project most of the time.  And also, Bud Powell was interesting, because when he was feeling okay and when he was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  He was just fantastic.  There was no question about it.  It was just dazzling.  Smashing, as they say.  As opposed to when he was strung out or something, and he’d be getting nasty.  Then it was hopeless.  You really suffered for a whole set.  Because he’d get evil.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could get you off.

TP:    He’s try to mess with you.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah.  It wasn’t only me.  It was anybody.  He tried it once with Bird, and Bird almost hit him with the horn.

TP:    Tell me about your time with Count Basie.

DEFRANCO:  There again, working with Basie and that group was really an education and a lesson — a lesson in the idea of swing.  I didn’t realize before that how much feeling comes from Bill Basie at the piano.  Not only Freddie Green, but Bill Basie at the piano, the way he played — for the group, for the soloists — was just superb.  And the feeling… There again I got… It was an eye-opener.  Another door opener.

TP:    So you were playing with some of the greatest, Max Roach, who was young…

DEFRANCO:  Oh, the list of guys I played with.  I had a group in California with Victor Feldman on vibes, Carl Perkins on piano, Billy Higgins (he must have been 11 years old), and Leroy Vinnegar, and Howard Roberts I believe on guitar.  We played East Los Angeles.  Never recorded.  What a great group.


TP:    Talk about what you learned about what playing with Max Roach, Art Blakey, or Basie did for your rhythmic concept.

DEFRANCO:  That’s hard to put into words.  I always hesitate to describe at a clinic rhythm.  I don’t do it in my clinics, in fact.  When it comes to rhythm, I tell the students, “Find the most swinging or find the best player that you can in your area, play with them, and it will either come to you or it won’t.”  There’s no way you describe technically what happens.  Harmony you can, in terms of execution on your instrument you can.  But when it comes to swing feeling, two cliches: Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got it; and if you don’t know what it is, forget it.  Because if you can’t feel it, it’s not going to happen.

TP:    I’d like to see if you can pinpoint a couple of things for me from way back.  You said you got your clarinet when you were about 8, and you joined the Sympathy Youth Club, and your Dad bought records of Django Reinhardt and Art Tatum and you were overwhelmed by them, and you were about 10 years old, so it’s got to be about ’33.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Well, the things Django did were “Nuages” and those things, and Art Tatum’s “Elegie” and “Yesterdays.”

TP:    Also, you said that your brother would take big-band arrangements off of records, and you had a swing band.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly the clarinet.  We took a couple of Tommy Dorsey arrangements, like “Marie” and “Don’t Be That Way”, and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”

TP:    On your website you said you had won a contest that was a jumping off point for you or an incentive to play when you were a teenager.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that was in Philadelphia, in 1939 I believe.

TP:    You said you were wearing short pants.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  At the Earle Theater in Philadelphia there was a Tommy Dorsey swing contest, a weekly contest out of various cities every week in a theater, and it was broadcast nationally.  There were four contestants.  I was fortunate enough to win that.  I think I won $75, and a little plaque of some kind.

TP:    Good money in 1939.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, it was great.  And I was a hero in my neighborhood the next day.  But it didn’t make the papers.  I did have a youth group at the same time that played different jobs, and every Sunday night a ballroom in South Philadelphia with a big band.  We also played the Horn & Hardhardt’s children’s hour, of which Stan Lee Broza was the emcee, and his son was Elliott Lawrence.  He played tenor sax in those days with the band.  We had what was called the Band Busters. That was broadcast every Sunday morning.

Anyway, there were four contestants in this contest, and I managed to win almost by default, because I didn’t play that great.  Even for a youngster, I wasn’t that good — at that time anyway.  But I was a young kid, and my teacher advised me to wear short pants.  He said, “The audience will love it.”  He showed me how to play one note on the clarinet with one hand, and he said, “This is what you’ll do at the end of your solo.”  And it worked.  I mean, those other guys didn’t have a chance.

TP:    Showmanship.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, showmanship plus the fact that I was a little kid.

TP:    So there’s Johnny Scat Davis, you go on the road with him, and then you join Krupa for a while.  Do you have any memories of Krupa?

DEFRANCO:  All fond memories.  Because Gene Krupa was one of the nicest persons I ever worked for.  A delightful guy.  And he gave us every opportunity to play.  All the soloists.  Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge… He featured everyone who could play.

TP:    Oh, you were in the band that Roy Eldridge was in, so you got to know him a little.

DEFRANCO:  Oh my gosh, yes.  He was at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.

TP:    Even Pops.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, I’m afraid so.  Pops had done great and he was a great influence, but he concentrated I guess more on his commercial playing and singing, and Roy was a musician’s musician at that time in terms of jazz.  A real creative player.  Feeling, emotion.  He was tough.  He was number one at that time.  And the whole band used to love to hear him play a solo.

TP:    Did he influence your improvising approach?

DEFRANCO:  Yes, quite a bit.  Roy was a good influence.  I gleaned a lot of things from Roy.

TP:    So it sounds like you really developed your technique and conception in the big bands, polishing off the technical foundation you got at Mastbaum.  It was your laboratory.


TP:    here’s what I want to ask you about when you get back.  A little more detail on Charlie Barnet, a little more on Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and the big bands you were with and the personalities…

We should discuss what you think are the salient points, and come up with a happy medium.

TP:    May I ask you a little more about your father, and the way your aesthetic developed?  Was he born here or in Italy?

DEFRANCO:  He was born here.  His parents came from Italy, from an area called Foggia, which is central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea.

TP:    I read Whitney Balliett’s article on you.  Before he was blind he was a musician?

DEFRANCO:  He was a guitarist.  But he was an amateur guitar player.

TP:    But did he come from a family that had an artistic bent, or was there sort of an artistic craft tradition in his family?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Both sides had musicians.  I don’t know exactly what they played, but I know that both my parents had musicians in the background in Italy, and it’s almost an axiom that they loved the opera.  They were very musical.  That augured well for me, because they could tell whether I was playing well or out of tune or missed the beat or did something.  Unfortunately, too many youngsters who are playing today, their parents really don’t know.  So that was kind of a good thing.

My Dad had a terrible, terrible life.  It’s a long story; I don’t think I can go into it.  But it would make a book.  You just wouldn’t believe the tragic things that occurred in his life, and how he rose above most of it.  He was just incredible.  He was always in good humor and good wit, and kept us interested in music.  Never failed to play for us or have us play with him in the little band that he had which I told you about.  Once in a while, when we first started, he’d let us sit in with his group.  That’s where it started.  It was a whole musical background, experience… Everything was music in our family.

TP:    So basically there was never anything for you other than… Did you ever consider that you were going to do something else?

DEFRANCO:  No, I never did.  Mainly because that seemed to be all I was interested in.  Though I did later, on my own, read extensively, and I got interested in psychology, and read Adler, Freud and Jung, and I became a Wilhelm Reich disciple for a while, and I went into therapy for three years in New York.  Every time I came to New York I went to therapy with Dr. Pelletier, who was a Reichian therapist.  Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done.

TP:    Why was that?  How did that affect you musically, would you say?

DEFRANCO:  Being from somewhat humble circumstances, I was somewhat insecure in life.  The only security I had was my playing.  When that was good (when it was satisfactory, I can’t say good), I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and be somewhat of an actor on the stage and speak in a microphone and emcee, since I was beginning to have my own groups, it was painful.  It was painful for me to even say anything on a microphone.  I was riddled with insecurities.  So I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, who was originally a trumpet player who played in my big band and played on a lot of my recordings, and he played with a lot of different bands — Jerry Jerome and Georgie Auld and Boyd Raeburn.  He was interested in a lot of different things, like religion and philosophy and psychology.  We spent a lot of time together, and he introduced me to Reich.  I bought some books and I began avidly reading those books.  I decided when I got back to New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.

TP:    Was this around the time you started the quartet that toured?

DEFRANCO:  No, it was actually before that.  It was when I had my big band.

TP:    Which was the year before.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  But I really got into going for therapy when I had a small group.  It was easier, and I worked in New York quite a bit, so I could go for my therapy sessions.

TP:    So you were getting one type of therapy from Art Blakey and another type of therapy from the Reichians!

DEFRANCO:  That’s the idea.  And frankly, both therapies brought out in me something that I was kind of lacking in my playing and my demeanor.

TP:    Am I correct in emphasizing the impact of being with Art Blakey for a couple of years?  Because the other articles I’ve read haven’t gone into that so much, and I was concerned I was doing too much amateur psychologizing.

DEFRANCO:  The effect that Blakey had on me was obvious musically.  I think it goes hand in hand with the effect that Tommy Dorsey had, that Art Tatum had, that Bird had, and that Count Basie had.  Count Basie had a tremendous effect on me.

TP:    You went into that a little bit.  Would you say a bit more about Basie’s impact?

DEFRANCO:  Well, let me see.  It’s tantamount to the Blakey experience.  First of all, I never realized how dynamic Count Basie was at the keyboard, playing.  I never realized how much influence he had from the keyboard to manipulate the sound of the band, and it was his personality and his playing, that he could get any 15 musicians who were capable, and within a couple of hours they would sound like Basie’s band, partly because they wanted to and mostly because of Bill, because of the way he accompanied people and the little nuances in the way he played.  A dynamic force.  He and Freddie Green were just unbelievable, the feeling they could get.  And Gus Johnson had the same kind of feeling when he played.  So the rhythm section for Basie always sounded pretty much the same.  Even though there were different types of personalities and different types of players playing from time to time in Basie’s rhythm section, generally they sounded the same because of Bill Basie, his dynamic way of playing.

TP:    What did it do for your playing?  Did it make it more relaxed?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  Absolutely.  No question about it.  More relaxed and more cognizant of a time feeling.

TP:    Would you talk a little more about Dorsey for me?  He seems to have been immensely important to you, and it seems to have been a very complex relationship.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  First off, he was important to everyone who worked for him.  He influenced everyone who worked for him.  Everyone who worked for him would say the same thing.  It was incredible, the influence he had.  We were all somewhat seasoned players (we weren’t brand-new into the business) and somewhat sophisticated.  Yet, Tommy Dorsey could play just a simple melody and the band would applaud.  You could hate him at the same time, but what came out of the trombone was great — unequalled, I think.  So everybody got a feeling of playing and breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    Did he ever give you any hands-on instruction about the breathing technique, or was it just something you’d watch and pick up?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly something we watched.  Though from time to time he would give us some tips.  Most people thought that he employed that circular breathing, but that was not true.  He had a way of taking in air in the corner of his mouth, and not having his mouth or embrochure leave the mouthpiece, as opposed to circular breathing.  Circular breathing means that you take the air through your nose while you’re blowing at the same time.  Tommy didn’t do that.  He got a tremendous amount of air through the corner of his mouth, never taking the mouthpiece away from it, but also, filling up the abdomen, filling up his lungs.  He knew how to spin a note.  He used to call it “spin a note.”  He knew how to play very soft on the instrument, but you could hear it in the room.  You could hear it in the far corners of the room.  It’s a combination of physical and mental mechanism, so that you could play, or he would… He was a master at it.  He could play very soft, and everyone could hear what he was playing.  And he could play as loud as the whole band.  It was incredible.

TP:    Did you feel restrained in these big bands of the ’40s?  Were you sort of chomping at the bit to play what you really wanted, or was it a satisfactory musical experience?

DEFRANCO:  No, all the soloists felt restrained, because the big bands were dance bands.  They were not ostensibly the show bands and a showcase for soloists.  So the only chance we got to show off was in the theater.  But we were playing the one-nighters in ballrooms.  I mean, you played maybe 16 bars of a solo, then maybe you wouldn’t play a solo for two sets or a set.  Nothing extended.

TP:    So it wasn’t like the Ellington band playing a ballroom where the solo function would be integrated into the dance experience, as it were.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  This was strictly a big band… Even Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw played for dancing.  That was one of the gripes Artie had about the whole idea.  He wanted himself and his band to be more concertizing.  In fact, if he were operating now with his big band, it would be a perfect setting for him, because he could do all these concerts, he could do festivals, and play exactly the way he wanted to play, and not conform to the dance.  You’re too young to remember this, but Artie Shaw one time walked off the stage in the face of, I don’t know, a million dollars of contracts that he had.  He walked off the stage and announced that all the jitterbugs were idiots — which made the front lines of the papers.  But he also doubled his attendance.  He called them idiots and he said, “We love you.”

TP:    Prefiguring Miles Davis.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, Miles Davis, exactly.

TP:    When you left Dorsey in ’48 and came right to New York, had you been knowing all of your contemporaries who were involved in Bebop?  Is that one reason why you fit in so comfortably with them?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  We knew that New York was the hub at that time.  At the same time, there was the beginning of the Cool School, although ironically enough, most of the cool guys, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper…all those guys were from New York.  That was ironic.  But they lived in California.  They kind of generated this Cool School of playing.  But the kind of playing that I was engaged in was, as Lennie Tristano would say, “obvious swing,” which he detested. [LAUGHS] Oh, we used to argue for hours.  Lennie Tristano I think approached genius.  He was incredible.  His technique, his musical prowess and his ability to do some things that were at that time phenomenal on the piano and with his group.  He didn’t like the idea of the swing feeling projected into music.  He liked the idea of rhythm, of course.  But he used to say to me that he couldn’t understand why I played with the obvious swing.  It was ridiculous, you know.

TP:    Why did he think it was ridiculous?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he just didn’t feel that was necessary, and he didn’t feel that creative jazz needed that.  Well, I did.  I go back to the school of Basie or Blakey where if it’s not swinging, it doesn’t mean too much — or that’s only half the picture.

TP:    So no matter how intellectually challenging the thing may be, Ellington’s dictum is still the operative principle.

DEFRANCO:  Swing’s the thing.

TP:    Can you tell me a little bit about playing with Boyd Raeburn’s band.  It sounds as though that was the place where you could really expand your horizons intellectually in terms of music.

DEFRANCO:  You could.  You could play exactly the way you wanted to play, which was why he hired me and the other guys in the band.  And the writers could write any way they wanted to write.  So consequently, we got some pretty spacy music.  But it was intellectually unbelievable and very difficult.  It took great skill to play that library.  Probably one of the most difficult, technically challenging libraries in the business.  The guys were George Handy and Bob Graettinger and Johnny Richards.  Johnny Richards was a phenomenal writer, although I thought he was ponderous in many ways and overwritten — but still a great writer.

TP:    Was your own big band a cross between the Artie Shaw concept and the Raeburn concept?

DEFRANCO:  Maybe.  I didn’t try to get that outside with it.  But the concept was the big Benny Goodman-Artie Shaw… You can lump them all together and that’s what I had.  I wound up with zero.

TP:    It wasn’t entirely your fault.  I mean, it was not a great time to be starting a big band.

DEFRANCO:  No, it was the wrong time.  But I could sense when we played… I thought I mapped out everything, so to speak, so that we could play our music in a dance tempo and still make it a jazz-worthy project.  But I realized that that didn’t work.  That did work with what I had in the audience.  So you give it up and go on to other things.  Then I got the small group, and that did work.  That was hot for about a year-and-a-half or two years.

TP:    Then you had to move out to California.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Well, the jazz (?) died completely.

TP:    By the way, when did you leave Philadelphia for good?

DEFRANCO:  1939.

TP:    were you coming back to Philly after that?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, sure.  I’d come back to see my family and friends.  Once in a while I’d play in Philadelphia.

TP:    But you were basically a citizen of the road.

DEFRANCO:  That’s it.

TP:    And you’d come home and touch base with your family.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  For a while I established a home in New York, got an apartment and played out of New York, then gave that up and got a place in California.  But the same kind of thing.  I’ve been actually ostensibly on the road for sixty years.  These past few years have been more of a home base operation.  I’ve spent more time here in Florida and more time in Whitefish, Montana, than I have out playing.

TP:    I think you’re entitled.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah!  I really feel entitled.

TP:    Can you tell me about your relationship with Terry Gibbs.  That seems to be your longest standing association of this particular period anyway.

DEFRANCO:  We’ve been working together several times a year.  We link up and work with a local rhythm section or a rhythm section in Europe, or we get a rhythm section from New York or California.  We work together well and it’s a lot of fun.  I take those jobs because Terry and I enjoy each other’s playing, and it’s fun.  There’s not the kind of tension you would imagine when you go out, for instance, with your own group.  There’s a certain amount of tension where you’re being tested; your group is being tested, you are being tested, and everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  This is kind of a different aspect of playing what we want.  Terry, first of all, is great to work with because he’s funny and very clever, and the attitude is lighter.  Not the music, but the attitude is lighter.

TP:    So he lets you lighten up a little bit.

DEFRANCO:  I think so.  I would tend to get pretty grim in my music.  Sometimes people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music too seriously, or myself too seriously.  And through the years that has been true.  It took the Reichian therapy for me to realize that my music was not the center of the universe.

TP:    Even of your universe.

DEFRANCO:  Even my universe, yes.

TP:    Even with Terry Gibbs, it lets you operate in a specific instrumental tradition.  Because having the clarinet and the vibes together is going to bring up associations for people.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  And the sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton thing, because they started that particular sound.  Which is great for us, because in a way, we manage to play pretty much what we want to do when we play solos.  People hear that sound, and they identify with Benny Goodman and Lionel, so they like it.

TP:    Could I ask you a couple of specific things about your bands from the ’50s until the Glenn Miller thing?  I think I have conflicting information.  I think Balliett had some inaccuracies because he conflicts with Gitler’s note on the Mosaic box.  Was the group with Tommy Gumina only a quartet?


TP:    And that came after you played with Victor Feldman and Carl Perkins and Billy Higgins.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  That was another interesting experience for me working with Tommy.  He was a magnificent musician.  We did five albums together, which people don’t realize — one for Decca and four for Mercury.

I had Scott LaFaro and Victor Feldman in New York.

TP:    Let me ask you something philosophically about the craft and the art of making music, coming back to the question of whether art was the family craft, as it were.  Do you see yourself as analogous to artists in other traditions and other media?

DEFRANCO:  All of the jazz players who amounted to something, who contributed to the idea of jazz, I think are all analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something…however minimal, something different, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, “That’s who it is.”  That’s Bird.  That’s Art.  That’s Oscar.  That’s Buddy.  That’s what I wanted.  You can copy.  For some period of time, I copied Benny Goodman.  Now, of course, it’s too hard to copy Benny Goodman, because you can refer to your basic studies.  The Klosee method or the Behrman method, basic studies of arpeggiated forms, Benny used in his jazz.  That was the focal point of his jazz clarinet playing.  So it was kind of easy to do that, as opposed to, say, not so easy to imitate Artie Shaw who at the same time was involved in linear playing, making lines, or, even more difficult, Bird.  So it was tough enough to play sort of in the Bird tradition on any instrument, but doubly difficult on the clarinet because clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.

TP:    But you don’t seem to be a vocabulary quoter.  I don’t pretend to have heard every one of your records.  But even when you’re playing bebop things, I don’t hear you quoting Bird.  It’s very much your personal vocabulary.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, there are a few quotes I maintain.  But most of the quotes in my playing are my own quotes.  Sometimes when I’ve been criticized for being repetitive, my answer to that is, “I’m allowed to be, since it’s my stuff.”  I mixed that with some quotes from the Bebop era, but not… Also, I tried not to directly quote.  Just like there are some things I’ve gotten from, oh, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Nelson Riddle, Bill Finnegan, David Raksin, where I used it in my jazz playing.  But I didn’t quote them exactly.  It’s just an inference of what they did.

TP:    Let me take you back again for a second.  In the ’30s when you were a kid, you talked about jamming at these clubs.  There were two different clubs, right?

DEFRANCO:  Two different clubs.  Billy Kretchmer is still alive.  He lives in Margate, New Jersey, and up until just a couple of years ago he was still playing.  At that time, in the ’30s, he was neck and neck with Benny and Artie.  He was quite a jazz player.  He just played in his own group in his club, and he played in the pit theater at the Earle, next to my teacher, Willy Di Simone.


Filed under Clarinet

Raw Copy of A Late ’90s Blindfold Test with Ken Peplowski on his 52nd Birthday

Via Larry Appelbaum’s indefatigable birthday notifications to his  Facebook “friends,” I see that Ken Peplowski, the great clarinetist (tenor saxophone, too), hits 52 today. I conducted one of my first Downbeat Blindfold Tests with Ken — I think this was in 1998, maybe 1999.

1.    Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon (from “Hot Jazz on Blue Note,” Blue Note, 1996/rec. 1944).  Sidney Bechet, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  [Immediately] Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon.”  From the first note you can identify his sound.  It’s that big vibrato and that big woody sound.  He had that unique clarinet style, and as distinctive of a clarinet sound as his clarinet playing.

TP:    Is he someone who influenced you at all in your approach?

PEPLOWSKI:  He didn’t influence me by the sound.  It’s a little bit much, to be honest, sometimes.  But his intensity kind of influenced me, and the way he plays ballads and the way he plays this Blues, for example, with just 100% feeling.  Also his rhythmic drive and his unbelievable technique.  He’s an example of a guy who had a lot of technique and knew when not to use it.  This solo is a really funky, real blues-oriented solo, and yet he could turn around and play a great technical tour de force on “China Boy” or something like that.  This is a classic record.  This would be 5 stars, no question.  It’s a perfect example of playing for yourself in a recording situation as opposed to playing for posterity, when you worry about every single note.  These guys are so relaxed, and it’s flowing, and obviously, whatever happens, happens.  There’s a lesson to be learned now.  There’s too much value put on perfection.
2.    Artie Shaw, “Dancing On The Ceiling”  (from The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw,” MusicMasters, 1992/rec. 1954) Artie Shaw, clarinet; Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; Irv Kluger, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I could be fooled right now.  It could be Artie Shaw doing his Bop thing.  It could be Buddy deFranco and it could possibly be Tony Scott.

TP:    You’re very warm.

PEPLOWSKI:  Hank Jones.  The light touch gave him away. [PAUSE] I know it’s not Artie because there’s some things he does that sound like a saxophone player playing the clarinet.  In other words, it’s not completely a Classical kind of clarinet sound.  It’s like Jimmy Giuffre. [PAUSE]

Well, I guess my first instinct was correct.  At first I said this sounds like it could be Artie or Buddy.  It’s very interesting playing, but overall I think it misses the boat.  There’s something that bothers me about certain clarinetists when they play this kind of music, more Bop-influenced.  All of a sudden they lose their tone.  Like, Artie is loosening up in places… He’s doing saxophonic things that don’t really work well on the clarinet.  That’s why, as we listened to it later, I thought this is a guy who sounds more like a saxophone player.  I think Benny did some of this, too.  When they tried to play this kind of music, instead of just doing it their own way, they tried to adjust their sound and some of their phrasing to this new style instead of just interpreting it through their own method.  So I think it’s a valiant effort, but to be quite honest, I prefer his earlier stuff.  so that would be about a 3½, I think.
3.    Barney Bigard, “Clarinet Lament,” (from Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Fargo, ND 1940, Stash, 1990/rec.1940)

PEPLOWSKI:  No question that that’s Barney Bigard with Duke’s band.  Another guy that you can pick out immediately. [PAUSE] Barney Bigard to me is one of the greats of the clarinet.  In fact, between him and Jimmy Hamilton, that covered a lot of jazz history on the clarinet.  That has to be a 5-star thing.  I think that was Barney’s finest period, too.  He played so inspired, and Duke wrote some great stuff for him, and he’s one of the greatest.  He’s so great that I don’t think he is a big influence on people because he’s so unique, that to try to take things from him, you wind up sounding like him.  So he stands alone.
4.    Jimmy Hamilton, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from “Far East Suite-Special Mix,” RCA, 1995/rec.1966).  The Duke Ellington Orchestra.

PEPLOWSKI:  [IMMEDIATELY] “Far East Suite,” “Bluebird of Delhi.” From the introduction.  This record was a major thing for me when I was growing up.  Jimmy Hamilton, from the first time I heard him, I thought, “This is the direction I want to go.”  He combines the best of the classical clarinet approach with the improvisatory approach.   He could have played in an orchestra, yet he could swing like nobody else.  Plus, that’s got to be 5 stars for the record itself.  “The Far East Suite” is some of the best writing of Strayhorn (mostly) and Ellington.  It’s such a great example of how to write for specific soloists, and has some of the most beautiful clarinet writing.  I love that.  I listened to that over and over and over when I first heard it, and I would recommend it to anybody. [PAUSE] Also, I love the way the ensemble comes in and Jimmy Hamilton answers them.  There was a lot of Duke writing in that fashion for Jimmy.  And he had such great instinctive ears that he knew when to play and when not to play.  He complements the band and they complement him.  It’s beautiful.
5.    Benny Goodman, “Shirley Steps Out” (from “Undercurrent Blues,” Capitol Jazz, 1995/rec.1947) with Alan Hendrickson, guitar; Mel Powell, piano, Red Norvo, vibes.

PEPLOWSKI:  As soon as they started improvising, I knew it was Benny.  This is one of his Bop experiments.  It’s pretty interesting.  It sounds like a guitarist who was influenced by Charlie, but I don’t think it is.  [VIBES SOLO] Who is this?  Is that Johnny White?

TP:    It’s Red Norvo.

PEPLOWSKI:  Red Norvo, wow. [PIANO] That sounds like Teddy.

TP:    Mel Powell.

PEPLOWSKI:  What is this record?  Is this a Commodore?

TP:    Capitol.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s very nice.  This to me is a little more successful in this vein than what Artie was attempting.  Because Benny plays closer to himself… It still sounds like him.  It’s very nice.  That was a nice record.  I was surprised.  I don’t remember hearing that.  I’m sure I’ve got it, but I have to confess, I overlooked that period myself.  It was nice.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was really refreshing.  It’s nice to hear Benny play some different material, too.

TP:    Do you find Benny’s style stays integral through all of his improvising?  Is that characteristic, that he keeps his sound through any situation?

PEPLOWSKI:  Pretty much, yeah.  Critics love to write about his double-lip embouchure period, and he allegedly changed and all this stuff.  But you could pretty much recognize him all the time.  When we first heard the head, then I was thinking this could obviously be Buddy De Franco.  But as soon as he started playing, the way he gets around the horn, that’s Benny.  First of all, there’s only a few people who sound like they really play it like a clarinet and not like a double, as opposed to if you heard somebody like Jimmy Giuffre.  I love the way he plays, I love the way Lester Young played, but they’re still saxophone players.  And Benny does some distinctly clarinet things that could only lend themselves to that instrument.  That was nice.
6.    Jimmy Giuffre, “Conversations With A Goose” (from “Conversations With A Goose,” Soul Note, 1996), Giuffre, clarinet; Paul Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, electric bass.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Barney Bigard on acid! [AFTER A WHILE] I have no idea.  Who is this?

TP:    It’s Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Do you see any changes in his playing from the earlier things they did?

PEPLOWSKI:  Well, if anything, I think he’s into even more of a kind of primitive approach.  Actually, to be quite honest, it was more interesting to me what the piano was doing and the bass player, because they had a certain groove going on.  But that may be partly due to the way it’s recorded.  It kind of bothers me.  It sounds like the microphones are thrust right inside the piano, we’re hearing the piano so clear and loud, and the clarinet is kind of off in the distance a little bit in the mix.  So automatically, psychologically, he doesn’t feel like part of the ensemble.  It’s interesting.  Obviously, he’s heading into an ever more free zone than he ever was.

TP:    Is this music that’s appealed to you?

PEPLOWSKI:  I like the idea.  Sometimes I like the idea more than the execution, and this would be an example of that.  Obviously, it’s kind of a crap shoot when you’re just playing freely like this, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  This time it was kind of interesting, he got into some different sounds and things, but it was a little bit rambling for me.  I’d give that 2½ stars.  I don’t know if I’d listen to that over and over.
7.    Bill Easley, “Come Sunday” (from “Wind Inventions,” Sunnyside, 1988) Easley, clarinet; James Williams, piano; Rufus Reid, bass, Tony Reedus, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Obviously, I know “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington.  The clarinet has a little bit of a New Orleans type of approach, whether he’s from there or not.  Actually, he sounds a little bit like Barney Bigard in his sound.  But I don’t know who it is yet. The piano player is a little heavy-handed for me on this song.  He sounds a little bit like he’s playing with hammers instead of fingers. [THE SONG GOES INTO UP-TEMPO]
I really don’t know who it is, but they’ve got a very beautiful clarinet sound.  It’s a little curious to me to play this song like this.  Why not use anything else as a vehicle for improvisation.

TP:    Well, the interpretation could be the jubilation of…

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  But sometimes it seems a little arbitrary, like “Gee, let’s pick this song and jazz it up.”  But it’s interesting.  The clarinet player sounds nice.  I have no idea who it is. [PAUSE] It bothers me that when you listen to the rhythm section improvising, the bassist is way ahead of the drummer… It’s not a very good rhythm section.  They sound kind of heavy-handed and definitely not together.  So I feel a little bad for the clarinet player.

TP:    It didn’t seem to faze him much.

PEPLOWSKI:  No.  He’s got a very even sound and even phrasing.  I would give it 3½, I think, because I like his playing, but I’m not completely happy with the overall performance. [PAUSE] One last comment.  Beautiful sound.  Beautiful clarinet approach.  I just wasn’t really nuts about the overall record, but he’s a great player.
8.    Alvin Batiste, “Banjo Noir” (from “Late,” Columbia, rec. 1993), with Fred Sanders, piano; Elton Heron, bass; Herman Jackson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s a very nice record.  Whoever this is knows how to write for the instrument.  It’s a nice groove.  He’s playing a lot of stuff that comes right out of clarinet etudes.  I know this guy has studied the clarinet.  Nice, interesting tune.  Good groove.  Beautiful sound.  He’s a little bit controlled.  I wish he would open up a little bit more even during this.  I don’t know who it is.

TP:    Do you hear any particular lineage in clarinet improvising style?

PEPLOWSKI:  On this guy?  I don’t know where he comes from.  Also, this kind of recording is a little sterile for me — the recording itself.  Even if everybody was in the same room, whatever the engineer did, they sound like they were isolated and then remixed by him.  There’s a little bit too much of an upfront quality of every single instrument.  Especially when you want to have a nice groove like this, it should sound more like a band playing together instead of being able to pick out each individual instrument.  That’s not the fault of the musicians.  It’s the fault of the way it was recorded. [PAUSE]

This is after you told me who it is.  I am pleasantly surprised.  When you asked me did I detect any influence, I definitely didn’t detect any New Orleans influence in there.  A beautiful clarinet player.  I’ve heard a few things of his.  That was very nice record.  I’d give it 4 stars.
9.    David Krakauer, “Africa Bulgar,” (from “Klezmer Madness,” Tzadik, 1995) with Michael Alpert, accordion; Dave Licht, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I asked first if that was Ivo Papasov.  It’s got that quality to it, but we’ll see what happens. [PAUSE] As he got into it, I realized this is more a Yiddish kind of a groove. [TEMPO CHANGE] This is just a wild guess, because I haven’t heard any of this stuff.  Is this Don Byron? [TP:  No.] [LATER] PEPLOWSKI:  I don’t really know who it is.  That was nice.  I’m not familiar with a lot of the klezmer guys.  I love Dave Tarras, the old school, and this has a lot of those elements.  It’s nice dance music, it’s kind of fun…

TP:    He was very influenced by Dave Tarras.

PEPLOWSKI:  Oh.  It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it’s fun music and…

TP:    You used to play this…well, Greek music.
PEPLOWSKI:  I used to play this and polka music.  I used to play Polish polka music.  It’s interesting to me that this music is so popular now, and people have overlooked that music, which is also a great showcase for the clarinet.  I think if I put a polka band together and did a gig at the Knitting Factory, we’d be as popular as anything.  I’m not trying to take away from this music because it’s great stuff, and it’s music for the masses.  But if you put a little bit of an ironic twist on it and work at a hip club, all of a sudden everybody starts paying attention.

TP:    Now, in their defense, that’s just one tune of a whole program of very different pieces.

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  It’s a strange time for music, because… I bet I could do that.  If I’d put a polka band together and we dressed up in funny suits and worked at the Knitting Factory, and did exactly what I did in Cleveland when I was playing weddings, people would think, “Gee, this is the hippest music I can imagine.”  But if that’s a way for people to discover this stuff, that’s great because it is valid music and it’s great music.

TP:    This is the Millennium.  Marketing is everything.

PEPLOWSKI:  We’ve reached that stage where we’re just looking back at everything that’s happened and drawing from all these different sources.

TP:    How many stars?

PEPLOWSKI:  I would give it 3 stars.  I liked it, but I could listen to a hundred of those records — this doesn’t stand out, in other words.  I wish he might have played with a little bit more passion in some places and used more of the entire range of the clarinet.  He kind of stayed in one little area.  But I applaud him for what he’s trying to do, and I can hear the Dave Tarras thing.
10.    John Carter, “Encounter” (from “Comin’ On,” Hat Art, 1988) Carter, clarinet; Bobby Bradford, cornet; Don Preston, synthesizer; Richard Davis, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I like this very much.  The writing sounds a little bit influenced by Miles, and I love the use of electronics as pure sound sometimes instead of trying to imitate another instrument. It’s pretty refreshing. [PAUSE]

John Carter.  Guessed it.  As soon as he started doing the upper register thing, I knew it was him. [PAUSE]

As most stars as I can give, 5-6, whatever.  This is very refreshing music to me.  I think it’s completely not pretentious.  It’s fresh, it’s exciting, interesting writing and playing, and the use of electronics is really well done and really integrated into the ensemble.  It’s really great. [PAUSE] The thing that strikes me is that it really sounds like a band playing together.  This is the way music is supposed to be.  And John Carter is completely unbridled.  It’s really open.  I have a feeling that he does exactly what he wants to do, and he doesn’t have any limits to what he’s trying to achieve.  It’s great.  I think his music is as important, maybe more so, than Ornette’s music as far as this kind of thing.  The writing is as interesting, and I just love the way they use the electronics.  It’s really free and open, and yet at the same time it’s got a structure to it, and everybody is listening and reacting to each other.

TP:    Talk about his clarinet style.  Is he an innovative clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He’s innovative in the sense that he does on the clarinet what people like Ornette and maybe Eric Dolphy did on the saxophone.  He kind of plays completely free and open… You know, a lot of clarinet players sound a little bit too controlled.  It’s part of the nature of the instrument.  You’re taught from the beginning that you have to play with this rigid embouchure, and the ideal sound on the clarinet is this wooden, kind of round sound, and as soon as you start fluctuating from that, the tone kind of goes.  The technique is a little bit difficult.  So it’s refreshing to hear somebody that’s gone past some of those restrictions.  The only way I can describe is he’s a completely open player, which on the clarinet is kind of rare to hear.

11.    Don Byron, “St. Louis Blues” (from “Bug Music,” Nonesuch, 1996).  Byron, clarinet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Kenny Davis, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Dan Block, but I’m not sure that it is.  In the beginning there was almost a klezmer kind of influence.  It was nice.  The band sounds good and tight.  Again, the recording quality bothers me.  It’s so sterile-sounding.  It’s this close, miking, separated sound of everything that kind of takes away a lot from the feel to me.  It really bothers me on more modern recordings.

TP:    Anything else about the clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He sounded nice.  There’s nothing distinctive there that I could pick him out?

TP:    Did he sound like he was in the bag of any of the older clarinet players?

PEPLOWSKI:  I can’t identify him.

TP:    It’s Don Byron.

PEPLOWSKI:  Don Byron.  Wow.  It’s a nice surprise.  It was good.  Like I say, there’s nothing there that would draw me and say I’ve got to go out and buy this record, but it was a nice record.  3 stars.
12.    Buddy DeFranco, “I Got Rhythm” (from “Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin,” Verve, 1998/rec.1954) DeFranco, clarinet; Peterson, piano; Russell Garcia, arranger & conductor.

PEPLOWSKI:  An interesting thing is, I recorded this song with almost the same groove and the same tempo, and I haven’t heard this record.  That’s not Buddy, is it? [TP:  Yes.] It’s beautiful.  He’s one of the innovators.  Here’s an example of a great recording technique, too.  It sounds like the band is playing with a groove, they’re playing together.  It’s almost like in the late ’50s-early ’60s they really perfected the style of recording this kind of music, and ever since they’ve been trying to mess with it.  This is the way it would sound if you were standing this far away from a band playing.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  Instead of the middle of an orchestra.

Obviously, Buddy came from a combination of Benny and Artie, but he forged his own style, and he’s got a unique sound and approach. And he was an innovator.  He turned a lot of people’s heads.  Because he was the only guy at this time who was playing real more Modern-influenced music.  And it’s a great combination to me of kind of Bop-influenced lines and real pretty phrasing.  It’s wonderful. This is 5 stars.  I love it.
13.    Pee Wee Russell, “Wailin’ D.A. Blues” (from “Pee Wee Russell: Jazz Original,” 1997/rec. 1944) Russell, clarinet; Jess Stacy, piano; Sid Weiss, bass; George Wettling, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Pee Wee.  From the first note.  A complete original.  I love him.  Mister Soulful.  Strangely enough, in the very early records, he did have a lot more technique — in the real early days.  But he just kind of threw everything out.  In his own way, as strange as it seems, he’s like the Thelonious Monk of the clarinet.  He pared everything down to real basics.  But obviously, he understands… He’s not simple player or a primitive player.  He understands all the harmonic ideas that are going on around him.  Like, he strips his own playing down to just the basics.  He’s a very intelligent player in my mind, with a lot of soul.  It’s great.  I would have to give that 5 stars.

TP:    Can you pinpoint this in time.

PEPLOWSKI:  Just from the sound of the recording, I would guess it’s got to be somewhere in the mid to late 1940’s.
PEPLOWSKI:  There were some pleasant surprises in there; some eye-openers.  There does seem to be a little bit of a resurgence in the clarinet, and there are some people trying different things with it, which is refreshing.  My only general comments about that stuff is it’s nice to hear people try to break the preconceived boundaries of what the clarinet is supposed to be…


The Bobby Bradford-John Carter was definitely the best thing I heard, because it’s the most refreshing.  Frankly, sometimes I get bored just hearing the same things over and over.  Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s all been played, and then you hear something like that, and you realize there’s life yet in music.  It’s an eye-opener.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Clarinet, DownBeat, Ken Peplowski

Artie Shaw’s 101st

To recognize the 101st birthday anniversary of Artie Shaw, here’s a piece I wrote for Jazziz in 2002 in conjunction with his self-picked box set, SELF-PORTRAIT (RCA).  Because of the allotted word length, I had to distill down two long phone interviews (I’ll save the raw transcripts, which are a hoot, for another occasion or forum).

* * * *

“Artie Shaw was to me the hippest clarinetist in that he played it straight.  His ideas would come straight out. He didn’t sound like he was studying from the book.” – Wayne Shorter

“I would occasionally play for black audiences,” says Artie Shaw, hearkening back to the 1930s, when he became a mega-celebrity. “It was always very liberating. You could do anything you want. They were much hipper than white audiences, much more musically aware.  That’s why Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb could get away with a lot that white bands couldn’t.

“Musically, we are an almost illiterate people. Audiences respond like apes; they get up and applaud after every solo, good or bad. The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity. Woody Herman would say, in the middle of the chorus, ‘And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, tell the audience to sit down and 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. It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example, if he wants any kind of dignified response. Can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza? But you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them. So you’ve got to face the fact that you have to give them what I call ‘three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.’”

Truculent and blunt, Shaw was never so cranky as to bite off the hand that fed him; now 92, out of the music business longer than he was in it, he pays the rent on royalties, residuals and investments from his glory years. Famously married to and divorced from actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Evelyn Keyes, to Jerome Kern’s daughter, and three other women, he continues to possess what market researchers call a high name recognition quotient. That’s why last year’s SELF-PORTRAIT [RCA] — a 5-CD retrospective for which Shaw cherrypicked 95 performances from his vast storehouse of studio and remote recordings — stirred up as much attention as it did.

During two lengthy phone conversations last April, Shaw was loath to discuss oft-trod biographical territory, referring me to his books The Trouble With Cinderella and The Best Of Intentions rather than talk about how he came to earn $175 a week with a mediocre dance band as a 17-year-old in 1927, what it was like to sit in with Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club in South Side Chicago and with Willie the Lion Smith and Billie Holiday at Pod & Jerry’s in Harlem, how he came to organize his first band, or the impact of his harrowing experiences during World War II. A staggeringly well-read autodidact and well-armoured misanthrope, he had plenty else to discuss. We excerpt the following comments.

“The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success.  I sure had that for a while.  And it was almost fatal. I lost my mind.  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? Then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality. When I came back to so-called civilization, I went into analysis, five days a week, every morning, on the couch. First I did it in California. When I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast!  I went to Abram Kardiner, a very famous man, one of the early cultural anthropologists, who trained Margaret Mead, etc. You’d come in in the morning and he said, ‘What happened?’ You’d tell him.  He’d say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ You’d say it, and he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not what you said.’ You’d go on and on, dissecting everything you thought. I learned a very important lesson. It can be summed up in three words. ‘Maybe it’s me.’

“I have a great distrust of authority.  That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly.  He called it a ‘blowzer.’  It 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.’ He was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor.  His name was Arshawsky, and he came from Odessa. It took me fifty years to learn that. He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care. I have no regard for antecedents or precursors. 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.’

“I got my name ‘Shaw’ from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called Kidnapped, which I read when I was 7 or 8.  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 it was more overt in those days.

“I don’t know what being Jewish means. I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, I don’t believe in the stone tablets, 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.  I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.

“I became Artie Shaw, and Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish.  I was on the ‘Tonight Show’ one time, 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.’ It was like a big trick on the world, and I was the only guy who could laugh at it.

“I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other. My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children. Four 6-hour shifts, and that’s it. They’d be totally devoid of all this subjective, sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get with the average family. There’s no reason why a society can’t raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way.”

“I think there were about five great bands in those days — Goodman, me, Basie, Ellington and Lunceford. Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but they weren’t playing jazz. Lunceford at his best was awfully good.  He had a lot of respect for what he did, and he imbued the men with that. And Ellington at times was very good.  He was interesting, a very smart guy. But he’s been hyped. In the last ten years, he’s become like the avatar. The long form things he did weren’t long forms; they were just pastiche, a lot of short forms put together. But the audience bought it. The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead.  When they were good, they were very good; when they were bad, they were horrid. He chose the personalities. It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write. It’s under a rubric. Sometimes Ellington’s rubric worked, other times it didn’t. When I quit, he said, ‘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.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do.’

“The band was my instrument; I played the clarinet with it. I tried to make the guys play better than they thought they could. 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. I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road 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. We rehearsed 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.’ The guys didn’t mind. They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.

“Like everything else, jazz has had a crescendo and a decrescendo. It was an efflorescence. We grew and grew and grew, we finally reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill. I was interviewed by a guy who was doing a book on Sinatra. At the end, he said, ‘Are you in agreement 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, a good singer, and we made him into an icon. 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.

“When Ava was living with Sinatra, she asked me whether sex had been okay when we were together, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless. Later Ava developed this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man.  So she’d make remarks like ‘he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.’ I know damn well that wasn’t true, because I’ve heard it from other women.

“Once I worked with Tony Bennett on a series of half-a-dozen 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, that song 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. 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. I think it denotes a lack of depth to thinking. 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 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, people 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.

“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. We have three languages. There’s the oral-verbal one. There’s music. And there’s mathematics. I don’t know of any others.”


Filed under Article, Artie Shaw, Clarinet, Jazziz