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For Trombonist Steve Davis’ 50th Birthday, An Interview From 1998 for the Criss Cross Recording “Crossfire”

The exceptional trombonist Steve Davis turns 50 today. For the occasion, here’s an interview I did with Steve in 1998, when I was putting together the liner notes for his Criss Cross CD, Crossfire.  At the end is a brief conversation with Steve’s mentor, teacher and early employer, Jackie McLean.


TP: Birthday.

SD: 4-14-67.

TP: So you’re just turned 31. You’re from Binghamton?

SD: I was actually born in Worcester, Massachusetts, but I pretty much grew up in Binghamton, New York, from the age of 6 until 18.

TP: Music in the family?

SD: Yes. My Nana, or Grandmother on my mother’s side (I called her Nana), played piano by ear. She didn’t read any music. She was actually semi-professional. She used to do some gigs around Westchester and Connecticut actually, down in the Southbury area, Waterbury, Connecticut. She passed away when I was 19 and I had just started at Hartt; I finished a year there. She played in kind of the stride, maybe Teddy Wilson style. She really liked Oscar Peterson. She used to play “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Them There Eyes,” and sing it.

TP: And she performed?

SD: Yes. She played all types of tunes. “Embraceable You,” a lot of the great standards. She had like a hybrid sort of boogie-woogie, some of that in there. It’s funny, because I guess for her time, it was… She was of WASP heritage or whatever, and it just wasn’t really the thing for a woman to be a Jazz pianist…

TP: A Yankee woman.

SD: Yeah, exactly, a Yankee woman. It was kind of like a novelty. “Oh, Betty is going to play now,” and at parties and stuff like that. She played everything in C or F, but man, she could really play her ass off. I have some tapes that I’ve got to investigate further. She was really gifted, and I just wish she had lived a little longer, because I really could have learned a great deal from her.

TP: And she improvised.

SD: Oh, totally. She didn’t read a note.

TP: Like Eddie Higgins or Dave McKenna.

SD: Exactly. That kind of thing. I’d say she was probably, of course, compared to someone like Dave McKenna, very limited. But she really could play.

Then on my Dad’s side, my Grandsir, who is still alive, played a little trumpet. He’s a real swinger. He’s a big Ellington and Louis Armstrong fan, and Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, that’s his stuff, and a little bit of Bix he talks about. But he would always tell me about hearing Ellington on the radio. He’s from Boston, and…

TP: The Southland Ballroom.

SD: Yeah, right, and in 1932 he was at the Roxbury Latin School, and he remembers hearing the shows from the Cotton Club and all that.

My old man didn’t play. He plays a little electric bass as more like a hobby. But he is the one who really exposed me. He had tons of records, man, when I was growing up in Binghamton. He had all kinds of Blue Note, Horace Silver, a couple of Messengers records, a lot of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder which was one of the first things I heard that grabbed me, and a lot of Blues, like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Otis Rush and people like that.

TP: So you were listening to music all the time.

SD: Yeah, it was around all the time. I was going through the usual paces of the Rolling Stones, things like that, or the Beatles…

TP: But were you playing an instrument from…

SD: I picked up the trumpet in fourth grade, and I switched to euphonium, to baritone horn, when I got braces halfway through the fifth grade.

TP: Because the embouchure was bigger?

SD: Exactly. Because I almost was going to quit. I liked music, and I was about to quit, and I was encouraged not to by my band director and my old man. That’s how I got into bass clef, and I played tuba for a while in junior high school. The trombone came around last. I was hearing these jazz records with J.J. on them and Curtis, or Bob Brookmeyer…

TP: Where were you hearing those records?

SD: My Dad. Then I was told, “Well, if you want to be in the stage band and that kind of stuff, you really should learn the slide trombone as opposed to baritone horn.” My band director in junior high taught me the correlation between the valves and the slide. It’s pretty similar once you get the same correlation. Then I just kind of took it from there. I really didn’t start taking trombone lessons until the end of tenth grade.

TP: But you had a lot of musical background.

SD: Oh yeah.

TP: And you could read music by then?

SD: Yes. Although it was quite a switch from the treble clef baritone, like, B-flat trumpet treble clef music, to all of a sudden like sousaphone ledger lines bass clef. So for a while I was playing the tuba by ear, because I couldn’t make the cosmic leap into the bottom of the bass clef. But that was good, because my ear always gravitated to the bass, and my Dad used to talk about the bass in blues bands and the bass in Rock-and-Roll and certainly in Jazz, so I had an affinity for that.

TP: What were some of the outlets for improvising and such?

SD: Well, the director of our junior high school stage band was very encouraging, as was our high school stage band director, Mr. Mann. They really encouraged us to take little solos and improvise. There was a little kind of cadre or whatever of guys that were playing. There’s a trumpeter named Tony Kadleck, who is in New York now, does a lot of sessions, big band stuff — he was a great player. So that environment was encouraged. Then at SUNY-Binghamton, there was a guy named Al Hahm(?)…

TP: Did you go there because of the Music Department?

SD: Well, I didn’t attend. I used to go to workshops and play in their jazz ensemble when I was in high school. They had summer workshops, and I think 1982 when I was maybe 15, they brought in Bob Brookmeyer one year with his sextet. I think that was in ’82, and I was maybe like 15. I had already started listening, I had the bug, and I got to hear and spend a week with Bob Brookmeyer, who had Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano and Jim McNeely and I think Nussbaum and Michael Moore. But Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano took a particular interest in me and a friend of mine named Chris Jenson, a really good tenor player. Dick Oatts, I remember vividly, said, “J.J. Johnson.” I said, “yeah, I’ve heard a couple of records.” He said, “No, man, go really listen to J.J. Johnson.” And that stuck with me. They really were very encouraging. So kind of after that I started listening to “Giant Steps” and “Kind of Blue” and henceforth.

TP: Was it apparent to you at this time that you were going to be a musician?

SD: Of some kind, yeah. My Dad’s a journalist, a newspaperman, his parents, Grandsir and his mother, were both journalists, and my mother is very literate. So it was kind of encouraged. The humanities thing for college was pretty much a given; that I was going to go someplace that was a university as well as the music. I mean, the music was never discouraged; it was always encouraged. But my parents really wanted me to have a broad education as much as possible.

TP: And you did.

SD: yes. My mother took me to audition at the music schools, Manhattan, Rutgers, New England Conservatory, and then to Hartt at the University of Hartford. She liked the campus environment. And I met Jackie McLean when I auditioned, and he really charmed my mother. I’ll never forget the audition. I played “Summertime” just by myself for him, no rhythm, and then he played the piano, and he started playing this little vamp from D-minor to E-flat-minor, and he said, “Let’s see what you do with this, son,” and he started playing these little rhythms, and I played some little response, and he said, “Yeah, you got it, man; you got all the shit happening. Come on, where’s your Mom? Let’s…” [LAUGHS] It was hilarious, man. So he talked to my mother and really made her feel at ease about coming to school and not going right to New York first, but coming up there to the campus and getting a real education, and that he would… Especially at this time in the mid-’80s, his program was really taking off, and he was there a lot and he was overseeing all the students very much. So he kind of sold my Mom on that one.

TP: And at Hartford you pursued primarily music but also other things.

SD: Yeah, a little Shakespeare. I was close to a minor in Political Science. I think I had three credits left. But mostly music. By the time I got to my junior year, all I wanted to do was play and get to New York.

TP: Talk about some of the affiliations you made at Hartt.

SD: Well, besides the faculty, which of course, Jackie just for me and for so many others of us just turned our whole world around. Especially his history course was really important. You’d take that ideally as a freshman for two semesters. He used to call it “Man and Music,” and now he got politically correct — it’s called “People and Music” or something. He goes back to Africa and makes you realize… He gets into the origins of Man, and things that we take for granted and that you don’t get educated about in public schools generally. Maybe nowadays you do moreso than 1985. Then he takes you through the whole music of slavery and field hollers, and how that evolved into the blues and brass bands and all that kind of stuff. So by the time you get up the second semester, to Charlie Parker and what he can really first-hand tell you about him, it’s pretty exciting. It really gives you a tremendous concept for the history. So that was important.

Jaki Byard was still there, and being around him was great. Hotep Galeta was just coming into his band, and he was starting to teach there, and he was a very big role model for me, as was Nat Reeves. Hotep and Nat not only taught ensembles at the school, but they used to gig a lot around Hartford. There were several little clubs. So the two of them, they might play duo in a restaurant, or they’d grab a decent drummer from the area. And Hotep started hiring me eventually to play quartet. To me that was just the thrill of my life. It was such a privilege to be on the bandstand with those guys. This is leading up to and during the Dynasty record that they made, and Rites of Passage was after that. That band with Carl Allen and Rene would rehearse sometimes at the school, and it was very exciting to see that developing. They’d go out to L.A., or go on the road to Italy, and Jackie would send a postcard. It was just my dream to ever play in that band.

Also, when I first got to Hartt, Antoine Roney was still a student there. It was his last year. And he had a huge influence on me. I mean, he taught me so much. He was the first guy… Within my first week, we borrowed somebody’s car and drove down to New York together and went and heard Joe Henderson at the Vanguard, and he took me to the Blue Note session Ted Curson was running where you’d sign the list. Ted Curson was doing it. He showed me around Harlem a little bit, showed me where Bud Powell lived and all that stuff.

TP: Well, Antoine and Wallace are soaked up in the lore.

SD: Oh yeah, big-time. So meeting and hanging out with Antoine was a big…

TP: So that must have helped you when you made the transition to New York.

SD: Oh, it did. Because he moved down there within a year or two after that, so I used to go hang with him. We used to go to Rashied Ali’s house to play a little. Jackie recommended me to Charlie Persip when I was still a student at Hartt, and my first real New York gig was in the Superband, at Visiones in 1988. There was a club in Hartford, too, called the 880 Club. Nat was in the house band of that with Donnie De Palma, a pianist. They used to bring every Thursday night, like, you name it, man…Junior Cook, Tom Harrell, I got to play with Pepper Adams there… When Eddie Henderson first came back East he was coming up there all the time, and I met him there. Kenny Garrett. A whole lot of people. So that was also really exciting, and it gave you a taste of what the real Jazz world is like.

TP: So it doesn’t seem like New York seemed particularly overwhelming to you, that you were quite well prepared arriving here.

SD: Yes and no. I mean, I was, but it was still overwhelming, trust me. When I got there… And ’89 is when I really moved to New York… I had been kind of zipping in and out quite a bit, and I got there to live, and for six months I basically went through all the money I had saved gigging around Connecticut and living cheap up there. It was scary. That’s when Jesse Davis was doing Augie’s. He had Antoine in the band, and Eric McPherson, and that’s where I met Chris McBride, Ugonna Okegwo had just moved to town, Marc Cary went there. That was an exciting time, and I used to go sit in a lot up there. But I wasn’t working that much. The gig with Art Blakey came up right at the end of ’89, and it was right on time, boy, because I was starting to scuffle.

TP: What sort of gigs were you doing?

SD: Well, not a whole lot. I was coming back to Hartford to do a lot of gigs. I was doing a couple of little club date kind of gigs, because they paid good, and I wasn’t happy about, but… A few little big bands. I was rehearsing with Charlie Persip every Thursday, and what work he had I was doing. Just trying to make jam sessions and be around. That’s what was happening.

TP: How did you get to Art?

SD: Jackie had told him about me. I never stood in the same room as the two of them, which is ironic to me, because they’re both such big mentors.

TP: Frank Lacy preceded you with Art?

SD: Yeah.

TP: Was it a situation where someone suggested you go hear the band at Sweet Basil and linger around the bandstand, or were you just called to make it?

SD: No, Jackie had encouraged me… I was doing that anyway at Mikell’s and Sweet Basil for years, hearing all the different bands. But by the time it got to that, I was around a lot. I think I sat in in September of ’89, and Art knew about me. He said, “Oh, that’s you” or whatever; “bring your horn back Sunday.” I sat in on “Moanin'” or something with a bunch of other guys. Then at Christmas-time, I saw him again, and he told me, “Don’t go far.” I figured, well, okay, that must mean something. I went home literally for Christmas Day, and the next day, the 26th, I was coming back, and that’s when Jackie called me in Binghamton at my parents’ house, and said, “Steve, call Buhaina; he’s looking for you.” He gave me the number, and I called Art’s house, and he got on the phone. He said, “Well, can you make it tonight?” It was 4 in the afternoon, and I was three hours away — I said, “Sure!” It was hilarious. I left my keys in Binghamton. I didn’t have any dress clothes. I had to borrow a suit from a friend of mine. I barely made the gig on time. Frank Lacy was still on the band, too, so that was a very interesting week.

TP: A few words in general on Art Blakey’s impact on you in general musical terms, and maybe specifically on your style as a trombonist.

SD: Well, it’s hard to put into words, of course. Javon Jackson once said something that I really agree with, that I thought was great, that he had a way of showing you what to play, or how to play, without actually telling you anything. He just did it through the drums, and he guided you… One night we were in California, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I was scared to death. We played “Minor’s Holiday” and some of the classic things. We came off the stand and he put his arm around me. He said, “Steve, listen. You make your statement, you build to a climax, and you get the fuck out. Right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Simple, right? Okay. Well, do it.”

Art taught me, as has Jackie later, from a different vantage point, how to get to the point, how to get to the fire quick, and say what you’re going to say. That’s what they say about Charlie Parker. If you listen to Curtis Fuller, he never plays more than two or three choruses. So it was such a lesson in getting to the stuff, getting to the point quick.

The other thing is just that beat. Being around Art at time of my life, I was just turning 23, and it’s like he plants a seed in you that hasn’t even blossomed, hasn’t even grown yet, and it’s going to grow as you grow. He told me one time… He was singing all these Fletcher Henderson arrangements and doing the trombone parts, and he said, “You watch, that’s going to be your style; swinging, that’s going to be your style.” I was listening to and kind of captivated by Miles and Wallace Roney, and I wanted to be that on the trombone. Not obvious, but more subtle, mysterious, maybe cold, not cold like spiritually cold, but not the kind of warm breathy sound, but more icy or something, like slick…

TP: Or abstract.

SD: Abstract. I was really thinking about that stuff, and how J.J. and Miles had a certain no-vibrato, and I really liked that. But then being around Art put things in perspective, and then I started to really listen to how Curtis took the Lester Young-Miles-J.J. influence and brought a warmth to it. I’m still trying to find the balance, actually.

TP: So you’re trying to blend the older trombone approach of the big band, pre-J.J. trombonists with the harmony and authority of J.J. and… Do you feel that Curtis Fuller kind of embodies that?

SD: Oh yeah. He’s got the tradition… You can hear it. He comes after J.J., but he was born in 1934, so certainly the Swing Era…he grew up in it. He talks about people like Jack Teagarden and the Basie Band. The thing that I love about J.J., too, is that they came from that tradition so much, that it was such a feat for them, as with Bird and Miles, to break out of that, and to start defining this new approach, and maybe more stark melodies and playing harmonically, more daring, but also precise at the same time. That’s what I really like, is Miles and J.J. and the choice of notes. Curtis was very close to Trane, obviously, when he first came to New York. He talks a lot about that, being around Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. Obviously Trane was a huge influence on Freddie in phrasing… To me, what Curtis has done with the phrasing, just playing groupings of notes, is like saxophone stuff. J.J. certainly opened that can of worms in a lot of ways for the trombone, and certainly guys even before him did. J.J. had the prowess and the focus to really start to think that way and approach the instrument that way, but Curtis took it another step, where he’s just daring, he’s going to throw it out there, and he doesn’t care if he gets his feet muddy.


TP: Anyway, you stayed with Art Blakey a year, and he dies at the end of ’90. The what happens between that and your joining Jackie McLean?

SD: Some tough times, actually.

TP: Do trombonists have a particularly tough time in the business right now.

SD: Well, I’ve been extremely lucky. A couple of good things happened. I did play with Lionel Hampton’s band for a period, and it was great just to be around him and be a part of that legacy for a minute. But that’s a tough gig. Everybody knows that’s a dues-paying kind of gig, but I’m very glad I did it. But the thing that blew me away, though, I did two concerts with Elvin Jones. I was subbing for Wallace Roney, actually. I’d met Elvin at Art’s house about a week prior to Art’s passing. He was very nice to me (I don’t think he’d ever heard me play), and he took my number. Keiko was there. I was just thrilled to meet Elvin. It was a terrible circumstance to meet him under, because Art was kind of laying on the couch, sleeping, he wasn’t well, and Elvin was sort of watching over him. At first he didn’t even know who I was. He kind of asked if he could help me, like he was protecting Art, then I told him I was the trombonist in the band. I just never imagined, ever, that he would call, but he did, and I did a couple of concerts with him. That was a great experience, and something I would love to have an opportunity to do again.

TP: Say a few words about drum styles, and playing with drummers, and the trombone as a rhythmic instrument.

SD: I know for a fact that Art loved the trombone. He used to play a certain way, and you can hear it particularly with Curtis on all those records. I think he inherently understood… The trombone is the underdog instrument, in a way, especially… I always refer to Curtis Fuller as such a role model. He stood next to people like Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, and transcended those limitations that the horn might present. It’s the last thing you think of when you hear Curtis playing…

TP: That there are any limitations.

SD: Whatsoever. His velocity and authority was astounding. A lot of it is just the timbre of the horn. It’s where the voice is for a male, which to me is the greatest thing about the horn. But that can get lost in the density of the music; sonically, you can lose the sound a little bit. And you’ve got more to travel. There’s more horn. You’re moving a slide with your arm and your wrist, as opposed to valves, so it’s physically more demanding to get around in terms of speed and articulation. Art had a way of goosing… He kind of prodded you and rooted for you, and gave you some stuff to play off of. It’s like riding a tidal wave. All you’ve got to do is stay on the surfboard, and all of a sudden you’re up here where you never thought you’d play.

TP: Talk about Elvin Jones a little bit in this regard.

SD: Elvin was different. Eddie Henderson warned me. He said, “Oh yeah, you’re going to play with Elvin?” He said, “Don’t try to assert the beat the same way you did with Buhaina, because it will be like stepping in quicksand.” I didn’t really figure that out well enough, I don’t think, at that time. I noticed there was a great similarity in just the sound of the drums. To me it was a similar feeling between Art and Elvin, but at the same time vastly different. Elvin didn’t play as loud as often. He could play kind of soft and sort of exposed you in a different way, which I think about all the time now. I just hope to have a chance some day to play with him again, but even if I don’t, I learned a lot just in those two hits.

TP: Then there were various little gigs here and there, that sort of thing?

SD: Yes. There’s a trumpeter named Kenny Rampton. He was Geoff Keezer’s roommate, and I used to hang at their pad in Brooklyn a lot. Kenny had a nice sextet with Sam Newsome and myself and Keezer and Dwayne Burno (Benny Green and for a while Chris McBride did some gigs) and Greg Hutchinson. We did a little like demo tape that I thought sounds pretty good actually, with a lot of Kenny’s music. So that was important for me at the time. We did Birdland and Visiones.

But there wasn’t a whole lot happening. I actually took a little part-time day job handing out flyers for Manhattan Podiatry. [LAUGHS] That’s the only day job I ever had to do.

TP: You joined Jackie when? What happened?

SD: He called and said there was going to be a potential opening back at the school, conducting the big band.

TP: You had a degree in music at this point.

SD: Yes. And I had been out of the school maybe three years. So I certainly hadn’t fashioned myself going back to Hartford so soon. But Jackie sort of indicated…

Well, one thing I’m forgetting before this is that I did meet Leon Parker in ’91, and I formed a group with him, Brad Mehldau, Ugonna Okegwo and Mark Turner on tenor. That was a huge part of my development at that point, particularly with Leon — we had gotten real tight.

Then Jackie had kind of extended this offer for teaching. Mary and I had moved to Rhode Island for a while just to kind of get our stuff together — we had gotten engaged. And Leon was living up in Rhode Island, just because he liked it. He just wanted get away from New York for a minute. We were in Westerley, and Leon was up around Newport and Providence, and we’d kind of band together. We started getting some little gigs. It was like a collective led group, but then it eventually was under my name and most of my music.

TP: So you were writing a lot at this time.

SD: Oh yes.

TP: You mentioned in the interview for One For All hearing Tony Williams’ band and being very impressed by the openness of the material. Talk a bit about the evolution of your writing.

SD: Obviously, Jackie and Hotep and Rene McLean had a huge influence on my compositional influence. As I mentioned, I was around everything. The three of them together in that band (under Jackie’s auspices) had a real sound happening, a real vibe.

TP: Let’s describe that sound. I haven’t heard any music that really sounds like those records, Rites of Passage and Dynasty.

SD: It’s really something. To me, it’s got so much in there. There’s such a recipe. There’s a lot of South African kind of influence in Rene’s and Hotep’s music, but at the same time those guys were both long-time New York cats through the ’60s and ’70s. So there’s to me a real earthy, but hip kind of thing. It’s very rhythmic. It’s hard to explain. I think the vamps and the rhythms and then the way chords move laterally kind of, then coming up with some melodies or lines over that, is real interesting to me. Like, with Jackie you might find a vamp-sounding thing… I think the goal is always to have something just a little different about it. Jackie’s music is always accessible, it’s catchy, but there’s some different stuff in there, some notes you wouldn’t expect, and little jagged edges here and there that makes it what it is — identifiable.

TP: You mentioned the ‘big room’ concept, that he may want to have it sound distinct, but he wants to really express your personality or not be too confined within that structure.

SD: Exactly. Believe me, Jackie can run some changes, and Rene can too. Like that tune “Jay Mac’s Dynasty,” that’s like some “Giant Steps” stuff, but then boom, you’re out there again. So there’s a temperament of kind of hitting you with some density, and then opening it up at the same time, so you encompass a lot.

TP: And there’s also a sort of Monkish, very specific rhythmic quality to what Jackie does, too.

SD: Yeah, and Rene… I think Rene is a tremendously important composer. He’s left-handed, and Hotep and Alan Palmer and Nat Reeves, all of them have said, “Southpaw, Rene. I forget!” He writes these wicked bass lines, and these guys are always groaning, “Oh, man, what are you doing to us?” Rene is very important to me — and Jackie, of course. They bridge the kind of outside and inside so nicely and with such integrity and honesty. Then Hotep’s writing, too, is terrific.

Anyway, if you take all that… Then I was kind of on my own after the Art Blakey-Elvin time, so I had no choice. I had to start a band, because I really wasn’t doing very much playing. Leon was sort of in the same boat, and we’re roughly the same age. It was a drastic switch, and all of a sudden Leon’s got me practicing duos where he’s just playing one little ride cymbal. Then I got into the Miles thing, and the suspended chords and what I’d mentioned about Tony Williams’ writing as one good example. I knew Brad Mehldau from Hartford, and I always liked the way you could hold a note, and he would dress it up and do some things. So we kind of got into that, and I was starting to write with all these things in mind.

TP: So you were into some very open stuff the whole way through.

SD: Yeah, I really was.

TP: So you joined Jackie, a position opened up at Hartt…

SD: Right. We were doing some stuff with that little group. We did a week at the Village Gate in early ’92, and made a demo tape that we were shopping but never got anywhere with it. I wasn’t satisfied with my own playing, but we did all my music. Anyway, it was funny, because Jackie kind of grabbed me, Mark Turner went with Delfeayo Marsalis and moved down to New Orleans, Leon was starting to get work with Tom Harrell and a whole bunch of different people, and Brad went with Josh Redman. So it just kind of went poof. But see, in retrospect, it all made perfect sense, and I got to come back and really fulfill my destiny, in a way, with Jackie, to really play in his band.

TP: It was the first time he’d really… Well, that’s not true, because all through the ’60s he was taking young players in New York and creating his sound around what they were doing with his ideas in a lot of ways, so I guess this band was an extension of that. But in New York, they weren’t his college students; they were young cats on the scene, though some were out of Juilliard or something. Let’s talk about the arc of the band musically from when you joined it through your six years playing with it.

SD: Okay. Well, Alan Palmer and Eric McPherson had come in the group about six months before, replacing Hotep and Carl, and they had done maybe one week at the Vanguard and a couple of little gigs. I remember it was somewhat of a struggle for Jackie at first; he had two very young cats, people loved that other band and everything. But as with any transition, it took a little time, and those guys learned quick. I think both of them are very special players, particularly Eric McPherson as a drummer. I mean, he’s got something going on that is very rare and unique, and I think he is going to become known as a pivotal young drummer. I have no doubt about that.

TP: All he needed to do was smooth off a rough edge or two.

SD: Sure. So anyway, that was very exciting. I always call Nat Reeves “Uncle Nat,” because he was kind of like our big brother. Especially when Rene wasn’t there, Nat kind of pulled all the rest of us up to a certain level, and particularly in the rhythm section he really pulled the other guys along and kind of helped them get it together.

We did the Rhythm of the Earth record right at the beginning. I had been in the mind like a few weeks. Jackie brought in Steve Nelson and Roy Hargrove as guests, which was smart, because I think that helped kind of smooth everything over. But then I’d say within a year after that we did a lot of touring as the front line with Rene, myself and Jackie (there was no trumpet yet) for about a year-and-a-half, in Europe, South Africa, the States. For me to become a third voice with Jackie and Rene, whereas Jackie hadn’t had another horn besides Rene for maybe twenty years before that, was such an honor. We basically played the Dynasty and Rites of Passage book, adding new things all the time, and then the Rhythm of the Earth stuff and some other things that we brought in that we never even recorded. But they already had it together. They had a sound. It sounded great without me. So I just found my own third parts.

TP: Were you investigating Grachan Moncur?

SD: Very much. Grachan, who I also know and greatly admire, he… You know the records. I once asked Jackie what he dug about Grachan, and he said, “His nerve,” which I thought was quite an answer. He liked his sparse approach, but Jackie liked that he had the nerve to try to do something that different — and he liked his writing a lot. He was a big inspiration to me to not always try to keep up, or don’t feel like you’ve got to play a million notes, and go ahead and stick some big colors out there. Go ahead, man, as long as you’ve got the ceiling.

See, being next to Jackie always made you feel special and that nobody could mess with you. You’re always scared, you’re always daunted, because he’s playing so much stuff it’s just ridiculous. But he always rooted for you. Every solo, man, you could feel him over there rooting for you. Every little thing you played meant something to him. If you crack some notes, who cares about that? “Nobody knows but you, man,” he used to say. “All my favorites, man. Lee, that was my baby; he could crack notes. Miles, K.D.” He just gave you that spirit, to go ahead and try.

TP: Now, this raises a couple of points for me. The ’70s was a great decade for the trombone, because people like Ray Anderson and George Lewis, and then people like Watrous on this other end of incredible technical capacity. But in terms of the open approach to the trombone, did you ever check out the former approach, like what George Lewis and Ray Anderson did with Anthony Braxton, taking advantage of the huge sonic possibilities.

SD: Yeah, Craig Harris, and Joseph Bowie I’ve heard a little. Sure, I’ve listened to some of that. But that was never really it for me. It was nice, but I wanted to play like Bud Powell and like… I wanted to be able to do that like Jackie, and play the lines and play the slick stuff and get up in there with those guys, with Woody Shaw — that kind of playing. Certainly Miles and Curtis do that. I know what you’re driving at… I like the spirit, but I don’t… Just as with the plunger, I love to listen to it, I love the spirit of it, and I want to get all that in my sound without literally having to do it.

TP: So you don’t want to be Tricky Sam, but you’d like to have a reference.

SD: I think you have to. How can you play the horn and not know something about Dickie Wells and Lawrence Brown and Jack Teagarden, as much as they played, and with that feeling and lyricism. I love it.

TP: A second point. You’re talking about Jackie saying it’s okay to crack a note or “no one knows but you.” I think one characteristic that’s often been noted about the generation you’re roughly involved with is almost the fear of failure as like a reason not to stretch, because they’re not going to do it right.

SD: Oh yeah. I want to get to that point where I feel totally comfortable with just playing. Actually, going out with Chick is going to be a really great experience in that regard. We did that week at the Blue Note, and they recorded it, and they’re going to put out a CD, and all of us just couldn’t believe it — like, “No, you’re not recording already; we hardly played together; my God, a live record, the music’s so hard.” Chick said, “you know, one of the liabilities you have to take in being an improvising musician is you have to accept the fact that some nights, sometimes it’s going to go nowhere — to you. It’s going to feel like this is going nowhere. So let it go nowhere. Then the next night, the next set, the next tune, you try again.” I felt there was so much wisdom in that. He’s been through it, and he’s a guy that wants to take chances. You wouldn’t necessarily lump Jackie McLean and Chick Corea together, but that’s something that I see in common, that they’re artists, they’re going to be daring, they’re going to let the work show, they’re going to let the flaws be there and make it become part of the music. And you’re absolutely right that our generation… When you hear some of these recordings from the mid and late ’60s, you just say, there’s no way we would do that in this day and age if we’re in the studio, and say it’s some up-tempo thing and the time got kind of funny, and then it just kind of disintegrates into some free-sounding stuff — everyone would stop the take and say, “No, man, this sucks; this is unacceptable.”

I think there’s a lot of good values to that, to really trying to… I think we’ve all kind of slowly but surely raised the overall level of expectations in each other, what you’re supposed to be able to do and handle. But at the same time, there’s a spirit in the process that’s maybe lacking. I think you nailed something on the head. I’m still going through trying to really play good, just play good melodies and learn how to swing and play changes well. But eventually, I’d like to move to a point where I’m not so conscious of that, and thinking about more artistic kind of things, and let it be what it’s going to be.

But right now for me, particularly with the One For All guys and some of these Criss-Cross dates, it’s been a great experience just trying to make good, solid records that are going to stand the test of time, but still you’re trying to lay it out, with no baloney.


I’ve yet to really flesh out my own original music, and especially the chance to record with Harold Mabern is a privilege right there… I keep thinking that no matter what I get to eventually, I’ll always like to play pretty melodies and try to swing too much to not do it. There’s something about it, that you like it too much to just abandon it or sacrifice it in the name of something else.

Jackie McLean on Steve Davis, 1998:

TP: What do you remember about Steve when he came to Hartt?

JM: He just came with his parents, like most students do, to go to school. That’s when he enrolled in my program, and that’s how I met him. I was very impressed with him. Mostly that I liked the background that he had in the music. He had a good concept and a good understanding of the music, and a great appreciation, plus he’s a very-very nice young man.

TP: He obviously developed a lot, because eventually he came into your band. Can you discuss his progress over the years?

JM: Well, he didn’t waste any time at school. We spent an awful lot of time together. He would come to my saxophone ensembles with his trombone and play, and he was there all the time. He was an A-student, he was great in his ensemble work, incredible in the large orchestra under Mr. Al Lepack’s(?) leadership, and he just took advantage of all the opportunities that the school offered him. Then when you link that with his natural talent, you see the result.

TP: Did you stay in touch with him between when he left Hartt and rejoined you in ’92?

JM: He never went anywhere. I got him a job immediately. He never left Hartt. The first thing I did for Steve is when Art Blakey needed a trombone player, I recommended him. But he never left Hartford, and he’s still teaching there.

TP: So you were always in touch with Steve.

JM: Yeah. From the time he walked in the door, we’ve been in touch with each other.

TP: Talk about the events that caused you to ask him to join your band.

JM: Ted, it’s very simple. When I hear somebody who plays at a particular level, and I like their concept and I like the way they write, the way Steve does… Steve writes wonderful, plays wonderful. There’s nothing other than that. Just “come on and let’s try to play some music together.”

TP: But it augmented your ensemble in a lot of ways. You were starting a new band. It was kind of a transitional time at that time?

JM: No, it just happened. He was up in Canada, and I told him to come play with me at a concert. I had our quartet, and he came and played. Then Rene and I had our quintet, and we added him to that, and he played there for a while. Then he just stayed with me all that time.

TP: He said that one of the great things he got from you that he thinks he’s brought to some of the contemporaries he’s worked with, is your idea of the “big room,” taking small cells of material, and then expanding on it. Did he always have that facility, to be very creative within the situations you present?

JM: He’s very talented in many-many ways. His ability to write music the way he does, his great feeling for harmony and colors… He’s another young great musician developing and playing very well.

TP: Was Grachan Moncur the last trombonist you worked with before Steve?

JM: Yes, he was the first trombonist after Grachan.

TP: How do you hear his playing evolving from when he began to work with the ensemble in 1992 to now?

JM: It’s very difficult to put into words how somebody grows. He’s playing better. He came to the school playing very well for a freshman, and over the four years he was there, his playing… It’s like he was always in my band, I felt like, because we were always playing together, not on the bandstand so much, but around the school, at my house, in different places. Yeah, he’s grown, just like everybody grows. He’s grown immensely. He’s a wonderful musician. He’s one of my favorite trombone players of all time, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t matter that he’s not my contemporary. I like his sound, I like the way he writes. He’s just a very special musician.

TP: Anything else you want to say about Steve?

JM: Well, I’m just very much in love with him, and his wife, Mary, who is also very talented. His wife is a wonderful musician, great piano player, and his little boy, Anthony… He’s part of my family. I feel like he’s part of my existence. He’s magnificent and wonderful. I feel great that I’ve had this relationship with him, first as a student and now as a colleague and a compatriot in the music. Just because right now we’re not playing together so much doesn’t mean that we’re not going to play together in the future. I’m looking forward to hearing Steve more at some future time.


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Filed under Interview, Jackie McLean, Steve Davis, Trombone

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

I recently allowed the 66th birthday of Paquito D’Rivera, the singularly talented woodwindist (alto saxophone and clarinet) and composer, to pass without posting the texts of these two articles that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The first one covers a spectacular 50th anniversary as a musician concert in 2005 at which Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Candido, Yo Yo Ma, Rosa Passos, Portinho, Dave Samuels, the New York Voices, and Bill Cosby, among others, performed; the second, generated by DownBeat award for “Best Clarinetist of 2009,” contains a long interview and a prefatory essay.

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Paquito D’Rivera Article from 2005:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paquito D’Rivera Piece From 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classical and some swing also, because of Benny Goodman.

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

Yes, especially because of Parker.

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

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

Do you mean feel physically?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Did you play percussion instruments when you were younger?

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

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

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

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

A normal country. That’s all we want.

By what process? What’s a realistic scenario?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-2-02):

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

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

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

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

TP:    Putting your foot in cement?

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

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

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

TP:    And it was a great hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  A respect for knowledge.

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

SHAW:  At 15.

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

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

TP:    What did they do for work?

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

TP:    Had they come here from Russia?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  C-melody saxophone.

TP:    And you had an instant affinity for it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  1929 I  came to New York.

TP:    And you instantly found work.

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

TP:    Because of the union?

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

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

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

TP:    Would you describe the atmosphere there?

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

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

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

TP:    You’ll be bored?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.

TP:    Art Shaw.  Excuse me.

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

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

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

TP:    Since we can’t talk about Harlem…

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

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

SHAW:  What’s that?

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

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

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

SHAW:  Savoy Ballroom.

TP:    The Savoy Ballroom in Chicago.

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

TP:    How long did you stay in Chicago?

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

TP:    And you heard him again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  In Chicago.

TP:    Yes, in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes, that’s right.

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

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

TP:    So whatever stylistic differences critics and historians ascertain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did it all have equal value?

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

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

SHAW:  Yeah.

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

SHAW:  All of that.

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

SHAW:  You could call me an autodidact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Mine?

TP:    Yours.

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

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

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

TP:    Yes, I understand.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  All right.

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

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

TP:    Kropotkin and…

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I wouldn’t argue with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I try to be.

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you had unmitigated success for a while.

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

TP:    Why was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Was it Freudian psychoanalysis?

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

TP:    On the couch?

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So it was with a Freudian psychoanalyst.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That’s a good lesson.

SHAW:  It sure is.

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

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

TP:    Did you have problems in the North?

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  That was the only thing I cared about.

TP:    What were those qualities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Ken Burns.

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

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

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

TP:    In the sense of amoral or asexual…

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of things?

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

TP:    What sort of extremes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You like them.

SHAW:  Yeah. They’re good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  You mean “Tunisia”?

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

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

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

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

TP:    What about Charlie Parker?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How about Ellington?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you know Ellington?

SHAW:  Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Well, maybe call it the decadence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you feel that denoted a character flaw.

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

TP:    Do you play any musical instrument now?

SHAW:  Well, I play piano a little bit.

TP:    Do you practice it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * *

Artie Shaw (4-16-02):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Miles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I think.  The media darling thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That band had a very stimulating repertoire.

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

TP:    By which arrangers?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Which band was that?

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

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

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

TP:    He could seduce everybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Cranky.

TP:    …curt with people or…

SHAW:  I’m cranky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Jack Jenney.

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

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

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

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

TP:    You organized that band because of IRS problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  It happens with Heifetz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Oh, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Jackson Pollock?

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

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

SHAW:  They’re all improvisation.

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

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

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

TP:    Do you think of music as a language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Musically you knew who you were.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure did.

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

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

TP:    So you were about 26 years old.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  Sure.  In Cleveland.

TP:    That’s amazing.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Yeah, right.

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

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

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

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

TP:    And you were 16 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  That’s right.

TP:    What was that airplane flight like?

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

TP:    That was your first time in California.

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Yes, I played with all those people.

TP:    What was your impression of Jimmie Noone?

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

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

SHAW:  No, I never did hear him.

TP:    Earl Hines you played with as well.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How did you like playing tenor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You never can anticipate.  You never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  They don’t know much else.

TP:    They’re not particularly well-read.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Which sounds almost Buddhist.

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

TP:    More than you would think.

SHAW:  Well, now they’re…

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

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

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

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

TP:    You’d be losing a lot.

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

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

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

TP:    Psychologically?

SHAW:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  You’re generalizing here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    It sounds very utopian.

SHAW:  Read Huxley’s “The Island.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Yes, but consider the alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  Well, what does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    As opposed to the Ashkenazi Jew?

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

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

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

TP:    Were you telling the truth?

SHAW:  Yes!

TP:    So you did think of yourself as Jewish.

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

TP:    And were any of your wives Jewish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHAW:  I helped her.  I helped get started.

TP:    How did you do that?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    About Sinatra?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How long have you been living unattached?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But did any filmmakers or films enrich you in the manner of Thomas Mann or Faulkner?

SHAW:  As in every other endeavor, there are better and worse.

TP:    Well, who are some of the better, in your opinion?

SHAW:  I think Jack Ford was good.  I think Huston made a fine picture with “The Maltese Falcon.”  He made a good picture with “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”  Well, there have been a number of good directors.  But I don’t really care much.  I know too much about the workings of the film business, and I can sort of read between the scenes and say, “Well, he did this because of so-and-so…”  You know, the suits run the business, just like they run the record business today.

TP:    Oh, always.  It’s even more sophisticated than it was with the marketing and the testing and changing the ending and all that.

SHAW:  The record business has suffered enormously because of that?

TP:    Well, what constitutes your pleasure these days?  Is it primarily reading and discussion?

SHAW:  Reading, reading, reading.  Talking to people, having good conversations, looking out at the world, and looking at the sunrise and sunset.  Wild ducks live near my house.  I have a pool back there, and they go in the pool.  I don’t know, what can I say?  You just live your life and do the best you can.  I live with the phenomena of the world, and in some wonder mostly.  I am beset with wonder.

TP:    You’ve been working on a long autobiographical novel for many years.

SHAW:  Well, it’s a novel.

TP:    A long novel.

SHAW:  Yes.

TP:    With someone who may or may not be a protagonist or a stand-in for you or a fictionalized you.

SHAW:  Well, the book is, like any other fictional book, permeated by me.

TP:    Is the book close to completion?

SHAW:  I’ve written it.  It’s 95 pages [sic: chapters] long, and at the end he’s only 25.

TP:    How much have you cut?

SHAW:  I’m cutting, cutting, cutting right now.  I’m up to chapter… Let’s see, what chapter did I just finish cutting.  Chapter 48, I think.  We’re going to try to get down to Chapter 60, and my editor, who is a woman at Knopf, will then take the book and present it.

TP:    You have 60 chapters in… You didn’t say 95 pages, did you?

SHAW:  I said 95 chapters.

TP:    I thought you said pages.

SHAW:  No, chapters.

TP:    I couldn’t quite correlate.  I thought you were joking with me.

SHAW:  It’s a big, big, long tome.  But I can’t write it shorter.  It would not make any sense.

TP:    Do you use the computer?

SHAW:  Yes, when I write.  Right now I’ve got a different system.  Larry, my assistant… I take some material that I’ve got down, and that I’ve edited as much as I can, and pencil out pages, and then I give it to him and he types it up.  He’s got it all in the computer.  So he fixes the pages and sends them back to me.  Two or three exchanges, then I put it away.

TP:    Computers are amazing.

SHAW:  Then you go into the pre-publication trauma of editing and whatever.  Have you read that book of Stephen King’s called “On Writing”?

TP:    No, I haven’t.

SHAW:  It’s a helluva book.  It’s the best book of its kind I’ve read.  He’s a very smart guy.

TP:    Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, Saul Bellow I have reservations about.  Since he won the Nobel Prize.  Before that, he was a good writer.

TP:    Do you think it went to his head?

SHAW:  Well, there’s no question that it did.

TP:    Well, you would know, wouldn’t you.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure do.  I know that you have to be very, very careful about success.  There’s nothing worse than failure, except success.

TP:    Well, you probably haven’t failed at very many things except the marriages.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, I have!  You don’t know about my failures.

TP:    Can you reveal one or two for us?

SHAW:  Well, there are lots of failures that I don’t publicize.  You can’t do everything well.

TP:    As I was researching you on the Web, I found a project that Buddy DeFranco and Tom Rainier are undertaking…

SHAW:  They did do it.

TP:    Is it that they’re extracting your solos from the backdrop and creating new backgrounds for them?

SHAW:  I have certain reservations.

TP:    How did it come about?

SHAW:  Buddy wanted to do it.  His mantra is, “You haven’t heard the end of Artie Shaw yet.”  So this one record they made was on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which is a tune I never played. It wasn’t published while I was playing.  They used various riffs of mine and fit it in.

TP:    And created a solo out of your…

SHAW:  Not a solo, but various fill-ins, and not really… I have very mixed feelings about it.  I think it’s a little creepy.

TP:    Well, this is something that’s almost a commonplace in the digital age.

SHAW:  Yeah.  But it’s going to cost an awful lot to do.  They’ll need a lot of money to do this, because it’s not an easy undertaking.

TP:    You have a very rare perspective on the trajectory of our technology.  You were born around the time when electricity became commonplace, and now you’re living in the age of digital technology still in full possession of your faculties.

SHAW:  Like all things, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

TP:    What do you think are the advantages of digital technology?

SHAW:  The advantages are you can change anything into anything you want.  You can do the same piece and make a different ending, a better ending, and put it on there.  You can make a better riff here.  If a singer misses a high-D, they can put a high-D in there.  All of that is good, I suppose.

TP:    Do you think that’s a good thing, or do you think some imperfection is…

SHAW:  Well, I was coming to that.  It’s good for the singer, but it’s bad in the sense that we don’t get any spontaneity any more.  It’s like Vermeer.  Once a guy starts copying Vermeer, it gets to the point where you never know, when you look at a Vermeer, whether it’s real or a copy.  There’s a rumor out that most of the paintings in museums are copies.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  If you want to democratize art, then I guess it’s good, because anybody can own a Vermeer.  But if you want to see the original, I don’t know the answers.  There’s a certain spontaneity in jazz that is lost.

TP:    On recordings?

SHAW:  Well, when you start doing that, you fix something.  And sometimes the error is part of the deal.

TP:    What do you think you’d have done in 1938 or 1940 if you’d had digital technology available to you?

SHAW:  There were certain things I did that I didn’t particularly care for as much as others.  But I never let a record out that I thought was no good.

TP:    But what I’m getting at is, given the option to use digital technology to create…

SHAW:  I don’t think I would have done that.  I didn’t use digital technology in my last group, and it was available.  The 1953-54 Gramercy 5.

TP:    It wasn’t digital technology.

SHAW:  They had digital technology.  You could cut things out.

TP:    You could splice, but it was a different process.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t know. I get lost in all these…

TP:    Well, it’s easy to get lost in those things.  I’ve taken a lot of your time, and I should probably let you go.

SHAW:  Well, why not?  Maybe you’ll regroup for the next time.

TP:    I’d love for there to be a next time, although I don’t think there has to be for this particular piece.  You were talking about listening to jazz music today…

SHAW:  First of all, I hate the word “jazz.”  I wish we could find a better term.  American improvisational music.

TP:    But we can’t call it that.  Because now we have good musicians from all over the world playing it.

SHAW:  Well, then there’s French improvisation, there’s Dutch, there’s German…

TP:    But it’s a real hybrid.  I don’t know if it’s so evident on the West Coast, but in New York…

SHAW:  The word “jazz” is used as a catch-all, and unfortunately it does not include when you’ve got the extremes today…what’s his name, the alto player who plays with Mehldau…a black alto player… Anyway, if you’re going to include him and you’re going to include Bessie Smith under the same rubric, I don’t know what “Jazz” means.  It’s too broad a word.

TP:    By the way, I gather you were friendly with John Carter, the clarinettist.

SHAW:  I knew him.

TP:    What did you think of the avant-garde music, Ornette Coleman…

SHAW:  I can’t listen to it.  It’s like I can’t read… I’ve tried, but I can’t read William Burroughs.  He’s a good writer, but he writes shit I don’t want to hear about.  Rectal mucus?  I don’t want to hear about that?  I don’t need that.  It’s not what I would consider in any way informative or in any way broadening.  It’s the same thing with a lot of jazz.  I hear it, and I think, “who are they playing for?”  I just threw out a book.  I very rarely do this.  I was talking about yesterday to this scientist, and he said, “Yeah, I know this guy.”  He’s a guy at Yale, and he writes a book called “The Miracle of Existence.”  Well, that’s a good title.  So I pick it up and I find myself reading the same sentence four-five-six times, and saying, “What does that mean?”  I finally concluded that he’s writing for other scientists to show them how smart he is.

TP:    Academicians write for other academicians.

SHAW:  That’s right.  Well, those jazz players are playing for other jazz players.

TP:    You’re referring to a certain group.

SHAW:  I’m talking about the new ones.  People send me CDs of their stuff, and I don’t know what they want me to do.  I ask them, “Why do you send me that CD?  I don’t send you mine.”

TP:    You said that among the people you like these days are Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap…

SHAW:  Phil Woods.  There are good players.  But I don’t know what the hell they expect an audience to do.  I mean, they get off into something that they lengthen the phrases from 8 bars to 10 or 12, they change the chord structure, they drop the melody entirely… And what are they doing?  What is the average person going to make of this?  So they lose their audience.  What they’re doing… I told you my definition of a fugue.  Instruments come in one by one, and the audience walks out one by one.  Well, this is what’s happening with jazz.  They’re down to 3% of the buying public now.

TP:    1.8% actually.

SHAW:  That’s a pretty low percentage.  And see, Rock came along and Rock met a specific need.  You don’t like it, you don’t think they’re doing anything, but they are perceivable.  They are perceptible.  The audience can identify with what they’re hearing.  So I’m afraid that jazz has painted itself into a corner.  It’s okay.  Modern Art did the same thing, and then it got talked up and people are buying it.  That may be true with certain jazz clubs.  But you’re not going to get rich playing modern jazz.

TP:    No, but there are so many people who continue to do it.  It’s a source of fascination to me.

SHAW:  Well, they do it because they have no other choice.  What else can they do?  What, for example…this alto player, I can’t think of his name, a black guy who works with…a young guy… I don’t know what he’s trying to do.  He starts playing harmonics above the alto range, and they play a whole tune on that.  Well, you can do the same thing with a soprano sax.  So I don’t know what the point of that is.  Is it an attempt to show your dexterity?  I’m afraid that’s a large part of it.  Look at how many things I can do on this instrument.  And the audience is not particularly concerned with that.

TP:    It’s interesting, because the act of playing jazz extended the range of many instruments.  The brass instruments and saxophones were certainly taken above their…

SHAW:  I don’t know what the advantage is in playing high F above C.  What is the advantage?  I don’t know why one needs to do that.  It’s dexterity.  “Look what I can do” is what you’re saying.  And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting to the non-playing audience.  So they’ve painted themselves sort of out of an audience.  It’s the same thing as Pollock.  Pollock would never be heard if you haven’t had those Greenbergs and those other guys, the critics…

TP:    But what’s interesting is that now it looks logical to people.  I felt very dubious about Pollock, and I saw the retrospective a few years ago and found myself very moved by it and responding to it.

SHAW:  Well, I find myself saying, “what’s the point?”  The same thing… There’s a guy named Varnedoe…

TP:    Kirk Varnedoe, the curator at MOMA?

SHAW:  Yes.  And he talks about Art and language that I sometimes have to say, “What is he trying to say?”

TP:    He’s trying to market it and up its value and make collectors think they’re doing something daring and ahead of the curve on the ordinary person.

SHAW:  Yes.  He talks about acquiring a Matisse for the Museum of Modern Art.  You show a picture of that Matisse to most people, and they don’t know what they’re looking at.  That doesn’t mean Matisse wasn’t a good painter.  But they call it “ravishing.”  What do you mean by that?

TP:    You quit when you were 44.  Of your audience, how many appreciated you for what you were actually doing, and how many were looking at an image and not understanding anything?

SHAW:  I don’t think that was a question that occurred to me.  I wasn’t thinking in those terms.  I was thinking very privately between me and the men in the band… Like in the last group.  Hank Jones and I had a great rapport, and we did things together that felt right.  If you listen to a record called “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” we did things on that that I don’t think you can do better.  Good record.  So you say, “Well, what can you do more?”  And at the same time, I think it’s musical.  An audience can respond to that.

TP:    Well, it’s a very complex life.

SHAW:  It is indeed.  So we do the best we can, that’s all, and hope for some kind of recognition.  It’s as simple as that.  The bigger the recognition, the better pay you get.  But I am no longer interested in that.  I would like to see the records go out and sell.  But if they don’t sell much, well, so be it — I did the best I could do.


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

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

* * *

Keith Jarrett (10-10-00):

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You played “John’s Abbey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You can’t get that vocal inflection.

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

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

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

TP:    Ah, so there goes my theory.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Yes, that’s true.

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Okay.  Well…let’s see…

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

JARRETT:  Well, that makes it harder to answer.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Or prisoners of their own cliches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  You mean every time we played.

TP:    Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Is practice and performance very different for you?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You seem to listen voraciously to your output.

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

TP:    That was ’96 to ’98?


TP:    So no piano for two years.

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


* * *

Keith Jarrett (9-20-01):

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

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

TP:    On October 10th, to be precise.

JARRETT:  That was after this tour.

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

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

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

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

TP:    You changed the way it was behaving.

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

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

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

TP:    Oh, you don’t.

JARRETT:  Not often.  It’s all old.

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

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

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

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

TP:    Further in what sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Maybe you can rephrase?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    It was pretty rubato.

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  The technique.

TP:    Talk about how the technique is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Say that again.

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

TP:    When you play Classical music?

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

TP:    Then you want to improvise.

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

TP:    Do you practice jazz?

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

TP:    But you practiced Classical music.


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

JARRETT:  It feels kind of stupid to practice jazz.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  I’m sure he said yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Possibly.  I know what you mean.

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

JARRETT:  No, I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

TP:    Why do we need it?

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

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

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

JARRETT:  Paul was like younger than I was!

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

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

TP:    How about the years with Charles Lloyd?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JARRETT:  In this one recording.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I mean in any playing.

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

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

JARRETT:  Obviously, if I had to have a substitute player for either of them, I would be cancelling the concert.  So I guess I would prefer to be playing with them.

TP:    Jack does magical things.  The sounds he gets out of that drumset… It’s so quick.

JARRETT:  Oh, definitely.  Well, when you hear the Tokyo tapes, we all sound like we disappeared.  But me less than them, because unfortunately it’s pretty hard to make the piano elastic.  It keeps popping back into being a lever system.  But Jack becomes not the “Jack deJohnette, drummer” that everybody knows.  Gary has done a lot of different things, so… But I have the feeling that our identities become erased in the quality of energy we’re working with.  In our situation, though, I still think that because my instrument is the chordal one, if there are any guidelines… I mean, if there’s any moment when there’s a slump coming up or we feel something is not there, the only person who can suggest tonality, or a lack of it, or direction, or motion, or dynamics in any quick and coherent way that could be grasped by the other two is the piano.

TP:    On Inside Out how did you decide on how you sequenced the document?

JARRETT:  It’s in sequence, except that the fadeout then leads to the end of the next night’s set.  The encore was one of the few encores we did.  There wasn’t any more room on the CD.

TP:    On “Riot” are you fading into something or coming out of something?

JARRETT:  We’re fading in on this thing that was already about 25 minutes long.  That was just crazy.

TP:    Were the concerts on the 26th and 28th completely different in pacing, content, etc.?

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the first two tracks are absolutely the way it went down the first night.  So that’s the first set, I think.

TP:    The third piece?

JARRETT:  I think that’s the beginning of the second set the same night.  “Riot” was the second night.

TP:    On Saturday I took my first trip to Manhattan since the bombing.  The only subway line I can now use goes through the Chambers Street station which abutted the World Trade Center.  The first track was on my headphones as I was going through this now ghost station, and it had a quality that made me very happy I was listening to it at that particular moment.  It’s a spooky thing; everyone was dropping their New York attitude and peering out the windows into the station as they’re going through.

JARRETT:  It’s actually a funny album title to be coming out at this exact moment.  Everything has sort of turned that way, hasn’t it.

I don’t think I can do justice to covering these guys’ personalities!  We’ve been together for so long.  I don’t know if I even think of them as…  I had this cutesy way of describing them.  It was in the Downbeat article.  Whatever I said about it then, I guess I must have thought about it ahead of time, and was more correct, at least in a semi-humorous kind of way.  But these are deep players.  Personality is what we’re trying to get away from when we play.  And we’re of course limited by being who we are, but that’s a tough one.  they’re just too beautiful to use an adjective for them.

TP:    There must be some innate characteristic of that personality, because it’s obviously you and it’s obviously Gary Peacock and it’s obviously Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the hardest to describe for any of us would be ourselves.  So I could say that Gary tends to be on the scientific, he-doesn’t-like-belief-systems side of things, which is good for him, and it works for him, and I need that.  Jack is in some ways the… In Gurdjieff there was a thing about Third Force.  There was a positive, negative and harmonizing force.  In some ways, Jack is a harmonizing force, and a…I don’t know what to… An inclusionary… He’s inclusionary.  But nothing is great on its  own.  No one word makes that person as great as I feel they are.  You know what I mean?

But it’s a challenging thing for me to think of.  Because when we play together, there’s an alchemy going on, and that alchemy comes from — to some extent, of course — the chemical and psychological natures of all three of us..  As you said, we are different people.  But it’s that chemical combination that I see more than I see our separateness.  So when I think of us as separate people, yeah, I know what my tendencies are in conversation, and what Gary’s are and what Jack’s are.  If Gary and I are having an intense debate about whether there’s one Truth or many, Jack might be the guy who says, “Okay, let’s go have some coffee somewhere.”  But the thing is that it all drops away when we play.  But on the other hand, those intense conversations don’t happen any more.  We’ve been together for so long and we’ve all learned so much during that time, that we’re now not who we were back at the other Downbeat article.  We’ve grown since then.  When Gary and I talk now, we get to some incredibly beautiful, deep places, and we understand each other’s language.  Sometimes it takes 18 years to understand somebody’s language.

TP:    It can take a lifetime.

JARRETT:  Yeah, and you keep interpreting it wrong.  Gary used to interpret several words wrong, and I think it’s because of his upbringing and religion; he doesn’t have a good feeling about the word “God” or anything like that.  Jack doesn’t mind those words.  I kind of do.  So it’s a nice combination where it all ends up being neutral, and it’s time to play…

TP:    I suppose that process is a metaphor for what happens in the musical language as well over 18 years — the conversation and the dialogue and the understanding evolve to that kind of collective simplicity.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  And trust.

TP:    You cut through a lot of the verbosity or whatever, not that the trio was verbose… That’s an interesting coda you’re giving me.

JARRETT:  I’m trying to.  Because I don’t think that one-word thing is really cool at all.

TP:    Oh, I wasn’t asking for one word at all.

JARRETT:  That was my choice.  I was trying to think of the words I had thought of before.  We’ve been watching each other grow all that time.  So it’s sort of like we’re friends and we’ve been together this long, but it’s also like we were watching kids grow up — and we’re one of the kids.  When we play, we’re morphing into more and more of what we could have been before, but we didn’t know it yet.

TP:    How much more in this year and the early part of next year is the trio scheduled to tour?

JARRETT:  We have five concerts in the States, and that’s it for the rest of this year, and nothing planned for 2002.  I have an ongoing physical monitoring system, and I have to take time off to make sure everything is…

TP:    Can you comment a bit on your physical well-being these days?

JARRETT:  Well, except for these disk problems, which I’ve had for years, which is really on my case, and I’m trying to avoid surgery…

TP:    Was that exacerbated by the CFS?

JARRETT:  No.  That was exacerbated by music.  Better not to put this in the article in case I want to get insurance.  But I am still on the medications for the bacterial parasite that I was being treated for…

TP:    Are those allopathic or homeopathic.

JARRETT:  They’re major medical, like antibiotics and stuff..

TP:    So you’re on a constant diet of antibiotics and stuff.

JARRETT:  All I can tell you is that I believe if I hadn’t gone on this protocol, you wouldn’t have heard any more from me.


JARRETT:  Are you aware of the anagram of “Riot”?  It’s easy but I bet no one is going to think of it.  “Trio.” [LAUGHS] How do you like that?  It’s one of those that’s just too simple.

TP:    Can you tell me what your daily regimen is?

JARRETT:  Besides the 79 charcoal pills?  Now, sometimes because of my shoulder and my back, I have to not have this regimen at all.  But here’s the day.  I get up (I won’t tell you what time, because that’s not fair).  I have breakfast, and then I almost every day take a very brisk treadmill or outdoor walk, depending on the weather, for 2-1/2 miles or so.  Then I do some stretches and exercises for my upper body, which I really can’t… I usually have  to see the chiropractor every day, and I usually practice in the evenings, 45 minutes to whatever amount of time.

TP:    What have you been working on lately?

JARRETT:  Just moving my fingers.  I’ve been just playing tunes in the studio.  Sometimes the Goldberg Variations.  That’s it.  I’m going to get my studio worked on, and I’ll try to get that practicing in before it all goes down.

So it’s a very boring day.  Then I always read at night.  That’s a must.  What am I reading now?  If you saw the house, there are so many books around that people often ask, “Did you read all of these?”  And I have to say, “Not all of them, but more than you think.”  I got involved with a writer named Gene Wolfe, and I am surprised about this guy.  I’m trying to give him as much space and as much time as possible.  If you saw the book in a bookstore… If you were me, you would never buy a book with a cover like these.  They look like these…what do you call them…these Quest novels, like Ursula Leguin type… But the guy is into some stuff that I feel is very good for the mind, and I actually recommend him, but you have to meet him halfway.  So let him do what he’s doing and be patient.  But I think anybody who’s read good writing eventually realizes how great this guy’s writing is.

TP:    Have you tended over the years to be more involved in fiction or non-fiction or both?

JARRETT:  Both.  If I had to say which I’ve read more of, I’d say fiction.

TP:    Any favorite writers?

JARRETT:  A lot of them.

TP:    Tell me a couple.

JARRETT:  Robert Musil.  Calvino.

TP:    A true skeptic, Robert Musil was.

JARRETT:  Yes.  He was also interested in Sufism, which I didn’t realize until I read his book twice.  I read Antonio Demassio, who writes about the brain and how we perceive things  That’s a mindblower in itself.  That’s neuroscience, not fiction.  But one of the books is titled “The Feeling Of What Happens.”

I have two kids.  One of them is 30 already.


* * *

Keith Jarrett (Sept. 9, 2008):

TP:   How does it feel to be inducted into Downbeat’s Hall of Fame?

KJ:   I was getting Downbeat when I was a teenager, and I’m aware of the magazine’s deep roots and history, and of the people who are there. So yes, it’s meaningful, as far as people thinking my work is important. But if I think of what fame means right now, it’s not so meaningful! Years ago, in Vienna, when I was about to do a solo concert, the press was interested in talking to me and I did an interview with Der Spiegel. One of their first questions was, “What is it like to be a star?” I said, “Man, that is out of somebody else’s book, not mine.” Then also, I remember, at the only class reunion I ever went to, the question was, “So, are you successful?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “So are you making a lot of money?” So these words like “fame” and “star” have relative meaning. If you were asking, “What’s it like to get a Grammy?”, I’d think, “No.” It would be the beginning of the descent from the mountain.

TP:    In his biography of you, Ian Carr places the beginnings of your obsession with jazz to your late adolescence in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when your parents divorced, and you began doing little gigs in town.

KJ:   When I was around 14, which is when my parents were having trouble, I had a remarkably good classical teacher, but once a week I had to take a little time off from the end of the school day and to drive to Philadelphia for the lesson. She was a firm believer in my not spreading the peanut butter thin. In other words, she didn’t like that I was interested in anything else but the Debussy or the Beethoven that I was studying with her. Strangely, in about a week-and-a-half in Philadelphia, I’ll be playing again in what turns out to be where she used to live, and it will be jazz.

Allentown was a cultural vacuum. There was one record store, I think, called Speedy’s Record Shop. As a kid, I had an allowance maybe, but we didn’t have much money. Occasionally, I would play classical concerts for the local women’s club, and I’d save as much as I could to look for new things that I knew nothing about. Every now and then my brother and I would try to sneak records out of the stores, because we couldn’t afford them. It’s not easy to steal a record! We got caught once, which wasn’t fun. Of course, the selection for pianists was between Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn, and also Errol Garner and Brubeck. One pivotal moment came when I found the Ahmad Jamal white album. I didn’t know who Ahmad was, but it looked interesting. Years after the trio was already a working band, Gary, Jack and I started talking about the album, and found we’d all had the same experience with it. I was playing drums at the time, and I got my drumming together through emulating Vernell Fournier’s great brush playing in the sparse spaces of Ahmad’s music. It was my introduction to actual jazz versus popular jazz.

After high school, when I was in Boston, trying to go to Berklee, I got a job with a vocalist in the upstairs lounge of the Jazz Workshop. Herb Pomeroy, who was my big band instructor, was playing downstairs, and one night when Ray Santisi, who was one of my piano teachers, hadn’t shown up, Herb asked me if I wanted to play. Pete LaRoca was playing drums, He was my favorite drummer at the time, and this was just too much to conceive of. If Ray hadn’t shown up, I would never have gone back upstairs. It was the most beautiful way to go through the gate, to the nirvana place that one would want to be.  That was my first world-class connection as far as actually playing jazz.

TP:   By then, you were probably up on what Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner were doing…

KJ:   No, I wasn’t. In the beginning, I was pretty conservative. I hadn’t heard Coltrane yet—or at least I hadn’t liked Coltrane yet. People would say, “You must be listening to Bill a lot.” “Bill who?” “Bill Evans.” I had heard him, but wasn’t feeling like I was in that direction. Actually, I’d heard Bill when I came through Boston on a summer bus tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. I won’t make any derogatory statements about that experience, except that it was, in all ways, terrible—except that some of the people were nice. They realized that I was talented. They also respected that I was resisting the urge to do something inappropriate for the musical format, restraining myself from being a crazy person in this situation. That made it worthwhile to do those things for a certain amount of time. I think it’s a mistake for people always to be able do what they want. I think my sons see my career as always having my way. But that’s because they were born after all this other stuff.

TP:   Early on, did you know that music would be your life?

KJ:   Yes. I had a very normal childhood, because that’s the way I wanted it most of the time, and when I did classical lessons, since I wanted to go out and play sports with my friends, I’d turn forward the timer on the kitchen stove, as my grandmother wasn’t paying much attention. But when my mother or father would discover I’d done 2 or 2½ hours instead of the mandatory three, they’d say, “Then we’ll have to sell the piano.” For all I knew, they were serious—my father was a real estate man and probably had enough, but he had five kids, and if the piano wasn’t being used… That stopped me in my tracks. I would think, “No, that’s not an option.” When I was 8, I got my first grand piano, after actually paying for it myself from concerts in Allentown. I slept under it in order to be able to play it immediately upon waking up.

Q: You seem to have been quite focused and mature about how to proceed—resisting the temptation to rebel when playing with Fred Waring, rejecting an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, waiting a couple of years before you matriculated at Berklee.

KJ:  I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I had really good instincts about who I was. I couldn’t have explained why I said no to Nadia—I was looking to study with her! To me, I was not negating an education. But I didn’t want to learn the names of things. I wanted to be involved in a process that was pure, and I didn’t want to get analytical about that process, or have anyone tell me that something wasn’t possible because it wasn’t musical. My ears were going to guide me. I don’t fit that well into any particular category. Whatever musical story I tell is not all jazz; at times, it’s something uncategorizable. If someone started to tell me, ‘Okay, this sound goes with this sound,’ I might believe it, and I might never have experimented putting different sounds next to each other.

When I heard Brubeck’s quartet live the first time, I remember thinking, almost verbatim, “There’s more than this.” There’s always more, and if you get it all down, maybe there isn’t any more. If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure. Inclusion has been what it’s about for me.

TP:   You’ve said that saxophone players influenced you, not pianists.

KJ:   Let’s broaden the statement to include horn players. There’s a fluidity in an instrument that uses air. I’ve always wanted to get as close as possible to subtracting the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair. Now, that may no longer be true. Every little period of time I go through, I reinvent what I do, and will let the piano be a piano. You can see that in my recent solo things.

Early on, my favorite bands were usually pianoless—for instance, the Gerry Mulligan small big band. Strangely enough, I would call Monk’s bands often pianoless—he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more orchestral. Even his solos were not pianistic, because he wasn’t a virtuosic player; he sort of played like a composer. For Ornette, no piano. People whose ears were open always attracted me, and I liked what Paul Bley was doing with the piano, especially when it was a funky instrument. When I heard him on a Bosendorfer on something that was recorded maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I would never have recognized him.

Pianists in jazz do not work on touch. I was lucky that I started with classical hearing. I was also lucky—or smart—to play Mozart around the time that the trio was playing ballads, because Mozart demands a certain refinement of touch that I had not developed until I started to play Mozart. Only since then has my ballad playing been closer to what I hear.

TP:   Can you talk about your conception of the trio with Haden and Motian vis-a-vis the present group?

KJ:   The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that. We were in the midst of that revolution period. and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways. Free playing wasn’t the same as free players thought it was. Most free players couldn’t play time. Most might not even be able to play their own instruments, but they could be extremely influential because they did things that no one was willing to try. If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that. At the Village Vanguard one night, Max Gordon said to me, “Keith, you know, you could get a lot more people here. You guys can really swing; you should do that.” I said, “Max, it’s going to take a while, but the people will come, because we’re doing exactly what we know we should be doing.” Now, how did I know that? I was a young upstart talking to an old club-owner who knew what he was talking about. But my instincts were good. Words come out of your mouth and you don’t remember, “Gee, I’m not sure when I’m going to eat my next meal.”

TP:   That’s how it was during the ‘60s, wasn’t it.

KJ:   That’s right. We were trying to build a tradition. I would say I wanted to be free of everyone’s bullshit, and that included my own. I was never trying to be a stylist. So I wasn’t going to be sparing. I was going to be merciless on myself. If I could write something that could find its way to a different place than everything else, and it was still something I felt very close to, then that would be successful.

Now, how does that pertain to the present trio in 2008? I would say we’re trying to preserve those precious values. As opposed to the ‘60s, now it’s like, if we don’t do it, who’s doing it? If I think of one thing that it is, it’s how Miles attacked the beat on his trumpet. When we went into the studio to do our so-called Miles tribute, Bye Bye Blackbird, a couple of weeks after he died, I talked to Jack and Gary, and I said, ‘We’re not doing a tribute album. Maybe we’re going to play some material that Miles played. But my idea is to play as though I were Miles, not play like a pianist who would play Miles.” If you extrapolate from that to what we do when we play standard material, we’re trying to find this place that we don’t hear many people coming from. We don’t hear people swinging that often, if I can speak for Gary (and maybe Jack, too). What young players know about the music is so stilted somehow. They do their best, and they might be great players, but there’s a lot of wasted energy going on.

TP:   In light of that remark, it’s interesting that so many younger players mention both your American and European quartets as extremely influential. Do you have any speculations on the impact of those explorations on the way jazz sounds today?

KJ:   I don’t. But possibly one reason why I don’t sense it is because it was so personal. One of the reasons why the American quartet was so interesting is because none of us knew what the hell we really were doing. With both quartets, I took into account everything about these guys while writing the pieces. As an example, I did this for Jan Garbarek with strings, on Arbor Zena and Luminescence, where I got inside what I thought was Jan’s way of playing. When he came over to rehearse for Luminescence and look at the sketch, I played it on the piano and did his part. He asked, “Do I play like this pattern?” I said, “Yeah, you do it all the time.” He said, “I had no idea.” There was something like a minor second, and then a third down, and then a second, and then another third, so it was completely out of a key. I heard him do that many times. Another example is that Dewey Redman did not like to play on chords.

TP:   Now, you went from working incessantly with two different groups, after always having worked in groups beforehand, to making solo concerts the focus of your activity. How did the idea of creating form from a tabula rasa begin to gestate for you?

KJ:   I was just curious about the process. So far as I know, no one was investigating it. It happened by accident. After Facing You,  I came on stage after Friedrich Gulda at a festival in Heidelberg. I started playing a song, which I don’t remember, then I attached that, without stopping, to another song. Then there was some kind of transitional material, and it ended up being whatever amount of minutes of that. That led to me to wonder whether those transitions themselves were something, which led me to investigate that. It’s such a different universe. I wasn’t really even ready for this discovery, because only recently did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances! So whatever amount of years I spent doing it, it was as an inferior player to who I am now when I play now.

TP:   By “recently” you mean what?

KJ:   Five or six or seven years ago.

TP:   So not until after you had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

KJ:   Correct. And I worked my ass off in a new way. I realized jazz pianists don’t do their left hand. It gets to be just like an appendage. When they do solo albums, typically what you hear is, “Where’s the bass? I’m waiting for the rhythm section.”

I have to credit the disease with giving me a tremendous amount of creative information—it was a great opportunity to sum up my work. I had no idea if I’d ever play again, so all I had to do was think about what happened to me. When I’d listen to my solo stuff, I’d think, “What the fuck am I doing? There’s too many notes here. If I did this again, no, I’d never play this, I’d never play that.” Over that period of time, I realized that, if I ever returned to playing solo, I’d never do it that way. When I started to practice and was able to play at all, I found myself stopping, because I’d be playing something I didn’t really hear in my head. I didn’t like it any more.

TP:   You went through a similar crisis during the ‘80s, when you made Spirits, and transitioned from one set of habits into a new realm of investigation.

KJ:   That’s correct. Although when you’re sitting at the same 88-key instrument and you’ve got the same two hands to undo the architecture you’ve built up over two decades of doing this thing you thought you understood, it’s a freaky experience to go through. However, the freakiness only lasts a second, and then you realize, “if I have the energy to do it ever again, I at least know where to start.”

TP:   You’ve remarked that you discovered Gurdjieff while you were on the road with Charles Lloyd, and later became involved in Sufism. Did the solo playing have anything to do with constructing some kind of aesthetic philosophy from those investigations?

KJ:   All through my entire history, there’s a mixture of philosophy, spirituality, and just plain musical desire—desire for the instrument. I never took drugs, for example. I didn’t need that. I would see people…I would roll cigarettes for them. I was with the Animals in London. Jimi Hendrix was interested in doing a project, and I was working on ideas of how to work with him. I wanted to do a project with Janis Joplin. There was a rough mix of ingredients in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we really don’t  have now. We might call this the “information age,” but I consider that complete bullshit. What IS the information? Of what value is it if it doesn’t attach itself to something? In the future, I can see that there might be an audience that literally thinks all music is equal, and there’s no such thing as good or bad. So I’m happy to be as old as I am, and I’m happy particularly to get this award while I’m alive, because in that sense it does mean something. Somebody is saying that something is better than something else, and that’s a relief.

TP:   What are your criteria for documentation? It’s different than the actual process of music-making.

KJ:   It’s not all that different, in my life. At this point, I record all solo concerts, and if it’s good enough I might send it to Manfred Eicher—although on a different day of the week, listening to the same music, I might have an absolutely different take on it. I don’t really like to do that. When you’re aware you’re recording, it’s completely different than when you’re not being documented. It changes both the trio and solo music. It’s possible to forget it for a while, but unfortunately, coughs mean something if they happen when you’re recording. They might mean you can’t use this track, and you know that you’ve just played this the best that you’ll ever play it. There’s no second takes.

In 2006 I played a solo concert at La Fenice, which is the opera house in Venice that was totally destroyed by fire, and wasn’t rebuilt for several decades. That concert might never come out, but at the moment it’s at the top of the list. Since 2006, it’s been up there a couple of times, but then I decided, “No, there’s something newer that’s more interesting.” For whatever reason, it did not manage to be the right thing. I am not using that as the Bush version of “the right thing,” that I know what’s right. Just the instincts weren’t there for this to come out, because other things were more timely.

TP:   Although you are always the “decider.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   Why don’t you do studio recordings, by the way?

KJ:   Well (a) I hate studios, and (b) more of the time I feel that what I do is for a public that’s actually in the space. Manfred and I talked about me doing another solo thing in the studio, and I’m open to it, but in general, that vibe is wrong for me. There’s too many wires around. Too many lightstands, too much metal around. The control room and the speakers are usually worse than the ones I have in my house. I don’t know if I could engage that.

TP:   Is there something about performing for an audience that facilitates your focus?

KJ:   No. It’s actually the opposite. It’s harder to be focused. However, given that, I have the valid feeling that there are people there who are ready for whatever happens. That facilitates something, but I can’t call it focus. Focus is easier alone probably.

TP:   Do you have inklings to return to performing classical music?

KJ:   Possibly. I don’t really know. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of recording the Goldberg Variations again, for one example. But I haven’t taken myself seriously enough to undertake it. That would be done in, oh, a hall like the Salle Pleyel, with no audience.

TP:   You’ve been quoted that it’s insane to do both jazz and classical music.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   What in your personality or character allows you to do it?

KJ:   It’s insanity.

TP:   You certainly don’t sound insane.

KJ:   No, that’s one of the great things about insanity! The thing is, you can do it, but you have to do it with scrupulous concern for both your mental focus and the needs of the music you’re about to do. When I was working on Mozart’s concertos before I got sick, I was doing as little of anything that was not Mozart as I could. Many people wouldn’t have that possibility, and if they don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend it. Like, back-to-back, “Okay, this is the classical stuff, then I’ll do improvisation after.” In that sense, even I am not that insane. [LAUGHS] That would be total insanity. Unless you want to strip them both of their innate qualities.

I did a bunch of harpsichord recordings, and you cannot seriously conceive of playing piano when you’re working with the harpsichord. Now, a few days after you’ve finished a harpsichord project, you might want to play a solo piano concert because you’re curious what will come out. The fact that it’s new, that it feels somehow different again, are positives. But I would have to set the stuff up with immense care to be able to do it without going more insane.

TP:   Because of the retrospective nature of this piece, I have to ask about your experience with Miles Davis. It does seem that your time with Miles was crucial.

KJ:   I believe I can call it camaraderie. From the moment I started to play with him, we had an understanding that it was temporary, that I had this other direction that had nothing to do with electronic keyboards, and that I wasn’t at all into that. Around 1967, Miles brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, who is not alive any more, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past the table, and he’d say, “When are you going to play with my band?” I’d say, “Well, I have a lot of work coming up, but I really appreciate that you like the music,” blah-blah-blah. Once I came off the stage from set with Paul and Charlie, and he said, “Keith! You play the wrong instrument.” What could I say? “I know!” So my comments about horns and voice and so on, he was hearing that already, even though we were playing this strange music. A couple of times, he asked me how I could play from no music. I said, “I don’t know. I just do it.”

Once, after we’d spoken, I heard the band with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony at the Village Gate, and Miles played a beautiful short solo—he played all short solos—and then the rest of the band played long solos. He walked off the stage, went to the bar, had some water, stood there for a long time, and then finally went back on stage and played a tune, and then went out. I heard that happen each tune, and I thought, “You know, I’d like to help out somehow, but I’m not sure what that means yet.” When I joined him, the band started turning electric, and I wasn’t sure what my role could possibly be. He asked me which instrument I wanted to play, and I said, “You know, Miles, I hate them equally, so I want both.” “Okay.”

When I say “camaraderie,” I mean that I was meant to be a part of this, and I could tell Miles felt that. What he really needed at the time I joined him was someone on keyboard who could be both challenging and funky, and I think that’s what I contributed. Once the band with Jack and I and Mtume started to play, Miles was staying on the stage the entire time, and going into his crouch—obviously, I made him happy for a while, He didn’t have any question about who should be in that band then.

TP:   Back to your position on the jazz timeline, it’s hard to find anyone under 50 who doesn’t mention you and your fellow sons of Miles as key to the way they think about things. How do you see it?

KJ:   I think they’re right. [LAUGHS] But I think many of us got waylaid. Keyboard players got enamored of electric instruments, and never could go back, and they never have been able to go back since. These are artistic decisions, and you can’t make them lightly. It’s like a painter throwing away their paint, saying, “Well, I want to get these,” but they’re all monotone, and then, “Well, no, I want my old paints back.” Sorry. They went out in the garbage.

My generation’s impact should have been greater, because there were a lot more great players. But Fusion somehow ate them up. I don’t include Miles exactly in that, because Miles got away with being able to play his stuff. I mean, he always wanted to do something different, something new, and if that’s your M.O., it won’t always be correct. Actually, a Japanese producer friend of mine asked Miles if he would sit in with the trio—as Jack and Gary and I all had played with him already—at the Antibes Festival for one or two tunes. I was hoping he’d say, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” I was sure he probably wouldn’t. But I think his answer is very important. He said (of course, through this third party), “No, I already played with Keith.” I wrote him a note back through the same guy, saying, “You played with me, but not on my instrument.”

TP:   Did he respond?

KJ:   No. But he knew what I was talking about.

TP:   It seems like your M.O., rather than that straight line, is more of a circle.

KJ:   Could be.

TP:   Circling back and picking up on things you’d done before in a different context.

KJ:   Yes. I think if I were a different kind of artist, I’d use found objects. I wouldn’t go looking for new technology. I remember seeing Herbie backstage somewhere when he’d just started getting seriously into electronics. Instead of having a conversation, he was saying, “Wow, have you heard this wire, this thing, connected to this and this over here?” I said, “Herbie…no. I don’t want to talk about wires. I really hate seeing them on the stage.”


* * *

Manfred Eicher on Keith Jarrett (Sept. 24, 2008):


TP:   To start, can you tell me how he came to join the label, how you became attracted to his music, and the process by which he began his contractual relationship with ECM?

EICHER:   I first heard Keith live in a festival in Norway with Charles Lloyd, and I heard him again with Charles Lloyd at   the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was very curious about his playing, and I was very moved by the trio as well that played with Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. That was before I even had a record label. I was just a student and playing in an orchestra in Berlin. So I moved around and heard people in jazz festivals. I heard Keith Jarrett also in Bologna in ‘68. Then when I had the label, I wrote to Keith, and sent him some test pressings—of a Chick Corea solo record as well as a Jan Garbarek record, Afric Pepperbird, which was my first recording, that I made in Oslo. Keith wrote back and said he liked this music and the sound, and he would be interested in talking to me. So he came to Munich with Miles Davis, and we met in the park in the afternoon after the concert, and talked about a lot of things, and decided to make a recording together. In my first letter to Keith actually, I introduced to him also a trio record. In fact, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock was the idea. But Gary at that time didn’t play the bass; he came back from Japan and the West Coast, and was not sure whether he should continue or not. I suggested another thing, but he called me back and said he would like to do a solo record first. So he did a solo record in Oslo in ‘70, and Facing You was the first.

TP:   Then he continued for a while under contract to you and to Impulse…

EICHER:   While we talked, this was, so to speak, between the contracts. He left Atlantic, went to Columbia, and then started something for Impulse as well with the American Quartet. But the solo things and the trio, and all those kinds of things, he started to record for ECM.

TP:   It seems with ECM, he was able to do almost anything he wanted, to document almost anything that was preoccupying him at a given time…

EICHER:   I wonder whether it was so easy. It had also to do with what was my aesthetic idea was with the label, how I wanted to introduce music. Keith was the ideal partner. I liked very much his piano playing. I liked his aesthetics. I liked his ideas. The first recording we made was a solo record in the studio, then the next recording was a live recording of a concert in Bremen and Lausanne, which resulted in a trio record set. At that time, it was unusual to have an entire solo concert, live recordings and so on, put in a 3-record box. It was quite new for that time. Then Keith showed me his string quartet writing and he showed me other things, so I became very interested to introduce that kind of work from Keith, which was not the work of a jazz musician per se, but of a wonderful musician and talent who had other talents than playing the piano. So we introduced these things, and they resulted in orchestral recordings with soloists like Jan Garbarek or Charlie Haden, Arbor Zena, for instance, or Luminiscence, and the records with string quartets and quintets with a flute player. So we have a nice oeuvre from the very beginning that introduced the musician Keith Jarrett.

TP:   Can you speak more concretely about how the qualities of his aesthetics merged with your sense of what you wanted to produce?

EICHER:   First of all, I thought his way of phrasing, his touch, his quality of suspension, his way of (?) and rubato playing was very close to me as a European. So I heard many influences of the great American kind of jazz book, and I heard many influences from Chopin, Debussy, and all those kinds of things that I liked and I grew up with. To me, it was an idea of a symbiotic thing, because also his touch had reached me right away and touched me quite a lot from the beginning. So from then on, it was clear that whenever I could work with Keith, I would like to work with him.

I’d also like not to forget his great compositions. His way of writing was very idiosyncratic and special. One could identify a composition immediately when hearing Keith’s work.

TP:   It also seems that the influence of both the American and European quartets has been immense on an international level.

EICHER:   Absolutely. The American quartet consisted of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian and Keith. It was a very individual group with a wonderful individual sound. But Keith also had another side which probably was a bit more virtuosic, more light rhythmically, weighted for the dialogue and interaction with players like Garbarek and Jon Christensen and Palle Daniellsen. When I suggested this group to Keith, he was very open, because he’d heard Jan Garbarek a long time ago, and he heard him again in the Molde Festival in Norway, playing trio with Arild Anderson and Edvard Vesala in a club. Keith and I were together, and he was convinced that this was the sound he would like to write for. So the Belonging group was Keith’s group that he was writing for. All the material that you hear there was around, and played by a lot of young jazz musicians—here, at least, in Europe. Pieces like “Belonging” and so on became classic.

TP:   The American Quartet’s influence has also been immense, maybe more on American musicians…

EICHER:   Not just American musicians. European musicians, too.

TP:   Everyone talks about that group.

EICHER:   A wonderful group. But it was so different. Keith could write for the idiosyncratic personalities in these groups very well. So these groups differ very much. Of course, it was entirely Keith’s introduction of the music, but the individuality of the players couldn’t be more different.

TP:    I was curious why, after years and years of playing in groups (and he seemed to like playing in groups and being in bands), he spent so much time absorbed in the tabula rasa solo concerts. Between 1977 and 1981, almost everything in his sessionography is a solo concerts. Can you discuss your experience of this?

EICHER:   That’s right. He started in the early ‘70s with solos, like Lausanne in 1972 or 1973, then followed by Cologne, the Japanese box, the Sun Bear concerts… There was always a lot of solo between the other groups. But then it became a very solitary thing for him to do solo only for a while, before he formed the trio with Jack and Gary. But I think none of us could have expected such a successful resonance to the first solo concert. These concerts became something different, became something else, because no improviser had played entire concerts before not interrupted by pieces, but entirely concerts that took sometimes 45 to 50 minutes, and maybe then a second set. That was something really new at the time, and it was very successful in Japan and in Europe, and Keith seemed to enjoy very much being on stage alone.

TP:    Do you have any speculations on why it seemed to suit the zeitgeist then?

EICHER:   I don’t know the zeitgeist…it’s still going on.

TP:   I mean, at the time, the late ‘70s…

EICHER:   Well, it’s speculative, because very different people… Like, Peter Stein used the music in Death, Distraction and Detroit, a production with Robert Wilson in Berlin, in the Schaub(?), which was a very advanced and important theater group in Berlin that went for this. Not many people would have used the Köln concert at that time. Marguerite Duras, in her diaries which were introduced in Liberacion, has written about Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert that she hears in France in the summer in different situations. Henry Miller. Many people have written… It was more than the zeitgeist. It was something that was coming out of the time, and blossomed out, and influenced a lot of people from very different genres, different kinds of music. All the art field was checking out what Keith was doing.

TP:   Most of his musical production since he was ill…well, a couple of solo concerts, and the trio is now in its 25th year. Can you speak of your first experience hearing this trio playing standard material?

EICHER:   Before they came together to play standards, we had already a recording under Gary Peacock’s leadership and with his pieces. That was the wished-for combination, the combination that I always wanted to have together in the studio to make this record, and it was something really remarkable, I guess. When I listen back to this record, it has such wonderful pieces, like “Vignette.” The way they played together was like they’d played always together.

So later on, Keith wanted to do a standard trio from the American Songbook, and we decided to do that. The evening before recording in Power Station in New York, we went to an Indian restaurant and talked about a lot of things, and made some plans, and went in the studio with the idea to make one record, but we had studio time for three days, and in those three days, when we came out of the studio, we had made three records, including the mixage. We had recorded and mixed. This process was unbelievable. The interaction between these three people was wonderful. You can hear it in the record which just came out again how close they were already in their understanding of each other, and how beautifully their exposition of each piece came out.

TP:   It’s certainly and developed, and they seem to take as much joy in it now as they did then. He’s also recorded a fair amount of European classical repertoire for you, and recorded as a classical musician. How did that transpire from your perspective?

EICHER:   We did a very special and remarkable recording on the piece of Arvo Pärt, “Fratres,” played together by Gideon Kramer and Keith Jarrett. It was their first meeting and recording, and the last recording. It’s still a classic, I would say, which you can hear on Arvo Pärt’s record Tabula Rasa. It’s an electrifying performance between Gideon and Keith. I would never miss that day and how it happened. It was wonderful.

Then we recorded all the Shostakovich, which still is in the catalog and very successful, and recorded Mozart, and he’s recorded Bach, The Well-Tempered Piano, Book 1 and 2—the second one was recorded on harpsichord. Then we did the wonderful recording with Kim Kashkashian and Keith on the Gamba sonata of Bach, and there are other plans eventually.

TP:   Can you speak to the qualities he brings to classical repertoire?

EICHER:   He plays it very truthfully as a musician without any outside musical ideas about showing his ability to do different phrasings and whatever. He has prepared himself very seriously for all these recordings. Some people thought Keith should maybe include more risky elements such as phrasing, and maybe even some cadenzas improvised, like in the concerts of Mozart. But he didn’t. In all the years after, many musicians, classical musicians talked to me about these recordings and how musical they feel they are. Keith’s approach was very pure and down-to-the-text, so to speak, not more, not less. I tend to listen to his Bach quite often. And to the Mozart…and if you wish, you can go into the whole scale what I listen to. But it’s very truthful, artistically done music, and without speculation for any kind of fashion or trend.

TP:   He said that immersing himself in Mozart was of great value to his jazz playing when he returned to performing after recuperating from CFS, that it developed his musicality, his touch, and also his left hand.

EICHER:   Definitely his touch and his left hand. He had a good partner in developing these things, with Dennis Russell Davis, the great American conductor who always was around when Keith played orchestra music, performing this music in America and Europe together.,

TP:   He said that he feels that his solo performances since the illness are far superior to what he was doing before, partly for the reasons that I mentioned. Can you speak about his personal evolution as a musician, both pianistically and conceptually?

EICHER:   Many things. I’ll relate it to the musical ideas and to the program of a musician. What Keith played in the ‘70s and ‘80s were quite different in musical approach than what he’s doing now, especially in the solo concerts. For me, his technical abilities playing the piano was always on a high level, and I would say that his touch has changed in all these years, and it’s remarkable how it did change this way, small nuances first and more and more into a fine-tuning. But it has also to do with his affinity for certain pianos that speak to him. All this together, I think, in the way he wants to be recorded today and how he was recorded in earlier times, digital, non-digital, piano tuning—all those kinds of things have a certain effect on what is documented, of course. But Keith’s playing these days is on the highest level as a pianist.

TP:   I spoke to him about documentation, and why concerts are successful, why he chooses to document one vis-a-vis another. He said that he records everything, that when he thinks something is good he then sends it to you, and what he decides to release pertains to his state of mind at the time. As an example, a solo concert from the opera house in Venice was at the top of his list, then something struck him as more interesting. How do you interact in determining what gets releases, the sequence of recordings, and the content. You’ve had a professional relationship for so long.

EICHER:   We’ve known each other 40 years or so. It has changed, his approach. In the early days, I was at every recording, and we were very close in deciding every little thing, in the studio and outside the studio, in how we approached it. Now it is not possible for us to be always in the same place. Sometimes we are just in different places, and then he trusts his engineer and manager, who are very important for decision-making. But when the music is done, Keith sends it, and then we start to talk and discuss and sometimes fine-tune on the thing, and then we decide together what to release. But we can always have a good agreement on what to be done. The sequence of releases is also discussed, and since they are concerts that go from A to the end, we don’t have to talk about the sequence inside a recording any more because we take the music as it is. If Keith feels it’s appropriate to do so, we release the music as it is.

TP:   That brings up the point that ECM is so known for the sound of the recordings, the way you address the sound in the studio, and it’s been a long time since he did a studio recording, and he doesn’t like being in the studio so much…

EICHER:   Any more. He used to like the studio very much, and he also has a studio at home. But in recent years…or for many years… It started with the trio. All these recordings are done outside the studio, in concert halls. That’s right. And he likes this approach. I think he needs also the interaction with the audience, and probably the risk of going to the edge there is more appropriate than being in an intimate studio where conditions are always very different. I think it’s not a question of better or worse. It’s a question also of interacting with the public.

Recordings like Belonging and the earlier recordings that we made in studios couldn’t have been made that easily in concert live. We have done wonderful recordings with great balance and sound that would only have been possible to make in a good studio situation. Later on, it did fly into other directions, and that’s also fine. It’s important to assist a musician in his needs and his ideas, and then get the best out of it.

TP:   Most of the Keith Jarrett Trio recordings of this century were made in 2001 and 2002. It seems that 2001 was a very interesting year for him, both as a trio and solo player.

EICHER:    That’s right. I don’t particularly look so much into the recording year. For me, time is flying so quickly that I forget sometimes that all these years have passed already. We are listening at the moment to a tape that we will release in January called Yesterdays, which is a Japanese recording from 2001. It sounds incredibly fresh and good. After he recovered from his illness, new life and new ideas were coming into the trio and the solo playing, so since then we have remarkable recordings already released, and we have still some very good recordings that wait to be released in our archive.

TP:   The Tokyo recording is also a trio date?

EICHER:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Will a solo recording come out in 2009?

EICHER:   I guess so. There will be a solo recording. Since we have not finally decided, Keith and I, I cannot talk about which one it will be, but it looks like there will be another solo record coming out.

TP:   Can you describe your overview of where Keith Jarrett fits into the timeline, both on the jazz stage and on the world stage?

EICHER:   When you think about how long Keith Jarrett already is an influential musician. It started when he played with Charles Lloyd, then later on got a lot of attention in Europe and with Miles and all, and he has written such wonderful songs, and is such a great listener when he plays with other musicians—and for the music always. He is one of the most influential and best musicians that I know. “Best” is always a strange term, but his musicianship and his personality, and also his influence to music-making means a lot to me.



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Filed under DownBeat, ECM, Gary Peacock, Interview, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Manfred Eicher, Paul Motian, Uncategorized

In Honor Of The 91st Birth Anniversary of Cecil Payne (1922-2007): A Liner Note and Full Interview

It’s the 91st birth anniversary of the late baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who passed away six years. Despite various physical ailments, he was performing at a high level until into the early aughts. In 2000, I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for a Delmark recording, his fourth, titled Live At The Jazz Showcase, with Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Harold Mabern, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. I’ve appended first the liner note, and then the unedited interview with Mr. Payne.

Cecil Payne, Chick, Boom: Live At The Jazz Showcase:

“People know what a Mambo is, they know what a waltz is, and they know what a tango is, but they don’t know what jazz is,” says Cecil Payne, who, from the perspective of 78 years on the planet, 60 spent as a working musician, has some wisdom on the subject.  “When you play Jazz, you play Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.”

On “Live At the Jazz Showcase,” culled from three revelrous evenings in the hospitable ambiance of the venerable Chicago room, Payne and his hardcore unit — all but pianist Harold Mabern are 40 to 45 years his junior — apply that seemingly elementary dictum with a vengeance, conversing with a swinging simpatico that devastates any presumption of a generation gap.  The dialogue began one evening in 1993, when tenorist Eric Alexander came to Augie’s — the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured many of New York’s finest during the ’90s — to jam with Payne, the late tenor giant Junior Cook, and master-of-all-tempos trapsetter Joe Farnsworth.

“I had retired from music,” Payne recalls, “but I would take the bus to New York to play with Junior and Joe, because there’s something about playing with friends where you don’t have to worry about wrong notes.  I was having a great time.  I still am.

“From the first tune Eric played that night, I thought he was going to be great.’  He had style.  He still has.  And everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.  It’s not only the spirit of their playing, but these jokers are like computers in music theory.  I keep learning from them.  We didn’t have any music when we made this date, and Eric created the background harmonies.”

The sentiment is mutual.  “Cecil has a certain economy in his playing,” says Alexander, who along with Farnsworth and authoritative trumpeter Jim Rotondi comprise half of One For All, a cooperative sextet with five records under its belt whose members have evolved into consequential voices during their long association.  “In his soloing and writing he always seems to break down any series of chord progressions or melodies to the true essence of the tune.  I’ve never heard Cecil play anything corny or extraneous or trivial.  Then, his time is ridiculous, and he gets the most pleasing baritone saxophone sound I’ve heard.  A lot of times you hear baritone saxophonists bark or go heavy on the tongue, but Cecil’s approach is very light.  I think it comes from the fact that he was originally an alto player, and in addition he liked Lester Young, and tried to transfer that approach to the baritone.  He is from the era that we all wish we were from, and he is part of that revolution in the music that we wish we could have been part of.  For us, it’s a treat to be associated with him.”

Payne enthusiastically cosigns his passion for the President, manifested here by “Ding-A-Ling,” a modernist reworking of the Basie classic “Jive At Five,” and by the perfectly timed quote of “Taxi War Dance” that he deploys to springboard into the turnback of his solo on “Bosco,” a Latin rouser in B-flat-minor.

“When I was about 13, I heard Lester Young’s 2-bar break on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Count Basie,” the Brooklyn native remembers.  “I told my father, ‘Buy me a saxophone!’  Every now and then I heard Basie at Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, and I stayed by that bandstand all night to watch Lester Young.  His horn was all green in between the keys!  But the sound that came out was something else.  My main influence was listening to Lester Young.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.”

Payne’s father not only bought him an alto, but took him to neighborhood celebrity Pete Brown, the renowned jump alto saxophonist, for lessons at a quarter a pop.  By 19, Payne was “playing alto parts” in a band led by Boys High School classmate Max Roach (personnel included ur-boppers Victor Coulson [trumpet], Allen Tinney [piano], Leonard Gaskin [bass] and, for a short time, Charlie Parker) at Georgie Jay’s Taproom at 78th Street and Broadway for a 9-to-3 shift; he occasionally accompanied Roach to Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem to play the 4-to-8 a.m. afterhours shift.  He caught the ear of proprietor Clark Monroe; when Payne emerged from three years in the Service, Monroe, walking the walk on his determination to “get jobs for all my boys that come out of the Army,” sent the newly decommissioned young saxman to Roy Eldridge, who was looking for an alto player for a fortnight gig at the Spotlite, the 52nd Street club that Monroe managed.

“When I got there,” Payne relates, “Roy Eldridge told me he’d just hired Sahib Shihab to play alto.  I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished, Roy said, ‘Where can I find a baritone player?’  I had a baritone I’d played in a stock band when I was 15, and he said, ‘Bring it tomorrow.’  Dizzy came in to see Roy, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy Ballroom, where he was working.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing, and I put on a uniform jacket and joined them.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and then I took a solo in B-flat, maybe ‘I Got Rhythm’ — I couldn’t play much else.  Everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.”

During Payne’s two years with Gillespie he recorded well-parsed, Prez-inflected solos on “Ow!” and “Stay On It” that cemented his rep as bebop’s first baritonist.  On a Fall 1948 session with James Moody and Chano Pozo he waxed the oft-recorded “Cu-Ba,” kicking off a career as a composer of pungent melodies and protein-rich harmonic progressions whose logic masks a subtle, complex sensibility.  That Payne retains the fire of the nascent bop years is evident in the chopbusting set-closer “Cit Sac” (it’s “Lover” in B-flat, with a sly quote of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge).  That he has not forgotten the passions that fueled that fire is clear on “You Will Be Mine Tonight,” a lyric champagne before the fireplace ballad of 1999 vintage inspired by memories of an Army buddy bandmate’s amorous adventures in a hotel room while on the road directly after the war.

Payne’s subsequent c.v. includes big band stints with Illinois Jacquet, Machito, Woody Herman and Count Basie, not to mention substantial combo work with the likes of fellow Brooklynites Randy Weston, Duke Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham, and the indefatigably creative Harold Mabern, a friend and colleague for forty years.  There isn’t much jazz history he hasn’t seen or experienced.

“Cecil knows a lot, and if you want to find out what he really knows, you have to sit down and talk to him and ask him questions,” Alexander notes.  “When he explains how he approaches certain things, it seems so obvious and simple that you can’t believe you didn’t already think of it.  It’s the most obvious way, but it’s also the way that most people never even get to — it’s in front of their face, and they look right past it.  I think that explains a lot about the directness and honesty in his playing.  There’s no B.S.”

You’ll hear that directness and honesty in the declamations of all members on Chick, Boom, a session providing abundant proof that Cecil Payne’s DNA contains no atavistic genes.  Resolutely optimistic, Payne unfailingly wields his memories and experience as a springboard to future explorations and conversations framed by the jazz lifebeat.

Which is neither BOOM-CHICK nor BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  In case you didn’t hear him clearly before, Payne reiterates what it is: “It’s Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s ‘and.’  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s ‘and-one.’ Then you bring it down to the ‘and-boom.’  Chick-boom.  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.”

* * *

Interview with Cecil Payne for Liner Notes:

TP:    This is your fourth record for Delmark, and on each one Eric Alexander has been by your side.  It sounds like you got a lot of inspiration from coming down to these sessions at Augie’s and hearing these guys, and that it’s been a reciprocal inspiration — they’ve obviously been inspired by you.  But it’s like a context or framework to just do your thing.

PAYNE:  What you’re saying is true.  It started in 1992 when I retired.  I was living in Camden, and I wasn’t playing much, just in some of the clubs here.  I ran into a friend, Junior Cook, the tenor player.  I had a Jazzmobile to do in New York.  I called everybody up, but I didn’t have a drummer.  I said, “Can you find me a drummer, man?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll get you  drummer.”  I said, “Who is it?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it!”  Up to the last minute I was thinking about it, because drummers have to play the right beat and keep the groove.  So here comes the drummer.  He has a blue suit on and a tie, and that was Joe Farnsworth.  I say, “Is that the cat?”  He says, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh my goodness.”  He didn’t look that good.  But when we’d crossed the point where we’d played the first number, I turned to Junior and said, “Where did you find this cat?”  That was Joe Farnsworth.  And he’s a hundred times better now than he was then.

TP:    He sounds like no one else but him now.

PAYNE:  Yeah.  So it was me, him and Junior working at Augie’s.  Every weekend I would go to New York, just to play, because there’s something about playing when you don’t have to worry about wrong notes, just getting yourself together and playing with friends that you know and have the same feeling.  I was having a great time.  I still am.  That’s when Eric Alexander came down to play at Augie’s.  The first tune he played, I said, “Man, this cat is going to be great.”  Because he had style, too.  He still has.  Everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.

TP:    You just said a word that’s very interesting to me.  You’re able to have a conversation with these guys, and they’re all about 40-45 years younger than you.  That’s an amazing thing about jazz, isn’t it.

PAYNE:  Yeah, with jazz you don’t have to speak a language.  You can go to any country in the world and play with musicians, and you understand each other.  It’s a feeling for the music.

TP:    So what you’re saying is that playing with these guys, because they’ve mastered the fundamentals and they’re such fluent musicians, allows you to be free.

PAYNE:  Yeah, but it’s more than that.  You said fundamentals.  See, these jokers are like computers in music theory.  See, there’s not only the spirit of playing, but they also know everything they play on piano and the chord changes and the notes and everything they do.  They’re very advanced.   So it keeps me learning from them, too.  In the old days sometimes you’d play by ear, and then there were chords you’d play.  But these young musicians, they have computer minds that they can just stand up and talk to you about it ‘and tell you what note.  When we made the record date, Eric was the one who could create the harmony in the background at the date, and we didn’t have any music.  He, Jim Rotondi and Steve Davis all work together.  They’re like best friends.  I feel real comfortable when I play with them…for my last few days.

TP:    And Harold Mabern is also a constant on these records.

PAYNE:  Mabern is my teacher! [LAUGHS] We know each other from way back, since the ’50s.

TP:    He got to Chicago in ’56 or ’57 and then New York at the beginning of the ’60s.

PAYNE:  He moved to Brooklyn.  We lived right near each other.  Mabern is my mentor, man.  He knows that piano.  He’s like the foundation.

TP:    He’s one of the few with a real two-hand approach to bebop language.

PAYNE:  Oh yeah, he knows that.

TP:    Say a little something about each of the tunes.  “Chick, Boom.”

PAYNE:  “Chick, Boom.”  Most people say, “What is jazz?”  Nobody knows what Jazz is.  They know what a Mambo is.  They know what a waltz is.  They know what a tango is.  But they don’t know what Jazz is.  Jazz is Chick-Boom.  It’s not Boom-Chick.  When you play Jazz, you play Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom.  That’s Jazz, “Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s not BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.  Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s “and.”  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s “and-one.”  Then you bring it down to the “and-boom.”  “Chick-boom.”  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.

TP:    You were born in 1922 and you started playing before Bebop.  Is that the beat you remember from when you were first playing, and it continued in various forms after you played with Dizzy and so on?

PAYNE:  You’re going too far ahead.  See, when I was younger, the only thing I ever heard was calypsos, because my parents are from Barbados.  When I went to public school and was about 13, we moved into a house that had a victrola, and somebody had left a record on there, which was a Count Basie record, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and when they put it on I heard Lester Young make this 2-bar break.  I told my father, “buy me a saxophone!”  He bought me an alto.  There was a musician my father used to hear on Gates Avenue named Pete Brown.  We lived right by this 129 public school, and my father asked him if he could give me lessons, and he said yes.  25 cents a lesson.

TP:    So you studied with Pete Brown, one of the first jump alto players.

PAYNE:  I think I heard Pete Brown play once.  I never heard him play jazz.  But he taught me how to read.  If I came there and didn’t know the lesson, he would say, “Go home, man, and read and study.”

TP:    So he’d embarrass you into learning it.

PAYNE:  That’s right.  He made me… I didn’t know how to solo.  When I went to high school, at Boys High School, I met Max Roach.  I didn’t know I was older than him until recently.  There were some local bands we played with.  I played with some big bands, just reading music from those stock arrangements by Count Basie and the Benny Goodman band.  Max played with another group, and we became friends going to school.

TP:    Did the big bands play in Brooklyn?  Did Basie or Ellington or Lunceford play the Paramount Theater?

PAYNE:  Every now and then, if I was lucky enough, I could hear Count Basie up at Bedford Avenue and Atlantic in Brooklyn.  And I stayed by that bandstand all night.

TP:    So you could watch Lester Young.

PAYNE:  [LAUGHS] His horn was green!  In between the keys, man, it was all green.  But the sound that came out was something else.  Nobody had    a sound like Lester Young, man.  Paul Quinichette tried to imitate him.  But his sound changed after a while, too.  Lester got a new horn, and his sound was different.

TP:    So you’re coming up playing on alto, and switched to baritone.  But that beat, the chick-boom beat, is the beat of jazz and has been since you started playing.

PAYNE:  No, it’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and all them.  That’s the jazz beat.  That ain’t from my time.  That’s the start of jazz.

TP:    It’s the continuity.  So the record begins with you stating that this is jazz.  Then “Ding-A-Ling.”

PAYNE:  That’s a Lester Young tune called “Jive At Five.”  I tried to modernize it a little bit.

TP:    It made me think of the way Illinois Jacquet might treat it, then I realized that you’d played with Illinois Jacquet.

PAYNE:  He’s like a father to me, although he’s only one year older than I am.

TP:    You were with him for three years at the turn of the ’50s.

PAYNE:  Well, I played with Roy Eldridge in 1946. That’s when Dizzy heard me.  He came to hear the Roy Eldridge Band, and he was looking for a baritone player.  That was a lucky day for me.

TP:    When Dizzy heard you, you were familiar with him, I guess.

PAYNE:  In 1943, I went into the Army for three years.  I was stationed at Camp Ellis in Peoria, Illinois, for about a year-and-a-half, then I went to Europe.  At first I was in the 520th Trucking Regiment, because I had a license.  I didn’t have any union card.  Then I was in the 1333 Engineers.  When the war was over in Europe, we went straight to Okinawa, and they had a band there that I got into.  When I came out of the Army, I was a Sergeant in the 219 Army Ground Force Band.

TP:    So you were 20 when you went in the Army. [19] Before you went in, you were playing around Brooklyn.

PAYNE:  I played with Clarence Berry’s Big Band, and I played with Max Roach’s group in the 78th Street Taproom on Broadway playing parts.

TP:    Oh, you played at Georgie Jay’s Taproom?

PAYNE:  Yeah, with Allen Tinney and me and Gaskin…

TP:    But you were in the Army when Bird came in and played with them.

PAYNE:  Bird came in one night and played my horn.

TP:    So that’s the first time you met Bird.

PAYNE:  Yes.  But he wasn’t famous then or nothing.  He just came and played it.

TP:    Do you have a memory of that?

PAYNE:  Well, anybody who played solo was better than I was, because I couldn’t solo at all.

TP:    I’ve heard Max Roach talk about that, that he had the gig at Georgie Jay’s, then they’d pack up and go to Minton’s, so they’d wind up playing 12 hours in two different clubs.

PAYNE:  Oh, Max got around a lot.  I got to go uptown.  He got me out of Brooklyn.

TP:    So when you got out of the Army…

PAYNE:  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe, who had an after-hour house where we used to go down… That’s where I heard Bird play.  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe said, “I get all my boys that come out of the Army jobs.”  He said, “Go down and speak to Roy Eldridge; he’s looking for an alto player.”  When I went down there, Roy Eldridge said, “I’m sorry, man.  I just hired an alto player.”  Believe it or not, the alto player was Sahib Shihab.  So I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished playing Roy Eldridge said, “Where can I find a baritone player?”  I said, “I’ve got a baritone.”  He said, “Bring it tomorrow.”  I had a baritone that I played with Clarence Berry when I was 15, and it was (?) because I only played three notes on it — A-G-E.  Leonard Gaskin said, “It sure would sound good if we had a baritone to play those notes.”  So my father bought me a baritone sax.  $45.  In those days that was a whole lot of money.  Clarence Berry just led the band; he didn’t play.

TP:    So you wound up playing baritone with Roy Eldridge because he needed a baritone player.

PAYNE:  We played two weeks on 52nd Street, in Clark Monroe’s club.

TP:    That was the Spotlite, that club that Clark Monroe fronted.

PAYNE:  That’s it.  Dizzy came in to see Roy Eldridge, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy.  He was working up there.  Back then it was rehearsal.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing.  Bill Graham was playing.  I was scared.  I was going to go home because I heard the band playing.  Anyhow, Bill Graham said, “If he told you to come down, stay, man!”  When I went on the bandstand, Bill Graham gave me a uniform jacket, and we sat down there.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and when I read the music, they were saying, “Oh, man!”  Then I took a solo in B-flat, like “I Got Rhythm.”  I couldn’t play much else.  In those days I wasn’t… You played chords, but you didn’t play chord changes.  Anyhow, I played the solo, and everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.  They were happy.  But Bill Graham gave me (?).

TP:    So you joined Dizzy after Dizzy debuted at the Spotlite.  The way Moody tells the story, he joined Dizzy in the mid-summer of ’46 when they were at the Spotlite, the club that Clark Monroe was fronting.  You joined Dizzy after Moody had already joined the band, in late ’46, and you took the first solo people really remember was “Stay On It.”

PAYNE:  Well, my first tune, my claim to fame, was “Ow!”  They called me like the first bebop baritone player.

TP:    What do you think of that?

PAYNE:  Well, do you remember Serge Chaloff?  You ever hear him play?  He was playing like that before I ever joined Dizzy.

TP:    You must have heard Jack Washington and Harry Carney.

PAYNE:  Of course.  But I wasn’t playing the baritone then.

TP:    Were there any stylistic models for you on baritone, or were you winging it and figuring it out as you went along?

PAYNE:  The only influence was listening to Lester Young’s solos.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.

TP:    So you know every Lester Young solo by heart.

PAYNE:  Mostly, yes.  Me and Lee Konitz!

TP:    Then “You Will Be Mine Tonight” is your tune?  It’s a nice ballad.  When did you write it?

PAYNE:  Not too long ago.  Last year.  I was playing with someone, an alto player a good friend who I’d known since the Army days.  He’s the one who got me into the band when I was in the Army.  I heard the band walking down playing “Reveille,” and when I’d look at them… Vincent (?).  He was playing alto in the band and he took me into it.  Anyhow, after we came out of the Army, we played in a band (I can’t remember who), and we went on the road, and he had his girlfriend with him.  We stayed in separate rooms.  They were in the room one night, and you’d hear him chasing his girl around the room.  He would say, “I will have you tonight!  I will have you tonight.”  So when I wrote this tune, I tried to think of him.

TP:    You made it sound much more romantic than that.

PAYNE:  Well, I changed the words.  I said, “You will be mine tonight.”  I couldn’t put “I Will Have You Tonight.”

TP:    On “Bosco”, midway through your solo, you quoted “Taxi War Dance.”

PAYNE:  “Bosco” is my stepson’s name here in Camden.  I got married in 1970, and my stepson’s nickname is Bosco.

TP:    That sounds like some of the things you did with Duke Jordan, like “Scotch Blues” and things like that.

PAYNE:  I played with Duke and K.D. for years.  We played together all the time.

TP:    You were very close to K.D., too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  He lived right there in Brooklyn, too.  He had six daughters.  Miles had five children.  Max has a whole lot of children, too.  And believe it or not, I don’t have any children, man.  I have a stepson.

I started writing way back.  Everybody started getting their own music together.  So I started getting tunes together.  I didn’t actually play them until I went to Europe.

TP:    About how many tunes would you say you have copyrighted?

PAYNE:  I have a whole lot of tunes.  I don’t know how many.  Don Sickler has them.  Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet recorded two of my tunes.  I did them in collaboration with another fellow, whose name I forget.  He’s the one who got me to write the tunes with him.

TP:    Were you playing in Latin bands in the ’50s, or did that start when you went with Machito in the early ’60s?

PAYNE:  It started with Machito.

TP:    Of course you played with Chano Pozo.

PAYNE:  Right, with Chano Pozo.  But Dizzy didn’t play with no Latin beat.  We were just playing swing.  But Machito was when I started playing with Latin bands.  Their beat is unmistakable!  The timbales keep the downbeat, the bass plays 3/4.  You can play the same thing on jazz, but you have to turn the beat around.  They have their own beat.  Jazz is different.  It fits, but you have to change that beat around to synchronize it.  You can’t play a Latin beat with a jazz beat.  You have to play the Latin beat on another beat to make it sound right.

TP:    So you played with Machito for three years, and then Woody Herman.

PAYNE:  I had stopped playing and went into the real estate business, trying to sell real estate.  But I couldn’t sell anybody anything, man.  I didn’t care about it.

TP:    So you did that in the ’50s, and when you decided to get back into music is when you joined Machito and Woody Herman?

PAYNE:  It was 1958 or ’59.  I actually had stopped playing, but I did work with Machito, and then I had this thing with the Broadway production of The Connection with Kenny Drew.  I didn’t (?) into jazz at that time.

TP:    The scene was changing then, too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  Because in 1957 Coltrane changed everything!

TP:    So after “Bosco” we have “Here’s That Rainy Day.” You play flute.

PAYNE:  I’m still trying to play the flute.  But whoever wrote the tune, the last tune he hits is a minor chord, and I said, “If I record this tune, I’m not going to play a minor chord.”  The minor chord makes it sound real down.  It’s the same thing with “I Should Care.”  When I play that tune, if it wasn’t for the last bar, I wouldn’t even have thought about the tune.

TP:    Are you a big fan of singers?

PAYNE:  I’m a big fan of singers, but not playing with them.

TP:    The last tune is those “Lover” changes, with “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge.  Racehorse.  Great set-closer.  That’s one of the tunes people liked to play.

PAYNE:  Well, Bird played that.

My lucky day was when I got hooked up with those young folks, man.  One thing before you leave.  When Joe Farnsworth was 27, it was his birthday, and he said to me, “Man, Cecil, I’m 27 years old, man!”  I said, “What the heck are you telling me that for?  I’m 72.”

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Cecil Payne, Interview, Liner Notes

For Freddie Hubbard’s 75th Birth Anniversary, A DownBeat Piece From 2001

In 2001, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the late Freddie Hubbard for a DownBeat profile. It took a bit of negotiating, but Freddie met me at the appointed hour, and spoke at length about his life and times. In this case, I have to depart from the  “raw and uncut” policy I’ve followed for the most part on the blog, and will decline to print the verbatim conversation—it’s a bit too real and profane, and he named names. But I was able to distil from it for print what I thought was a reasonably compelling first-person account, which I offer on the occasion of his 75th birth anniversary.

* * *

During his lengthy prime, Freddie Hubbard embodied excellence  in trumpet playing.  He had a big sound, dark and warm, almost operatic.  His breathtaking facility allowed him to play long, melodic lines of saxophonistic complexity; depending on the situation, he’d cover all the changes or navigate lucid paths through soundscapes comprising the most abstract shapes and timbres.  In every situation, Hubbard projected the persona of trumpeter-as-gladiator, an image of strength, force and self-assurance that told several generations of aspirants, “I’m Freddie Hubbard and you’re not.”

Hubbard blew out his upper lip in 1992, and has since lived through a hell-on-earth that might make Dante pause and reflect.  The recent recording “New Colors” [Hip Bop] — Hubbard on flugelhorn fronts the New Jazz Composers Octet through well-crafted David Weiss arrangements of seven choice Hubbard originals — makes the problem clear in the most poignant way.  Hubbard’s ideas sparkle, but he plays tentatively, with a palpable lack of confidence, and has trouble sustaining his sound for any duration.

At a conversation in the coffee shop of New York’s Mayflower Hotel last May, Hubbard retrospected candidly on his life and times.

* * *

My sister played trumpet, and I picked it up as a competitive thing. I followed her to Jordan Conservatory, and studied privately with Max Woodbury, who played first trumpet with the Indianapolis Symphony. I wanted to play like Rafael Mendez, able to triple-tongue and so on. My brother played piano just like Bud Powell. He had all the records, the Dial Charlie Parkers and so on, and he got me interested in this music. The record that really turned me around was Bird’s “Au Privave.”

Wes Montgomery lived two blocks from me, across the railroad tracks, and to get to the conservatory I had to pass by his house. I’d hear Wes and his brothers rehearsing, and one day I stopped and went in. At the time, everything I knew was reading, and it amazed me how they were making up the music — intricate arrangements, not jam stuff — as they went along. After that, I was at his house every day, and then Wes started inviting me to a Saturday jam session in Speedway City. The Montgomery brothers didn’t care about keys. At home I was practicing in F or B-flat, but at the jam session they’d play in E and A — the funny keys. Practicing in those keys opened me up, made me a little better than most of the cats.

My brother had the records by Mulligan and Chet Baker, and we played the solos that were transcribed in the books. That motivated me. Then I heard “Musings Of Miles,” with Philly Joe Jones, Oscar Pettiford and Red Garland. That record made me start skipping school. Miles’ style was melodic and simple, and I could hear it. Then I started listening to Fat Girl (Fats Navarro) and Dizzy, which was quite a contrast. Then Clifford Brown. Clifford was a conservatory type of cat, and I tried to play like him. I’d sit with James Spaulding, who lived up the street, and transcribe Clifford’s solos and play Charlie Parker’s tunes.

Indianapolis was a bebop town. It was a filler job for guys on their way to Chicago. Charlie Parker might come through, or James Moody, or Kenny Dorham. I invited a lot of musicians to my house, had my mother wash their clothes and and give them a good home-cooked meal. We had a nice house. My father worked hard in the foundries, and everybody was clothed and clean and had money. Whatever I wanted, my mother tried to get for me. She took me to the music store in downtown Indianapolis for a trumpet. I said, ‘Mama, we’ve got no money for this.’  She said, ‘No!’  She told the guy, ‘Let him take it home and practice on it.’  She was a very strong lady; they KNEW that they would eventually get their money.

While I was going to Jordan Conservatory, Spaulding and Larry Ridley and I formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked gigs all over town, all the weddings and concerts, until I got busted on suspicion of burglary. I was on a date with this white girl, a nice girl — we were just friends. I’d been aiming to be a teacher, but I had to leave school. Hearing Clifford’s music kept me going. It made me say, “Forget it. I can’t let this stop me. The music is forever.”

A friend named Lenny Benjamin, who was from the Bronx and wrote for the “Indianapolis Star,” told me he was going back to New York, and offered me a ride and a place to stay. I’ll never forget coming into the Bronx. It was July, and it was hot. It was like “The Blackboard Jungle.”  I’d never seen so many brothers and different people in the street.  For the first five days I didn’t come out of the house, I was so scared. I just looked out the window. I saw anything imaginable — robberies, cutups, shootups, a couple of attempted rapes.

After a while, I moved into a small pad Slide Hampton had in back of the Apollo Theater. I used to follow everyone backstage — James Brown, Wilson Pickett, even Moms Mabley! — and hang out. At the time Slide was working with Maynard Ferguson. I would watch him write out arrangements without a piano; it helped my reading. Then he got enough money to buy a house on Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, and I moved there with him. The house was like a conservatory. Eric Dolphy was in there blowing on his horns; also [trumpeter] Hobart Dotson, and “Prophet” Jennings, a painter.

I was in California with Sonny Rollins when I first met Eric. He was working with Chico Hamilton. He sounded like Cannonball then; it surprised me in Brooklyn how much he changed his style. Maybe he wanted to play like that all the time; in California he invited me to his house, and the music was so weird his mother made him practice in the garage!  Eric could play some Funk and get deep down and play some Blues, but he didn’t want to. He really wanted to get into Ornette’s thing. He was a better musician than Ornette, but he didn’t have that swing that communicates. Some stuff he wrote sounded square, like kindergarten music. But the way he would play it!  He was such a jubilant, happy guy. I liked his spirit. A lot of people wouldn’t give Eric gigs. They thought he was trying to be weird on purpose.

Sonny had heard me at Turbo Village, at Reed and Halsey in Bedford Stuyvesant, where I started playing four nights a week shortly after I came here. Philly Joe Jones lived in Brooklyn; he’d come by the club to play, and he started inviting everyone to come listen to me. One night he brought Bud Powell to sit in; the next thing I know, Sonny was coming by. I stayed there about a year and a half, I met all the other musicians — Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, Walter Davis. Those were the beboppers, and by me liking bebop so much, we hooked up.

Sonny called me right before he quit. He didn’t have a piano, and he was still playing songs like “Ee-Yah” real fast; he played “April In Paris,” which sounds weird without a piano, and I had to learn the chords. I learned so much about being on my own, playing by myself. Sonny’s way of playing is rhythmic. He would practice by going over and over his ideas, and he taught me how to do that — make it stronger. He brought my chops up. Coltrane’s concept was more linear. I’d take the subway to Trane’s house every day he was in town. I had a headache when I left there because he was practicing so much.

I thought trumpet players weren’t able to express themselves as freely as saxophone players. Playing like a saxophone is harder on the chops, but it opens you up; saxophone isn’t so brassy and doesn’t attack your ear. I figured if I could mix it up, it would make me sound different from Dizzy and Miles. I was expecting Newk and Coltrane to play Charlie Parker’s stuff, but they’d learned that, and they were studying books like Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales,” which Coltrane introduced me to. You can’t compare them. They had strength in different ways. But for some reason, I leaned more towards Sonny.

Philly Joe was the first one who hired me to work at Birdland. It was a Monday night session, and we were playing “Two Bass Hit.” I had copied Miles’ solo note-for-note. When I opened my eyes, I saw him sitting down at the front of the stage. I almost had a heart attack!  I knew he was thinking, “Who is this motherfucker playing my solo?”  Anyway, he saw me make up my own ideas, and right there in Birdland he told Alfred Lion to give me a contract. Sure enough the next day, Ike Quebec called me.

I’m the only one from VSOP who wrote a song for Miles — “One Of Another Kind.”  Miles was one of the strangest, most arrogant individuals, but so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything black that pretty. He glowed. That’s the way his sound was to me. He wouldn’t speak to me for a while, but after he heard me with Sonny, we became tight. I’d go by his house, and sometimes he’d let me in and sometimes he wouldn’t. I think he liked me in a funny, uncanny way, even though he started messing with me. Did you ever read that article in Downbeat, ‘Freddie Who?’  When I asked him about it, he’d say, “Do you believe everything you read?”  It was like he wanted to keep me at a distance. Which I can understand. I mean, the man’s been great so long, then comes along a young whippersnapper and all of a sudden he’s going to jump?

When Booker Little came to New York, we started hanging out. He was a nice, clean-cut cat with nothing bad to say about anyone. I’d met him at jam sessions in Chicago around 1956-57 when Spaulding and I would drive up from Indianapolis to sit in. After I heard him play, I said, “I’d better go in and practice before I mess with that.”  He was like a machine. I mean, he had a way of playing so FAST, man. I used to try to play out of the books with him, but I never could play those duets. I wasn’t that advanced!  We ended up working together around town with Slide Hampton’s Octet. Every night it was good to go to work because there was going to be a challenge. We’d try to kick each other’s behind, but we liked each other.

Same thing with Lee Morgan. Lee was ahead of both of us, because he had been with Dizzy, played with Coltrane and Clifford Brown. That boy could play. He had a bigger name, he was from Philadelphia, and he was cocky. I could relate to Lee better than Booker, because we had more of a street thing. Lee knew how to SWING; Booker never got to the swing like Lee. When you’re young and up-and-coming, people start comparing you, and there was a competitive thing between me, Booker and Lee at that time around New York. After a while I thought: Why am I beating my brains up trying to out-do Lee Morgan?  Let me work on MY thing. I took some of Sonny’s stuff, some of Trane’s stuff, put it into my style and made myself different.

I’d go to Birdland every night to hear Lee and Wayne Shorter with Art Blakey. They were blowing so hard that when Art asked me to join, I wondered if I was ready. Art took a lot of younger trumpeters out; the harder you played, the harder he played. Art taught me about uniformity, that the group must be presented as a GROUP. It was like old show business. And he made us all write something. He’s a Messenger, a Muslim, and he said, “Here’s what your message is.”  We’d rehearse a piece, he’d listen and then come up with a drum feel hipper than what you can think of. He knew dynamics from playing in all those big bands. The difference between Art and other drummers is that he could go down and come up. A lot of people think Art was crazy. I mean, he had his periods. But almost everybody I know that worked with that man became a leader. I’m still a Messenger.

One of my dreams was to play with Max Roach. Like I said, my main influence was Clifford Brown; I carried the records he made with Max anywhere I went. I wanted to play like Clifford Brown played with him, stuff like “Gertrude’s Bounce,” but I guess Max didn’t want to play no more of that. Max got me into a thing where I stopped liking white people. I’m basically a country cat, and I think everybody’s nice until they fuck with me. But going back to what had happened in Indiana, I was getting ready to explode!  I was hanging out with the Muslims, and I almost joined the Nation. Being with Max — reading the books he suggested, meeting people like Nina Simone and Maya Angelou at Abbey and Max’s place — gave me a consciousness. We were the guys who were not trying to say that we aren’t aware of what’s happening to us as a race. Max enlightened me as far as life. But I couldn’t work with him because he was too intense. Art could get intense and get loose. He was down to earth, and he knew all the same things; he’d been hit on the head, too, on racial stuff.

I did a lot of avant-garde stuff with Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill and guys like that. They were kind of militant, too, trying to voice their protest. There was a whole movement in the Village. I was a mainstream cat, trying to make some money and get famous. But when they talked to me, I went over to see what was going on. Me coming from Indiana, I knew what they were talking about, and it was a chance to voice my opinion. It was good musically, although I knew some of that stuff wouldn’t work — I don’t care how good they played it. There was no form. I had met Ornette and Cherry in California with Sonny Rollins, before they came to New York. I had no idea where they were going, but their music didn’t seem that avant-garde to me. I could hear melody and form. When Ornette did “Free Jazz,” I think that’s when he wanted to break out. Free. No bar lines, nothing set except what he and Cherry knew. I went to Ornette’s house to practice. The first thing he did when I came in was play all of Bird’s licks. And he had that Bird sound.

I put two tunes on “Breaking Point” in the style of Ornette, and one funk tune that got radio play. I’d brought Spaulding and Larry Ridley to New York, and recruited Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan, and we practiced for about six months until we went out. We went to this club in Cincinnati, and the place was packed. Like a dummy, I opened with a free thing. The people got up and started RUNNING, not even walking toward the exit. I said, “Is there a fire in here?”  I don’t think we got any money for the week. We kept that group together, but made the music more mainstream.

Atlantic was my funky period. That’s when a lot of people got confused with me. One minute I want to do one thing, then I want to jump over and do something else. Then Creed Taylor brought me to CTI. Creed got my recorded sound to my liking, made it stand out. I’ve had people who know nothing about jazz tell me how pretty and clear my sound is on ‘First Light.’  Creed made me more popular to the masses, but I got a lot of flack from the musicians because I jumped out and started thinking about making some money.

I got even more flack when I started making records at CBS. A couple of them sold, “Windjammer” and that stuff. I was at the Roxy, and playing venues in New York that no jazz cats ever played. The money went way up. I was getting ready to get a divorce from my first wife, and she was messing with me, coming to clubs. I decided to move to California. People said, “Man, Hubbard, don’t go out there. Ain’t no Jazz out there. You’ll get fat and die.”  I think it was a mistake. Ever since then, my playing went down. But I was doing movies, making record dates with Elton John, earning good money and living the way I wanted to live, up in Hollywood Hills with my new wife. We’re still together.

During the ’70s Herbie, Tony, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Chick Corea all moved to California. Everybody was trying to include Pop and Fusion. In California, everybody’s spread out; you get projects and see each other in the airport. In New York, you’re close, you can go to somebody’s house. When I went to California, it was party time, and I got hung up in that. Which was cool. I wanted to hang. But it had nothing do with maintaining embouchure and playing good.

In the ’80s, I had together whatever I was going to do. It had become a Freddie Hubbard sound. I was a free agent, sinking or swimming, doing a lot of singles, making dates where I’d play 16 bars and get 3500 bucks. I was making ten a week just myself. I was so busy recording in the studio that I wasn’t practicing as much as I should, and I started playing licks, not trying to come up with no new shit. I thought it was automatic, that I didn’t have to warm up, like when I was young. Though I started thinking like that, I was still trying to play all the high stuff and play real hard. By the late ’80s, I was going to Europe and Japan every month by myself for some all-star group or clinic. I was doing too many different things. I was switching styles so much, one time I woke up and said, “What am I going to play today?”  Keeping that schedule, plus going out to hang — it waxed me!

I saw it coming, but I decided I’d continue and make as much money I could. I should have stopped and got some rest, worked on some new ideas. But if you were getting $3500 for an hour’s work two or three times a week, what would you do?

I was playing so long and so hard that my chops got numb!  They didn’t vibrate. It got so bad that I didn’t think I would ever play again. Now I’m beginning to get the vibe back to want to play. I’m beginning to get a feel. Whenever I pick it up, I’ve got to get over the feeling aspect of it. Is it going to hurt like it did before?  It gets progressively better.

If you want to play like Freddie Hubbard, I don’t know what to tell you. It took me about ten years of hanging out with the people I hung out with, picking up certain ideas and putting it into my thing, to develop that style of playing. Young people will never get a chance to do that. They’re able to jump right in behind a certain style, but they weren’t here when the styles had to be developed. I used to have gigs with Maynard. I’d be trying to blow high notes, acting a fool, and luck up, and hit them!  How would a young cat know what I know from hanging out with Maynard?  Who you going to get to fuck with Maynard?  Clifford?  Miles?  Dizzy?  They were so strong!  Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell were right here, too. Woody Shaw went through it. He was so worried about me, he finally had to break down and say, “Fuck Freddie Hubbard; I’m going to go and do my thing.” I spent half my life trying to develop something to make it me.

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Filed under DownBeat, Freddie Hubbard, Interview, trumpet

It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

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Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.


Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.


When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.


Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…


…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!


I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.


Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…


It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.


It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.


Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00):

Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.


Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…


Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone