For arranging maestro and slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s 55th birthday, here’s documentation of several encounters, including an uncut Blindfold Test from 2009 (Steven’s responses were so detailed, that the printed version only had room for 5), an uncut Downbeat feature from 2001, and WKCR interviews from 2001 (a far-ranging Musicians Show) and 1999.
Steven Bernstein Blindfold Test (Raw):
1. Wynton Marsalis, “School Boy” (from HE AND SHE, Blue Note, 2009) (Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson, drums)
Sounds like Wynton to me. Sounds just like him. I love this. First of all, 5 stars for a guy who has a totally recognizable sound even when he’s playing in an older style, because he’s just the greatest trumpet player. There was a little arco bass thing in I think the second 8 bars before the saxophone came in, a beautiful, tiny little counter-melody. That’s one of the things that made me think it’s him, because he’s such a good arranger. It’s beautiful. It almost sounds like it’s a cello, it’s so high up there. That to me makes the whole arrangement. That’s it for me. Once you do that, you win me over. Something like that… See, I’m always into specifics. The more speciic an arrangement is… Like, don’t waste an opportunity. That’s my feeling. I always tell arrangers, “Don’t waste an opportunity.” I love that. Is this his new piano player? He’s good. Wynton’s been playing this kind of music for a long time, and he has a real unique way of doing it that’s his. A lot of it has to do with phrasing and dynamics. You know me. I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. [TRUMPET SOLO] It’s interesting. Even when he plays this style…when he plays eighth notes, you can hear still the way he played when he played with Art Blakey. There’s a certain phrasing he developed. He knows how to get house, get those little…waits to the very end to do the flutter notes. He’s a smart musician, man. What can you say about a guy who built a multi-million dollar jazz place? [PIANO SOLO] Wow, that guy’s a good piano player. What can you say? Ends on a major-VII. I always feel that if something sounds just like a person, then who am I to say it’s not great? Even if it’s not exactly the way I would do something, that is totally… Is that one of the things from Jack Johnson? That’s great writing, too. The guy has his world, and he trains his musician to play like him. It’s very interesting, the piano player really is an extension of him, and he’s done a great job surrounding himself with people who populate his vision. That’s what a musician is supposed to do.
One thing that’s interesting about Wynton is that he has incorporated so many techniques. Every time he splits a note… Everything he does, to me… In the old days, when people split notes, it’s because they miss notes. But Wynton took that and made it part of the jazz technique, and he has it… It’s one of the things you can always tell it’s him, because where he puts his split note…it’s just one of the many techniques he has. The man has integrated so many different techniques for the trumpet, and that’s a real interesting thing he’s done, which is taking the split note, and controlling it so it’s part of his technique.
2. Lenny White, “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” (from MILES IN INDIA, Times Square, 2008) (White, drums, Wallace Roney, trumpet; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, electric bass; Adam Holzman, keyboards; A. Sivamani, percussion; Vikku Vinayakram, ghalam)
It sounds great? Is this Wallace Roney? All techniques basically are old techniques now, so it’s all fair game, whether you’re talking about Miles from Jack Johnson or dealing with Louis Armstrong in 1928. These are all basically ancient techniques from a different era that people have been able to incorporate. Wallace, of course, has done an incredible job of taking Miles’ and making it his own. Wallace is another master trumpeter. Anyone who’s a master, I have to give 5 stars to, because they’re masters. I heard Wallace playing with Art Blakey, and he was a master then, when he was musical director of that band. And the sound is so good. Both records you’ve played me sound so good in so many different ways. Both are modern reflections of incredible music that is now seen through the prism of modern living musicians. These guys are contemporaries of mine. I met Wynton when I was 17. I heard Wallace on probably his first gig with Art Blakey when he was subbing for Wynton at Grant’s Tomb, probably in ‘81 or ‘82. See, he doesn’t sound like Miles. He sounds like Wallace. There’s things he does that are so Wallace. But it’s like that particular part of Miles’ technique became Wallace. That’s how he hears music. That’s him. What can you say about him? He’s incredible. Beautiful sound, too. To me, all environments are the same, whether you’re dealing with an environment that’s related to 1920, with modern technology, or an arrangement like this that’s related to more like 1972 but with modern recording technique. It’s just good arranging. There’s plenty of room. Every soundscape needs its own balance, and it’s really well-balanced, well-mixed. The trumpet sits really nice in it. Sometimes it’s hard to put a trumpet in this kind of sound and not make it sound corny, because the trumpet is such a knocking-down-the-walls-of-Jericho type of instrument. But it fits in really nice to the mix. Who’s the guitar player? [You tell me.] Good guitar, man. Nice. It reminds me of Pete Cosey. Really? That’s why it reminds me of Pete Cosey. I didn’t know he recorded with Wallace. I guess he did. Well, good work, Wallace! You got the man! Oh, is this the Miles in India thing? Wow. Cool. No wonder it sounds so good, because Bob Belden is really good at arranging records. Not that Wallace isn’t good at arranging records, too, but it’s a really wide soundscape. I will say that I was surprised that the tablas weren’t mixed louder. I’m surprised they didn’t have the higher tabla sound running in…but I don’t have the rest of the record. It took me a long time to figure out… I didn’t immediately go, “Oh, it’s Miles In India.” I jusrt figured it’s a Wallace Roney record. I didn’t hear it in the context of the whole record. There were so many low tones, I was surprised they didn’t have that really high tabla running through there. 5 stars. But again, what can you say? Pete Cosey is a master, Wallace Roney is a master. Great-sounding track.
3. Satoko Fujii, “Sanrei” (from Orchestra Nagoya, SANREI, Polystar, 2007) (Satoko Fujii, conductor; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet solo; Tsutomo Watanabe, Takahiro Tsulita, Misaki Ishiwata, trumpet; Shingo Takeda, Akihiko Yoshimaru:alto sax; Kenichi Matsumoto: tenor sax, Yoshihiro Hanawa, tenor sax; Yoshiyuki Hirao, baritone sax; Tomoyuki Mihira, trombone; Toshinori Terukina, trombone, euphonium; Tatsuki Yoshino, tuba; Yosuhiro Usui, guitar; Atsutomo Ishigaki, bass; Hisamine Kondo, drums)
There’s two trumpets on this. Sounds like Satoko Fujii’s music, which is funny. I’m on her records. It is? Then it’s her Japanese band. That’s a pretty unique way of writing, so it would make sense that it’s her. She writes a lot of different stuff. Every record I’ve made with her is different. Sometimes she’ll have a lot of harmonic information and sometimes there’s no harmonic information. I don’t think it was Nats on trumpet. Nats usually plays beyond the trumpet. To me, that trumpet solo was good, it was ok, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, because… Nats usually plays more sound-oriented stuff. [DON’T USE THIS] What I like about her writing is that it leaves a lot of room for individual voices, which is a really important part of the jazz way of writing, not just writing something that is allowing the musicians’ individual tonation to come out. I’m into the word “tonation” these days. Not “intonation,” but “tonation.” They don’t use it in education any more. I don’t know if they ever did. But you hear all the musicians talk about it.
4. Terence Blanchard, “Levee” (from A TALE OF GOD’S WILL, Blue Note, 2007) (Blanchard, trumpet, composer; Brice Winston, tenor saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; The Northwest Sinfonia, orchestra)
[IMMEDIATELY] Terence. Can I give him 6 stars? I think Terence is so great. His sound is so immediately recognizable. It’s interesting, being a writer, when I hear the string thing in the beginning, I’m like, “That’s cool, I like it, I wouldn’t have done anything quite like that, but…” It’s a little classical, the way it’s played. I like things where there’s a little more roughness in it. But then, of course, when Terence’s sound comes up against it, it makes a nice foil. He probably recorded it in L.A. with studio musicians. Well, it’s an orchestral piece. At the beginning, you don’t know if it’s a jazz piece or what. But it’s orchestral. Ok, that’s why they play it that way. They’re orchestral musicians. Oh, this is from that big piece from New Orleans, that beautiful piece he wrote. I saw the TV show that it was a soundtrack for. Most musicians are afraid to speak about politics, because everyone is so afraid to say anything controversial in this post-Reagan world. But it was great on that TV show to have Terence speak the truth. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. I was weeping during that TV show. Hearing this music makes me want to weep, because you could feel the pain—it’s so beautiful. He’s taken the trumpet and really made it his own instrument. He plays one of these very heavy trumpets that these guys play now. Wow, man! In general, I don’t particularly like what those trumpets do, but Terence…What I love about Terence is he wears his heart on his sleeve, his scope is huge, he has a great working band… It’s very interesting, because you’ve played me three guys who are my age, came to town, joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and have all done really different things with their lives. They all played kind of similar when they were young. Anyway, each one of has not just a distinct sound, but it’s a distinct style. As great as Wynton is, he would never do what Terence just did… Not never. But I’ve never heard him just blow so hard that you don’t even know what’s going to come out of the trumpet. He’s more controlled, even when he’s not playing… That’s not his vision to music, to me. Of course, this is a very emotional piece. But also, on a trumpet level, both Wynton and Terence, and also a lot of these young guys, play a very thick trumpet, made of heavy metal… See, THAT phrase right there, that comes from the style that he and Wynton share. If you’re not a trumpet player, you can’t even understand it, because it didn’t exist before those guys. It’s something that they worked out. Here you can hear the Miles thing coming out. I tend not to like those… Well, not that I don’t like them. I’m a fan of older trumpet styles, so there’s a certain thing that can’t happen when the metal is that big. There’s a certain vibration that physically is not going to happen. But with Terence I don’t miss it. And Terence also…his history also brings in Lester Bowie, which not many trumpet players have done. That’s part of his vocabulary, too. I don’t know if he purposefully does it, but a lot of those things he does, before Lester… Well, not no one did it before Lester. Rex Stewart did that stuff. But Lester brought it back into the lexicon.
5. Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Malachi” (from NON-COGNITIVE ASPECTS OF THE CITY: LIVE AT IRIDIUM, Pi, 2006) (Corey Wilkes, trumpet; Joseph Jarman, tenor saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell, reeds, percussion; Jaribu Shahid, bass; Famoudou Don Moye, drums, percussion)
It sounds like the Art Ensemble without Lester. So this is Corey Wilkes. I met Corey. We had some nice drinks in Italy, at the Balsamo Festival. Nice guy. Now I get to hear how he plays. But you hear Malachi… How many bass players can you say you can hear them in four notes? Malachi you can hear in four notes, man. I hear four notes and… Is it Malachi or is it Jaribu? I thought it was Malachi, but it could just be that it’s Don and Roscoe made me think it’s Malachi. Now, here’s a guy who listened to Lester. A lot of fire. I like fire. I don’t know if it is Malachi. It might be Jaribu. It just sounds stronger than Malachi would be at this age. At the beginning, it sounded like Malachi, but at the end Malachi couldn’t play like this, at this tempo. But when you hear that kind of bassline and you hear Don Moye, it’s just that he really felt like Malachi at the beginning. During the melody, it really felt like Malachi. [Well, the piece is called “Malachi.”] The piece is called “Malachi.” There you go. Well-written piece. By Roscoe, I assume. Powerful trumpet player, man. Very powerful. I wasn’t going to give him five stars… Oh, it’s live. That’s why it sounds like this. It’s a live gig, so he’s not close enough to the mic. But you know what? That’s such a great solo that he doesn’t deserve five stars yet, but I’ll give him 4½—he’s not a master. I’ll be interested to see what happens to someone like him… The way he’s playing trumpet is very physical, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Is he going to keep it at this heavy level? Will he smooth it out? I haven’t seen him play live… It’s a live gig, and you’re really hearing him go for it. It’s amazing. He’s not a master yet, he’s a young man, but he’s playing great. I grew up listening to the Art Ensemble. I’ve been hearing them live since I was 14 or 15 years old, when I met them. How many people can you tell from their composition? How long did I listen to that? 5 seconds, and two of the original guys were gone. It’s like some Ellington thing. You don’t even need the original guys, because it’s such… Well, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would be like that. You heard a Messengers tune, it didn’t matter who was in the Messengers. It was the Jazz Messengers. Don Moye deserves a lot of credit. No one talks about him, but talk about a guy who created a unique style of drumming. I heard one guy somewhere… You know who did? Dave King of the Bad Plus. He played somewhere and I said, “Hey, man, you’ve got some Don Moye in you.”
6. David Berger, “Serenade in Blue” (from I HAD THE CRAZIEST DREAM: THE MUSIC OF HARRY WARREN, Such Sweet Thunder, 2008) (Berger, arranger, Brian “Fletch” Pareschi, trumpet; Harry Allen, Joe Temperley, Matt Hong, reeds; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Isaac Ben Ayala, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jimmy Madison, drums)
Wow! Beautiful trumpet tone. It’s interesting, you hear a lot of Clifford Brown and you hear a lot of Clark Terry in it. I’m trying to figure out who it is. I’ll wait til the solo. It’s a young guy? It really has that Clark Terry vibrato. It’s obviously not Clark. But let me keep listening. This is great. The arrangement’s great, too. Nicholas can play like this, but I don’t think it’s Nicholas. This is someone who really-really knows the jazz tradition. The arrangement is great, too. It’s not Warren Vache. It’s someone who’s played with a lot of older musicians. That’s the way the vibrato is. When you play with the vibrato like that, to me it’s someone who’s been around. It has so much truth in the way they’re playing. The arrangement even has some Gil Evans type things going on. I don’t know who it is, but someone who can really play and understand music. 4½ stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Brian for years. I was on David Berger’s band. It’s interesting, because Brian would be someone who understands Clifford and Clark Terry. Someone who really knows how to arrange. That’s Dave. Someone who’s really played a lot of swing music. That’s Brian. When I first heard it, I said, “I know who this is.” Because I’ve sat right next to Brian when he plays like that, except I never think of listening to Brian on a CD.
7. Bobby Bradford, “Compulsion” (from Nels Cline, NEW MONASTERY: A VIEW INTO THE MUSIC OF ANDREW HILL, Cryptogrammophone, 2006) (Bradford, cornet; Cline, guitar, effects, Ben Goldberg, clarinets; Andrea Parkins, accordion, effects; Devon Hoff, bass; Scott Amendola, drums; Alex Cline, percussion)
[AT BEGINNING] You can hardly hear the trumpet in the mix. [SOLO] Sounds like Leo. Oh, it’s not Leo. I was thinking it could be the Yo Miles thing. Sorry, Leo, it’s definitely not you. It’s an interesting piece of music. Interesting construction. Not haphazard at all. A lot of nice compositional elements. I like it. I don’t know who the trumpeter is. I could guess, but what’s the point. It almost sounded like a cornet player to me. I liked it. It was good. Ah, there was a little bit of Don Cherry flavor in there. I liked that. It’s blowing like it’s a cornet—a very fuzzy sound. Cornet makes me think it could be Rob Mazurek, but it’s not. But it might not be a cornet; it might be the way the guy is blowing. It’s interesting, because the person is using the lower register of the horn a lot, and it doesn’t sound like someone who is so much a traditional musician, but more like this is really the comfort zone. It doesn’t sound like a guy who plays contemporary classical or anything like that. I like it. Good solo. Short. Good flow of ideas. Obviously coming from the Don Cherry type of thing. I’ve got no idea. 4 stars. It’s a little less defined than some of the other music we’ve heard, so it’s hard, when you’ve heard all this very defined music, to hear this music that’s much more open. Some good things going on in there for sure. [AFTER] Cornet! I said cornet. So it was Nels Cline on guitar! I was going to say Nels. Man, I should’ve said it. I should’ve known it was Bobby Bradford. I did say cornet, though. I wasn’t thinking, man. I’m getting tired. I should have put 2 and 2 together. So is it Ben Goldberg on bass clarinet.
Addendum to Bobby Bradford. It was a short solo, so it was hard for me to tell. At Bobby’s age, it’s a different thing… You hear all these solos by these young musicians, and they’ve got a lot of power to come through and play these long solos. But when I think back to what Bobby played, of course, it was a total Bobby Bradford solo, but so much shorter and so much more concise than the other guys—because at his age, you can’t play the cornet that much. Brass is very physical. So he does what he can with his physicality. When you think about it like that, it’s like Brian Pareschi, who is 40 years old and plays Broadway for a living—he has a lot of power, he can play an incredible trumpet solo. For Bobby Bradford as a musician, 5 stars. For that particular solo, in this context, I didn’t hear all the power I’m used to hearing on the trumpet. He’s a master.
8. Olu Dara, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (from James Newton, AFRICAN FLOWER, Blue Note, 1985) (Dara, cornet; James Newton, flute, arrangement; Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; Sir Roland Hanna, piano; Rick Rozie, bass; Billy Hart, drums)
Modern “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This is Olu and James Newton. 5 stars. I remember this well. I love this. This was a groundbreaking record, and sometimes I’m sorry that music didn’t go more in this direction, because this is a very exciting direction to me. It’s Roland Hanna on piano, and Billy Hart on drums, and Rick Rozie on bass, and Olu. The idea of mixing all these different musicians and showing each other mutual respect and making the most out of the tradition… I think James Newton is a towering figure in this music (I don’t mean just physically, because he’s a big guy, too). He’s one of the few people I’ve never worked with whom I’d really like to work with. This particular solo by Olu influenced me a lot, I must say. I was like, “Wow, you can play trumpet like this. Why not?” So many people take a vocabulary and they pick this and this, but I think, “No, your vocabulary can be everything. Your vocabulary can be as large as you want it to be.” What Olu has done with this, he’s taken some vocabulary from an early-early way of playing trumpet and made it modern by the fact that it’s him. I think it’s an incredible recording. 5 stars for the whole record.
9. Nicholas Payton, “Fleur de Lis” (from INTO THE BLUE, Nonesuch, 2008) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, fender rhodes; Vicente Archer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)
Christian Scott? I thought it was him from the mixture of those chords…from the bass and the drum part and the chords. Oh, it’s Nicholas. What trumpet player records with percussion? Nicholas does. All he’s played so far is whole notes, and I couldn’t tell from the whole notes. But I knew from the orchestration it was him. I know Danny Sadownick, the tambourine player, really well. So I was listening to the tambourine, and I noticed it was Danny. Nicholas is another one of these guys who’s such a master… He’s as talented as any musician I’ve ever met. For him as a musician, 5 stars. I’m not crazy about this track, because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s a little just 6/8, you know.
10. Masada, “Ash-nah” (from MASADA: 50th ANNIVERSARY, #7, Tzadik, 2003) (John Zorn, alto saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums)
See, this is good. This has mystery. I have to figure out who’s doing what. Sounds like something Dave Douglas would do right there. I don’t know if it’s Dave. It’s interesting to hear things that remind you of yourself… Oh, it’s Zorn and Dave. See, it’s interesting. When Dave did those sounds…Dave wouldn’t play that on his own record. He played that on Zorn’s record. I was thinking who the alto player was, then I was listening, and I realized it was Zorn on alto. That’s why Dave did that, because, as any great musician, you serve your leader. He’s a great sideman, too. He doesn’t like to be a sideman that much, but he’s a great sideman. Again, these are master musicians and Zorn is a master organizer. When it first came on, I said, “It’s a mystery.” I didn’t know what I was hearing. I have to give this band 5 stars, because I’ve heard so much and it’s consistently invigorating, and even if they play a song you don’t like, you know the next song you’re going to love. What I like about a band like this, and what I didn’t like about the last piece, is this is four equal voices. That’s why Zorn is such a great organizer, and he gets these great musicians. Each person’s voice carries its own weight. I think that always makes a pleasing musical experience. But it’s funny that I said it sounds like me, too. Because there is that Masada thing… What influenced Masada also influenced me. Not that my music sounds like Masada, but certain elements of Masada… Well, it’s also a way of writing without using piano. Using two horns and bass and drums, I do that all the time. So how do you write for these instruments? How do you organize for these instruments, make the most of harmony and melody and rhythm? Dave’s another guy who’s really created his own… A very non-traditional virtuosic trumpeter. Not a classical trumpeter. Very much a jazz triumpet player. He created his own technique. That’s the thing about the old-style jazz virtuosos, was they were JAZZ virtuosos. They created their own technique that didn’t exist before. This is an objective look at it. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying the idea of creating your own technique and taking that to virtuosic levels is different than having classical technique and being a jazz virtuoso. He has both. But once you’re a classical virtuoso, you can’t not be a classical virtuoso. It’s just what you are. He’s both. But he’s a new thing. That didn’t exist before. No one did that before him. The closest is like Doc Severinson. But Doc couldn’t play jazz like Wynton. He could play a solo. But he wasn’t like Wynton. He couldn’t sit there with Art Blakey. No offense. 5 stars for middle-aged masters. Old masters in Greg Cohen’s case.
11. Taylor Ho-Bynum, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from THE MIDDLE PICTURE, Firehouse 12, 2005) (Bynum, cornet; Matt Bauder, tenor saxophone; Mary Halvorsen, Evan O’Reilly, electric guitar; Jessica Pavone, electric bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums)
Odd. I don’t know what it is. But I love this. Oh, it’s Ornette on trumpet! Take that back. It’s definitely not Ornette on trumpet! Is that me? I don’t remember making this record. I’m laughing. I love this arrangement. This is the happiest arrangement I’ve heard so far. I’ve never heard them… It could be Kneebody. But I’ve never heard them. I heard a couple of things on the radio that were Shane, and every time I thought, “who is this great trumpeter?”—it was Shane. Finally a big band hit. First big band hit we’ve had the whole time! Nice. The reason I thought it was Shane is that he uses a lot of mutes, and there’s a lot of mutes in here. So somebody who knows how to use a mute. 5 stars for the tune, and since there’s no trumpet solo, I don’t know who it is. Five stars for the arrangement. [AFTER] So it was Mary on guitar. I should have guessed that. He loves Ellington. He loves Rex, but he doesn’t sound like him.
12. Duke Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (from THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: 1927-1962: Vol.1) (Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, trumpets;
This is Basie. Oh, that jumped out of my mouth without thinking. No, it’s Duke. Ah, this is Rex. I’m sorry. It was swinging so hard, I was like Basie! It’s a total Count Basie introduction. I’ve heard this song so many times, so when it comes on, I’m like “Yeah.” I don’t even know what it’s called. I’ve had this track since I was in 11th grade. The very beginning was swinging pretty hard. I said Basie, then I heard this song, like, “Wait…” But it sounded like an old aircheck. That’s Rex. That’s Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Rex. Cootie. Is this a live version? A studio recording? It’s a good mastering. I’ve never heard it on CD. It’s interesting hearing something on CD; it’s different. Sounds like a radio broadcast—it’s brighter.
Steven Bernstein (Downbeat article, 2001):
On a recent Friday afternoon, Steven Bernstein was driving home to Rockland County from Lou Reed’s Greenwich Village apartment, having presented seven horn charts to frame Reed’s interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe stories for a forthcoming Hal Willner-produced album. After grabbing dinner and putting his kids to bed, he’d return to Manhattan for a midnight show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra at Tonic, a dimly-lit, art-brut venue where he has appeared the preponderance of Friday wee hours since 1998 with one of the three bands he leads. MTO is a nine-piece unit with rotating personnel devoted to executing 35 charts – the repertoire includes 25 reefer songs — that Bernstein has transcribed from his voluminous collection of recordings by obscure black orchestras of the ’20s and ’30s; guided by Bernstein’s in-the-moment conduction, they construct statements that have the feel of Don Redman encountering Donny Hathaway encountering Sun Ra.
Another of Bernstein’s bands is the tentet Diaspora Soul, which had performed at Tonic the previous night. During a lull in the second set, Bernstein told the sparse crowd about the on-stage antics of Courtney Love at a Monday benefit where, on Willner’s recommendation, he led the horn section. He revealed how at a post-show hang at the Russian Tea Room he charmed the diva with a gift of a t-shirt fronted with the logo of Sex Mob, his most popular band. He added that Ms. Love had pulled down the top of her dress and donned the one-size-fits-all girlie-tee with effusive thanks. “It looked great!” he exclaimed.
Bernstein was working a wedding when he came up with the inspired conceit for the self-titled recording [Tzadik] that marked Diaspora Soul’s debut. He transcribed a dozen soulful Jewish songs from various old cantorial albums, and orchestrated them with the unison sax grooves of ’50s New Orleans rhythm-and-blues (think R&B guru Dave Bartholomew), with clave rhythms, with a touch of keyboard skronk a la psychedelic Dr. John by way of Eddie Palmieri, and with his own impassioned trumpet declamations. He spontaneously arranges each performance, and as the second set proceeded, the sax (Peter Apfelbaum, Michael Blake, Paul Shapiro and Briggan Krauss) and percussion (Johnny Almendra, Willie Rodriguez and Robert Rodriguez) sections locked into gear and built an irresistible momentum. Like a vintage 8-cylinder Cadillac, the machine appeared to drive itself, but Bernstein — wisecracking, shouting out chords and rhythmic figures, tweaking the dynamics with emphatic hand gestures — firmly steered the ship, the master of the game.
“I’m Neil Hefti with an earring,” Bernstein joked over his cell phone. The comment was revealing: Old-school to the core, he mixes as comfortably with musical elders as with his post-jazz peers. For example, playing “button trumpet” at a recent concert with an Art Baron-led sextet before a tough audience at a Duke Ellington Society concert, he crafted a remarkable solo on “Perdido,” using shapes and phrases to build an idiomatic, structurally cogent statement that went beyond the notes. He spent large chunks of 1998 and 1999 as fourth trumpet in arranger David Berger’s “Harlem Nutcracker” big band, rubbing shoulders with Ellington veterans Baron, Britt Woodman and Marcus Belgrave, and grizzled modernists like Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion; on the cast album. On the cast album [Such Sweet Thunder] his peppery open horn solo on “Dance of the Floreadores” channels the jaunty spikiness of Ray Nance, while his plunger solo on “Swingin’ At Club Sweets” reveals a command of timbre and keen timing evocative of Cootie Williams’ heirs in the Ellington canon.
Bernstein is fascinated with the tropes of early jazz, and he conceptualized Sex Mob (Briggan Krauss, saxophones; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums) as a vehicle for his slide trumpet, on which he projects a sound completely his own, wild and gritty, deploying a pronounced vibrato reminiscent of such ‘20s and ‘30s blues-function brassmen as Sidney DeParis, Lee Collins, and Punch Miller. He uses the slide to elicit tiny increments in pitch that produce vocalized sounds of the sort that Ellington signifier Rex Stewart got through his half-valving techniques in the ’30s and ’40s. The context is wholly modern, informed by a global world-view akin to that of the late avant-pop guru Lester Bowie, an early role model. He’s owned the instrument since 1977, and began playing it seriously about a decade ago on gigs with Spanish Fly, an open form trio with tubist Marcus Rojas and slide guitarist David Tronzo devoted to a repertoire as Bernstein puts it, of “songs everyone knows.”
That’s Bernstein’s operative model for Sex Mob, which has worked hundreds of times since it assembled six years ago for Thursday night hits at the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar. It’s a virtuoso unit, and their modus operandi is incessant collective improvisation; the band book comprises some 150 songs, which they are prepared to blow gleefully to smithereens and rebuild from the ground up. The sound is Sophisticated Primitive, and the range is kaleidoscopic, jumping from “new standards” (Kurt Cobain’s “About A Girl”) to “classic jazz” (Theater and Dance, a privately produced CD that Bernstein sells at gigs, is a Bernstein-arranged suite of Ellingtonia commissioned by choreographer Donald Byrd) and Blues (Leadbelly) to such neo-kitsch as a suite of music from James Bond films due for fall release on Rope-A-Dope.
“I see Sex Mob as a return to the earliest roots of jazz,” says Bernstein, who named his son Rex Louie. “People took pop songs of the time and improvised on them in new styles, with different rhythms and dynamics, in the way they felt like playing them. Jazz was louder than any music of its time; it was played on a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville or minstrel song. That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob.
“With music that doesn’t have much harmonic structure, you must arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance. You can’t play ‘Raspberry Beret’ the same way you play ‘My Funny Valentine’ — it’s that simple. When the band started, I’d sit on the subway and write a bare-bones chart of whatever song I’d been listening to, throw the chart in front of them on the gig, rehearse in front of the audience, and play it. I grew up playing free improvisation as well as standards, and free improvisation is about creating instant arrangements. I still do that on the stage in Sex Mob. The tunes evolve through an audience’s reaction. People tend to overwrite, but you don’t need to give great musicians too much information. It’s not the amount of elements you put in; it’s how good the elements are.”
Bernstein was just your normal teenage “total jazz snob” as an adolescent and teenager in the polyglot milileu of ‘70s Berkeley, California, where avant-garde, vernacular and traditional streams converged comfortably. He began playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardymon, the teacher who jump-started present-day luminaries like Craig Handy, Josh Redman and Benny Green. In sixth grade formed what would become a lifelong friendship and musical partnership with Peter Apfelbaum, later the leader of the multikulti Hieroglyphics Ensemble. The youngsters went to shows by Eddie Harris, Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Roland Kirk and Woody Shaw at the Keystone Korner, and a series of solo concerts by Leo Smith, Lester Bowie, Oliver Lake and Baikida Carroll. “Finally,” Bernstein relates, “we went to see our heroes, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, at the Great American Music Hall. Peter and I went backstage and played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they invited us in. Mr. Hardymon always told us we had to learn to play the changes better before we got involved in that kind of music. He was right. But it was in the air, and we wanted to play it.”
In eleventh grade, Bernstein looked up John Coppolla, a respected trumpet teacher who had played with Woody Herman, Billy May and Stan Kenton. “When I came to my first lesson, I was being a snotty kid,” Bernstein recalls. “I said, ‘Man, I’m into Lester Bowie!’ Mr. Coppolla was a middle-aged Italian gentleman. He said, ‘Yeah, I like Lester. He’s a good trumpet player. He’s doing what Rex Stewart was doing back in the ’40s.’ He threw on ‘Menelik, Lion of Judah.’ That changed my life. I started listening to Ellington’s 1940 band, with Rex and Cootie together in the trumpet section, and I knew it was the greatest music that ever existed. I still listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.”
Throughout high school Bernstein and Apfelbaum worked steadily on a 360-degree range of Bay Area gigs. Somehow he maintained his grades, and he matriculated at Columbia University in 1979 intending to continue his work-study parallel track. Within two years, music won out. Perhaps in response to an encounter with Wynton Marsalis in a Paul Jeffrey rehearsal band (“I thought everyone in New York had to be that good when they get here”), Bernstein avoided his hardcore jazz peer group (“I was bored with those hangs socially; I wanted to be around girls and young people”) and religiously attended concerts by Defunkt — the seminal Avant Funk unit with Joe Bowie, Kelvin Bell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronnie Burrage — at the Squat Theater on West 23rd Street.
“That band changed my life again,” Bernstein recalls. “In Berkeley, no one approached music with that hard an edge. You either played free or you played R&B. My dream was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix; they made it clear that you could put these approaches together.”
Bernstein found a West 109th Street apartment for $300 a month. He enrolled at NYU, became a protege of the iconic lead trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, and spent the ’80s apprenticing in a slew of rehearsal bands, in Haitian and Latin units, in “eight million” obscure Lower East Side bands that featured original music, in art music bands like Kamikaze Ground Crew, and in Spanish Fly, which became a point of entry into Bernstein’s music for John Lurie and Hal Willner, the trumpeter’s two great patrons of the ’90s.
“The original idea of Spanish Fly was what Sex Mob is — to play songs everyone knows,” Bernstein notes. “I played trumpet like an arranger. Instead of soloing, I might play an equivalent of a Freddie Stone guitar part or a second alto part from an Ellington type of thing, with the trumpet as the vehicle. It taught me to think on my feet, and I developed my mute vocabulary. And it taught me about presentation; Spanish Fly was a collective, but I was always the emcee.”
In 1990, Lurie recruited Bernstein for a new edition of the Lounge Lizards; he remained a band-member throughout the decade. Bernstein credits Lurie as a mentor. “John would trust his intuition in putting music together, and I saw that it worked,” Bernstein states. “He’d tell you to add one part, then another, then he’d listen to us play it, suggest another approach — and a piece would be made. John organizes shows theatrically; the sets have a long arc, like a movie, as opposed to your typical jazz show. He’d would send me tapes from Costa Rica of him playing, say, soprano sax or his little Casio, and I’d transcribe it.”
While Bernstein’s tenure with the Lounge Lizards brought increasing visibility, his ’90s work on a variety of Willner-generated projects have made him au courant in the high-stakes worlds of film and Hipster Pop. They became close when Willner produced Spanish Fly’s first album, Rags to Britches , a process that involved editing 12 hours of tape into a record, Teo Macero style. “A lot of people don’t want to listen to 12 hours of music,” Bernstein says. “I like doing that. So does Hal. We’d meet and make notes, and it turned out that we liked all the same stuff.”
In 1994, Willner called Bernstein to research songs and help assemble musicians for Robert Altman’s Kansas City. Willner sent “boxes of tapes” of music apropos to 1934, when the narrative takes place, and Bernstein spent several months absorbing it. Once on the set, when it became apparent that the promised “arrangements” in the film’s library were useless stocks, Willner put Bernstein to work writing arrangements on almost a nightly basis.
“I still haven’t recovered from that,” exclaims Bernstein, who had just transcribed a 1928 Chocolate Dandies recording for MTO. “The orchestrated music from that period moves me. Every phrase has a direct relation to the beat. I love the attention to sound, to detail, how organized everything is — loose and bluesy, but with a specific framework, because you only had three minutes. Nothing was wasted.”
The drudgery paid off. “John Zorn used to ask, ‘Why are you always doing that work for Lurie and Willner?'” Bernstein laughs. “But that’s how I learned to be an arranger.” He’s experienced too many ups and downs to let brushes with celebrity go to his head, sustaining the “it’s all good” attitude of a seasoned New York professional.
“I’m a good trumpet player,” he states. “I do a lot of studio work. Ask me to play something, and I can play it. It’s all about balance. I’m raising a family, and you’ve got to make money where you can. Playing weddings and barmitzvahs teaches you a lot about improvisation. Everyone knows ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder. But you might not know what key it’s in when they start it. There’s no music in front of you, but all the stuff is in your ear, and you’ve got to translate it into your horn and play the right notes. That is a challenge.
“Doing those jobs makes you more grateful for the chances you have to play your own music. I don’t take my midnight gig at Tonic as just another gig. I’m going to write a new chart and present something good. It all means something to me.”
Steven Bernstein (Musician Show, 2-28-01):
[Sex Mob, “Holiday of Briggan”]
TP: Steve Bernstein, aside from being the guiding intelligence of the group Sex Mob, having produced the record Diaspora Soul, and being a ubiquitous and ebullient presence on the New York scene, is also a connoisseur of traditional trumpet styles, particularly those with blues connotations. He’s brought by my request a bunch of Kansas City material, Lee Collins, ’50s arrangers, and we’re prepared to go in many different directions.
BERNSTEIN: Yes, and into the future. We’ve got some of the goodold-goodolds from the latter part of the century, as radio guys say who try to be witty. The latter part of the century as opposed to the first part..
TP: We’ll begin with Hot Lips Page from the Spirituals to Swing concert, 62 years ago.
BERNSTEIN: Something like that. But this is when he was reunited with the Count Basie band, which he had been the star trumpet player of, but by the time they recorded he was not in the band any more. Anyway, he wanted to have his own career and blah-blah-blah…
TP: You’re almost 40, and you came up in the Bay Area playing a lot of modern, future-oriented music.
BERNSTEIN: I brought a bunch of that. Early Hieroglyphics music and stuff from growing up in Berkeley. You could hear Frank Lowe play in Berkeley, and the Art Ensemble was there all the time… Sun Ra was there. We had people into the African drumming thing. After the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band broke up, there were still elements of that in the Bay Area — Julian Priester had his own band, Eddie Henderson had his own band. It was a pretty far-out time. I hate to say “far out” on the radio, but I did.
TP: That said, how did you become such a connoisseur of older trumpet styles? A lot of your generational peer group isn’t interested in anything that happened before World War 2.
BERNSTEIN: It was my trumpet teacher. See, I was really lucky. There were so many great musicians out there. There was a guy named Warren Gale, who I started studying with in the ninth grade. He was a totally modern trumpet player, and I was just a little kid, and we were playing Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Lee Morgan. That was his thing. So at that age I was totally exposed to that whole world of trumpet playing. So I’m this kid, I’m buying every Blue Note record I can get my hands on. Of course, I don’t understand the harmony at all, but I can understand the music.
The next trumpet player was a guy named John Coppola. Now, John and Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion all came together, and he was part of that world. I have one quick story. Like most high school kids would, I tried to be really cool. I get to my first lesson, and at that point I figure… He’s an older musician, in his early fifties. I say, “I’m really into modern trumpet, I’m really into Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble.” I don’t even know this guy. He just looks at me and goes, “Oh yeah, Lester Bowie. I like the kid. He’s a good trumpet player. He does the Rex Stewart thing.” And then he just puts on this record, which I also brought, and he plays me this Rex Stewart solo, which I guess we’ll listen to second. I realized he was totally non-judgmental. He wasn’t saying, “Oh, man, I don’t like that music.” He was saying, “Yeah, that’s part of the music tradition.” So basically, he got me hip to Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams. He’d talk about Dud Bascomb. He’d talk about Bill Harris. This is a man who was on the road with Bill Harris for years. He sat in the second with Conrad Gozzo. He played with Dizzy.
TP: Apart from the harmonic innovation that happened after World War Two, how would you characterize the prewar trumpet players in terms of sound quality and aesthetic intent vis-a-vis the subsequent generation?
BERNSTEIN: It’s obviously more sonically and rhythmically oriented. Definitely more sonically oriented. Because the longer you hold out a note, the more the sound becomes apparent. If you’re moving eighth notes, the sound is actually really optional. The velocity and the movement of those eighth notes is what’s creating the movement in the solo. With Louis Armstrong, people always talk about the vibrato. It was a timed vibrato, which a lot of people don’t know about. The timed vibrato means that the vibrato was actually in time with the music. They said, “How does Louis Armstrong do it? He holds the note but he pushes the band.” Well, because while he’s holding that note, that vibrato is actually right on top of the beat, and it’s pushing the whole band with just the intensity of the air. There’s a great Sidney deParis solo that I brought from the ’20s… The sound of what these people were playing is so incredible. That I think is the main thing. Because music’s music. I mean, it’s different styles for different beats.
[MUSIC: Hot Lips Page, “Blues For Lips”; Rex Stewart, “Menelik, the Lion of Judah”; Archie Shepp, “Keep Your Heart Right”; Ellington, “The Flaming Sword”]
TP: People have done variations on the half-valving technique, but no one did like Rex.
BERNSTEIN: No. From what I heard from my trumpet teacher, back in the days when everyone knew each other, there would be parties at his house where guys would come over after shows, he was very interested that both Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan could sing along with all the Rex Stewart solos on the ’78s. There are guys who were real Modernists who listen to Rex. He was definitely a special musician, and people were aware of it… He was self-taught.
TP: It’s interesting in the period after Cootie Williams left the band to join Benny Goodman, while Ray Nance was getting his feet wet, so there are a number of recordings and airchecks where you hear playing the Cootie Williams part. He was a total trumpet player.
BERNSTEIN: Oh yes. And he was a firebrand, too. I have a jam session with Rex and Charlie Shavers where everyone obviously is in their cups. But Charlie Shavers lays down this incredible stuff that would be impossible to play on the trumpet, and Rex tries to play it right back, but using his own fingerings and stuff like that, so it sounds a little different than Charlie Shavers. But I think Rex made his living as a guy people know… My Dad knows who he was. “Oh yeah, we used to go see Rex Stewart.” He was something special.
“Keep Your Heart Right” is by Roswell, and that piece kind of is what made me create Sex Mob. The great thing about it, it sounds like jazz when you hear it. Man, they’re swinging! It’s like jazz. But when you actually hear what they’re doing form-wise, it’s not like jazz, like with your eight-bar form or whatever. It’s so much more free. I think those times were very free. I think people didn’t want to hear 8 bars. That’s why they went to hear the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. Their minds were expanding. So if you heard things come to 8 bars, you’d go, “Man, this is square.” Even if it’s so hip, you’re immediately going to say it’s square. But with Archie and Roswell it was so free that people could really get into it, and meanwhile it had that jazz feeling.
TP: Maybe so. Also, a paraphrase could be the term “beyond category.” What we’re about to hear is a section from an as-yet unreleased suite of Ellingtonia arranged by you for the Donald Byrd Dance Company.
BERNSTEIN: We were actually supposed to perform this piece at Lincoln Center. The original concept, which would have been beautiful, was to have Eric Reed do the piano trio stuff from Piano Reflections, and then my idea was to do the second movement, and the third movement being the Lincoln Center Orchestra. I had worked with Donald on the Harlem Nutcracker for three or four years, and it was obvious we were kind of birds of a feather; we’d been around the same areas of New York at the same time, seen some things. I knew he had worked with Vernon Reid and Geri Allen, and I said, “Oh, do you know them, they’re friends of mine,” blah-blah-blah. We started talking about music and things we liked, and then we started talking about Ellington and I was saying how I think it’s very interesting that there was this side of Ellington that’s a very carnal side… Of course, everyone makes an icon out of somebody, like they want to present this…the whole Ellington shtick. But he was a human being, and he was a pretty funky guy.
TP: What he called himself in his book was the master bullshitter.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, he was a pretty funky guy! He had a dark side, too. And I said, “It would be nice to celebrate that part of the music, instead of always presenting it so immaculately done. Because to be honest, that band also didn’t sound immaculate. I remember once talking to Al Porcino, and there were certain guys who were great musicians and maybe couldn’t appreciate the Ellington thing, because they were around during the ’50s, and they were probably like that Kenton sense of everything’s in tune and hits together, and that thing with the trumpet shakes, and you might hear the Ellington band, especially at certain periods, and say, “man, that doesn’t sound that good.” So the idea of the funkiness of the Ellington band, that it could be a very funky band, it wasn’t all spit-and-polish.
TP: Well, the band was traveling 250-300 days a year, and you can’t humanly be in the sort of form you’re talking about. Different circumstances, different sounds, venues…
BERNSTEIN: That was just a tangent.
TP: It was. But anyway, was this eventually realized?
BERNSTEIN: Oh yeah. It happened at the Joyce Theater for a week. But then the idea was to present it later in the summer but record the music. He couldn’t afford to have us do it at the Joyce.
TP: And it didn’t get performed at Lincoln Center because of the carnal nature at the core…
BERNSTEIN: The reason it didn’t get done is that this music had gotten so carnal that he had it worked out that the dancers all come out, and at one point the males and females both have enormous breasts and enormous phalluses. Each is just for one movement… Well, for each one there was a matching phallus and breast. Like, they could be in zebra-colored or psychedelic-colored, or a tie-dye set, or a polkadot set…
TP: And thus it didn’t make it to Lincoln Center.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. It shouldn’t have been. It was supposed to be for Lincoln Center Outdoors. You can’t have people bring their children to see it. It was not appropriate. But that’s what happened.
[Sex Mob, “Black and Tan Fantasy”]
TP: That song has such a strong character and defined identity that people who tackle it rarely break it up and mess with it as enthusiastically as you did. You’ve done a lot of work in rearranging and reformulating the music of the ’30s and ’40s, on Kansas City, this project, many things. Did your arranging develop in parallel to playing the trumpet?
BERNSTEIN: I think it’s one of those things in being a professional musician, having someone go, “Can you make an arrangement?” and you go, “Yeah, how much does it pay?” I talked to Manny Albam who did these arrangements called “Three Dimensional,” where it was three different bands playing three melodies, like the way Mingus did “Exactly Like You” and “A Train,” and finding one more song. He had three different ensembles, and he had it in Trivision Stereo or something. I called him and asked “How did you arrange that?” He said, “Oh, I was in Wingy Manone’s band, and Wingy said, ‘Hey, Manny, can you make me an arrangement?'” He said yeah.
That’s kind of how it happened, how it started — doing Haitian music. “Hey, Steve, can you make an arrangement?” Then I started working with John Lurie. There were things in between…
TP: You started working in Haitian bands when you came to New York.
BERNSTEIN: Pretty early on. That’s one of the first gigs I had that was kind of…
TP: You got here?
TP: You were 18, right out of high school.
TP: You get here and try to make your way in the fray.
BERNSTEIN: It’s a funny story because I get here. Me and Wynton are the same age, and he was going to Juilliard and I was going to Columbia. I made it there a few years. Lifestyle’s too hard, man. I couldn’t keep up with the druggies at Columbia! I had to quit! I’m not really made of that kind of stuff. I don’t have those kinds of genetics.
TP: No one here does that these days, you know.
BERNSTEIN: Yes, but that was a long time ago. Anyway, growing up I had been a professional musician, I thought I was good, all these things, and I move to New York and think “Oh, man, I’m going to play.” So I get there and I meet another trumpet player at rehearsal band. See, I’m really good at rehearsal bands. Paul Jeffrey’s rehearsal band. I’ve been in town for three days, and this young trumpet player from New Orleans, obviously my age, big Afro, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. And man, he played so good. And I kept hearing him. And see, I thought that’s how good you had to be. I thought man, everyone in New York has to be that good when they get here. And that was Wynton, you know.
TP: that was discouraging for you?
BERNSTEIN: Whoo! To hear a guy play the trumpet like that? At that age? So for a second, I just kind of hung out. Then I kind of got more into it again.
TP: But you started to work professionally while you were an undergraduate.
BERNSTEIN: Oh yeah, I started doing gigs immediately. But I meant the whole… I had done this record when…
TP: How did you get networked into those gigs? Who did you know?
BERNSTEIN: I met people. I knew Butch Morris from the Bay Area. He gave me my first recording session. I’d been to the East Coast before, and some people knew me. I had some trumpet teachers, and they’d say, “oh, go to this rehearsal band” or “do this Latin gig for me.” I knew Jimmy Owens. I knew Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu. I took lessons with all those guys.
But what I wanted to play like… What I was doing was checking out Defunkt. That’s what I did when I first moved to New York. Every weekend I was at the Squat Theater. That was my band. I think that really changed my life. Because in Berkeley no one had really approached the music that hard-edged. Where I’m from, the music was so much softer. It was good, but suddenly you’d hear Defunkt, man, and Joe Bowie was playing so much trombone… Melvin Gibbs, Kelvin Bell, Ronnie Burrage. It was this great band, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was my dream, was mixing up that Lester Bowie style trumpet with Larry Graham and Jimi Hendrix and all this music I loved. I said, “Yeah, man, you could just play them together.”
TP: And at the same time you’re playing with people who are very well versed in the bebop and postbop vocabulary.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, but that was never what I wanted to do.
TP: So the ’80s proceed, you fade away from Columbia and settle into the life of a professional musician, doing Haitian gigs, Funk gigs, various gigs.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. And I was in every East Village band. Tons of band. When I got there, now a lot of guys were into that kind of music… I could really well. If people gave me a chart, I could play it. Because I come from playing big bands and having teachers who were really serious about playing the trumpet. Trumpet is a hard instrument. There are great self-taught trumpet players, but man, it’s hard enough even if you’re well-taught. I mean, these guys really knew how to play the trumpet. They taught me about playing in time. I really believe in playing in time. I mean, I love playing out of time, too. But time is very specific, and there’s a lot of ways to approach it. My trumpet teachers were Jimmy Maxwell. John Coppola, who sat next to Gozzo. I mean, that’s a certain concept of where the time should be, which I think is very important. When I moved to New York, I found a lot of people didn’t feel time that way. They felt that much more bright type of time, on top of the beat, and that also was not attractive to me. I appreciate that modern style of big band, but it doesn’t really interest me that much. I’ll do anything as a job, but…
TP: So you started doing arrangements for Haitian bands, and you learned more or less by trial-and-error.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, you’d just figure out… But I always had a natural affinity for it. I could hear the range of the horns in my ear. Anyway, John Lurie was starting to get to be more high-profile, then Hal Wilner asked me to do stuff, and now I have my own band. So I’m just writing all the time.
TP: We’re going to Mezz it up! This isn’t coming from a CD of the session nor from an LP compilation. It’s from a Blue Note LP 33-1/3 Microgroove 10″, 7027! “Mezzerola Blues.”
BERNSTEIN: Lee Collins. You can say his name again!
[Lee Collins/Mezz, “Mezzerola Blues”; Charlie Johnson/Sidney DeParis, “The Boy In The Boat”; Mingus-Clark Terry, “Clark In the Dark”]
BERNSTEIN: Trumpeters. Great trumpeters. Lee Collins I didn’t know about until very recently. I was on the road in Portland with Kenny Wolleson, and he brings me Lee Collins’ autobiography from Powell’s. I’m reading about him, and I said, “Man, this sounds incredible.” Because this guy was a contemporary of Armstrong, a little bit younger than him, but that’s who he grows up listening to. He comes to Chicago, but he’s his own trumpeter, but Armstrong’s the guy from his town who’s a couple of years older than him. I found this record in my collection which I hadn’t really checked out, and I put it on and heard it, and realized that to me the beauty of it was that he’s playing in the style of Armstrong in the ’20s, but then developing on that. Most guys, when they use some Armstrong and put it in their playing, use the ’40s thing, more obvious, more stated, everything was more tongue. This almost sounds like Armstrong’s cornet style, a little more sliding around.
TP: Let’s take a tangent. Your observations on the evolution of Louis Armstrong’s style.
BERNSTEIN: When you hear him with King Oliver, he’s playing lower in the register. Then you hear him play in Fletcher Henderson and the Hot Fives, and he’s starting what became known as the solo style. He’s playing these beautiful melodies that he just knew. Musicians know this about Armstrong, but if you’re not a musician you might not be that aware of it. I don’t think he ever played a note out of the chord. And chords are not simple on those old songs. You hear a lot of blues musicians play New Orleans music, and they play a basic diatonic blues over it. It doesn’t always work, because you have what are called three-chord… You have chords where there’s notes that are actually very clearly outside of the blues scale.
Well, Louis Armstrong always hit those notes perfectly and musically, and led to them. It was always there. So he started playing in this softer style. With Fletcher Henderson I guess he switched to the trumpet and was using more of the upper register. The more instruments are below you on the trumpet, the easier it is to play in the upper register. If you’re just playing with two other horns, they can’t really support your note up there. If you start playing with the big band… Then he had his big band, and that’s when his style became this really super-virtuosic style, that whole thing with “Swing That Music” and you play 40 high Cs and you end on a double high-F, and he’s doing it every night, six shows a night, then doing recordings in the afternoon.
Then when he started going back to play with the All Stars, now he’s mixing the two styles together. That’s the style of New Orleans trumpet playing most guys use from Louis’ All-Stars. It’s up in the register. It comes from that big band playing. He’s playing really high and he’s stating the beat very directly. With the early stuff, there’s more mystery in there.
TP: Now back to Lee Collins.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. He’s mystery. When you hear him, there’s just a lot of mystery, and it sounds great.
TP: Sidney De Paris.
BERNSTEIN: Don’t know much about him. Him and his brother had a band and were called the New Orleans Jazz Band. [Blue Note and Atlantic] His brother played with Duke Ellington. He was just another great trumpeter. Obviously could really play. Whether it’s his hand or his plunger, however he’s doing, that solo is unbelievable to me. It’s one of those gems. When I heard it, I just went back and listened to it over and over again. Punch Miller was a guy from that same era. When you listen to the guys of that era when they were young… Trumpet is a hard instrument. So obviously, when you heard Punch Miller or Sidney deParis in the ’60s, it’s a lot different. They didn’t have the physicality to keep playing that way. But when they were young, man, they sounded amazing!
TP: On the last track we heard the great Clark Terry, who seems to subsume just about everything that ever happened in the history of trumpet in his own style.
BERNSTEIN: And he’s the greatest guy in the world. I’ve known him for a long time. I hung with him this summer. He’s such an inspiration. I read an interview with him where he said he keeps his horn by his bed, and sometimes in the middle of the night he’ll just get up and play a few notes. That’s when I just kind of realized how serious playing the trumpet is. If you really want to be a trumpet player… I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and some days I’ll skip practicing — or I did, up until three or four months ago. Then I decided, “You know what?” I’m never going to skip aa day of practice. Trumpet is serious. It’s a really heavy instrument, with the amount of dedication it takes to make your lips work properly on the trumpet. And Clark is one of those guys… He’s almost blind, he can barely walk, he’s diabetic, and every time he puts his horn to his face, man, beauty comes out. You cannot believe how incredible he sounds. He’s an inspiration. And the greatest person in the world. And hilarious. I was hanging out with him and Alan Smith, who is in his seventies, and a 91-year-old drummer, and Roger Glenn, the son of Tyree Glenn, who lives in Oakland. It was so funny! The drummer was Eddie Alley, the brother of Vernon Alley, the bass player who lived in San Francisco. He’s not doing so much playing. He said maybe he’s going to stick to contracting, because he’s 90 and he’s not been working that much.
TP: On Diaspora Soul Steven put traditional cantorial music to New Orleans beats.
BERNSTEIN: It was more like traditional songs to beats… Well, the beats are really a lot of Afro-Cuban beats and Cha-Cha beats. They’re actually not New Orleans beats. But the bass parts and piano parts are coming from that tradition of music. The beats actually were mixing like mambos and cha-chas. But on this I just got right down to the rhythm. This is with a Rumba rhythm. I took it from a Polish cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, originally written in 1921. It’s an Ashkenazi piece, but it sounds very Sephardic, just the tonality. But it’s not.
TP: We’ll hear a track by Yusef Lateef from The Symphonic Blues Suite, another take on the blues, and another way of articulating the blues.
BERNSTEIN: Growing up, those Atlantic records were very important to me, the whole thing with Yusef and Eddie Harris and Fathead and Rahsaan… See, it’s Rahsaan who brought us into this. Rahsaan ruled the Bay Area. I saw Rahsaan about ten times in high school.
TP: You were a Keystone Korner guy.
BERNSTEIN: Me and Peter Apfelbaum were in the front… We’d get there early. And we were slick. We had a thing where I’d get a Coca-Cola in Chinatown and stick it in our pocket, and we’d order water as soon as we sat down, drink the water, save the ice, and pour the Coke in real fast, and I had the can again, and it looked like they had brought us Coke for the minimum. We were criminals, hard-core.
But we’d go see Rahsaan, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why I think about music this way. Those Atlantic productions, you’d get these records, and it seemed like you were entering this world where each record was a brand-new world. Like, Blackness. Do you remember Natural Black Inventions, where it’s just him? We’re kids and looking at this and saying, “wow, this is so great.” It wasn’t the idea that records was a bunch of guys getting together to play. It was like each record was a world you could enter. Yusef made some great… The Search, which I wish I still had. Me and Peter would just sit around and practice and play records. It’s part of my history.
[Yusef, “Minuet, Hybrid-Atonal”; Gil Evans-Johnny Coles, “Davenport Blues”; Rahsaan-Quincy, “Charade”]
TP: Quincy Jones did a lot of amazing arrangements in the ’60s, and the dynamic range and precision, but it’s never like a machine…
BERNSTEIN: It’s never bad. I’ve been thinking about it. Quincy is kind of like Mingus with a little TV added to it. It’s like that good. I really feel Quincy is that good. It’s so full of life, so exploratory, celebratory… The fact that he would have Roland Kirk playing the solo. Who else would love music that much?
TP: Rahsaan was under contract to Mercury at the time.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, but check this out. Clark Terry, Ernie Royal, Snooky Young, Jimmy Maxwell, Osie Johnson and Milt Hinton. I meet drummers all the time, and they don’t know who Osie Johnson is — or Gus Johnson. Those guys were so great, and their time was so great, and there was a certain level f musicianship… Look, the world changes. It’s always different. But at that period of time, man, the level of musicianship was so high, because everyone was playing every day, they’d all been on the road for years, they had all that skill under their belts of having played three sets a night for years. Then you go into this high quality recording, and people are playing at night… When I hear music like we just heard, I just love this music.
TP: Before that we heard Gil Evans’ arrangement of “Davenport Blues” with Johnny Coles playing the Bix role, from the great Gil Evans for Pacific Jazz where he arranged all the standards.
BERNSTEIN: I was probably in tenth grade when I heard this for the first time, and it was just like… That’s one of those solos that’s so pure to me. When I heard that, I just couldn’t believe it. It’s so sympathetic, the arranging. Gil Evans is a whole nother kind of arranger. That kind of arranging is so beyond me. It’s so unique. The interesting thing is that Jimmy Maxwell and Gil Evans grew up together. They had a high school band in Tracy, which later became the Skinny Ennis Band. Maxwell told me that Gil would babysit his kids sometimes. He left the house and go see a movie with his wife or something, and Gil’s sitting at the piano with Maxwell’s son, David, and he’s sitting there playing a chord, and David’s sitting next to him on the piano. They get back three hours later, David is in the same place and Gil’s still playing the same chord. That’s the way he was. It seems to me he really thought so much about every single interval.
Another interesting thing about Gil Evans, he always talked about unison. People asked him later on, in Sweet Basil, why he wasn’t writing these big orchestrations like we just heard. And he said, you know, trying to get the band to make unison… I didn’t understand what he said. But lately I think what he was talking about was that Basie thing of the unison. Because as I’ve been doing more and more writing, I realize it’s much easier for a band to play harmony than to play unison.
TP: Why is that? Because you have to breathe as one?
BERNSTEIN: Exactly. Because the harmony, if it’s a little bit off, the beauty and strength of the harmony can carry you. But if it’s unison, it’s really got to be played with this feeling. It’s really powerful, but it’s much harder to get to. Maybe there’s a science to unison, but I’d say it’s kind of almost a magic thing that you have to reach out to through time. You can’t learn it. You have to spend time to get it. And you have to start with something else.
I think it’s easier to mess with something with a strong melody. The stronger the melody is, the more it can withhold. It’s like a really strong building. If it’s a really strong frame, you can hit it with as many hammers as you want and it’s going to hold up. I’m trying to hit it with many hammers.
[Sex Mob, “The Mooche”]
TP: Steven was talking about unisons. When you talk about unisons and breathing-together, you’re talking about riffs. And nobody ever did the riff function better than the Count Basie Orchestra, at least not on record.
BERNSTEIN: This is true. This was always in the air around me, but when I went on the Kansas City film, my job there started off kind of being the research guy. Hal Wilner, every two days or so I’d get a big box of tapes to listen to, and my daughter had just been born… I swear to God, I think this is why she’s the way she is, which is really special, but the first couple of months all she heard was music from 1928 to 1938. That was it. That’s all I listened to in the house. It kind of seeped into my body, it seeps into one’s body when you listen to it… What do you call that process?
BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Gesundheit. It kind of started a disease with me, because now after listening to so much of that music, it’s like I can’t stop listening to it. And my daughter is 6, so that was 6 years ago.
TP: There’s a bunch of Basie airchecks from the late ’30s and early ’40s, and apart from the greatness of the band, one of the pleasures is to hear Lester Young play a bunch of choruses.
BERNSTEIN: And on this one Jo Jones has woodblocks and cowbells… It’s really good. It’s also before the band had four trombones. It’s three trombones.
TP: Here it’s the Basie band playing for dancers at either the Savoy or the Meadowbrook Lounge in 1937.
[Basie, “I Got Rhythm”; Benny Moten, “Toby”; KC-6, “Countless Blues”]
TP: Talk about organizing that style for a group of modern musicians, whose approach to making music is different than musicians 60 years before, developing that organic feeling.
BERNSTEIN: When we did it for the movie? Man, these musicians are all so great that it was easy, because they all knew what to do. It really freed me up, because for some things it could be really skeletal and they could put it together. Riff music continues to be the music of our generation. It’s just changed harmonically and rhythmically. But all Popular music is riff music. The concept of unisons, as a lot of jazz has strayed from that, has gone to Pop music. One thing about James Brown is the unisons. You hear great unisons in a lot R&B music and a lot of dance music. That’s why it makes people want to dance. It’s the power of all that happening together. You hear that in African music a lot. There’s unisons and there’s… Obviously, the rhythms are different, but a lot of people in unison in different rhythms often.
The band Spanish Fly had… I remember Frank Perowsky, who is the father of a friend of mine and a great saxophone player, came to one of our gigs. This was a band with trumpet, slide guitar and tuba. He’s really a modern jazz guy. He said, “Steve, as I’m listening to this, I’m wondering what is this that they’re playing.” And I realize it’s unison. Because if you hear a slide guitar, a trumpet and a tuba playing unison, that’s a very specific kind of unison. Every unison is different. So there’s a whole world of unison out there. You hear it in Parliament-Funkadelic. You hear a lot of good unison out there.
Obviously, you don’t hear arranging. Actual arranging has gotten away from that. Because people are much more into putting a lot of things on top, a lot of different moving lines. But for dancing, of course, it really moves people.
TP: We’ll move to music now by the trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, who was a primary mentor for Steven when he came to New York.
BERNSTEIN: It was just a miracle. I went to NYU, and he was there teaching. You had a choice of trumpet teachers, and I’d been hearing about him. When I moved to New York, a lot of people studied with Jimmy Maxwell, so I had a lot of opportunity to study with him. He really took me under his wing. I’d take lessons at his house, and he’d send me home with tapes and records, and books about Zen, and food. I’d spend all day there, he’d cook a huge breakfast, we’d take a walk, we’d play, we’d cook… He taught me about cooking. It was one of those things where someone talks to you about things. And he’d just seen so much in his life. Here’s a guy who was 17 years old on the road with Skinny Ennis, then he replaced Harry James basically in Benny Goodman’s band when he was 18 years old. 18 years old, and he joins the most popular band in the United States of America…
TP: Replacing the most popular trumpeter.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. It was big news back then. It as if someone had replaced John in the Beatles or something like that. What he saw living that life was really amazing, and being able to pass some of that on to me was great. He’s a very spiritual guy. The lessons were much more than just music.
The first piece starts with solo trumpet, and it’s a great chance to hear his sound. One of the things Jimmy taught me about was timed vibrato. When I first started playing gigs after taking lessons with him, other trumpeters were looking at me like I was crazy, because I’d be playing these parts with this really pronounced vibrato, which of course is not the way you play in modern music. But when you’re young and studying with someone, you’re trying to emulate what they teach you, and sometimes that might not be the right thing to do in a certain situation. But eventually, the vibrato has brought me a lot of good things.
[Jimmy Maxwell, “Estrelita,” “The Trolley Song”]
TP: Now some live Ellington. Hearing live Ellington airchecks and recorded performances is one of the great pleasures of jazz collecting. You have them going back to the early ’30s and all through his career. These come from 1948-49, when Ben Webster joined the band.
BERNSTEIN: Right. These are just trumpet features. This is “Tooting Through the Roof,” which he wrote for Rex and Cootie. It’s pretty impossible to play.
TP: This is where the Ellington band would be that precision instrument
BERNSTEIN: Exactly. “Braggin’ In Brass” is more rhythmically difficult. “Tootin’ Through the Roof” is just…as far as the range, it goes all through the trumpet to the very top. This is when he had Al Killian in the band, who was a great lead trumpet who people don’t talk about so much.
TP: Talk about lead trumpet versus the soloistic approach. I did a liner note for someone who’s a protege of Clark Terry, and he spoke of Clark Terry embodying that ideal of playing trumpet with the lead trumpet type technique with the feeling…
BERNSTEIN: Right, of a jazz player, which is difficult. Most people… It’s the natural thing that would happen when you’re trying to play things consistently and the same all the time. We’re talking about balance. That could shift the balance from being able to be really spontaneous and pulling things in different directions. That’s a really hard thing to do, and that’s what we heard Maxwell do. He was a very lead style trumpet player. The Ellington style was a little more… He told me that he didn’t like Chet Baker when he heard him, and then he saw a written-out Chet Baker solo and played it, and then he liked. I heard him play the Chet Baker solo. But he’s not playing it like Chet Baker would play it; he’s playing the notes and interpreting it his own way. Then he could appreciate the rhythmic and melodic beauty of it. But for him, the way Chet played wasn’t the way the trumpet should sound. He comes from another school. He doesn’t play any more, but when I studied with him he was still playing all the time. He was playing every night and sounding incredible.
He’s the person who taught me about all these trumpet players. He talked about Billy Butterfield all the time. Who talks about Billy Butterfield. But when he was doing sections, he was telling me that in Mildred Bailey’s show the trumpet section was him, Billy Butterfield and Roy Eldridge. Now, think about that.
TP: The different sounds, for one thing.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah, but also the level of playing of those three guys. Billy Butterfield was a great trumpet player, a great lead and jazz stylist. Jimmy always described him as having the best intervals in the business; his intervals were perfect. And Shorty Baker, who is the lower of the two lower tessitore trumpet players in this next piece, a trumpet player from St. Louis, has a beautiful sound. It sounds like he really influenced Clark Terry. Beautiful tone. Didn’t Miles talk about Shorty Baker? Trumpet players know about him, but now everyone will.
[Ellington, “Tootin’ Through the Roof” (Killian-Baker); “Boy Meets Horn”; Teagarden & Ben, “St. James Infirmary”]
TP: This “Boy Meets Horn” may be the ultimate of all the “Boy Meets Horns” I’ve heard, which are two or three.
BERNSTEIN: That’s why I played it. At the end there’s a cadenza that Rex would always play. By the way, my son is named Rex. But that was a set piece, and this is the extended version. Here Ellington plays piano behind him, and it’s neat, the backup line he plays — a little counter-melody.
TP: And from 1948 we heard “Tootin’ Through the Roof.” on an Italian collectors label called Raretone.
BERNSTEIN: At the end, Al Killian and Shorty Baker don’t really make the end the way Cootie and Rex did; they articulated so much stronger on the recording.
TP: Before the next set, I’d like to speak about Sex Mob. Each of your ensembles has had a general vibration or sound or signature. How did this band come to be?
BERNSTEIN: Sex Mob came about as a vehicle to explore the slide trumpet. I only play slide trumpet in Sex Mob, and I’d been playing it in different groups… I bought a slide trumpet in 1977 and I’ve been playing it since then, but never that seriously until about eight years ago, when I decided to really start practicing it. It’s a really difficult instrument. So when I originally played it, I would just play in a few keys I could kind of get around in, and it would just be something I could pick up and play. But then Dave Douglas suggested I practice it. Smart man.
So I wondered I could take the instrument if I had a band where this was the only instrument I’m taking to the gig. I just figured let’s see what kind of repertoire I could develop that I could play on this instrument. And this is a great band. We’ve pretty much had regular gigs in New York for five years. We play usually Friday nights at midnight at Tonic. It’s Tony Scherr on the bass, Kenny Wolleson on the drums, and my partner in sonic crime, Briggan Krauss, on alto.
TP: What does the slide trumpet give you that the valve trumpet doesn’t?
BERNSTEIN: One thing it does is, it frees me. It frees me from the history of the trumpet. Most trumpet players feel this… There’s a weight on your shoulders in a sense, an obligation to all those who came before us. Especially when you grow up like I did, really listening to a lot of trumpets… I listened a lot. So you listen to Clifford, you listen to Lee, you listen to Booker Little, to Roy Eldridge and Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, etc., Louis Armstrong, obviously… You have all these people you’re thinking about. I used to see Dizzy all the time. I should have brought that thing where Dizzy plays just like… Dizzy got so many things from Rex Stewart. Dizzy is the one who plays like Rex, not Clark Terry. In fact, Dizzy was on that aircheck of Rex we just played. Taft Jordan was another great trumpet player that people don’t talk about.
So it allows me to play an instrument… I manipulate it the way I play the trumpet. I use my airstream in the same way. But it’s a whole nother instrument. It allows me to explore other avenues. The other thing is, funlike the buttons… When you press a button down, you get this approximate pitch as the button shoots air through the trumpet. But with the slide, you’re just moving the slide back and forth, and it gets all these tiny increments in pitch. If you want to play below the pitch a little, you can hold it there, or above the pitch — all these different places. It’s much easier to get there. Much easier to play like a voice. Much easier to play like Otis Redding. Much easier to play like a slide guitar. Much easier to play other sounds you might be hearing in your head. So it allows me to express other sounds. And it’s loud. And it’s quiet. That’s really good. There’s something about the instrument…
TP: Why don’t more people play it?
BERNSTEIN: Because it’s really hard.
TP: You mean controlling those increments of pitch?
BERNSTEIN: It’s really difficult to get. I’ve developed a style based on being out of tune, so I have an excuse. I’m not trying to play like J.J. Johnson on it. That’s not what I’m going for. But even the way I play it, it’s really hard. And eventually, probably someone will come up and figure out how to play like that.
TP: So as opposed to the trombone it’s out of what the just proportion would be for it to be in-tune….
BERNSTEIN: No, it’s the same proportion. but if a trombone has an inch between each half-pitch, I would have half-an-inch. If you’re a little bit off on trombone, most people can’t hear it. But if you’re that same physical distance off on the slide trumpet, everyone can hear it. The second grade music teacher can hear it. Everyone is checking it out. It’s one of those long and strong instruments, without a doubt.
[Sex Mob, “Harlem”]
TP: That was the concluding piece on the CD, so obviously the concluding section of the dance. All the arrangements kept the essence of Ellington with a contemporary rhythmic connotation, timbre and attack.
BERNSTEIN: I listen to a lot of modern music. Most of my inspiration for producing sound comes from what people call the Pre-War period. But then, I love what it feels like to be alive today, so this is why I play as though I were a living person.
TP: We’ll enter the here-and-now in the last half-hour, though you were a toddler when Mama Too Tight was recorded. A mono LP!
BERNSTEIN: I was 13 the first time I heard this. This is another record I remember hearing the first time and thinking… Another story going back to Jimmy Maxwell and Archie Shepp. He taught lessons in a little studio in the Charles Collin studios on 53rd-54th Street, and he told me one day he was giving a lesson, and suddenly he heard something that sounded more like Duke Ellington’s band than anything he’d ever heard. He ran out of his rehearsal studio, ran into the next, and it was Archie Shepp playing his arrangements of Ellington. I thought it was very interesting for someone who grew up listening to Ellington to say that.
[Shepp, “Mama, Too Tight”; Apfelbaum, “Chant 49”; Codona, “Coleman Wonder”]
BERNSTEIN: We have pictures of Peter, Jeff Crestman and Peter in sixth grade, playing gigs — after school. We were into it, man.
TP: What is it about Berkeley that produces all these open-minded musicians?
BERNSTEIN: And it’s funny. The later they were born, the more money they make!
TP: Were you a product of that particular teacher?
BERNSTEIN: Yes Phil Hardymon. Phil Hardymon, Dick Winnington, a piano player, and Herb Wong, the educator and noted humanist who started the program around 1970. I got there the second year of it. I got to Berkeley the first time in ’69, so it must have been in ’72. Hardymon was incredible. He was a no bullshit kind of person. He basically said, “Look, this is good music, this is bad music,” and he would not tolerate us listening to bad music.
TP: What was bad music?
BERNSTEIN: You know, bad big band music. You know…
TP: Brassy, peppy…
BERNSTEIN: Well, that’s not necessarily bad. Brassy doesn’t mean bad. You know what’s bad? Out of time. Out of tune. Not swinging. That’s what’s bad. Those are the elements of jazz that you need to have, is it needs to be in time, it needs that element of melody that makes it jazz. Whether we’re talking about somebody like Chet Baker, or you’re talking about Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis in the ’60s, with all very different tones and styles of trumpet, but they’re all real, they all have whatever those essential elements are. And of course, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and Woody Shaw. Hardymon would take us to gigs… Mr. Hardymon. We always just called him Hardymon. He had this little Karman-Ghia, he’d drive us to Keystone Korner. He took us to see the Art Ensemble the first time. And he’d put up with it. I know at first he couldn’t quite get why we were listening to the Art Ensemble, but when he heard them live he figured it out. He always told us, “Man, you guys got to learn to play the changes better before you start doing all this.” He was right. But that was the music that was in the air. We wanted to play it. I saw Lester Bowie play a solo in Berkeley. I saw Baikida play a solo, I saw Oliver Lake play a solo. These people were all coming through town when I was growing up.
TP: Well, the Art Ensemble spent a lot of time out there.
BERNSTEIN: Right, and they had friends they’d hang with. I still remember once we went to see Lester solo, and the next day we went to play a Reno Jazz Festival. We used to get up in the Reno Jazz Festival and play free jazz. Everyone else was playing Bill Holman…well, Bill Holman is hip… Like, Sammy Nestico, those kind of real typical high school arrangements.
Coming up is some music I heard, real Berkeley-style — recorded in New York.
[Lowe-J/L Bowie, “Play Some Blues”]
BERNSTEIN: Beaver Harris is someone who was really influential on me and Peter. He was a good friend of ours.
TP: We’ll conclude with a track that I noticed is on the top of the Knitting Factory charts…
BERNSTEIN: I have Sex Mob, I have the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and Diaspora Soul. I’ll have records by all three out in the Fall.
[Sex Mob, “About a Girl” (Kurt Cobain)]
Steven Bernstein (WKCR, 6-3-99):
BERNSTEIN: I’m the world tallest slide trumpet player. You got a problem with that?
TP: Is that documented in the Guinness Book of World Records? I want to see documentation.
On the cover of Steven’s new record, Den of Iniquity, is a very fine likeness of Steven with red horns on his head and some red outline around him that looks like a shadow cape. Looks like you’re channeling something there.
BERNSTEIN: It was all stream of consciousness, and no Biblical aspirations. Some people saw some anti-Semitic undercurrent in there, but it was all completely done…
TP: With innocence.
BERNSTEIN: Innocence and inspiration.
TP: it was more of a Zap Comix vibe, I would say, than…
BERNSTEIN: Exactly. I would say more Zap Comix than Michelangelo. Is that the one who did the Moses with the horns?
TP: There’s a good segue. Because one thing not everyone might know about you, given your extremely contemporary persona, is your devotion to the old guys in the music — and your intense study of the older forms of the music. You’re a virtual encyclopedia of ’30s big bands and jump music, and I guess al that inflects what you do with Sex Mob.
BERNSTEIN: I’m trying to. I see Sex Mob hopefully as a return to what I feel is the earliest roots of jazz. After it came out of New Orleans and moved to Chicago, you had basically a blank slate of new music where people were taking pop songs of the time and playing them in new styles. They were playing them with different rhythms, they were playing them with different dynamics, and they were playing them with improvisations. That’s what Bud Freeman and all those guys heard when they would go to the Royal Gardens. It was this music where people basically took pop songs and played them in the way they felt like playing them. These people were young, brash geniuses. This music was louder than any music of its time. This music was certainly being played on let’s say a more psychedelic plane than the average vaudeville song or minstrel song would have been played.
TP: And accompanied by some pretty psychedelic liquor, too.
BERNSTEIN: Oh yeah. Exactly! Guys were getting out there. That’s what I’m trying to do with Sex Mob. People talk about the problem of having an audience for jazz. And so many people are scared of jazz. Because when they hear it, they have no familiarity with the songs. The last real popular era of jazz you had Miles Davis. Miles did the same songs. Miles did “My Funny Valentine,” “Stella By Starlight,” songs that everybody knew.
TP: The songs of the day..
BERNSTEIN: Songs of the day. Even Coltrane did “Inchworm” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and all that stuff. So that’s what I’m trying to do. On my last record I do a piece by the Cardigans, I do “Live and Let Die,” I do a piece by Prince, I do a tune by Duke, Leadbelly — songs that everyone knows.
TP: A lot of improvisers are trying to incorporate “the new standard,” one of two pieces from the ’60s or ’70s that they do some rearrangement of. How do those tunes hold up as vehicles for improvisation?
BERNSTEIN: In my opinion, it matters how well you arrange them. I won’t say who I saw, but I saw one person, an amazing musician, doing a concert of that kind of music and the arrangements weren’t suiting the music. So when you’re talking about music that doesn’t have a lot of harmonic structure, it’s very important that you arrange every tiny bit of melody to have equal importance. Because what’s happened in Pop music is there’s been a digression of harmonic material over the last 50 years, where it went from the long form of the march, which had an intro and had the opening strains and the second strains and the third strains, all these different parts; and then we got down to the Tin Pan Alley form of music, which has the verse and the chorus with the bridge; and then you got to the point where you just had songs which were AABA form; and then we got to kind of doo-wop songs which were the same AABA form, but now we’re just having a I-VI-II-V harmonic form instead of going into a lot of different keys, and still usually going to the IV chord no the bridge; and then people let go to the bridge, and that’s when you got some early music of Sly Stone and James Brown, where you just had a I-VI-II-V; then pretty soon it got the point where you had one single melodic bassline which became the entire harmony for the song; then you got the ’80s where you just had a synthesized bass riff; and then you had Public Enemy where it wasn’t even about any harmony at all, but a sample suddenly became your harmonic basis for the song.
So with this new music it’s very important to realize we’re dealing with arrangement, and you’ve got to create interest in the arrangement. You asked how they will hold up. As long as the arrangement allows interest and allows growth, and then you have great improvisers, it’s going to be fine. You can’t play “Raspberry Beret” by Prince the same way you play “My Funny Valentine.” It’s that simple.
TP: In your career as a musician has Pop music and jazz music always existed on an equal plane for you in terms of your study and interest?
BERNSTEIN: No. When I was a kid I was a total jazz snob. I started playing jazz in fifth grade under Phil Hardeman in Berkeley, California, who started us playing jazz… We had improvisation in fifth grade. Phil died last year, and a lot of people came from under his tutelage — Peter Apfelbaum, Benny Green, Craig Handy, Josh Redman, etc. He believed in taste. He believed everyone should play in taste. We weren’t really big into playing a lot of music over the changes. More into melodies. He was into playing us ’50s Miles and Chet Baker and of course Duke. Then Peter Apfelbaum and I started getting into other types of music. The first concert Peter took me to, we saw Eddie Harris at Keystone Korner. We were in seventh grade. Then later on in seventh grade we went to see Sam Rivers Trio with Sonny Fortune opening. That was the second concert we went to. Then we finally got to see our heros, the Art Ensemble. The Art Ensemble has known me and Peter since we were 13 years old. We’re talking about 1975 is the first time I saw them, at the Great American Music Hall. Roscoe had taken a sabbatical, and it was just Joseph and Lester. It was unbelievable. We went backstage. We had learned some of their songs, and we played some of their percussion songs on the wall, and they came out and see these two little kids banging on the wall, and they invited us in.
Berkeley was amazing. Not only did I get to get to hear Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon at Keystone Korner, there was also a series of solo concerts at a place called Mapenzi, and I heard Leo Smith solo, Lester Bowie solo, Oliver Lake solo, Baikida Carroll. We heard a lot. Plus my trumpet teacher was a guy named John Coppola, who is now in his early ’70s, and he played with Woody and Billy May and Kenton, and he’s the guy who introduced me to Cootie and Rex. I was being a snotty kid and I came to my first lesson, we were talking and I said to him, “Man, I’m into Lester Bowie.” I’m talking to this older Italian gentleman. He said to me, “Oh yeah! Yeah, I like Lester. He’s a good trumpet player. He’s doing what Rex was doing back in the ’40s. And he throws on this record. I go, “Oh, man, this is the same thing!” So I started listening to Cootie and Rex in 11th grade, and that really changed my life. When I heard Ellington’s ’40s band, with Jimmy Blanton, with Rex and Cootie in the section together, and Ben Webster, I knew that was the greatest music that ever existed in the world. That was it. And it still is for me. I listen to Duke Ellington every day of my life.
I love talking about music. I was talking to Joe Wilder yesterday for about an hour. We were talking about Emmett Berry, Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Billy Butterfield, Dud Bascomb. Do you know Dud Bascomb? Both Miles and Dizzy appropriated his licks from the “Tuxedo Junction” solo, and played them in later solos. Dud Bascomb was one of the important links between Swing music and bebop. But people don’t talk about him.
TP: Now we’ll move into the “new standard” aspect with Sex Mob’s arrangement of a tune by Prince.
BERNSTEIN: It’s “Sign of The Times,” our arrangement, with the help of our great friend and engineer Scott Harding, who also works with Wu Tang Clan and Prince Paul and who I think is as much responsible for this arrangement as we are.
[Sex Mob, “Sign of The Times”; “Rock of Ages”]
BERNSTEIN: Sex Mob has played at least once a week every night for the last year. We have a steady night at Tonic. We do midnight shows, and they’ve been getting wilder and wilder. People have been making me CDs, and there’s a great one with Eyvard Kang from Bill Frisell’s band sitting in and Wayne Goodman from the LCJO playing together. Trombone and violin is an incredible orchestrational device that has not been used enough. There’s always special guests. The next one will be Thursday the 10th at midnight, and then on Friday the 25 Sex Mob plays the music of Little Richard with special guest Brian Mitchell.
TP: Tell me about the evolution of the band, the personnel, what it takes to play with you.
BERNSTEIN: The bass player Tony Scherr is responsible for this. We were playing what we might call almost a freebop kind of gig at MOMA with Michael Blake. Ben Allison, the regular bass player, couldn’t make it, and Tony Scherr came. I’d never played with him. He has this very muscular way of approaching the bass, where he holds it away from his body. I looked at this guy, and I was scared. I was scared to play with him. I told Michael, “I’m not good enough to play with this guy.” Anyway, he turns out to be a great guy, we start talking, and he loved the slide trumpet. He said to me, “Man, I love that slide trumpet.” I said, “One day when I get better I’m going to put together a band where I only play the slide trumpet.” Tony said, “You’re ready to do that now.” I said, “You really think so?” Now, Tony’s a guy who’s been through all the big bands, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Woody, blah-blah.. He’s a heavy hitter. So he gave me the courage to say, “Okay, if this guy thinks I can really play this instrument…”
So I called up Briggan Krauss, whom I’d met in Seattle, who is a virtuoso alto player but not a virtuoso in the sense… Most virtuoso alto players play a kind of traditional alto style. He plays a very modern, expressive style, working with styles, but he can read anything, play anything, play any tempo, play any sort of pitch, and in his own style. Kenny Wolleson, who I’ve known since he was a kid in California — another person able to play with anybody. And Tony. We started playing originally with Dom Falzone on bass, because Tony was always busy. We did Thursday nights at 11 at the Knitting Factory tap bar. We did that for two years. After about four months Tony joined us. And we just developed a repertoire.
Most bands either have no arrangements or else they rehearse. But we had one rehearsal. After that, every night I’d bring down whatever song I’d been listening to, I’d sit on the subway and write a chart out, I’d get to the gig, and throw the chart in front of them, and we’d do it. I still try to do that at every gig. I try to bring a song they’ve never played before with a real bare-bones chart, I rehearse it in front of the audience, and we play it. We have a repertoire of over 100 songs.
TP: Each tune evolves through performance.
BERNSTEIN: Exactly. And it evolves through an audience’s reaction. Which again is something that jazz used to do more. But lately I think jazz has developed in a bubble, where you have songs developing under the guidance of a producer in a studio or at home, in some guy’s little house. But actually, our entire repertoire is evolved in front of an audience.
TP: I think in jazz there’s always been a studio aspect to generating tunes, but people used to have long residencies. A band would be at the Vanguard for three weeks, or at the Village Gate for two weeks, or the Five Spot for a month, and the things would happen.
BERNSTEIN: You listen to band that actually had arrangements… One of the great bands people don’t talk about was the original Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams with Duke Pearson doing the arrangements. That was a band that worked and had… Arrangements are important to me. I’m an arrangement type of guy. We were talking about Shorty Rogers before.
TP: Steven left a message asking when he was coming, and said “Listen to this arrangement, bye,” and it was a Shorty Rogers arrangement of “Un Poco Loco.”
BERNSTEIN: I had thought Shorty Rogers was a shtick of guy, and it turned out to be this amazing… I don’t think you could find people who would be physically able to play this stuff.
TP: Did your interest in arranging start with your discovery of older jazz nd Ellington, shaping the course of improvisation?
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. But it also comes from growing up playing free improvisation as well as standards.
TP: You were doing both. Parallel track for you.
BERNSTEIN: Parallel track. Obviously you can tell I spent more time playing free improvisation than standards. But when you play free improvisation, it’s about instant arranging. It’s creating instant arrangements. That’s kind of what I do on the stage in Sex Mob. Then when you actually write arrangements, you have the power with your pencil and your brain to envision these arrangements and then have them come to life.
Another band that influenced me was Archie Shepp’s band with Roswell and the two basses, which was interesting because it was a real swinging jazz band, but it didn’t follow jazz forms, as far as the 8-bar form of a song. But it had the feel of a jazz band…and they wore suits.
[Sex Mob, “Roswell,” “Come Sunday”]
TP: Tell me about the slide trumpet and why that’s your medium.
BERNSTEIN: I’ve had one since 1977. Peter Apfelbaum and I were up at the Creative Music Studio, and we stopped by this little guitar store and saw these two slide trumpets on the wall. The guy wanted $25 each for them. So we both bought one. And I’ve always had one. A couple of things I could play naturally in it, and I used to play it with Spanish Fly on a few tunes, and I’d notice the audience reaction whenever I played it… You could just feel it. It was very visceral. One time, I was playing at a festival in Austria, and Dave Douglas was there with Tiny Bell, he was listening to the Fly, and he said to me afterwards, “Man, that instrument is so incredible, why don’t you practice it the same way you practice the trumpet?” And Dave is such a brilliant guy… Maybe I’m just dumb. But I’d never thought about that. I’d never thought about practicing it… In trumpet we have this whole series of books. We do the Arbins(?) book and the Clark book, these traditional trumpet studies. I’d never done that stuff on the instrument. I’d never actually gone and played the classical type of trumpet playing. So I started practicing it. I mean, I still make my living as what I call a button trumpeter, but with Sex Mob it’s interesting that this is the first band of the many I’ve done that’s really gotten out into the world and people are really reacting to, and part of it is the slide trumpet.
TP: What is it about the dynamics of its sound?
BERNSTEIN: I think it’s as much… Well, the instrument can do anything. . The instrument can approximate a voice much easier than a button trumpet can, because you can move the slide wherever you want as far as pitch. With a button trumpet, basically you push down a button and then you have that amount of tubing to go through and you’re stuck with very close to what that pitch is. A slide trumpet is just much more expressive. Also personally, I’ve always felt a little laden down by the tradition of the trumpet. Because you listen to Clifford Brown… I’ll never be able to play… If I practice every day for the rest of my life, I’d never be able to play as good as Clifford Brown. I’d never be able to play as good as Wynton Marsalis, that’s for sure, even if I practiced every day of my life. But certainly, you can go back to Clifford, you can go back to Booker Little, you can go back to Lee Morgan — these giants of bebop.
TP: So there’s a tradition of virtuosity on the instrument.
BERNSTEIN: And these guys, they staked it out, as far as I’m concerned. Clifford alone, man, and Freddie. I used to go see Woody Shaw a lot, and Woody was the last guy, man… Woody wrote all that music.
TP: Who really extended the vocabulary.
BERNSTEIN: And not only that. He wrote songs that featured his style of playing. So he would play these songs, a lot of them he wrote when he was 19 or 20, songs like “The Moontrane,” and he continued to play, where it set up a sort of harmony where he felt very comfortable and where he could, within that harmony, keep extending it, as opposed to playing other people’s songs or playing standards, when he would play his own songs that he had written to feature his harmonic vocabulary.
With a slide trumpet, I feel like there’s no one to compare it to, I just play the way I want to play it. Then, of course, it gave me this whole other tradition to explore. Because I’d always felt like I’ve been as much a student of music as a professional musician, and suddenly here I am, and every day I go home and boom,” Dickie Wells, J.C. Higgenbotham, Tricky Sam, all these incredible trombone players. The slide is its own world. There’s a world of the slide, where the slide gives you the vocabulary.
TP: Are there any antecedents in jazz of improvisers who played the slide trumpet?
BERNSTEIN: No. There’s a picture of Louis Armstrong playing one with King Oliver’s band. There’s no recordings. There’s two great slide whistle solos which I transcribed. One is from “Froggy Moore.” I don’t remember the other one. There’s a picture of Freddie Keppard holding one, that pre King Oliver trumpet, kind of that era between March and Jazz. There was a guy who played it with Kenton’s band. I’m spacing on his name, but one of those guys who was with Kenton and Woody in the ’50s. Joe Wilder’s trumpet teacher played it in the style of the time, the ’30s and ’40s. I don’t know if it was quite jazz. But I’ve found no recordings of anyone playing it.
TP: Who were some of your trumpet mentors after coming to New York? Apart from whatever lessons you may or may not have taken, I know you’ve cultivated relationships with older musicians.
BERNSTEIN: Well, the main one has been Jimmy Maxwell. When Jimmy 18 or maybe 20 he joined Benny Goodman’s band replacing Harry James, and he sat next to Cootie Williams. After that he went on to become probably the greatest studio and lead trumpet player in New York City for 30 or 40 years. He’s a giant of a man. When I say “giant,” this is one of the biggest people you will ever see in your life. He’s old school. He’s 6’5″ and he looks like a very large grizzly bear. The trumpet was a toy to him. Here’s a guy who sat next to Cootie, so when he would show me plunger, he would show me the way Cootie showed him, and he would show me things about vibrato… These are things that people just don’t know any more. He showed me things about time. He is also a very brilliant man who taught himself Japanese and Chinese and was one of the first people in the United States who studied Zen philosophy.
We would take these 10-hour long lessons at his house. I would come to his house, we’d eat an enormous breakfast. The first thing he’d say to me, “How many eggs do you want? Six or eight?” That was my choice. Then he’d expect you to eat like four bagels and a half-slab of bacon, then we’d walk along the beach and talk about music and he’d tell me stories, then we’d play for a few hours, and then we’d cook, and he’d play me more Ellington music, and we’d tape it, and he’d always send me home with really obscure Ellington tapes of Rex and Cootie and other players, and also would always send me home with a book of Zen philosophy and leftovers.
TP: Leftovers and Zen. There’s a title.
BERNSTEIN: He explained to me, if you want to be a professional trumpet player you should learn to cook. Because it’s going to take a while to figure out how to make money. So learn to cook at home and feed yourself. Because you have to be strong to play the trumpet. It’s a very physically demanding instrument. Then he explained to me, “If you do this kind of session, here’s what you should eat before.” It’s about always being physically prepared to play.
He was my main older inspiration. When I was younger I studied with Jimmy Owens, who helped me a lot, and Kamau Adalifu (Charles Sullivan). To be honest, most of the other ones have been my contemporaries.
TP: You’ve also been active in recent years in film music and programmatic music. “Get Shorty,” etc… Some of it must come out of working with John Lurie in the Lounge Lizards.
BERNSTEIN: It’s funny, because my first movie scoring came from working with Hal Wilner, who produced the first Spanish Fly record and has been a big-big supporter of me. He brought me out and we did Kansas City. So my film career started with hanging with Robert Altman, doing Kansas City, being on the set every day. The next film I did was Get Shorty, which was with John Lurie. It’s all been downhill from there. How can you get any bigger than a Robert Altman film and then basically the biggest film of the year, the biggest soundtrack of the year. I’ve done three other soundtracks with John Lurie. Also that same summer I wrote a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet, for Spanish Fly, called Fly By Night, for Christopher Debase(?), who is an amazing choreographer. I’ve done three movies with John Lurie and I’ve done two movies of independent films with my own scores, and I’ve done a couple of TV jingles. It’s all music to me.
TP: Are you a self-taught writer?
TP: Did this start from transcribing older material, or functional things?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I shouldn’t say I’m totally self-taught. I took a semester or two of arranging in college. But I was pretty out of it most of the time. But when I’d write an arrangement, I’d always just hear it in my head first, and then I’d just write it out, and what I wrote was basically the same thing that was in my head. So I realized I had a gift for that. The way I study writing is I listen, and I try to identify what’s happening. Writing is a science. It’s very physical. The feeling you get from hearing music is emotional, but it’s all physical elements that create those emotions. So I listen to things and try to identify what physically is happening there, and if it’s something good, I try to steal it the best I can — and since I never get it quite right, it sounds like me.
The next track is arranged in the style of Dave Bartholomew, who’s still alive, a trumpet player from New Orleans who was the musical director for Fats Domino, did most of the sessions for Little Richard. This was written for trumpet, three tenors and baritone. [ETC.]
[MUSIC: “Mazeltov,” “Mack The Knife”]
TP: Is Spanish Fly still running parallel to Sex Mob, or is Sex Mob it for you now?
BERNSTEIN: Well, basically Spanish Fly is no longer. We were together for a long time, and it’s a group that was based on improvisation and communication… It’s the thing where everyone’s life changed and people had different ideas about music, and we weren’t able to play the kind of music we had originally played, so it was kind of silly to keep doing it.
TP: So it came to an organic and amicable…
BERNSTEIN: An organic end. It was like it composted itself.
TP: We were speaking off mike about sources and antecedents, and you’re taking yours very explicitly from the older swing, or I’d call them more blues trumpet players, like Rex Stewart and Hot Lips Page and Cootie Williams and Dud Bascomb…
BERNSTEIN: That’s a good word to call them.
TP: …and also the polished approach to lead trumpet that developed in that period, and free improvisation. But though you’ve talked about admiring bebop trumpet players, it doesn’t seem an area you’re as interested in exploring.
BERNSTEIN: As we said before, I always felt that hearing Clifford Brown… It was a real epiphany one time. I was listening to that Tadd Dameron big band record with Idris Sulieman and Clifford Brown. It literally sounds as if it was a Star Trek episode… The band is good, but it’s kind of ragged. It sounds like everyone is a little out of it and the arrangements weren’t that polished. But whenever Clifford solos, it sounds like a weird Star Trek thing where someone had been transported from the future. He’s just like a laser light! Every note is impeccable. At that point, I was practicing ten hours a day, I was in my early twenties, and I realized, “You know what? I’ll never be able to do this.” I called up Charles Sullivan-Kamau Adalifu, and I said, “You know what? I’ll never be able to do this.” He said, “Yeah, that’s right; the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can be at peace with it.”
That’s not really the reason I don’t play bebop, but it certainly helps. As I also mentioned, other people my age who are phenomenal technicians which allows them to navigate chord changes in rapid tempos. But also, part of learning bebop… You were mentioning the concept of apprenticeship. I don’t know if you want to say a few words about that.
TP: Well, there are very proficient players who are dealing with bebop and postbop vocabularies who put in very serious apprenticeships within those situations, learning the language, who come up with a sound of their own. It amazes me how fresh the vocabulary remains, among all the other things that are going on.
BERNSTEIN: That’s true. But something I never wanted to do (and this goes all the way back to when I was a kid) was I never wanted to play other people’s licks. It was not something I wanted to do with music. I don’t know what brought that about. I don’t know if it was being exposed so early to people like the Art Ensemble where you’re hearing this very fresh music not coming necessarily from a harmonic base. But I never felt comfortable going in and playing other people’s licks over chord changes, which is something you really need to do get to that next level. So it wasn’t where I put my energy. And again, as far as listening goes, because I am so arrangement-oriented, it’s not as interesting for me as something I want to put my stamp on for people to listen to. Because the whole concept of the head, the multiple solos, and another head with no backgrounds is just not something I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in earlier music that has very extensive arrangements. If you go to Louis Armstrong’s big bands or Jelly Roll Morton’s small groups, or things as modern as Tricky and Bjork and Porno for Pyros, where you have these very incredible sonic arrangements, that’s what fascinates me.
TP: You said that coming to New York is when you started to understand Pop music.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. Also, when I went to college at Columbia… I’d been living in Berkeley, which for me was reality, but for the rest of the United States it’s another world. And so suddenly I’m with all these white people, and what do they listen to? They all listen to Rock-and-Roll. So I’m hanging out with these guys, trying to be fit in, be one of the guys, and this is 1979. I’m trying to dig Popular Couture, and at that time it was James White and the blacks and Defunkt. These guys were the bridge for me, especially Defunkt. That was the bridge. Because it took all the energy of New York Modern Downtown Punk music, which was coming from Rock-and-Roll, which is coming not so much from an Afro-American tradition of music; and mixing that energy with the Avant-Garde music, Joe’s incredible trombone playing; and then taking Hendrix’s sonic kind of music with the electric guitars and Joe’s overblowing, and that was kind of… I started to understand…
TP: Plus the horn band concept of Black acts in the ’50s and ’60s.
BERNSTEIN: Exactly. That showmanship thing. That, and then just being at these clubs… I kind of became a person of the times, and I felt much more comfortable going to a club like the Mudd Club or Danceteria than walking into Sweet Basil or the Vanguard, where I’d walk in and feel like I was some guy from outer space. And as I’d hang out in these clubs, you would hear the music they were playing and you were living that life, and as you’re living that life and hearing that music, being in the club, being one of those people of the time just started to make sense to me. I started to explore more of that music coming through — the early rap music. And as my ears opened up, I heard more and more music. I never even knew what the Grateful Dead was. It was…
TP: And you’re from the Bay Area.
BERNSTEIN: I’m from the Bay Area. But I’d hear it so much, I just thought it was a style of music. I thought it was like hippies playing country music. I didn’t know that was the Grateful Dead. You’d hear it coming from people’s VWs. It sounded like Country music with the harmonies sung wrong! The time was really bad and they’d sing the harmonies out of key. But I just figured it was a style of music.
TP: When did the hanging-out aspect start to morph into your being a musician on the scene and becoming actively involved in creating the life that people were going to hang out to hear?
BERNSTEIN: It had all started pretty early. It was my first summer in New York. I’d known Butch Morris since I was a kid living in Berkeley, and I went down to hear Sahib Sarbib’s band at some pier that isn’t there any more on the West Side. And this blew my mind, because this is something I could relate to. It kind of was like the music Peter Apfelbaum had been writing for the Hieroglyphics, but it had Sunny Murray on drums, and everyone in the East Village was there. I said, “You know what? I can play this music. I can play this music as good as any of these guys and I can relate to this music.” I dug the people on stage and I dug the scene. So I called up Butch, who was playing, and I said, “Hey, man, can I meet this Sahib Sarbib? Can you send me to a rehearsal?” And Butch, being the way he is, says ,”Well, you know what? They have a recording on Wednesday, and I haven’t been playing my cornet. Why don’t you just show up?”
So here I am, I’m 19 years old, and I just show up at this recording, and at this recording is basically most of the people on the scene. There’s Jameel Moondoc and Paul Shapiro and Booker T and Lee Rozi and Roy Campbell, Ahmad Abdullah, Dave Sewelson, Dave Hofstra, all these guys. We did this recording for three days, and then Dave Sewelson says to me, “Hey, man, why don’t you come down Sunday morning at the Ear Inn and sit in?” So here I am 19 years old, I show up Sunday morning at the Ear Inn, and it’s the Microscopic Septet, which also at that time also included John Zorn. So here I am meeting Phillip Johnston, John Zorn, at that time John Hagen was in the band, Dave Sewelson, and sitting in was Elliott Sharp, hanging out was Bobby Previte, Wayne Horwitz — I met all these guys.
So within four days I met everyone in the East Village, and here’s this relatively fresh-faced, bleary-eyed, 19-year-old trumpet player willing to do anything. And there weren’t many trumpet players on the scene back then. I had certain skills that were pretty useful. I was a good reader, I had good ears, and I was really enthusiastic. If John Zorn said “I’m doing a Sonny Clark concert,” I said, “Oh cool,” because I knew not tons of Sonny Clark tunes, but I knew four or five Sonny Clark tunes, and I’d come and sit in. But I loved the music of the time, more noise-oriented music, shall we say.
TP: And here we are with Sex Mob playing Friday and off and around New York. [ETC.] This is from a tribute to James Brown…
BERNSTEIN: Like I do anything, I don’t know if it’s from my Talmudic background…
TP: By the way…
BERNSTEIN: No, I don’t have a Talmudic background at all. It’s kind of a joke.
TP: I was wondering about the Radical Jewish culture thing, and its resonance for you.
BERNSTEIN: I’m just very Jewish. Socially I’m about as… My name is Bernstein. I’m a Jewish guy. There’s not much you can say. It’s pretty obvious when you meet me.
TP: And proud of it.
BERNSTEIN: And proud of it. That’s right, man. Say it loud. So anyway, they said, “Do you want to do this James Brown compilation?” I already had tons of James Brown, but then I was like, “Man, I’m gonna get all the James Brown,” so I could hear everything. I had always dug “Please, Please, Please” off a record called Hell, which I’d had since I was in 11th grade. It’s a Dave Matthews arrangement with cowbells, sort of salsa-style, and he sings it. Then I went and found… I said, “Well, that’s the tune I want to do,” because I always loved this tune, not knowing this was James Brown’s first hit. Then I found live version from the year when Bootsy was in the band, and they do it really fast. Then I went back to the very first version which is called the Fabulous Flames, not even James Brown — that’s a gospel quartet. So what I did, I transcribed the original version, and I’m playing what he sang on the slide trumpet, then we do a segue to the Bootsy version for the outro to the song, and the original version of “Turn Me On” is somewhere in my head. That’s what it is.
[MUSIC: “Please, Please, Please”, “Live and Let Die.”]