Interview with Bill Kirchner
Bill Kirchner has seen and done a lot. I've gotten to know him a little bit through the blog: Among other things, when I make a mistake on DTM, Bill sends me a gentle corrective email. If I ever write a book, I hope he could go over the manuscript!
The following was taped at Bill's house in August. Thanks to Alexi David for the transcription.
Bill Kirchner: I was born in 1953 in Youngstown, Ohio, which is home to more prominent jazz musicians than you would ever expect. Harold Danko. Another, older piano player named George Syran. A tenor player named Billy Usselton, who used to play with Les Brown. And then in the sixties, a bass player named Tony Leonardi, who was on the road with Woody Herman for a while, started a jazz program at Youngstown State University; it’s still there even though Tony is dead now.
Youngstown is an old steel town in the Rust Belt. It’s gone through the decay that a lot of America’s Rust Belt towns have gone through, from Pittsburgh on down. But the jazz program there in the early seventies really got happening because of Tony, and all these people came through it: Ralph and Dave Lalama, who were from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh; Glenn Wilson, a great baritone player, who now teaches at the University of Illinois; an alto player named Dave D’Angelo who used to be with Buddy Rich’s band; Jim Masters, a trombone player who now lives in Columbus, who was in New York for many years; Melissa Slocum, the bass player; James Weidman, the piano player; a drummer named Darryl Pellegrini who now lives in Hawaii…played with Chuck Mangione for a while. And others. Most of whom I knew because most of them are my generation, so even though I didn’t go to college there, I knew them from there. A lot of cats went through there.
When I was in high school I had a very hip band director named Sam D’Angelo, who was a jazz piano player and arranger, so we had a, quote, “stage band” as they were then euphemistically called…especially since it was a Catholic high school. (You had to be big on euphemisms.) He wrote charts for the band on things like “So What” and “Comin’ Home, Baby.” This is like late sixties/early seventies, so this was kind of ahead of its time in terms of hipness.
I had started playing clarinet when I was seven and saxophone in junior high and flute in high school, so in high school I was able to play improvised solos in a kind of crude sort of way and write my first charts.
Ethan Iverson: I have a feeling you play some piano too, right?
BK: When I was in college I studied piano for two years with Harold Danko and I got what little piano chops I have from him...but in no way should he be held responsible for my piano chops. He gave me stuff that I still use to this day for writing and voicings.
I was already the jazz nerd in my high school.
EI: But how did you get into the music?
BK: The first jazz of any stripe I heard really was when I was five years old. In 1958 the Peter Gunn series was a big hit. Henry Mancini’s music was the beginning of jazz underscoring for TV. I remember that shit vividly, it grabbed my ear: I heard all these sounds that I later found out were harmony, and polychords, and things like that…
As a result of the success of Peter Gunn, there were all these detective shows on TV that started using jazz scoring by people like Mancini and Pete Rugolo and John Williams and others. There were those forgotten crime shows like M Squad, Mr. Lucky, Johnny Staccato, Dan Raven, Checkmate – things that mostly lasted only like a season or a half-season or something. But they all had jazz scores, so jazz was all over television at the time.
EI: When I hear some of those scores today, I’m always struck at how good the horn playing is. They were all musicians still connected to the big band era.
BK: Oh yeah, all that music was recorded by the best Hollywood studio guys. They were great gigs and the best players gravitated toward them. Mancini for Peter Gunn used people like Art Pepper, Victor Feldman, Shorty Rogers. In the first very episode, they show a small group on camera playing in a little club, and Victor Feldman is playing vibes in the group.
That was really the golden age of studio work. Anybody who was in the midst of that and managed his money reasonably well is sitting pretty in retirement now.
EI: So how did you start getting the records in Youngstown?
BK: There was a decent store or two, but there was also the radio. A DJ named Sid Mark did a syndicated show called The Mark of Jazz from Philadelphia on Saturday night. More important, there was a 50,000-watt Clear Channel AM station in Rochester, New York called WHAM that had a five-hour jazz show on from midnight to 5 A.M., every night. The first DJ was Bill Ardis, and his successor was Harry Abraham. I used to listen religiously. Especially on non-school nights, I would have my little transistor radio in bed in the wee hours. My parents would be asleep and I’d be there listening to all this really cool stuff. Harry Abraham played the Miles In the Sky album with “Stuff,” and I’m thinking, “Who is this? Is this Cannonball or something?” No, it was Miles and Wayne and Herbie playing Fender Rhodes.
Harry was very hip. As a matter of fact, I had dim sum with him a few years ago. I sent him a fan letter and said, “You were this big influence on me,” and my wife Judy and I went down to Philadelphia. Harry’s no longer broadcasting, unfortunately; he went into another field. But for years you could hear that station at night over about half the continental United States. It had a huge reach. Lots of musicians heard it. You can’t imagine it now – a 50,000-watt AM station, playing music? -- but it was a big thing then.
My biggest ass-kicking early experience was on June 19th, 1965, when I was two months short of my 12th birthday. I can give you the exact date because in Klaus Stratemann’s Duke Ellington book [Duke Ellington, Day by Day and Film by Film] it lists Duke’s itinerary.
On The Ed Sullivan Show I’d heard the Ellington band playing “Satin Doll.” P.S., whatever anybody thinks of the tune “Satin Doll,” however it’s been mauled by bad club date or lounge bands, to hear that tune played by the Ellington band with that saxophone section and those voicings is an unforgettable experience.
EI: The original Capitol recording of “Satin Doll” is unbelievable. Currently in our repertoire it has becomes this bland AABA thing that just cycles forever, but if, when you listen to the first recording, that’s not what it is. It’s got moving parts and it’s very specific. The counterpoint is the orchestra is complicated, and also in some kind of way a bass feature.
BK: They eventually had a bass solo as well. On the At the Bal Masque version a few years later with Jimmy Woode, it became like a bass feature.
That was an Ellington and Strayhorn tune, apparently – as we now know, Duke wrote the melody and Billy Strayhorn wrote the harmonies, which are very II/V-ish in a way that Duke wasn’t. Anything in Ellington’s music that smacks of II/Vism, you can be pretty sure is Strayhorn.
EI: Ah, I see.
BK: The estates have been arguing ever since.
As with many of Ellington’s tunes, it was composed as an instrumental and later on lyrics were added--in this case maybe the worst lyrics that Johnny Mercer ever wrote.
EI: They’re not particularly good, are they?
BK: They’re terrible! And especially for Johnny Mercer - by his standards? They’re Johnny Mercer on a very bad day – but we’re stuck with them.
EI: Well, so tell me about seeing the Ellington band at 12.
BK: The Pittsburgh Jazz Festival was a three-day jazz festival produced by George Wein. I wasn’t there for the Sunday afternoon “Piano Workshop” with Duke, Earl Hines, Billy Taylor, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Mary Lou Williams that Mosaic has rereleased [The Jazz Piano].
My parents took me to the night before, the Saturday night. On the bill was a local warm-up group; Earl Hines with a trio; Carmen McRae with a rhythm section; Stan Getz’s quartet with Gary Burton, Steve Swallow and probably Roy Haynes – I’ve asked both Gary and Steve if they could remember and they can’t remember who the drummer was, whether it was Roy or Joe Hunt; Coltrane’s quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones; and the Ellington band!
George Wein was no dummy, so everybody except Coltrane and Ellington was on before intermission. Coltrane’s quartet played for almost an hour. This is the period from the Transition record, it was was nine days before Ascension. Things were getting pretty out – a lot of people walked. I’d never heard of Coltrane, and my parents certainly hadn’t, so we’re just sitting there thinking “What is THIS?” I remember him playing “My Favorite Things,” I remember Jimmy Garrison playing the bass solo, his flamenco solo bass thing. I don’t remember much else, I just remember it being super-intense and a lot of people walked, and probably my parents and I would have walked except that the Ellington band was on after, so that made a lot of people stick it out.
Duke’s band played “Satin Doll,” and Billy Strayhorn was introduced by Duke.
From that night on, my fate was sealed – I kind of knew what I was gonna do, although I didn’t take anything resembling a direct route on doing it. I’d been doing some listening to Top-40 radio to try to be in with my peers, but after that it was like….forget Top-40!
I went out and got Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the 50s book with chapters on Miles, Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Art Blakey, Coltrane, Ornette, the MJQ. I kind of used that as my guidebook and started slowly buying albums on my allowance. Of course I was listening to the radio like I said.
When I went to high school, my band director had Kind of Blue and Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Coltrane’s Ballads album. Serendipity! Everything kind of snowballed. It wasn’t just my own initiative; I also was in the right place at the right time.
EI: It’s interesting you mention a book. Especially for those of us who write about jazz, it’s not just the records we had as youngsters, it’s the books.
BK: There are a lot more of them now than there were at that time. The Martin Williams-edited MacMillan Jazz Masters series had come out, with Martin’s own Jazz Masters of New Orleans, Dick Hadlock’s Jazz Masters of the 20s, Rex Stewart’s Jazz Masters of the 30s, Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the 40s, and Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the 50s. Martin also anthologized stuff he had written for magazines called Jazz Masters in Transition, 1957-1969. The library also had Marshall Stearns’ The Story of Jazz; Leonard Feather’s The Book of Jazz; Hentoff’s Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya. Youngstown was a fair-sized town, so I had reasonable access to stuff – not like New York, certainly, but there was a decent library and a couple of good record stores.
I still have my mono copy of Miles Smiles that I bought in 1967 for three dollars and nineteen cents.
EI: That seemed to be one of the records for everybody. When Miles Smiles came out, everyone listened to it.
BK: Well, that was the first Miles record I ever heard. When I first started listening seriously to jazz, this was the new release. Jesus – a lot of it was over my head, and 45 years later I’m still learning about it. Do you have Keith Waters’ book, The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68?
EI: No, I haven’t looked at that...
BK: Oh, you must! It’s one of the must-have jazz books. Waters really unlocks the secrets of tunes like “Circle.” But just on an emotional level, “Circle” and “Footprints” were the things that grabbed me the most immediately. Even though I didn’t understand them, just hearing a tune called “Circle” and those wonderful solos that Miles and Wayne and Herbie played... The solo on “Circle” is one of Herbie’s all-time great recorded solos. And “Footprints”…the stuff where Herbie was playing chordally – it was easier for me to latch on to that than stuff that was time/no changes where he laid out a lot. I didn’t know what the stuff was called, I had an ear for cool harmonies. That was the way it started.
EI: Where did you go to college?
BK: I came to New York. Manhattan College (not Manhattan School of Music) is a liberal arts and engineering college in Riverdale. My father had gone there. My father was from Brooklyn originally, and he moved to Ohio after he was in the service and went to college. He met my mother when he was stationed out there.
So anyway, I followed in his footsteps and I went to college in Riverdale; I was an English major. It really was my excuse to be in New York and get immersed in as much music as I could.
Lee Konitz had taken out an ad in Downbeat advertising for students. I had contacted him and he said, “Yeah, when you come to New York, call me.” When I got to town I started studying with him, taking a half-hour lesson every two weeks, which was all I could afford. It was $8 for a half hour, $15 for an hour.
I studied with Lee for two years, ’71-’73, and he totally turned my head around. By that time I was playing, quote, “jazz” in a crude sort of way, but I was just doing like a bad Coltrane imitation, just playing as many notes as I could, but with really no awareness of what the hell I was doing. For the first lesson I took with Lee, he pulled out the Sinatra album Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! from ’56. That’s one of the great Sinatra/Nelson Riddle records, with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Lee said, “Here – take this home. Learn one of these tunes, exactly the way Sinatra sings it.” I learned to sing along with the record with all the time feel and inflections and everything. It’s a really musical and emotional experience that I still use with students, because it gets you away from the instrument. It gets you thinking like a singer, but also it just gets you totally away from the mechanical and just into the emotional and just purely musical.
After my first lesson he gave me the changes to “Stella by Starlight” and we worked on that for two months. Lee said, “Alright, for this week, you’re gonna improvise on ‘Stella’ but only using the chord tones and only using whole notes.” The next week, “Okay, now you can use half notes”; following week – “now you can use quarter notes…now eighth notes…now eighth-note triplets, now sixteenth notes…alright, now you can mix it up….now –go back and start doing the whole thing over again with one rhythmic unit at a time, but this time you can use the scalar tones.” You really learned the tune! And you learned the idea of improvising as composition, getting away from dumb licks and stock shit of any kind, which of course is Lee Konitz exemplified.
BK: That’s basically his methodology. At the end of two years it just reached a point where --well, he never said it as such, but I think he just decided, “That’s all I can teach him.” And I was kind of crestfallen because I thought there was so much I still needed to learn. But then there was another bit of serendipity: I met Harold Danko.
Harold and I were both from Youngstown. I actually had played gigs with his older brothers in a concert band, ’cause they were saxophone players, but I never knew Harold because by that time he had graduated from college and he’d been in the army for a couple of years and then got out of the army and was in New York and had been on Woody Herman’s band and had gotten off and settled in New York.
I got Harold’s number and I called him and said hi, and we hooked up and hit it off. We’re still great friends to this day.
EI: I’ve met him enough to know he’s a really nice cat.
BK: And a wonderful teacher--one of the great teachers, and a great player, of course. He’s been up at Eastman since ’98. I desperately needed some basic piano chops, just learning how to voice chords. He was willing to go with whatever you needed to know – he had no pre-conceived anything. So it’s like alright, let’s show this kid some harmony and how to voice two-fives and things like that. I spent a couple of years studying with Harold.
EI: But I suspect you were already writing and doing some big band charts before working with Harold, right?
BK: Yeah. Sam D’Angelo, my high-school band director, and I started a ten-piece band that played a few park concerts during one of the summers that I came home from college back to Youngstown. We wrote the whole book ourselves. It was basically a nonet plus a vibes player; it was kind of the genesis of my nonet. I wrote the first few charts for that instrumentation because of that band. Actually, Ralph Lalama was in that band. He was going to Youngstown State at the time. I’ve still got a tape upstairs from one of the concerts.
So that was summer of ’74 that we did that band – the summer before I graduated from college. Of course, studying piano with Harold and learning some more stuff about harmony… that could only help. My writing was kind of in a very embryonic stage at that point, but I got some basics down.
A few years later, I got an NEA grant to study with Rayburn Wright up at Eastman. I got the grant originally to study with Thad Jones.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but we’ll backtrack.
I was living in D.C. Harold was working with Thad and Mel and introduced me to them. I asked Thad, “If I can get an endowment grant, can I study with you?”, and he said “Yeah.” So I get the grant, and this is early ’79 and at that point Thad left the band and left the country and moved to Denmark. So I had this money and no Thad. I asked [arranger] Sy Johnson, by that time he was a friend, and he said, “Thank you, but the guy you should study with is Rayburn Wright.”
Wright was the head of the jazz and film scoring department at Eastman. He and Herb Pomeroy were the two greatest writing teachers in the history of jazz. Between the two of them, they taught more great writers than anybody else. Even Duke Ellington took a string writing lesson from Ray. He was amazing. I contacted Ray and sent him a tape and he said, “Yeah,” so I flew up to Rochester from Washington one day a month for a year and studied writing with him.
EI: What would you work on?
BK: Just writing charts, voicings, some string things. We used the Don Sebesky Contemporary Arranger book as a textbook. Ray had for years been in New York. He was the staff arranger for the Radio City Orchestra before he got the offer from Eastman. For years he and Manny Albam did what was called “The Arranger’s Holiday” at Eastman. There was a three-week program in the summer up at Eastman where professional writers would go up there and they would have the Rochester Philharmonic at their disposal. They would basically put together a “studio orchestra,” a big band plus 20 strings and French horns. All the writers would go up there and write for strings and get all their stuff played. Sy Johnson, Dave Berger, Kirk Nurock, and others went and did the Arranger’s Holiday. Ray Wright and Manny Albam ran it for years, and then it kind of petered out – especially after Ray died of cancer in 1990. Ray was one of the great writing teachers of all time. The people who went to Eastman who studied with him – Maria Schneider, John Fedchock, John Oddo, Mike Patterson, Manny Mendelson, oodles of others, they’ll all tell you about him. The first time I met Ray he was transcribing Bob Brookmeyer’s chart on “St. Louis Blues” for Thad and Mel – off the record, which is fiendishly difficult to do with all those dense minor 9th clustered voicings and everything. He had those kinds of ears.
Do you know the Inside the Score book of his?
EI: I’ve seen it around but I haven’t looked at it.
BK: Get it. He analyzes two Sammy Nestico, three Thad, and three Brookmeyer charts bar by bar. If you use that as a textbook, it’s all there, man. Everything from Basie four-part voicings to dense Brookmeyer clustered voicings – all the shit is there. It’s a magnificent book. Nobody else but Ray Wright could have written it. It’s really one of the indispensable jazz books for anybody with the slightest interest in writing – for anything. I spent a year with Ray.
EI: By this time, it sounds like you’d been in NYC, but then you moved to D.C., is that right?
BK: Yeah. My parents had kind of discouraged me from thinking about making a living as a musician, just as many parents do. Not without reason, but unfortunately what they offer us as an alternative is far worse than anything else that we could have in mind...
When I got out of college in ’75, my high school sweetheart and I were getting married. I had taken a civil service test, so I got an offer out of the blue to move to Washington and to work a day job for the government, for the Department of Agriculture, of all things.
But once again, serendipity ruled its head, and the office where I worked was a block away from the offices of the Smithsonian Performing Arts Division where the jazz program was run by Martin Williams. Having the amount of chutzpah that I did, I just went over one day and introduced myself. I met Martin and I met J.R. Taylor, who was working for Martin. J.R. at the time was overseeing the NEA Jazz Oral History Program. J.R. became a good friend of mine.
I also got immersed in the D.C. jazz scene, which was in some ways really amazing. There were some great players there. There were the older black players – older meaning guys who were in their thirties and forties at the time, like Buck Hill, who was a great tenor player; a piano player named Reuben Brown; a guitar player named Nathen Page; a bass player named Marshall Hawkins, who had played with Miles; a drummer named Bernard Sweetney.
EI: Was Andrew White around at that time?
BK: Andrew was around, but I didn’t have much contact with him; he was kind of off by himself. Among other things he was on the road a lot playing electric bass with the 5th Dimension and things like that. He had a house on South Dakota Avenue, and sat home and did transcriptions, of course.
But all those other guys I got to know and play with. There also were a lot of military players. There was a trumpet player who was in the military named Tim Bowen, who was from Youngstown. And I called him and said hi, and he said, “Well, I play in this rehearsal band up at Catholic University on Sunday mornings – why don’t you just come up and hear the band?” One Sunday morning I walked in and heard this big band chart on Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and it was killin.’ It didn’t sound like Thad, but it was in that league. It was like “What is this shit?”
The staff arranger for the Air Force Band was named Mike Crotty, and that was his gig. He started this Sunday morning rehearsal band; all these cats would get out of bed and come and rehearse from 11 to 2. The music had to be happening if you get seventeen cats out of bed on Sunday mornings to go play for free. A year later when one of the tenor players left the band, I was brought in as the replacement. As I tell people, I went to the University of Mike Crotty. I was playing half a dozen horns – tenor, soprano, flute, alto flute, clarinet and piccolo. He wrote for all those doubles.
Eventually the band got a regular Monday-night gig in a local club for a couple of years, and we frequently brought in guest soloists to play with us. Most of the guests were guys whom I knew from D.C. or New York: Buck Hill, Nathen Page, Lee Konitz, Sal Nistico, Rodney Jones, Mel Lewis, Arnie Lawrence, John McNeil, Bob Mintzer, Tom Harrell, Mike Abene, Sy Johnson, Harold Danko, Kenny Berger, Ron Odrich, etc. And we did a concert at the Smithsonian of the music of the Boyd Raeburn band of the ’40s—the first time that music had been played in many years. But most of all, it was about playing Crotty’s charts, which were sensational.
To this day he’s one of the really major composer-arrangers. He’s three years older than I am.
EI: Is he represented on record?
BK: Yeah. There are things that he did for Dizzy Gillespie [The Symphony Sessions]; he had a couple of charts that Mel Lewis’s band recorded in the late 80’s [Soft Lights and Hot Music]; and there are lots of things that the Airmen of Note recorded, but those records are hard to find – they were just done for promotional purposes. Mike got out of the Air Force after 26 years and now he lives in Arizona, and he’s still active writing and everything.
Just from playing in that band, I was getting my act together as a player and a writer. I wrote a chart on Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” for the band, and I used that as a demo for my NEA grant.
I stumbled into all this stuff just by moving to Washington that I never would have found otherwise. I met Marc Copland because Marc - who was then Marc Cohen - had left New York around the same time I did. Marc was known as a killer saxophone player. He was being mentioned in the same breath with Michael Brecker and Steve Grossman and those guys. But he decided at that point, in his late twenties, to become a serious piano player. So he figured he had to leave New York in order to get his act together as a piano player. He moved to D.C. and he got all the hip house rhythm section work at places like Blues Alley and the One Step Down. He got opportunities to play with the best New York cats coming through D.C. that he never would have gotten in New York. I started playing with him on occasion in different settings; he’s one of my closest friends to this day.
All these cats were down there at the time. Billy Hart by that time, of course, had already left. Billy was from there. Buck Hill, the tenor player, gave Billy his first gig when he was 14.
EI: Billy and Reuben Brown played together for a year at a restaurant gig with Butch Warren on bass, like in 1960, if you can imagine that!
BK: I got to play with Butch one afternoon. After I moved there, me being Mr. Chutzpah, I called him up and he said, “Come over and play.” So I got a piano player who was playing with Crotty’s band and the two of us went over and played with Butch in his basement in his house up near Howard University. He’s still playing now. He had had some kind of emotional breakdown – that’s why he left New York and moved back to Washington, but he can still play. Reuben’s dead now; he had a stroke and was no longer able to play, I guess. Reuben had a day gig, too. A lot of those guys had day gigs. Buck was a mailman. Reuben worked for the National Institute of Health. Bernard Sweetney, who was a great drummer and a good vibes player, drove a cab. He used to have these Deagan Electro-Vibes – he used to throw them in the trunk of his cab. He would do his cab driving and then he would go and play a happy hour at some club. A lot of those guys had a day gig or a teaching gig or played in the military. It was a rich scene in some ways, but it was not New York – it was pretty hard to make a living as a player.
EI: Bill, I especially wanted to talk about some of the critics you’ve met over the years, like Martin Williams.
BK: Oh, okay! I got to know Martin quite well. I owe him quite a bit, as a matter of fact. I was working my day gig for the government for about two and a half years or something and hating it. It was a really stupid paper-pushing bureaucratic gig – it was driving me crazy. I was doing my music thing on night and weekends and just whenever I could but still having to get up and work 40 hours a week doing this stupid gig. And meanwhile, my marriage was breaking up with my first wife, and that was a trauma.
J.R. Taylor was running the NEA Jazz Oral History Program. At the end of 1978 he said, “Look, I have all these transcribers that have taken this stuff off the tapes but the transcribers know nothing about music, so there’s all sorts of garbled stuff and misspelled names and whatever. Can I bring you in under contract and you work for me here in the jazz program and just correct these transcripts?” So I did that for a year. You can still see my handiwork at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark. They have those transcripts; the NEA transferred them there later on. I corrected about 30 transcripts – interviews with people like Mingus and Jo Jones and whomever. So now I’m in the same office with Martin every day, and I’m getting to know Martin quite well.
Martin was a complex guy. In some ways he was very caring, in some ways not. But in any case, he gave me my first gig as a recording arranger – that 1979 Smithsonian Johnson and Waller concert [Music of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller]. And I was just 25 – he just took a chance on me and said, “Can you do this?” and I said, “Yeah.” I did these charts for three horns – Jimmy Maxwell, Bob Wilber, and Jack Gale – and the rhythm section – Dick Hyman on piano and organ, Dick Wellstood on piano, Major Holley on bass, Panama Francis on drums. Some charts were for the full band, some for one horn, piano, and drums trio, whatever.
Later on, when I was in New York, Martin recommended my nonet to do a concert at Baird Auditorium for part of the Smithsonian concert series. My CD called Trance Dance - that was recorded at that concert. We did a two-hour concert without intermission, and it was recorded and eventually came out as a 2-CD set, so that was because of Martin.
EI: Did you read him growing up?
BK: Yeah. I knew The Jazz Tradition, I knew stuff that he had written for Downbeat. He wrote for Downbeat in the ’60s. Later on, there was a bound version of the issues of The Jazz Review. Have you seen those?
EI: Yes, they are online.
BK: That’s the best jazz magazine ever!
EI: It probably is, right?
BK: It only lasted for two years and went belly-up despite the fact that everybody’s services were gratis.
EI: They all were for free and it still went belly-up? How did that happen?
BK: Because there wasn’t enough of an audience for a magazine of that caliber. Martin and Nat Hentoff were the editors, and people like Gunther Schuller, musicians like Cannonball and Bill Crow and Brookmeyer were writing reviews for it and whatever…. It was an incredible magazine – far better than anything that’s out there now or since.
EI: It may not be true anymore, but at one point everyone read him: all the musicians, all the critics. If you were in jazz you read some Martin Williams.
BK: He was an influential guy. Eventually he was brought down to Washington to run the jazz program at the Smithsonian because he had that kind of stature and that kind of rep. So he moved to Washington from New York in the early ’70s and spent most of the rest of his life running the jazz program, although eventually he got kind of eased out of that. He died in ’92. I went to his funeral, as a matter of fact.
Martin was a complex guy. He could be extremely kind or generous; he could also be kind of mean and catty when he wanted to be. Once I had to really confront him concerning something that I had done for that album. He had told me everything’s cool, no problem, and then he went behind my back and started complaining to people about some eight bars I had written on one of the charts and badmouthing me, and I basically got in his face and said, “Don’t you pull that on me.” And he backed off. With Martin, anybody who got to deal with Martin on an intimate basis eventually had to just draw the line in the sand and say, “You do not cross that line,” and if you did that, he respected you. And then after that, we got on famously for the rest of his life. He wasn’t perfect, but I still think highly and fondly of him, and he did a couple of big solids for me that were important for my career, so I’ll always be grateful for that.
EI: Do you think his writing holds up today?
BK: For the most part, yeah. You have to understand that Martin had kind of an inferiority complex – in one sense, anyway – because he was musically illiterate. Apparently he had tried to play the clarinet when he was a kid and had failed miserably for whatever reason. He couldn’t read music, couldn’t read a score, so when I was doing this album I would bring scores to just show him what I was doing, and he would kind of nod and whatever, but you could tell that he really didn’t understand what the hell was going on. He could kind of give musical dictation. He would tell me, “I want you to do such and such and take stuff off these records and combine them into this tune, this chart,” that sort of thing. He knew about things like form, but he really was not literate musically, and I think that gave him a bit of an inferiority complex. He was really in awe of and – I believe – somewhat intimidated by Gunther Schuller, for example.
Also, you have to remember that Martin was originally from Richmond, Virginia, so he grew up in the segregated South. I think that kind of affected his view of the world, with overcoming prejudices and stuff that had been part of his life growing up in the South. So as I said, he was a complex guy, but again as I said, I still think highly of him, and am grateful for the breaks he gave me.
So overall, I spent five years in Washington, from ’75 to ’80, and then I decided as lots of other people do there…Washington is a great town to get your act together in, but once you’ve done everything there is to do there, you’ve done it – and that’s it and that’s all and nothing much changes. In the summer of 1980, I was divorced by that time, there was nothing holding me back, so I figured that I’d go back to New York. And so in July, I moved back to New York and I’ve been here ever since.
EI: You started the nonet pretty soon after moving to New York?
BK: I determined from very early on that even though I was going to be working as a journeyman sideman to make a living, I wanted to have something that was mine. I had a few charts from all the stuff that I had written from the park concerts that Sam D’Angelo and I had done. So I started doing rehearsals, and Bill Warfield, one of the trumpet players, started doing some writing as well for the band, so there were the two of us writing. And then also, Manny Mendelson, who was a wonderful writer whom I had met up at Eastman – he was in New York, so he gave me one of his big band charts called “What It is To Be Frank,” an original thing, and so I re-orchestrated that for six horns and that’s the title track from the first album we did [What It Is To Be Frank, Sea Breeze]. So Manny wrote a couple of charts for us, and then some other guys started writing charts. Mike Crotty did some stuff; Kenny Berger; Jack Walrath did a mammoth chart on “Sue’s Changes,” the Mingus thing, that takes about 20 minutes to play. Who else? Michael Patterson, whom I also had met up at Eastman. So a number of cats did charts for us, although eventually I ended up taking over most of the writing myself because I knew the way I wanted the band to sound better than anybody else.
EI: I hear a certain kind of high-level big band culture on your nonet records. In a nonet you don’t have so many horns, but you’re still somehow getting that authentic jazz big band sound.
BK: Yeah, well essentially what I wanted was a small band that could have a big band impact when we wanted it. And all the horn players had played on all the name big bands – Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Thad and Mel, Toshiko Akiyoshi, etc., so everybody knew how to do that stuff. And also with six horns, especially if you have two trumpets, that second trumpet enables you to really get that big band punch, more than an octet with just one trumpet, because with the two trumpets you’ve got the second trumpet right underneath supporting the lead. Like, for example, did you hear my chart on “So Many Stars” [on Infant Eyes, Sea Breeze, and One Starry Night, Jazzheads]?
BK: That sounds like a band about twice the size it actually is, but the reason we were able to do that is because having the two trumpets and with the 2nd trumpet supporting the lead trumpet in the ensembles. But at the same time, I wanted it to have that hip small group potential, just like the way Thad and Mel had come about doing that – just wanting to have a big band, but with a small group possibility. And in a different sort of way I wanted this. And also, I wanted all the colors, so there was lots of woodwind doubling with the three reeds and lots of use of brass mutes and bass trombone, and then later adding occasional synthesizer as well. We really explored the possibilities of medium-size band instrumentation probably more than anybody else ever has, if I may be so immodest. Did you ever hear the Rod Levitt octet records?
EI: Dynamic Sound Patterns?
BK: Yeah. I had heard those in high school. Sam D’Angelo had given me one of those, and I flipped over that. I got to know Rod later on; he was a lovely man. And I had also heard Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner. So essentially what I ended up wanting to do was kind of taking Rod’s innovations as far as all the use of colors that he did, but combining that with Herbie’s more modern, more contemporary harmonic and compositional conceptions. So the nonet ended being a combination of Rod Levitt and Herbie Hancock’s The Prisoner plus everything else that was in my head. The band was together for the better part of 20 years and we ended up doing four albums – two in the studio, two live, and did quite a bit of touring throughout the Eastern United States, quite a few college concerts and some festivals and whatever, but then I got sick and I wasn’t able to continue it. I don’t know of anybody who more explored the possibilities of a medium-sized band in every way, not only with colors and voicings, but also different kinds of conceptions of playing, from straight-ahead to outside to Brazilian to funk to just…I don’t anybody who had the scope and breadth and depth that we had. And we worked with a great singer, Sheila Jordan; we did the 1987 Chicago Jazz Festival together [One Starry Night, Jazzheads]. As Walter Brennan used to say, “No brag, just fact.”
EI: You know so much about the byways of the music – Rod Levitt is a good example. The only reason I heard about him was through you. When Darcy James Argue and I came out here, you played a whole afternoon’s worth of obscure music.
BK: All that was just the tip of the iceberg.
EI: Oh, I’m sure it was.
BK: From when I was very young I was also interested in history, so that was part of it. You’re one of those people who’s a record collector and a record hunter; you go on the road and you just go in these musty shops and you find all this stuff that’s been out of print since the Crimean War. You and I both have that kind of curiosity. Nowadays with so much available on the Internet, it’s harder to find students who have that kind of curiosity because so much is so readily available. So much has been reissued or so much is posted on YouTube or whatever. They don’t know the thrill of discovery, of being out in some musty record shop and finding the Holy Grail.
My parents took me to Pittsburgh another time when I was in high school, and I went to this musty old record shop and they had these LPs on sale for eighteen cents apiece. They had these Riversides and Jazzlands – I still have an Elmo and Bertha Hope duo piano record, a Frank Strozier quartet record, Johnny Griffin’s The Kerry Dancers, these old Riversides for eighteen cents apiece. This is the kind of shit that you find in out-of-the-way places. You have stories you can tell, I’m sure. You just find this shit – and at that time (that was in high school) the stuff was out of print, and when it was out of print then, it was really gone.
EI: Yeah, there was no way to find it.
BK: I bought my first Denny Zeitlin record, Zeitgeist, when I was in high school and I became a huge fan of his immediately, and now we’re good friends. That goes back 40 years when I bought this cut-out, one of his Columbia trio records, and I was just blown away. I still am; that’s still an amazing record. Another one of the records I bought for eighteen cents was a Don Friedman trio record. One night we were playing a gig in the ’80’s in this little club in Yonkers called DeFemio’s. The owner had an Italian restaurant. He was a barely passable drummer, but he would hire all these great players to come in and play with him on weekends – amazing numbers of players who would go and play at DeFemio’s and play along with him. Al would chug along or whatever – he’s gone now. One night I was on the gig with Don and Reggie Johnson, and just for the hell of it I turned to Don and said, “Blues in B-flat” – and so I played the head to this tune from this record that I had bought in Pittsburgh – this tune of his called “News Blues,” and then just looked over at him and he had this big grin on his face – it’s like “How does he know that?”
You make those kinds of discoveries and later on when you meet these people you get to have some fun with them as a result.
EI: How did you start writing about the music?
BK: When I was nineteen, a sophomore in college and studying with Lee Konitz, I had transcribed a couple of Warne Marsh solos. Lee looked at the transcriptions and said, “Dan Morgenstern [who was the editor of Downbeat] is publishing some transcribed solos, so why don’t you take them to him?” So I called Dan and I went over to see him at his apartment on 15th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues at the time. I had just gone to a concert, a Teo Macero concert where he had different players, including Lee, and just for the hell of it I wrote this short little review and brought it along to Dan. He ended up not publishing the solos, but he liked the review and published it. So here I am, this nineteen-year-old kid getting my first thing published in Downbeat. For the next several years I did record reviews and some features for Downbeat. When I moved to Washington, I met Ira Sabin who was running Radio Free Jazz, later Jazz Times. And then there was another magazine called Jazz Magazine, so for several years I did that, too. For a year I even wrote jazz reviews for The Washington Post. J.R. Taylor recommended me for that. I would go to gigs, write these reviews in the dark, in clubs, and phone them in.
But then after a few years I started realizing that for a musician there are all sorts of problems with potential conflicts of interest. Here I am getting my act together as a player, but you start wondering: is club owner X hiring me because I can play or because he or she thinks I can do them a solid? I just couldn’t deal with that kind of uncertainty and that potential conflict of interest, so I just stopped cold for years. I didn’t do anything from 1978 until about the early ’90s. After I had met Gene Lees, he started kicking me in the ass and saying, “You should be doing some writing.” I found the way I could write without getting into the conflict of interest mode was just to concentrate on historical things. So that’s the way that began and ended and restarted again. Since then that’s all the stuff that I’ve done, or 95% of it anyway – I avoid reviewing like the plague, I don’t want anything to do with it.
EI: That can be quite awkward.
BK: As you no doubt have discovered!
EI: Yes, on DTM I tend not to cover my peers. Especially I don’t write negative reviews.
Let’s go back to some interesting names you’ve been mentioning. Tell me more about J.R. Taylor.
BK: J.R. and I became very good friends. He was the curator of the NEA Jazz Oral History program which was headquartered at the Smithsonian, and also he did some other work for Martin Williams, producing some of the reissues that Smithsonian Records did like…they did an early Dizzy Gillespie mid-’40’s anthology, a John Kirby Sextet record, different things like that. They did a boxed set of American Popular Song that he was involved in. Anyway, J.R. was smart as a whip. Not a musician at all, but just had great ears and great taste, and we became very good friends.
EI: Has he published a book on jazz?
BK: No, all the stuff he did was liner notes and also reviewing.
EI: And there’s this essay, "Critics Have Problems, Too," that showed up again recently.
BK: Yeah, he used to write occasionally for the Village Voice because he and Gary Giddins were friends. That Voice piece was something I hipped Mike Fitzgerald to, and I gave him a copy of it and Mike posted it online. Yeah, that’s J.R.’s classic, and still very true. Unfortunately, he’s no longer writing. That’s a huge loss because he did some great writing on jazz, mostly liner notes. You can tell it from that thing that he wrote for the Voice on jazz critics; that’s J.R. at his best – smart, funny, astute – everything. So the fact that he’s not doing anything is…it’s a major loss. He’s about four years older than I am. He’s in his early sixties now.
EI: What about Ira Sabin?
BK: Oh, Ira Sabin! Ira Sabin was a guy who was an old club date drummer who was in Washington and who used to have a record store called “Sabin’s Discount Records” in Anacostia, and he started this little newspaper called Radio Free Jazz and eventually it mushroomed into Jazz Times. His two sons took over the business from him eventually, although they don’t have anything to do with it now. Ira’s a good soul – he’s still alive, retired. He’s like an old ’40s hipster in a way.
EI: When I was first getting into jazz, Jazz Times hadn’t moved from…
EI: Exactly, newsprint!
BK: It didn’t go to glossy until about 1990 or so.
EI: Right – I can still remember my first issue of Jazz Times; Lionel Hampton was on the cover. This is probably – oh, I don’t know – ’85, something like that. But I always liked it. In that era I liked it more than Downbeat just because there was always the East Coast angle. Ira Gitler always gave a round-up of what was in the New York round-up clubs.
BK: It was hipper because Downbeat till this day is based in Chicago. When Dan Morgenstern took over the editorship of Downbeat, he actually moved to Chicago for a couple of years, but then apparently he talked them into letting him move back to New York – I’m sure because he felt like he was away from where things were most happening.
EI: But those were fun years, when Jazz Times was in newsprint. It was unpretentious, but there was a lot of good content in it, as I remember.
BK: Yeah – Ira had gotten some good people writing for him like Gitler and Dan Morgenstern and Doug Ramsey and others. Because Ira was a musician, there was that kind of vibe to it. You definitely didn’t get that vibe from Jack Maher, who was for years the publisher of Downbeat. Jack Maher was this guy who just inherited it because of the family and who loved Maynard Ferguson. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but... [EI laughing]
But Ira, in his own kind of ’40s hipster way, was more with it – although Downbeat certainly has had its ups and downs. Kind of the golden age of Downbeat was like the Gene Lees/Don DeMicheal/Dan Morgenstern era from 1959 to 1973.
EI: Well, you knew all those cats, let’s hear a little bit about them.
BK: I didn’t know Don DeMicheal at all.
EI: But he was a drummer right? A pretty good drummer.
BK: Yes, and a good vibes player, I’m told.
EI: Right. I have a record with Art Hodes and Kenny Davern.
BK: Oh – I knew Kenny Davern – who was a wonderful clarinet player. I got to sit next to Kenny Davern for a couple of weeks at the Rainbow Room with Bobby Rosengarden’s band and just listened to him play every night, which was like “Oh, my God….” Did you ever hear the record he did, by the way – he did a free record with Steve Lacy and Steve Swallow and Paul Motian called Unexpected?
EI: Yeah – I had it in high school but I didn’t keep it around, and I've never seen it since.
BK: Yeah, it’s on Kharma Records or something. That’s the only thing of that type he ever did. Kenny was such a wonderful clarinet player, and a funny guy, one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
But anyway – Gene Lees I got to know quite well in the late eighties. I knew Willis Conover in Washington, so Willis said, “You should meet Gene Lees,” so I contacted Gene and we got to be friendly.
EI: So just to get this on record for those that don’t know: Willis Conover had the radio program.
BK: Willis Conover did the Voice of America jazz shows for decades, from the ’50s until the ’90s.
EI: And this would beam jazz to the rest of the world, correct?
BK: Yeah, especially Iron Curtain countries. So Willis Conover was an international hero to millions of people for whom jazz was not only the sound of the music, but it was the like the sound of freedom. I tell my students – “Take the ‘A’ Train” is the real American national anthem because that was his theme song. The Ellington records of “’A’ Train” were Willis Conover’s theme song for all his Music USA shows. And so for millions of people, “Take the ‘A’ Train” is more “The Star-Spangled Banner” than the “Star-Spangled Banner” is.
EI: It’s too bad it’s not like that at home.
BK: I’m hip.
In the States, Willis was like “Who’s that?” But he would go over to Russia or something and he would be like God. So anyway, I got to know Gene very well; we got to be good friends. Gene kicked my ass about writing again, which I’ll be always grateful to him for. He died a couple of years ago, unfortunately – he was in poor health for a number of years.
EI: There was a private newsletter, The JazzLetter. You must have written for that?
BK: I did a couple of things. I reviewed Ray Wright’s book for him and Dave Liebman’s harmony book, which is wonderful. Do you know that book? A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody? Oh man, you have to check that book out, that’s a major book. A lot of the stuff that he and Richie Beirach innovated is in that book.
Gene was another guy who, like Martin Williams, was a complex bunch of guys – he could be warm and generous and funny, or he could be a jerk when he put his mind to it. And again, anybody who had any extensive dealings with Gene got to see both sides of him. It just came with the territory, and you’d put up with his shit because it was worth it.
EI: How do you feel that Lees’ writing holds up now?
BK: Quite well. Some people have put Gene down because they say he put too much of himself into it. Gene was not a shrinking violet. But he was there for a lot of stuff and he got to know a lot of these guys, and he was a great writer and also, he was a wonderful lyricist. The lyrics he did for Jobim tunes like “This Happy Madness” or “Someone to Light Up My Life” are among the best song lyrics of the past half-century. He was a terrific lyricist. He did ten or twelve of Jobim’s tunes and several of Bill Evans’s and a bunch of other things.
EI: I like it when he’s talking about a certain thing, the Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s strata of the music. He was there, he knew all the cats, he hung out with them, drank with them and everything else, and it’s a special vibe.
BK: Yeah – all true. He grew up with that whole generation, so that was really his shit. And also when he was doing The JazzLetter he would deeply research some other things. He did a book on Glenn Miller, another book on Johnny Mercer; he did a book on Lerner and Loewe; I have most of his books upstairs, in addition to all the stuff from The JazzLetter. A number of those books are reprints of things that were originally written for The JazzLetter. And he was fearless – he got into Wynton Marsalis’s face in a major way, twenty years ago, about some of the things that Wynton was doing that he didn’t like, when a lot of people were not willing to go on the record about it. But Gene had guts.
EI: He also had poetic flair…
BK: Oh yeah!
EI: …and that makes me think of Whitney Balliett– did you know him at all?
BK: Only met him once. Whitney was a gifted man, but almost like a gifted amateur in terms of ears. Martin Williams told me the classic Whitney Balliett story. He said, one night he and Whitney were sitting at a concert, and Whitney turned to Martin and said, “What’s the tune they were playing?” And it was “Body and Soul.” [EI cracks up] So I think Whitney was a guy who was really, in a sense, a gifted writer but….
EI: That’s not a story you want to have to be the story about you [laughing].
BK: Yeah. I think his ears only went so far. I’ll tell you one great writer on jazz that a lot of people have overlooked, who is a good friend of mine, is Larry Kart.
BK: Actually, I tell Larry to this day he was the reason for my studying with Lee Konitz, because when I was in high school, Larry was assistant editor of Downbeat working for Morgenstern, and he wrote some reviews of Lee’s records and concerts that were just so vivid and enticing, and that really encouraged me to contact Lee as a result. So I tell Larry to this day, “I owe that to you.” Do you know the book he wrote – it’s a compilation of stuff that…
EI: Jazz In Search Of Itself. Yeah, a good book.
BK: That’s one of the best books of jazz criticism I know, in the same strata with Martin’s The Jazz Tradition or André Hodeir’s Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, or Max Harrison’s A Jazz Retrospect. Those are really heavy books of jazz criticism at its best.
EI: How did you meet Larry?
BK: We met in the mid ’80s, kind of over the phone. He had reviewed one of my nonet records or whatever, and we just started talking on the phone and got to be friendly and eventually met face to face, and we’re still in touch by e-mail or phone. I just got an e-mail from him yesterday. For years he was the jazz and traditional pop music/American Popular Song critic for the Chicago Tribune. He worked for the Trib for years; that’s the gig that Howard Reich has now. Larry did that for years, and then eventually for a while he edited the book review section of the Sunday Chicago Tribune and he‘s retired now. He’s 70 now, and he’s retired and has a pension and is living comfortably in Chicago. But a real mensch – and one of the smartest. Of all the people who write on jazz who are not musicians, he has the sharpest ears of anybody, even though he can’t tell you in technical terms what’s going on. Next time you are in Chicago I will put you in touch with him. You two would get along quite well, because he not only knows jazz, but he knows a shitload about contemporary classical music.
EI: Larry and I share interests in Donald Westlake and Anthony Powell, so I know him a little bit from online. But I think he disapproves at the way I emphasize race at Do the Math.
BK: He and I have agreed to disagree on certain things, like Bill Evans, for example. He has certain reservations about Bill that I don’t have. I mean, I get along with Stanley Crouch fine even though that are plenty of things that he and I disagree on, and I’ve told him exactly what I think about Wynton.
EI: Well, you can always tell Stanley what you think and he’ll listen. There is probably no one on the planet that agrees with him about everything.
BK: Oh, Christ, no! No, that would be impossible. I like and respect Stanley. We just have an agreement that we’re not gonna agree on certain things and that’s okay, we’re both adults.
EI: Larry has done great stuff on the Tristano school; he gets where it’s coming from.
BK: He also was one of the first people to hear the AACM in the mid-sixties, and some of the things he wrote about them are in that book, too. He was there at the git-go. He and Terry Martin were the ones who really were responsible for making people aware of what was going on with that music at the time. He’s just really smart. He can hear anything from Dave Dallwitz, the Australian trad revivalist, to AACM stuff, to lots of contemporary classical music. He’s got gigantic ears, and he knows what he’s hearing, even if he can’t tell you in technical terms what it is. You can’t bullshit him.
BK: Yeah, both Doug and Marc have two of the best jazz blogs on the Internet, Rifftides and JazzWax. They’re both experienced journalists – Doug for years was a TV news anchorman – and they both know the music intimately and have excellent taste.
EI: Another name that has come up in this interview, Dan Morgenstern – who also I believe is not a musician –
BK: Not at all, no.
EI: - - but he has a lot of passion for the music.
BK: Yeah – I think Dan views himself more of as an advocate than a critic, although certainly he’s a first-rate critic. He’s really the dean of living jazz writers at this point. You have his book Living With Jazz? That’s a very good book, too, although I don’t think there’s as much, quote, “criticism” in there as is with those other books, and that’s intentional.
I told Dan, when I started reading Downbeat, he was editing it. He wrote, “Check out Armstrong, or early Ellington, or Lester Young,” and made it sound like it would be hip to go back and check out early jazz at a time when almost nobody else was saying that. A lot of musicians thought, “That’s old shit, so why bother?” But Dan made it hip, and he influenced a lot of my thinking at the time.
After I started reading Downbeat and reading Dan’s stuff, I discovered the Akron Public Library. It was an hour’s drive from my house, but the main branch had a huge music section with records. Whoever stocked it had incredible taste in jazz and classical music. The jazz things in particular, they had all the new releases including the Blue Notes and Prestiges, and all the Victor Vintages and Decca Jazz reissues in there. I’d been reading all this shit in Downbeat and I’d go there, and they’d let me take out twenty records at a time.
I’d drive an hour to Akron, take out twenty albums, bring them home, listen to them, and then ship them back. Eventually they made a rule just because of me, that I had to return them personally, I couldn’t just ship them back. That was a huge part of my education, just having this resource in the late ’60s with all these records that you couldn’t find in record stores in Youngstown. That’s where I’ve heard all the Armstrong Hot Fives and the early Ellington things and just a lot of the really hip new stuff that was coming out, too.
For example, do you know that Jean-Luc Ponty record called Sunday Walk?
EI: No, I don’t think I’ve even heard of it.
BK: It was done on MPS. It was Jean-Luc Ponty, Wolfgang Dauner, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and Daniel Humair – ’67. And then Prestige reissued it as Critics’ Choice. It’s one of the first great European modern jazz records, announcing to the world a quartet of young cats who were as hip as anything that was being done in America in the late sixties. It was like when Phil Woods’ European Rhythm Machine started – finally you had a working rhythm section of Europeans that was as hip as anything that was going on this country. Joe Henderson in Japan was like that, for the same reason. Here’s Joe in Tokyo with a hip Japanese rhythm section doing what a lot of people, including me, consider the best record he ever made. All those things were kind of like signposts that things were changing and that rest of the world was getting its act together.
Sunday Walk was a killer record. Ponty was like twenty-five when he made it. This is Ponty pre-Fusion and probably playing as well as he’s ever played – playing really hip Coltrane-influenced mid-sixties jazz with a killer rhythm section.
EI: I have heard a little bit of those records with Zbigniew Seifert.
BK: Yeah – he’s the forgotten great jazz violin player, who died young of cancer.
EI: Playing the Coltrane language on violin over a burning rhythm section creates a specific sound, for sure. That’s a great song of Richie Beirach’s dedicated to Seifert, of course: “Elm.”
So you’re playing in New York and you’ve met a fair amount of writers and musicians from all sorts, but how’d you get back in to writing and producing like the mammoth The Oxford Companion to Jazz and so forth?
BK: That was on Dan Morgenstern’s recommendation. He recommended me to Sheldon Meyer at Oxford who was the mastermind behind all their great jazz books, like the Gunther Schuller books and whatever – those were all at Sheldon’s instigation. So in 1996, Sheldon was looking to do The Oxford Companion to Jazz, which is part of a series of books. They do The Oxford Companion to Wine or whatever, and Dan recommended me to him as somebody who might be able to put that together. So Sheldon called and invited me to lunch and sprung this thing on me. My original response was “You’ve gotta be kidding.” But the more I thought about it, it seemed doable, so I jumped in and four years later ended up with the finished product – commissioned 60 new pieces by 59 different writers, and 868 pages, and it was quite an experience. I got my honorary Ph.D. in psychology because you had 59 different people with 59 different work habits, ranging from extremely punctual to extremely delinquent. Certain pieces had to be massaged out of certain people by a variety of means – good cop and bad cop. So it was quite an experience – the kind I don’t think I’d ever want to have again, but it definitely was worth doing.
EI: How did Dan know how to recommend you? What had you done so far at that point?
BK: Well, he knew that I had written things for him 25 years before and he knew quite well at that point all the music things that I’d been doing. Plus, by that point I had done the Big Band Renaissance 5-CD boxed set for Smithsonian Recordings.
EI: But you were never at Rutgers, were you? Properly on staff or anything?
BK: No, though in the early 2000s, Lewis Porter asked to me to teach a Jazz Composition Styles course there for a year just to replace somebody who had gone. They couldn’t bring me in permanently, but they needed to fill in something for a year. So I started this Jazz Composition Styles course, which was a survey of great jazz composers based on available scores. So all these scores that I’ve accumulated were done as a result of having to put that course together. I did that for a year or two for Lewis just on an ad hoc basis, but that’s the only time I’ve ever been at Rutgers at all. But I’ve done the Jazz From The Archives shows for the Institute of Jazz Studies for 11 years. Those shows are all freebies; I don’t get any money for them or anything. I just do those for the sake of doing them.
EI: You told me once that that was your blog.
BK: Yeah. It’s my way of just getting some music out there that 95% of it you wouldn’t hear otherwise, on WBGO or elsewhere, so, yeah, that’s my 11-year public service announcement.
Dan knew me as a musician and whatever else. The value of whatever I have done as a jazz historian comes from the fact that I’m a world-class musician. I know all this stuff from the inside. I’ve been there, I’ve worked with these people, I’ve been in studios with them, I’ve been on gigs with them, I’ve written charts for them. It comes from an insider’s standpoint. So if I can editorialize for a moment – this seems to be a good chance to just throw this in, I guess…. Basically, I’m this person who’s hard to pigeonhole because I’ve hit home runs as a reed player, a composer/arranger, a bandleader, a jazz historian, a record producer, a radio producer, and an educator, so I don’t fit into any convenient pigeonhole, although God knows any number of people have tried to put me in some pigeonhole or another. But the thing that pisses me off the most is when people – usually because of ignorance – try to deny me my “credentials,” quote-unquote, as a world-class musician. I’ve put in a lot of years accumulating those credentials, and if somebody tries to deny those to me, that’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
EI: It’s striking that you have such an incredible discography online, the Michael Fitzgerald discography. I can’t think of another living musician that has like that sort of detailed representation. [See http://www.jazzdiscography.com/Artists/Kirchner/kirch-disc.php]
BK: Yeah, Mike came to me in 2006. He said, “I want to do a different kind of discography, not just the typical commercial recordings and airchecks…I want to all the stuff that you have.” All these tapes that I have, gig tapes and whatever, anything, broadcasts, in addition to whatever recordings. He said, “I want this to be complete. I want it to be as detailed as it can possibly be made and just kind of like a prototype for other musicians, just to show them what’s possible.” So it’s really like a roadmap of my career in large part. I didn’t realize when we started it that it was gonna turn into this mammoth thing, but there are lots of surprises in there. I’ve really worked with a lot of people over the years as a player, a bandleader, and a composer/arranger. So it’s important to document your work.
EI: No doubt.
I might not know offhand the right leading questions to ask at this point, so why don’t you tell me some of the stories you want to have about some of the musicians you’ve played with: on tape for the record, so to speak.
BK: Okay, let’s see….Let’s start with Benny Carter. The first time I met Benny, he did a concert at the Smithsonian in 1978 with Joe Kennedy, Jr., the violin player - who became a very good friend of mine, wonderful player, wonderful human being – and Ray Bryant and Larry Ridley and a drummer who will be unnamed, who was a great drummer but you’ll understand why I’m not naming him. So they were just playing standards, calling tunes, no rehearsal. Benny calls “Perdido,” and they play solos and the drummer takes a drum solo and just keeps going and going, and just going on past his bedtime. So Benny, as I was to discover later on, was Mr. Savoir Faire – an incredibly dignified man and smart as a whip. Also, you didn’t fuck with him. Nobody messed with Benny Carter. So this drummer just kept playing his solo and Benny just let him play and play and play and didn’t bring the tune back in, and eventually the drummer just stopped playing, just kind of petered out, and Benny goes to the microphone and with a totally straight face says: “Well, you know, when you’re playing with so-and-so, there’s just no way to follow him.”
You didn’t mess with Benny. But we got to be quite good friends, I’m privileged to say, and not just me. There were a number of young saxophone players like Mark Vinci and Mike Hashim and Loren Schoenberg whom he had similar relationships with just because, when you get to be Benny’s age, you either get younger friends or all your friends are dying.
We were friends for 25 years. One night I came home from a really stupid gig in the mid- ’80s and checked my answering machine; there was this message on the machine from Benny Carter just calling to say hello and seeing how I am. It’s like – Benny Carter calling to see how I am. What’s next, is God gonna call?
And then when I was in the hospital after my surgeries for 9 weeks, he called and checked in and whatever. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known and one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known. Like Phil Woods said, who was a very good friend of his, he was a cultured man. He knew about paintings, he knew about wine, he knew about good food, he lived in a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills, drove a Rolls-Royce until he was 93. He was just a total class act, and one of the really great human beings as well as great musicians.
I got to know Eddie Sauter about a year before Eddie died [d. 4/21/81] because I did an oral history interview with him for the NEA and we got to be friends. If you ever get a chance, if you’re at Rutgers, look at the interview I did with him – that’s really deep, because he was really deep. He was another unbelievable musician and a very smart man. Eddie thought he got tuberculosis from Charlie Christian - he was writing for Goodman when Christian was playing with him. He said one day they were in a booth in the studio and Charlie had this hacking cough, and then Eddie came down with tuberculosis.
EI: Aw, Jeez…
BK: Charlie died from it because he didn’t take good care of himself. Eddie luckily had a wife who was a nurse who nursed him back to health, even though he was an invalid for a couple of years – and I guess Goodman kept him on salary the whole time. You hear all the nasty Benny Goodman stories, but there are a few like that as well.
Eddie met Bartók. When Bartók wrote Contrasts for Goodman, Eddie met Bartók and said, “Maestro, give me some advice.” Bartók looked at him and said, “Young man, study Palestrina.” [EI laughing] Which Eddie proceeded to do. The last time I saw Eddie, not long before he died, he had a Bartók score that he was studying. You know Focus [for Stan Getz], don’t you?
EI: Yeah, sure.
BK: There are motifs in Focus that are derived from Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Bartók was his idol. There are about a dozen people I have met that I think are…I consider bona fide geniuses, and definitely Eddie and Benny are at the top of that list. Who are some others? Gerry Mulligan…Dizzy Gillespie…Thad Jones…Bob Brookmeyer…Johnny Mandel…Denny Zeitlin …Do you know Denny at all? He’s not only one of the really great jazz musicians, but he’s a world-class psychiatrist. He’s got a career in medicine that’s equal to his music career, plus he’s a wine connoisseur, has a wine cellar, trail biker...Check out his website sometime, it’s pretty unbelievable.
EI: Well, say something about Gerry Mulligan.
BK: I visited his house a few times; I got to know him and his wife Franca. I never worked for him. People who worked for him tell Mulligan stories where he threw temper tantrums and whatever, but the way I knew him was just in a non-employer relationship kind of thing, so it was fine. Obviously a great musician but a very bright man as well, even though he never went beyond high school. He was an autodidact in a lot of ways, but there was definitely a keen mind there. He gave me a list of all the charts in the Concert Jazz Band book that I eventually used when I did the liner notes for the Mosaic Mulligan Concert Jazz Band boxed set. That band didn’t last all that long; it went full steam for about a year and a half, and then its funding evaporated because Norman Granz sold Verve Records, so it just kind of went on as a part-time band for another few years and then petered out. There was a lot of music they never recorded, unfortunately. Only about half the book was ever recorded, so there’s a lot of unrecorded Mulligan charts, charts for the Mulligan band – he didn’t write most of them. But some things that Brookmeyer and Johnny Carisi and Al Cohn and Gary McFarland and others wrote for the band, they never got recorded, unfortunately. It’s too bad. That’s one of the things – there’s a lot of stuff my nonet never had a chance to record that I wish someday, somehow while I’m still on the planet we can just do. Whether that will ever happen or not isn’t clear, because somebody’s gotta pay for it and I can’t. I got lucky in two instances because of having live concerts recorded that came out well, so that was a Godsend. But that’s the perils of having an ensemble with written music that lasts for a while – you end up with more music than you can ever get on records.
EI: That makes sense. I just read about this library of music donated to UW Eau Claire, Wisconsin…
BK: Oh I saw that, yeah. A thousand charts or something like that. Sometimes you just don’t even know where the stuff ends up. Do you know the story about the Miles and Gil music and where that ended up?
BK: For years it was thought that all the music for not only the Birth of The Cool band, but all of the Miles and Gil records, was lost, because Gil didn’t have it except for sketch scores and Miles claimed he didn’t have it. And so as a result, when Miles and Quincy Jones did that concert at Montreux in 1991, that stuff was reconstructed by Gil Goldstein from Gil’s sketch scores. However, in 1996 all of the music was found in a warehouse in Philadelphia and I got to see it, because my friend Jeff Sultanof was working at King Brand Music at the time, and Jeff called me one afternoon and said, “We’ve got all the Miles and Gil music here.” Peter Shukat, the lawyer for the Davis estate, had had it brought back to New York and he wanted it “evaluated,” quote-unquote, by King Brand Music. They wanted somehow to put a dollar figure on all this music. So it was sitting there in cardboard boxes in King Brand on 8th Avenue and 49th Street.
I got on the subway and rushed down there and spent the afternoon looking at all these scores – all the autograph scores and parts from Birth of The Cool, from Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain…
It’s like with Ellington’s scores – if you see real Ellington and Strayhorn scores or real Gil Evans scores, no matter how good your ears are, there’s just stuff there that is just so off the wall or so unconventional that you could never transcribe it.
Like for example – and I tell my history students about this – there’s a chart from Porgy and Bess by Gil called “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.” You listen to the record and you hear these interesting sonorities, but look at the score and you see what that strange sonority is: that Gil wrote for three bass clarinets - three reed players all playing bass clarinets, sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, but almost sounding like a grainy cello section. Once you know that – I looked at the score and said “Oh!” and then you go back and listen and think – “That’s what that shit is!”
Right in the middle of that same record there’s a double-high D on trumpet. It was written for Ernie Royal, who at that time was the high-note trumpet king of the New York studios. And basically when they did those Miles and Gil records there were three lead trumpet players. There was Bernie Glow, who played most of the lead parts; there was Ernie Royal, who played the high-note parts; and there was Louis Mucci, who had played lead on Claude Thornhill’s band and who was there for the more classical-type lead things. So they split the lead parts among those three guys. So Gil had written this double-high D for Ernie Royal just to play above the band for like four bars by himself – no support [makes high trumpet sound] – you know, like… And you listen to the record….Ernie didn’t quite make it. What you hear is a double-high B-flat instead which is, as they say, close enough for jazz.
It wasn’t quite what Gil intended but nobody was any the wiser except…now I’m telling the world – Ernie that day couldn’t quite make that double-D; you’ll have to settle for the double-B-flat instead, folks. That’s the kind of shit that you learn by looking at scores like that – just how unconventional people like Ellington and Strayhorn and Gil Evans really were; that’s why transcribing them is so bloody hard.
EI: Yeah…Of course a lot of times the musicians playing them were idiosyncratic too….that sounds like a genuine mistake, Ernie Royal that day, but in the Ellington group there might be people playing it in a certain way just out of sheer personality, “This is the way I play this type of material.”
BK: Right... I showed you some xeroxes of original Ellington and Strayhorn scores, and it’s interesting to see the differences in the way Duke and Billy worked. Billy’s stuff is much more through-composed, like a classical writer would do, because he was classically trained – whereas Duke was an autodidact and there’s much more of a cut-and-paste side to him. And that’s not to say that one is better than the other, it’s just two different ways of working. I tell my students – one of the great bits of bullshit in jazz mythology is that “Ellington and Strayhorn were so much alike that it’s difficult to tell where one ended and the other began” – that’s total bullshit. Walter van de Leur’s Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn has appendixes that tells exactly what charts Billy Strayhorn wrote, or in the cases where Duke and Billy collaborated on the same chart, which were not nearly as frequent as people would believe – it tells exactly what bars Duke wrote and what bars Billy wrote. Once you’re aware of all that stuff and you get Strayhorn’s music in your ears, you realize that his style is quite different from Duke’s and very much his own, and it’s quite discernible as Strayhorn’s. I tell my students, it’s not that they were so much alike, it’s just that they had two different styles that complemented each other so beautifully – and each of them brought something different to the table that was complementary and that melded into this whole that was greater than the sum of two great parts. That’s what Strayhorn and Ellington are about, and thanks to Walter van de Leur, we now know that.
EI: You mentioned before that Strayhorn has II/V’s and Ellington doesn’t. There’s something I wanted to talk you about which is a little abstract, so lemme try to sort of try to tell you what I want to talk about and then you can see if it makes sense and you’ve got something to say about it, especially since very few people know the breadth of the jazz language the way that you do. It seems to me at some point there was a shift in the language from being melody-based into being scale-based. For example, you arranged the Wayne Shorter composition “Infant Eyes” [on Infant Eyes, Sea Breeze, and Trance Dance, A-Records].
BK: All I did with that chart is just kind of color Wayne’s record – add some tonal colors and whatever – it didn’t need anything more than that.
EI: Would you say that each chord in “Infant Eyes” has a scale that goes with the chord?
EI: But I don’t really think that’s true of bebop or Ellington. Would you agree with that?
BK: Hmm. Interesting question. I don’t know, I think of Wayne as a master of non-functional harmony. He uses all these unconventional chords and melds them with unconventional forms, like maybe so-and-so is a 14-bar tune or something like that. I think of Wayne in terms of harmony and not so much scales, actually – and the same with Herbie. One thing about Keith Waters’ mid-60s Miles book that’s so great is that he really explores Herbie’s contributions to contemporary composition and harmony, and Herbie really after all these years gets his due for the first time as to what he’s actually contributed in terms of new explorations of harmony and things like that - some of the tunes that Herbie wrote and some of the solos that he played on some of these unconventional tunes, and I think the same is true of Wayne. Both of them were exploring new dimensions in harmony. I really just don’t think of them in terms of scales so much. I’ve learned quite a bit about things like that from somebody like Marc Copland who really has explored it much more than I have and really has all that stuff under his fingers and understands it as much probably as anybody. Marc’s the type of guy who will transcribe the Berg Violin Concerto.
EI: Well, right, amazing ears – Copland has amazing command of harmony. But let me try to show you what I mean. In “Infant Eyes,” after the pickup I would call the first chord G minor eleven.
BK: Okay. That’s what I would.
EI: Is that fair?
EI: And I see that as a collection of seven notes. I feel like A and C are next to the G minor seven chord right away, completing the scale.
BK: Mm Hmm…
EI: Then I would say the next chord is F minor eleven...
EI: Do you disagree with that or agree.
EI: And so then the third chord is E-flat but I would say that it’s almost like a…F triad over an E-flat chord.
BK: It could be. But I think Wayne deliberately keeps these things elliptical, he doesn’t…
EI: Right - but would you agree with me that there would be probably no A-flat in that chord- in the E-flat chord?
BK: Probably, no.
EI: Like it wouldn’t be like Tin Pan Alley, where you would have A-flat as a neighbor note. For the E-flat chord you’d color with the Lydian scale. You wouldn’t have A-flat as an easy option.
BK: Oh, no, no, no - but Wayne’s harmony is notable I think for as much for as what he leaves out. There’s an airiness and a mystery to those voicings just as result of doing things like what you’re talking about - of leaving out some of the more common notes.
EI: Right. Lydian didn’t exist much in earlier jazz. Now we play a tonic major 7th chord with a flat 5 in jazz, but they didn’t do that pre-1955 except as a very rare exception.
BK: Which is George Russell. Because of George Russell and especially Coltrane it’s like minor-major 7ths are like a cliché. Or I guess the newest cliché – I was reading your blog a while back and you referred to augmented major 7ths as the “girlfriend” chord – ‘cause if you want some romantic, kind of exotic sounding chord you play an augmented major seventh in a tune and bingo! I’ve been guilty of that myself, just to keep my marriage sound!
EI: Do you think a lot of musicians read that George Russell book in the ’50s?
BK: I don’t know that they read it, because it’s a really hard book and expensive – that’s the reason I don’t have a copy, he was charging $125 for it – but I think they absorbed the concepts because there were certain people working with George. George wrote some features for Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Coltrane...
EI: And even Miles and George hung out, didn’t they?
BK: I think somewhat – George recommended Bill Evans to Miles to replace Red Garland – that’s how Bill got the gig. George was on the scene and those guys were hobnobbing with him and I guess exchanging information and hearing the music, and it just came to pass.
There’s one story about New York, New York, one of George Russell’s big band records. That’s Coltrane’s one record with George Russell, and Coltrane blows on “Manhattan.” Reportedly, when George put the part in front of Coltrane that had a solo, Coltrane apparently just sat there figuring out what to play on his solo and just wouldn’t give up; he was just obsessing over it. Everyone is waiting to begin the date, the clock is ticking, the producer’s getting nervous and Coltrane is practicing. And finally worked it out and they did the record and it’s great.
EI: Is that a sort of scalar construction he’s having to play on “Manhattan?”
BK: Yeah, sort of. George definitely is using Lydian augmented and Lydian diminished scales in some of the ensemble writing on the chart. And I think that’s reflected on the solos that uh…well, the solos are by Coltrane and Art Farmer and Bob Brookmeyer and Bill Evans. And I think Coltrane – that’s 1958, so that’s in the middle of his mass exploration of scales and whatever, he had all his Slonimsky harmony book exercises and was doing all his “Giant Steps” substitutions and everything, so that’s the middle of that period. So you can definitely hear that when you listen to that record.
George Russell gave me hell for using that record in the boxed set Big Band Renaissance. I put “Manhattan” in there and also a chart that he did for Artie Shaw in 1949, “Similau.” He did this really hip, exotic chart on this forgotten pop tune. And those are the two George Russell selections in the boxed set; the only composers or arrangers in the boxed set who get more time are Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. After that came out, I sent George a copy of the boxed set and he came back to me and gave me absolute hell for not putting in any of his, quote, “vertical form” pieces from the ’60s and ’70s. He was like…he was really a jerk about it, frankly. He ended up writing a nasty letter to the Smithsonian, putting me down and accusing me of being like one of the people at Lincoln Center that he had no use for. They wanted to do a concert of his music at Lincoln Center and he wanted to use an electric bass and they told him, “No, you can’t use an electric bass” and he said, “Goodbye.” George lumped me in with the people who were doing the jazz police shit, whereas nothing could have been further from the truth.
EI: Big Band Renaissance is a sensational resource. The extensive liner notes are almost as valuable as your curatorial choices. It's a real shame he reacted like that.
BK: One of the great little ironies of my life went down after that. I ended up writing a detailed letter back to George just really getting in his face and saying, “Don’t you pull that on me.” And that’s the last I heard from him – never spoke with him again. But about six years ago, the documentary Music Inn about the Lenox School of Jazz was shown in a movie theater in the East Village. When I went to a screening, I was just sitting in a seat in the theater, an aisle seat, and in walks George Russell, who has this kind of glazed look on his face. I found out later that he was in the throes of Alzheimer’s at that point, sad to say. So he’s walking down the aisle and he stops right next to the seat I’m sitting in and he’s talking to a bunch of people, and then suddenly he reaches down and shakes my hand. And he had no idea who I was. After that dumb little episode years ago, he reaches down and just shakes my hand and has this smile on his face without knowing who I was or anything. That’s the last time I ever saw him, and he died a couple of years later. It was this really ironic thing; when they make “My Life – The Movie,” that’s going in there!
EI: I have to look at that book of his sometime.
BK: If you can find a copy without paying 125 bucks for it. It’s heavy going. But I think the concept of bitonality, superimposing one tonality on top of another, was stuff Lennie Tristano was into, too. You know the “Line Up” solo, right? It was just shit that was in the air that Lennie was doing, that Russell was doing, and then eventually Miles and especially Coltrane made part of the working vocabulary that we all use now. But I think it originally comes from Tristano and Russell, who were more teachers and theoreticians than they were working performers, although Tristano of course was a great piano player. And George had bands out there. I heard his big bands a couple of times in the ’70s and ’80s. He fielded bands occasionally for short tours and things like that. But that’s not where Tristano and Russell made most of their bread.
Anyway, I think of Wayne and Herbie in vertical terms, and I suspect if you’ve talked to them, they’d probably tell you that, too.
EI: I suspect so.
BK: Especially Herbie, since he has said his biggest influences harmonically were Clare Fischer, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, and Ravel. Harmonically, all of those are really vertically-oriented people. I would suspect that if you’d pin Herbie down, he would probably tell you that he’s more of a vertical thinker.
EI: What about McCoy Tyner?
BK: Hmm. I think he’s a great player, but his vocabulary is lot more limited in terms of the fourth-y voicings and the pentatonic right-hand runs and whatever. I wish somebody like McCoy would have at some point expanded his vocabulary of voicings more. I even said this in print once when I was doing my ’70s bit writing record reviews. I reviewed his Supertrios record when it came out, and I said that “He plays great, but after a while it gets to be BWOOOONG DI-DL-A DI-DL-A, BWOOOONG DI-DL-A DI-DL-A, and you know, it’s like, how about some new voicings, McCoy?” I’m sure he’s well capable of learning them but….
Is that a fair statement? I think his harmonic vocabulary was pretty set in the early ’60s with Coltrane and never really changed or expanded very much.
EI: Yeah, I’m not sure. I’m studying McCoy right now pretty intensively, so I’m just interested to hear what other people have to say about it. And also because McCoy and Herbie is a classic dyad. In the fifties it was Wynton Kelly versus Red Garland and then in the ’60s it’s McCoy versus Herbie, in terms of the band pianist.
BK: You know who’s a forgotten great piano player who kind of integrated those things interestingly? Victor Feldman. Victor kind of took Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans and put ’em together in a very interesting way – as did Herbie. Both Victor and Herbie did that at around the same time and of course Victor, as you probably know, got offered the gig with Miles and turned it down and that’s how Herbie got it. But I think Victor and Herbie both did the same things at around the same time. But Victor’s been forgotten just because there aren’t that many Victor Feldman records, because he did so much studio work.
One of the great early Chick Corea solos is on my favorite version of “Stolen Moments,” which is by none other than Herbie Mann. Have you ever heard it? From the album called Standing Ovation at Newport. Chick pays this amazing solo and not only plays great, but ’comps great. He’s one of the great rhythm section players when he wants to be.
EI: He came outta the gate so strong, too, he was so young at that time.
BK: That’s 1965, so he would have been 24. And he’d already been in New York for several years. He came to New York when he was 20. That’s Chick at his most McCoy-influenced, but you can still hear Chick; it’s definitely not McCoy and it’s definitely Chick. But there wouldn’t be a Chick Corea as we know him without Bill Evans either. He kind of put Bill and McCoy together in an interesting way. Also, Harold Danko once showed me the Ravel piece Le Tombeau de Couperin. Chick showed it to Harold; apparently that was a big influence on Chick. He dissected that piece and just took a lot of harmonic things out of it that ended up being in his own vocabulary. There are a number of jazz pianists, I think, who have really gone to town on that piece.
EI: I know Bill Evans really checked out some Ravel. Absolutely.
BK: And Scriabin and Khachaturian and Chopin and Rachmaninoff. I actually have upstairs that recording of Chick’s solo on “Stolen Moments.” Oliver Nelson wrote ten million charts for everybody on “Stolen Moments,” so he did one for Herbie Mann, who at the time had a band with flute, two trombones, piano, vibes, bass, drums, and conga. It was kind of like a jazz version of Eddie Palmieri’s Latin band with the trombones. You know about that, right?
EI: I don’t think I do, actually.
BK: Eddie Palmieri’s innovation with Latin music was when he met a jazz trombone player named Barry Rogers, whose son is Chris Rogers, the jazz trumpet player – he’s in New York. Barry is dead now. But Barry Rogers liked playing salsa, so he and Eddie hit it off and Eddie brought this new sound to Latin music that was based around the sound of trombones. No trumpets – just one or two trombones and the rhythm section. The band was called Conjunto La Perfecta and it became really influential in Latin music. Herbie Mann was into Latin jazz during that period, so that was his attempt at utilizing that kind of instrumentation and that sound. Anyway, Oliver wrote this chart for Herbie on “Stolen Moments” for that instrumentation, which is really cool.
It’s a great solo that Chick plays, and then his comping is great, too. People forget, he was Roland Hanna’s regular sub with Thad and Mel for a couple of years. There are certain piano players who can change the way a big band sounds just by the way they comp. Chick is one, Harold Danko is another. Harold with Thad and Mel was unbelievable. My favorite Thad and Mel rhythm section of all time was Harold and either Rufus Reid or Chip Jackson or Ray Drummond, and Mel. Harold would do certain things, just rhythmic things and get under, get inside Mel’s playing and get Mel to sound like Elvin – Mel just sounding much different than Mel often sounded. And not that Mel wasn’t great under any circumstances – I got to sub on Mel’s band in the ’80s after Thad left, so I ended up for several years subbing in the sax section. I eventually played every book in the section except for the lead alto book as a sub – which was great for somebody who’s a composer. It was great because you could hear the music from four different vantage points.
If you hear Chick playing on the Joe Henderson Big Band record you get a glimpse of it. But Harold playing with Thad and Mel was just unbelievable. He just changed the way the whole band sounded by just getting inside the rhythm section and getting Mel to change his playing. The whole band sounded incredible as a result.
EI: You told me once that you saw a lot of quartet gigs in the 70’s with Thad, Mel, and Harold.
BK: Yeah, yeah, yeah - those were great, too. There’s a record they did for John Snyder for Artists House [Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Quartet], it was done live at a gig and it’s quite good, but it’s not as good as what I heard live. Basically they would just play standards, just Real Book tunes, nothing very exotic, just “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” “Autumn Leaves,” whatever – but it would be like four composers just doing a séance and just taking these tunes apart and doing all sorts of incredible spontaneous stuff. It was a real education.
EI: Sort of the approach that you and Marc Copland do on the duo recording [Old Friends, Jazzheads].
BK: Oh yeah, totally. When we did that concert we deliberately did it with no rehearsal, and the only thing we did was we picked a dozen tunes that we wanted to play, but we didn’t even have a set list. We just started playing and one of us would play a motif that would telegraph what the tune was, and we would just go. That was one of the great nights of my life. Copland is a genius. Not enough people know how good he really is. At his best there’s no living jazz piano player for me who’s better. He’s got his own harmonic thing that came out of Herbie originally, but he’s taken it to a whole other place because he’s also been influenced by Paul Bley quite a bit, so he has combined Herbie’s stuff and Paul Bley’s stuff and his own ears, which are amazing. When I did my duo record [Some Enchanted Evening, A-Records] with three different piano players – with him and Danko and Mike Abene, all three of those guys are great natural orchestrators. Abene is also one of the great arrangers, and hugely underrated. But all of them play the piano orchestrally. It’s not like doing a duo gig with a bebop piano player playing walking bass in his left hand and that kind of stuff. That bores me to tears. I’ve also done it with Alan Broadbent and Kirk Nurock and a few others. If you play with piano players who are natural orchestrators, you can just go for it, and it ends up sounding like a preconceived composition.
In 1990 Marc and I did a duo gig at St. Peter’s Church, and we did this free piece – totally free, just a three-note motif, nothing planned – and it came it out so good that I ended up taking it, fleshing it out a little bit, and orchestrating it for jazz quartet and string quartet. It’s on my Manhattan School of Music concert. It’s called “Chanson for Double Quartet.” It’s just something that we made up on the spot, but orchestrated it sounds like a real honest-to-God composition. It’s one of the freakiest experiences I’ve ever had in music – it just happened.
EI: I’ve never heard Copland play saxophone. He must have been great at that, too.
BK: Yeah – I have a couple of records he made as a saxophone player. He did one record with John Abercrombie and Clint Houston and Jeff Williams that came out in the mid-’70’s where he’s playing alto and it got five stars in Downbeat….[EI laughing].
He and Abercrombie played together in Chico Hamilton’s band. But once he made his decision to be a piano player, he didn’t even want people to know he played saxophone, because he thought that people wouldn’t take him seriously as a piano player. He hasn’t played the horn in years.
EI: This makes me think of the saxophone player who died, Gregory Herbert.
BK: Yeah. One of the reasons I’m in music is Gregory. I met him through Danko, because he and Danko were on Woody Herman’s and Thad and Mel’s bands together, and they later had a quartet together and did one album [Harold Danko Quartet with Gregory Herbert, Inner City] that’s good. But I heard Gregory live on Woody’s band and on Thad and Mel’s band, and he was unbelievable. I’ve got about 20 CDs of airchecks of Thad and Mel’s band from their ’70s European tours. Some of them have Gregory on them and often he’s playing at his best. It’s the Gregory Herbert I remember…he could pick up the whole band – Thad and Mel’s band, as strong as it was – and just drag them behind him, he was so strong. And he was an amazing ballad player. He could kick your ass or he could make you cry, But he died young. He was touring with Blood, Sweat and Tears in Europe in ’78 and he was a diabetic, so he had needles and shit to take insulin, and he was fucking around with heroin. And some evil character in Amsterdam sold him a poisoned dose of heroin and he shot it up and died alone in his hotel room. If he had been a stone junkie he would have probably been more savvy and not done that, but he was just chipping, so….
I had just seen him. He had stayed with my first wife and me in Washington, he had come down with Thad and Mel’s band and had stayed for a couple of days. He told me that when they were at the Domicile in Munich, one night he mixed hash and amyl nitrite, blacked out on the bandstand, and woke up the next morning in his hotel room. So he said, “After that I’m swearing off everything, even pot.” And that’s the last time I saw him alive. The following January a friend of mine called me one morning; he said, “It’s all over the news.” He was playing with this name rock band, so it was all over the AP wires and everything that this guy in this rock band had OD’d. Thirty years old. Had a wife and one kid and his wife was eight months pregnant with their second kid.
Just absolutely tragic.
EI: Why do you say he’s one of the reasons you’re in music?
BK: Oh, he and Pat LaBarbera kicked me in the ass gently at the time when I was dithering. I knew both of them and they were saying, “Are you gonna get serious about this? You’re here playing, why aren’t you doing this full-time? Why are you doing some stupid day gig?” And they were right. Pat – who is another great player who isn’t talked about enough – he was with Elvin Jones at the time. So he said it, and Gregory said, “Well, man, look – if you’re gonna do this, you’ve gotta spend some money and get some decent horns and do that and…” So he was gentle but firm as was Pat, at a time when I needed a kick in the ass and some encouragement in roughly equal parts. There were times I heard Gregory with Woody and Thad and Mel that were just awe-inspiring. If you talk to guys who were on those bands with him, they’ll tell you the same thing. Or the National Jazz Ensemble. He also was a great lead alto player.
EI: He was a tenor player mostly, right?
BK: He started out as an alto player. His first record is a Pat Martino record called Baiyina, which is an Indian-influenced record that’s really interesting – and he continued playing alto, and he was really good at it, but when he went on Woody’s band, he started playing tenor because he had to, because that was the gig. And he became a really great tenor player. And Woody loved him – Woody treated him like a son. I read Woody’s oral history interview for the NEA, and Woody was just praising him to the skies. I think Woody considered him one of the finest players who ever worked with him in fifty years, and he was just devastated when Gregory died. But yeah, that’s the kind of thing, you know…. Kids today, they don’t know him. That’s one of the nice things that you’re doing, is just looking over a whole period of the music that a lot of people have ignored. The Ken Burnses of the world and the Wynton Marsalises have said, “Oh, the 70s? Oh! Louis died, Duke died, Fusion killed jazz, Dexter came back, and Wynton saved jazz” – and that’s the ’70s.
EI: Is that really what they say, though?
BK: Yeah! If you look at the last episode of the Ken Burns Jazz film, they even show childhood pictures of Wynton; the only thing they’re missing are the Three Wise Men to complete the symbolism. But that’s basically the ’70s for Ken Burns – nothing much good happened in the ’70s. Which makes me livid.
When I came to New York in 1971, the first six months I was in New York I heard live: Lee Konitz with La Monte Young at the Metropolitan Museum [likely Oct 19, 1971]; the Elvin Jones Quartet with Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman and Gene Perla; Thad and Mel’s band at the Vanguard; Chick Corea with the original Return to Forever – their first gig, at the Vanguard [November 1971] with Joe Farrell, Airto, Flora Purim, Stanley Clarke – which was mind-boggling. As good as the records were with that band, it was one of the best nights of live music I have ever heard in my life – absolutely staggering. What else…Sonny Rollins at the Vanguard with Albert Dailey, Larry Ridley and David Lee, and Mingus’s all-star big band at Philharmonic Hall [February 4, 1972] with Gene Ammons, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Chambers, Jon Faddis – yada-yada-yada. This is in the first six months I’m in New York – the fall of 1971, early ’72. This is the period where jazz was, quote, “in the doldrums and nothing was happening” and that we needed to be saved from. Let’s get real, folks! And this was on my limited college-kid budget! There was a hell of a lot happening, and that’s only a sampling.
EI: In terms of whatever the actual culture of jazz was, it was so much more happening then than it is now. We’re now in this academic environment. But ’70s jazz records still have this rogue element in it, for me more like the real jazz ethos.
BK: Mm Hmm. Well, you get the feeling that it’s organic music that came out of what the musicians really wanted to play and that wasn’t really being dictated by what somebody thought that they should play.
EI: It was just still coming out of the communities. Since jazz education hadn’t really gotten all the way there yet, it was still so hard to learn. If you got as far as being able to play with the cats you were gonna be great, you know?
BK: Or at least proficient…yeah, it was a whole different world...
EI: It can be confusing still sorting out the advent of Wynton Marsalis and some of that world in the ’80s. I was young enough to just be a fan of Wynton Marsalis, a consumer of the best of that music. Do you wanna talk about some of what your generation felt about when all that happened?
BK: Well, I’m part of the so-called Baby Boomer generation of jazz musicians, who basically got screwed. We’re still getting screwed to this day, partially because the seventies never happened, according to Ken Burns and others. And that was the time when my generation was coming of age. This has been erased in almost Orwellian fashion to a large extent, which I think is a disgrace.
In fairness, Wynton and Branford certainly could play, there’s no disputing that; but of course then the record companies jumped up and down and saw all the attention that that generation was getting and started trying to come up with as many Wynton clones as they could, and my generation ended up getting lost in the shuffle. And that’s continued in large part to this day – although there are certain of us who have kind of come to the forefront. Joe Lovano, for example, has gotten the acclaim that he deserves. Joe is one of the last persons to come up through the apprenticeship system. Joe and I have known each other for over thirty years – he’s from Cleveland, I’m from Youngstown – so I knew him when he was on Woody Herman’s band in the ’70s. Then he came to New York, started working with Mel Lewls’s band, and with Paul Motian, and he really slowly built his career through the apprenticeship system, and by the time he got his big break by being signed with Blue Note, he was thoroughly seasoned, thoroughly blossomed, totally ready, and he was able to jump in the water and just go, and he’s had a great career and totally deserves it. He’s just as sweet a guy now as he was thirty years ago. He’s had a lot of success that he’s deserved, but it hasn’t gone to his head, and he’s always there for the music – in whatever situation, and he can do just about anything. So, he’s one of the baby boomers who really has done well and who’s come to the top of the profession. But there are a lot of others who have never gotten the breaks that they deserve. I guess I’m one of them, but my case is different just because I got sick nineteen years ago.
We’ll talk about that. I’ve spent the last nineteen years making lemonade out of lemons because of my illness and how it afflicted me.
EI: Tell us about your illness.
BK: Well, twenty years ago I started getting numbness in my right hand, I started limping slightly and wondered what was going on, so I went through months of tests, went to a couple of chiropractors – one of whom was trumpeter-composer-arranger Mike Mossman’s wife (now ex-wife), and she kind of saved my life. She deduced that there was something going on that was beyond chiropractic and sent me to a neurologist. And so after months of tests, I was told in February in ’93 that I had a non-malignant tumor in my spinal cord that was on my breathing nerves and if it was not removed it would kill me. So I went to the hospital and had two major surgeries, had the tumor removed, quote, “successfully,” but basically it left me permanently damaged, with my right hand majorly screwed up.
I have no feeling in my right hand and only two working fingers; and it left me with a pronounced limp and chronic pain, so my career as a player came to a screeching halt for a while. I was playing nine different saxophones and flutes and clarinets and after that, the only one I could still play was the soprano saxophone. After a few years, I started playing tentatively again. Sean Smith, who is a wonderful bass player, would come over to our apartment and do duets with me just to kick me in the ass and get me to play again. So eventually I had the soprano redesigned and rebuilt with alternate keys by a gifted repairman named Perry Ritter, with a major assist from a wonderful trumpet player named Danny Hayes, who was a mechanical wizard and one of the best jazz trumpet players you’ve never heard. He died in 2004 of brain cancer. One of the really great jazz trumpet players, but almost totally unrecognized. I’ve got records of Danny Hayes that’ll scare you to death.
Anyway, I started again with the soprano, I have alternate keys and I have limits to what I can do; I’m not 100% functional with that, just because my hand is screwed up. But at the same time I can go out and play gigs. As long as I have say over what tunes we’re playing and if I can fudge certain notes and not have to play things literally note-for-note perfect, as far as playing melodies, I can go out and fool some people. I’ve done two records: Everything I Love with Eddie Monteiro and Ron Vincent and Jackie Cain [on Evening Star Records] and then the duo record with Marc Copland were both done after that.
So when most of my performing was no longer possible, I had a certain and sudden desperate need to find a new way to make a living. So I started exploring. By that time I had written that little review of those two books – the Ray Wright book and the Dave Liebman book – for Gene Lees, so just for the hell of it I sent that to Michael Cuscuna at Mosaic and he replied, “Well, we have this Thad and Mel reissue that we want to do of their complete Solid State records. You want to do the booklet notes for that?” I said, “Yeah,” so I did that and then I started doing some liner notes for reissues for Verve.
Also, even before I got sick, the Smithsonian had hired me to do Big Band Renaissance. J.R. Taylor had recommended me to them to do that. When I was in the hospital, Big Band Renaissance saved my ass, because I had this drawer full of cassettes to listen to of big band records. It gave me something to focus on besides going to rehab every day and learning to walk again, which I had to learn. After the surgery, my right leg was hanging like a piece of salami. So I spent three weeks in the hospital and then six more weeks in Mt. Sinai Rehab, learning how to walk again and everything. So Big Band Renaissance kind of saved my ass in that respect.
Everything else came after that by a combination of serendipity and a certain amount of knocking on doors and hustling. Including meeting my wife Judy, who’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I had already started teaching at The New School but that gradually expanded. At this point I’ve been at The New School for 22 years; I’ve also been at New Jersey City University since 2002 and Manhattan School of Music since 2004 – all three as an adjunct.
At this point I’ve had over a thousand students. I’ve had, just kind of by dumb luck, most of the major jazz musicians of the last twenty years as students. Brad Mehldau, Andrew Bemkey, Marcus and E.J. Strickland, John Ellis, Manuel Valera, Alex Skolnick, Tatum Greenblatt, Nathan Eklund, Becca Stevens, José James, Robert Glasper, Mike Rodriguez, Ambrose Akinmusire…..dot-dot-dot-dot-dot. Some I’ve had just for one class, some I’ve had for a multitude of classes. But I’ve seen them all as striplings – which has been an interesting experience.
EI: What changes have you seen in how the music’s talked about or perceived by your students?
BK: Good question. The way they perceive it is not that much different. I think what’s different is just the nature of the “industry,” quote-unquote, itself – what options they have to make a living once they get out. All these people I’ve mentioned, I’ve seen them go on to the upper echelons of our profession and to make names for themselves, but the options that are open to them are much different than that were open to my generation. A lot of the journeyman ways of making a living as a player – ranging from dumb club dates, weddings, bar mitzvahs, private parties to road big bands to studio work to playing in Broadway pits – a lot of the journeyman ways of making a living just don’t exist anymore, or are considerably diminished.
EI: I have a sense – I’m not sure if it’s true – that cocktail pianists, if they’re still around, are still getting what they got paid in 1972.
BK: Well, the wedding bread has gone up a little bit just because those are under union contracts. Those are under what they call single engagement scales. So if you work with club date offices that are signed with the musicians’ union, there are periodic raises that are negotiated. Because I can remember when I was doing club dates in the early ’80s, when I first started doing them you would get like $96 for a Saturday night, and by the time I had quit doing them in the early ’90s you were making like $200 – and it’s more now.
But the thing is that those gigs have gone largely the way of the dinosaur. You don’t see bands at bar mitzvahs anymore – thirteen-year olds want to see DJs spinning records. They don’t want to see middle-aged guys in tuxedos and toupees.
EI: Sad but true, I guess…
BK: So, a lot of those gigs, they’re just gone. So the big challenge for students coming up now is, how are you gonna make a living? And obviously, you’re one of the most successful people I know just forging your own path and making your own way of it, which I applaud hugely. What you and Reid and Dave did took a lot of balls and ingenuity and imagination and perseverance to pull off. I’m a big fan of you guys for that reason, and not to mention the fact that you can also play, of course.
I tell students: “You’re being trained as an improviser, and one of the things you have to do is learn how to improvise a career.” People like, say, Bob Belden and myself and Loren Schoenberg and Kenny Washington and others, we’ve all taken these multifarious paths – from playing and writing music and leading bands and writing liner notes and producing records and whatever else we do. And from all those things cumulatively comes the mortgage. But it’s a lot different than it was twenty or thirty years ago. But for all these students it’s like, “You’ve gotta improvise a career.”
There are a lot of people going around putting down jazz schools and saying that they’re rigid and turning out clones and blah blah blah, which is totally uninformed.
I was the New School Jazz Program commencement speaker last year, along with [pianist] Aaron Goldberg, and I told them, “Whether or not you make a living as a jazz musician, the biggest value of a jazz education is that you get trained to think as an improviser and you’re trained to think outside the box.”
Did you ever read the Alvin Toffler book called The Third Wave? It’s terrific. It was written thirty years ago, and a lot of what he prophesied in that book has come to pass. He loved jazz musicians because he said jazz musicians were just trained to change direction [snaps fingers] suddenly and without warning and quickly. And they were much more able to do that than people who are just trained to be robots. He talked about the traditional curriculum in schools that still exists – what he called the “overt curriculum,” which is reading, writing, arithmetic, and what he called the “covert curriculum,” which he described as punctuality, blind obedience, and being willing to perform boring, repetitious tasks without complaint. That’s the covert curriculum of traditional education, and it’s still true to a large degree. Basically, people were being trained in the Industrial Age to work in factories. Whether a factory is an industrial factory or an office or an orchestra pit for a Broadway show – that’s another kind of factory – the same rules apply to all those things. But if you’re a jazz musician, that’s not what you do. You’re being trained to interact and improvise and change direction suddenly and do whatever else we do. And he felt that for what major changes are coming in our society, that jazz musicians had a special edge. So that’s what I tell students and what I talked about at the commencement last year, and all these parents came up to me afterwards saying “Thank you,” because they felt like “Even if my kid doesn’t become a jazz musician, I haven’t wasted all this money.”
EI: [laughing] Yeah, nice.
BK: There’s a bass player I worked with thirty years ago named Jared Bernstein, who graduated from Manhattan School of Music, and who was a good jazz bass player. We did some gigs together and a couple of recording sessions, then I lost touch with him. A few years ago I was watching Channel 13, the News Hour, and here’s this guy named Jared Bernstein on there being a talking head as an economics expert, and I said, “I know this guy,” and it was the same Jared Bernstein. He had gone and had gotten his advanced degrees, and he was now an economist and ended up being Biden’s principal economic advisor. And he’s still playing; he did a concert or something a few months ago in New York. I’m sure he’s not playing much, but here’s somebody for whom I’m sure a lot of what he learned as a jazz musician comes to a lot more use than people might expect at first glance. If you think creatively, that’s really money in the bank. Nobody thinks of being a jazz musician as a lucrative career, but the thought processes sure are. But you’ve gotta use them creatively, whether it’s in music or anything else.
Find Third Wave, if you can. The other book I always recommend to musicians is a book that was a bestseller in the seventies called Winning Through Intimidation by Robert Ringer. It was written by a guy who was a real estate broker who got tired of being screwed by both buyers and sellers, and so he decided that the way to get around that was to improve his position – to make people respect him more. The whole book is written like that. Politically he’s a Libertarian, so there’s a certain amount of right-wing stuff that you have to take with grains of salt, but essentially, it’s a primer for the music business. He has a lot of these kind of tongue-in-cheek theories, one of which is called “The theory of sustenance of a positive attitude through assumption of a negative result.” Another is “The Theory of Posture,” which says “It doesn’t matter what you do or say, it’s how people view you when you do or say it” – which in the music business is paramount, of course. What’s the difference, for example, if I call some festival promoter and want to get a gig, what’s the difference between me making the phone call and an agent calling on behalf of Wynton Marsalis – who are they gonna take seriously? For obvious reasons, right? And it has nothing to do with the quality of the music - my music is first-rate – but it’s the posture, it’s how people view you.
EI: A big luxury of wherever I’m at with The Bad Plus is having someone else place the calls. The conversations that happen between an agent and a promoter are just different, they’re a different kind of conversation. A musician will always lose out in that conversation in the way an agent won’t.
Some musicians hate giving any money to the booking agent. They cultivate a powerful rolodex and do it all themselves. But I think the simple fact of not talking to the promoter about money, ever, works in the musician’s favor over time.
I’m a fan of the music, not of the music business. One of the reasons I started DTM was to let our fans know more about great jazz of all kinds. You’ve watched the jazz Internet get going – do you have any thoughts about that?
BK: Oh, it’s obviously done a major service in a lot of ways; there are obviously also negative things. All the free downloading of music has made it increasingly impossible for people like us to make any money off of our recordings because of a generation who thinks they’re entitled to download everything gratis: that’s a major negative.
But you’re doing a major service just by pulling peoples’ coattails to a lot of music that they wouldn’t otherwise know about. And also, as an educator, I can go to my students and I can steer them to your blog, which I do, and I say, “Look at this guy – this is a really hip player, and he thinks that stride piano is hip.” So if he thinks stride piano is hip, then you should check it out.
Coming from you they believe it. Somebody whom they respect as a hip player has gotta tell them that this stuff is happening, because otherwise it’s old stuff. I once had a gifted young alto player tell me, “I don’t wanna listen to Louis Armstrong; I’m a fan of Kenny Garrett.” Well, that’s swell, but one of the hippest quotes I’ve ever seen on this subject comes from somebody I respect a lot, and that’s Don Byron. I had interviewed him for an Artie Shaw NPR Jazz Profile that I produced. Don is like an omnivore; you can talk to him about Artie Shaw or Joe Henderson or Henry Mancini or Raymond Scott or ’70s funk bands or whatever. Don said, “If a cat is taking risks at a moment, years later you can still hear the edge in it.” I put that on my syllabus for my jazz history class – it’s one of the quotes I put on – and that is so hip. So my response to this kid who thinks that it’s not hip to like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker or whatever, it’s that you have to train your ears to understand what the edge is in their music. And if you can’t hear that, that means your ears aren’t hip enough. And it’s not Louis Armstrong’s problem or Bird’s problem; it’s your problem.
EI: That’s a great point.
Also, my feeling about the kid in that situation is: If you wanna play some new music on your alto saxophone, why don’t you cop some Louis Armstrong instead copping some Kenny Garrett and sounding like everyone else who’s copping this modern new thing? That’s the point about stride piano. There’s a lot there to still think about and steal from in early jazz.
BK: And Kenny Garrett just didn’t come from nowhere. Kenny Garrett played on the Ellington band. Most people don’t know that, but one of his first name gigs was playing with the Ellington ghost band after Duke died. So did Don Byron.
EI: His phrasing and beat comes from Louis Armstrong, too, of course. So much of what we love about Kenny Garrett is an extension of that sort of very pure and beautiful jazz rhythm.
BK: Just about anybody who is a jazz musician who came after Freddie Keppard has the rhythmic conception that’s based with Armstrong.
EI: Bill, what else do you wanna talk about in this interview?
BK: We covered quite a bit, haven’t we? I like to see anybody who can play, do well – whether I like their music or not. If they have the expertise to go out and create an audience, and people will turn out to hear them, they deserve whatever breaks they can get, and God bless them.
But I would just like to see more people, especially, say, in my generation, which is still the lost generation of jazz, get their due and get some opportunities that haven’t been extended. Spread the resources out more and just let listeners know that these people exist. And again, you’re doing a major service just by letting your readers know that there are those people out there. You’ve done interviews, say, with musicians like Billy Hart and Fred Hersch and others, and you’re letting people know that these guys exist.
EI: It’s really just that I’m a fan first. I have written repeatedly that the quartet of Liebman and Beirach is a big building block for the sounds we love in those early Wynton and Branford records, which I believe was an original insight -- or one that hadn’t been stated before, anyway.
BK: Yeah. Liebman has done very well for himself, but that’s largely because Lieb, who is a friend of mine and somebody I admire enormously, is not only a great player, but he’s also been a great organizer. In the ’70s he was creating an organization of musicians that got together and did loft concerts in New York, and in the late ’80s he started the International Association of Schools of Jazz, with all those European jazz schools.
EI: When he won the NEA award, he wrote on his blog that he thought the books and all the other educational material were a part of why he got the award. It just shows you how powerful the pen is. If you actually can write about the music, and Dave certainly was in there almost in the beginning, writing about the music and has experience in the music, it’s a very powerful thing.
BK: He told me he decided that he wasn’t gonna be Coltrane. So if he’s not gonna be Coltrane, what’s his contribution gonna be? And he decided that his contribution was gonna be as much as an educator and an organizer as it was as a performer, and he’s made that come to pass. That takes nothing away from his ability as a player; he‘s one of the premier players of his generation.
By necessity, in a more limited way, I’ve tried to make my own varied contributions. Like doing those Jazz from the Archives shows and getting some people and their music an hour of airplay that they wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve had people come to me and say, “I wanna do your show! I wanna do an interview!” And I say, I don’t do interviews – I shoehorn as much music as I can into an hour; there’s enough talk on public radio, we don’t need any more talk. Just get some people’s music - many of them alive, some of them dead – on the radio, and get people to check out what’s there. As we said, that’s my blog.
For myself, while I’m still around, I’d still like to get a few more opportunities. A year ago, Justin DiCioccio at Manhattan School of Music came to me and said, “I want to do an evening of your big band music,” and I said, “Mine?” Nobody in this country ever asked me to do anything like that before. The concert recording is excellent; the students did a terrific job. It doesn’t sound like a college band; if you just played it as a blindfold test, people would say it sounds like a really good professional band with some really good soloists playing on hard shit. Three different soprano players, all of them good – it’s the soprano saxophone’s revenge!
That’s the first time in my life that anybody in this country ever gave me that kind of opportunity, so it would be nice to get a few more plums like that. I’m not greedy but…
Or to be able to record some more of my nonet music. At least I’ve done seven records as a leader, and I feel that they’re all reasonably representative, so when some jazz nerd thirty years from now goes and discovers me, I’ve set it all up for him. I’ve got a nice neat online discography, I’ve got seven records as a leader that are all worth checking out and represent my playing and my writing and my bandleading to a reasonable extent, and I’ve done all these other things, whether producing records or producing radio shows or whatever. I did four NPR Jazz Profiles – Benny Carter, Artie Shaw, Johnny Mandel and Bob Brookmeyer – and over a hundred Jazz from the Archives shows and edited a couple of books, A Miles Davis Reader and the Oxford book.
So if I might for a moment be self-analytical to the point of being perceived as immodest – what the hell – the thing I do best is that I can get talented people to play over their heads – whether it’s a band full of great players or a bunch of students in a classroom or 59 writers writing for a book or musicians recording in a studio or whatever – I can get people to do stuff that they didn’t know they could do. It’s just what I do. I don’t know how I do it, but if I had to sum up my own career in all its different aspects, I guess that’s what I do. And the reason I can do that is in part that I’m a world-class musician and know what the hell is going on. I guess that’s the sum total of it all. It hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I think I’ve left some stuff that I can be proud of. There are a lot worse things than that.