Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Down Beat: The Great Jazz Interviews a 75th Anniversary Anthology

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I always keep a copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well by the computer when I’m writing.

You never know, one day I might – write something well [“Hope springs eternal?”].

In his chapter entitled Writing About People – The Interview, Mr. Zinsser urges prospective writers to:

“Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does—in his own words.

His own words will always be better than your words, even if you are the most elegant stylist in the land. They carry the inflection of his speaking voice and the idiosyncrasies of how he puts a sentence together. They contain the regionalisms of his conversation and the lingo of his trade. They convey his enthusi­asms. This is a person talking to the reader directly, not through the filter of a writer. As soon as a writer steps in, everyone else's experience becomes secondhand.

Therefore learn how to conduct an interview. Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in proportion to the number of ‘quotes’ you can weave into it as you go along.”

It seems that Frank Alkyer and Ed Enright have taken Mr. Zinsser advice to heart, for in searching for a format to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Down Beat, they have chosen to edit a collection of interviews that were published in the magazine from 1934 – 2009.

The interviews are grouped according to decades and represent, the editors words, “… 124 of the best interviews or artist-written articles that this magazine has ever produced.”

In the book’s Preface, editors Alkyer and Enright go on to say:

“The history of Down Beat is the history of the last 75 years, just told through the lens of jazz and blues musicians as well as the journalists who cover them. Race relations, sexual equality, unionism, wars, recessions, birth, life, death, the tri­umph of the will, the battle of the soul: it spills across the pages of Down Beat.

But the aspect of this dense history that holds up best, that truly endures, is the voice of the artist. The editors of Down Beat get a lot of opportunities to go back and look through the archives for research. It's one of the great privileges of working for the magazine, and one of the real occupational hazards. Plan for an hour of research, then lose the better part of the day reading through all of those terrific pages from bygone eras.”

Whenever I have an opportunity to go into the archives, the items that really draw my attention are the articles writ­ten by musicians, or those heavily spiced with quotes from musicians. The music criticism in Down Beat is fantastic, sec­ond to none, an essential guide to music that is being made. Record and concert reviews provide a glimpse into how a piece of music is received at the time it's presented. The critics may not always be right, but they do give you a sense of how that work fit into the critic's personal tastes as well as into the realm of other music being created at that time.

But the opportunity to read about Ellington, Armstrong, Miles, Bird, Dizzy, Coltrane, Brubeck, Eldridge, Lester Young, Ella, Lady Day—all the greats—to hear them talk about their lives and their careers—in their voices— that's what paints a lasting picture, and delivers a glimpse inside the artist's world. That's the essence of Down Beat. …”

So not only does this 340 compilation contain interviews with musicians, but it also has a bevy of articles in which musicians in essence “interview” themselves by writing about their music.

In order to provide you with a sampling of what’s on offer in this terrific book, here are excerpts drawn from interviews and guest artist essays for each of Down Beat’s almost eight decades of publication.

© -  Down Beat Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The 1930s – “Duke Ellington: A Black Genius in a White Man’s World” – Carl Cons

“Duke is  highly  imaginative   and extremely sensitive to close and weirdly beautiful harmonies. He has a mirror type of mind that catches all the brilliant, col­orful and vivid images of living and reflects them in tonal pictures.  He is reflective rather than interpretive in that he is interested principally in reproducing all of his experiences rather than account­ing for them. He is a tone painter who tries to catch all the warmth and color of a set­ting sun on his canvas keyboard, translat­ing sight into sound, and using chords as his pigments.

Many critics read a great deal of their own personalities into Duke's music when they start interpreting it for us—and usually miss the central idea. This is regrettable, but a simple mistake that would not be made over and over again if they under­stood one fundamental characteristic of the Duke. He is a narrator, and a describer. "Lightnin"' is the description of a train journey with all the excitement and variety of scenes and sounds. "Mood Indigo" is an innocent little girl longing—soliloquizing. "Toodleo," the picture of an old Negro man broken down with hard work in the field coming up a road at sunset, his broken walk in rhythm.” [p.5]

The 1940s – “Lester Young: Pres Talks About Himself, Copycats” – Pat Harris

"The trouble with most musicians today is that they are copycats. Of course, you have to start playing like someone else. You have a model, or a teacher, and you learn all that he can show you. But then you start playing for yourself. Show them that you're an individual. And I can count those who are doing that today on the fingers of one hand."

It was the Pres talking. Lester Young, a pioneer of the "new" jazz, whose friends find themselves in the peculiar position of trying to persuade him to tolerate the majority of musicians who can't meet his standards, and, on the other hand, getting others to try and understand the Pres.

"Lester Young has been so misunder­stood, underestimated, and generally shoved around," one of them said, "that he almost was pushed out of the field of top active jazz musicians." The tendency is to relegate him to the position of a historical "influence."

The 1950s – “Lennie Tristano – Multi-Taping Isn’t Phony” – Nat Hentoff

"If I do a multiple-tape," Lennie said slowly with determination, "I don't feel I'm a phony thereby Take the 'Turkish Mambo.' There is no way I could do it so that I could get the rhythms to go together the way I feel them. And as for playing on top of a tape of a rhythm section, that is only second-best admittedly. I'd rather do it 'live,' but this was the best substitute for what I wanted.

"If people want to think I speeded up the piano on 'East Thirty-Second' and 'Line Up,' I don't care. What I care about is that the result sounded good to me. I can't otherwise get that kind of balance on my piano because the section of the piano I was playing on is too similar to the bass sound. That's especially so on the piano I use because it's a big piano and the bass sound is very heavy. But, again, my point is that it's the music that matters."

One of the objections voiced to these particular tracks was that whatever Lennie did to the tape made his playing very fast. "It's really not that fast, though," Lennie said. There are lots of recordings out there that are much faster. … The tempo, in most Jazz joints, in fact, is faster than on the record. And the record was a little above A-flat. That may account for a little of the speed, too.”

The 1960s – “The Resurgence of Stan Getz” – Leonard Feather

“Bill Coss, reviewing his Village Van­guard re-debut in the June 8, 1961, Down-Beat, synthesized the problems that Getz had to face: "There were in attendance the haters, musical and otherwise, who came to find out whether the young white man, who had long ago lengthened the legendary and unorthodox Lester Young line into something of his own, could stand up against what is, in current jazz, at least a revolution from it (or a revulsion about it)."

While asserting that in his own view Getz could and did and seemed as if he always would measure up, Coss added that "the still broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, bland-faced young man met musicians backstage, and they tried him with words and with Indian-hold handshakes of ques­tionable peace and unquestionable war. The young man out front was his arrogant best, holding his audiences with strong quotations from his past and much stronger assertions of his version of the newest (but much older) sound!"

Clearly implied were the facts of jazz life that had come into focus during Getz's absence: the cool sound and the cool atti­tude had given way, during those two or three years, to a concern for heavy, aggres­sive statement, to an atmosphere of racial hostility without precedent in jazz, to an accent on musical anger and disregard for fundamentals—characteristics that were not to be found in the light lyricism of a Stan Getz solo.”

The 1970s – “Cannonball The Communicator” – Chris Albertson

“Critic John S. Wilson summed it up in a 1961 issue of Down Beat :

‘Cannonball’s [Julian “Cannonball” Adderley] unique ability to talk with an audience with intelligence, civility and wit does a great deal toward establishing a warm, receptive atmosphere for his group.’

The new Adderley Quintet was born on the Riverside label, whose driving force was the late Bill Grauer, an enterprising man who greeted the sounds of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and a new Quincy Jones Orchestra with equal, boyish enthu­siasm. In Cannonball's music, Grauer saw earthy elements that were missing in the so-called cool jazz and the free-form music that Ornette Coleman was pioneering— Cannonball's music had soul.

Just how the term "soul jazz" came about is uncertain. Cannonball believes it was coined by Grauer, and it might well have been. Certainly, Grauer did a great deal to promote the use of the term, to the point where its application became so widespread that it lost any meaning it might have had.

Today the term "soul" has a different connotation, having become a synonym for "black." Today's soul music is that per­formed by the Temptations, James Brown or Gladys Knight and the Pips. "Let's say that soul has developed the way it should have, according to Bill Grauer's concept and the way I thought it was going to be," says Cannonball. "It has developed along the lines of the old things, utilizing elements of contemporary beats and stuff like that... now the blues, the same old blues that we loved 25 or 30 years ago. It's a big thing and it's called 'soul' music instead of the blues... B.B. King is a lion after so many years of being just B.B. King, and I think it's beautiful."

The 1980s – “Maynard Ferguson: Rocky Road to Fame and Fortune” – Lee  Underwood

Ferguson: I always have that fun thing with composers and arrangers. I say, ' Are you sure what my thing is?' As soon as they say, 'Yeah, I know what your thing is,' I say, 'Great. Now do something different.' That is, something which is me, but which I don't impose on other people.

Basie, for example, has sounded the same for many years, and yet I can still sit in front of that band and thrill to it. The same thing with Ellington, even with his great creativity. The same thing with the Beatles. I refer only to their validity. I have no interest in talking about the things that don't enhance me. Their music is their right, their privilege, their art. …

Ferguson: I love the independence of if I never have another hit single, we're still gonna burn it out every night and we know we'll have good albums. I enjoy doing my own thing and being contempo­rary, and doing it honestly. I really enjoy playing "Rocky," and if you listen to it, you'll see that, in person, my solos are not the same, and the drummer doesn't play it the same way.”

The 1990s – “Joe Henderson: The Sound That Launched 1,000 Horns” – Michael Bourne

“He's not Pres-like [Lester Young] or Bird-like [Charlie Parker], not 'Trane-ish [John Coltrane] or Newk-ish [Sonny Rollins]. None of the stylistic adjec­tives so convenient for critics work for tenor saxist Joe Henderson. It's evident he's listened to the greats: to Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins—to them and all the others he's enjoyed. But he doesn't play like them, doesn't sound like them. Joe Henderson is a master, and, like the greats, unique.

When he came along in the '60s, jazz was happening every which way, from mainstream and avant-garde to blues, rock and then some, and everything that was happening he played. Henderson's saxo­phone became a Triton's horn and trans­formed the music, whatever the style, whatever the groove, into himself. And he's no different (or, really, always different) today. There's no "typical" Joe Henderson album, and every solo is, like the soloist, original and unusual, thoughtful and always from the heart.

“I think playing the tenor saxophone is what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet,” says Joe Henderson. “We all have to do something. I play the saxophone. It’s the best way I know that I can make the largest number of people happy and get myself the largest amount of happiness.””

The 2000s – “Dave Brubeck: That Old Cowboy” – David French

"If you knew all the guys who never say anything too good about me who secretly know I opened the door for them, or have said it, but it isn't picked up by the jazz police," he said. "If I told you all the guys you'd be surprised. At the same time the critics are saying I'm not playing jazz, I'm influencing a whole bunch of guys who play so great.

"I'll give you one example," he contin­ued. "One of my favorite piano players was Bill Evans. When he was young, he made a lot of good remarks about me. In the fake book, he gets credit for recording 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Someday My Prince Come.'

But where did Bill hear it? Maybe five years before? I know where he heard it, he knows where he heard it and he would tell me where he heard it. But it dies right there.

"I won't name any more. But look at some of the best, far-out guys, you'll find that the guy they heard who set them off in right direction was that old cowboy Dave Brubeck."

Most authors will tell you that their writings, in whatever form, benefit immensely from the involvement, assistance and guidance of a good editor.

My late friend, Jack Tracy, joined Down Beat in 1949 and was its editor from 1953-1958. According to John McDonough in his August/2011 tribute to Jack, “Tracy guided Down Beat out of the last phrases of its fabled but fading antiquity into a modern era of serious criticism and journalism.”

Upon his passing in December, 2010, I put together this video tribute to Jack and thought I reprise it as a fitting way to close this review of Down Beat: The Great Jazz Interviews a 75th Anniversary Anthology.

The audio track is vibraphonist Victor Feldman performing his original composition Too Blue with Scott LaFaro on bass and Stan Levey on drums.