Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Julie Kelly at Catalina's Bar and Grill

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Len Lyons - The Great Jazz Pianists


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


“All drummers are frustrated piano players,” said one of my best friends who was himself, an excellent pianist.

“C’mon, Man. Help me tune these drums,” I said.

Having just added a third tom tom to my drum kit, along with the turned-off strainer on the snare drum and the bass drum, I hoped to tune the five drums to a pentatonic scale.

This was a breakthrough period for me as I was learning to keep the melody in my mind while soloing on a tune; something that helped me to play drum solos that were more “musical” and less “technical” [i.e.: relying on a combination of drum rudiments – think marching band drum cadences].

It was a skill that I had worked up to after first learning to trade four-bar and eight-bar breaks with other instruments. Sometimes 12-bar breaks were used if the tune we were playing on was a standard blues.

But taking an extended drum solo on the full 32-bars of a standard tune structure was different because all the other instruments stopped playing.

So how do you find your way through a drum solo on a tune when the 4-bar/8-bar/ 12-bar benchmarks for trade-offs are gone?

Simple, you do what the melody and harmony instruments are doing when they solo: you keep the basic song structure in your mind and you make-up an alternate melody. Yeah, but, easier said than done.

The first drummers that I recall performing drum solos over full choruses were Max Roach and Shelly Manne. Max was a bit more mechanical in his approach than Shelly – who was probably the most musical drummer who ever lived – but they were both great at constructing extended drum solos – solos that other musicians in the band actually liked to listen to.

These extended solos were not intended to be played as the show-stoppers that drummers such as Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and Joe Morello were noted for, but rather, as expressions of Jazz using the timbre and texture of drums rather than brass, reeds or woodwinds.

Interestingly, the piano fits into all of these categories as it can be as percussive as drums but also interpret melodic and harmonic elements in the music as well.

Maybe my pianist friend’s contention is true in that all drummers would like to have access to the piano’s myriad capacities for producing sound instead of being limited to striking drum heads and cymbals.

Whatever merit there is in his assertion, he is right about one thing; next to drums, piano has always been my favorite instrument.

Which is why I was so surprised that I hadn’t read Len Lyons’ The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music when it was first published by DaCapo Press in 1983.

I had been aware of Len’s book for many years as other Jazz writers often reference it in their work, but I didn’t actually acquire my own copy of it until last year when a friend gave me his copy as a gift.

When I sat down to read The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music, I devoured it. It is one of the best books about Jazz that I have ever read, perhaps, not surprisingly, because it contains interviews with many of my favorite Jazz pianists.

In many ways, the origins of the book are quite accidental in that Len didn’t initially realize what he had in the interviews with Jazz piano masters which he had conducted over the years.

As he explains it in his Preface:

“Jazz piano has always seemed to me to be a single language of a thousand different dialects. It embraces a multiplicity of styles, yet has a strong underly­ing continuity that its artists study formally or absorb naturally through their listening and playing.

It has been six years since it first occurred to me that the jazz piano tradition was an autonomous subject deserving book-length treat­ment. My original idea was to write a collection of journalistic stories about the pianists I had interviewed over the years for magazines and newspapers, contrasting their individual differences with their commonly shared heritage. The project was slow to start. It was superseded by my ongoing work as a free­lance journalist and the time-consuming process of writing a listener's guide to jazz, published in 1980 as The 101 Best Jazz Albums.

Then, in May 1982, while organizing my portfolio, I began rereading my transcribed interviews with jazz pianists, which, by that time, exceeded three dozen. An hour later I was still reading, finding their stories delightful (even the second time around) and their insights enlightening and thought-provoking. Suddenly I realized I had the key to presenting the jazz piano story: The pianists must speak for themselves. Their opinions, reminiscences, and anecdotes reveal intimately who they are, and their comments on playing jazz, and on their unique heritage, ring truest in their own words. In short, the focus of the book I was imagining shifted from jazz piano to the jazz pianists, who are, after all, the lifeblood of the music.

The book has finally taken shape in two parts. Part One is a survey of jazz pianists from 1900 to today. It places these musicians in the context of the overall history of jazz and its changing instrumental styles. There were some intimidating challenges involved in composing this overview. First, there is the inevitable overlapping of some material in this section with information pro­vided in the introductions and interviews of Part Two. Having interviewed many of the key figures in the history of jazz piano, I could not very well survey the field without referring to them and their work. Repeating certain points seemed preferable to ignoring them. (As they are introduced into the

survey, the names of pianists interviewed in Part Two are followed by an asterisk [*].) …

The interview material in Part Two (except for the Dave Brubeck inter­view, which was arranged with this volume in mind) was gathered for maga­zine publication between 1974 and 1979. In many cases the interviews herein are expanded versions of the articles that first appeared in print. Whenever possible, they have been supplemented and updated with this book in mind, to allow the pianists an opportunity to express themselves fully on crucial subjects. …

The introductions to the interviews have been kept brief to avoid duplicat­ing topics discussed during the interviews themselves and in the survey in Part One. …”

Some of the pianists interviewed by Len in Part Two have been the subject of earlier pieces on JazzProfiles. This list includes Teddy Wilson, John Lewis, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Rowles, Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. You can locate these previous profiles by searching the blog archives or by entering their names in “Search This Blog”

To ease my frustration at not ever having become a Jazz pianist, from time-to-time, I thought I might use Len’s book as a guide to developing a few more “Jazz Piano” features for the blog.

With this as a preview of coming attractions, please look for future pieces about more of the pianists interviewed by Len including Randy Weston,  William “Red” Garland, and Steve Kuhn, among others,

Until then, if you haven’t already done so, why not check out Len Lyons great book.

You don’t need to be an ex-Jazz-drummer-cum-frustrated-pianist to do so.