Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Conversation About Jazz with Howard Mandel

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

“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.”
- From “Writing About People: The Interview” in
William Zinnsser’s On Writing Well

“I keep thinking that it doesn't matter what tunes you play. The process is the same, and if it works then it's like a new piece, you know. And it is a fact that the better you know the song the more chances you might dare take. And so that's why Bird played a dozen tunes all his life, basically, and most of the people that were improvising — Tristano played the same dozen tunes all his life. And you know, it's amazing what depth he got. He wouldn't have gotten that otherwise, I don't think, in that particular way.

I think it's something similar to Monet painting the lily pond at all times of the day, catching the reflection of the light. I just feel with each situation I'm in, different rhythm sections or whatever, that "I'll Remember April" becomes just something else. And it is a very preferable point — that's the main thing. Everybody who knows that material knows that material pretty well—the listeners and the musicians. So they know, you can just nakedly reveal if anything's happening or not; there's no subterfuge. And that aspect of it is appealing to me, I think.”
- Lee Konitz, alto saxophone

Reasoning by analogy can be perilous, but to expand a bit on the points made by Messrs Zinnsser and Kontiz and perhaps better connect them to the following piece, I have more or less used the same mix of questions in my previous interviews with Jazz writers including Doug Ramsey, Ted Gioia and Gary Giddins.

This is primarily because I think the most important thing is the interview with the Jazz writer itself.

To put it another way, “it doesn’t matter what tunes you play,” what is important is that the questions asked become a vehicle for the Jazz writer to share his or her special vision about the music and its makers.

Metaphorically, the interview questions become the theme and chords over which the Jazz writer improvises in the form of the musings, reflections and explanations.

In a sense, interview questions become a point of departure to help the Jazz writer express “what is most interesting or vivid in their lives” on the subject of Jazz.

Howard Mandel is the President of the Jazz Journalist Association and in that capacity, he has done a great deal to perpetuate the music’s written traditions, as well as, to support current expressions of it.

Associations provide a platform for education, information and awareness among its members and Howard has been at the forefront of helping Jazz Journalists gain these benefits through membership in the Jazz Journalist Association.

I have been a fan of Howard’s writing for many years and have always found it to be a source of insights and observations that greatly enhanced my appreciation of Jazz.

I thought it would be fun and informative to have him express his views on Jazz by way of the following interview [or, if you will, improvisation].

How and when did music first come into your life?
When I was very little I liked getting sounds out of my grandmother's piano. My parents had me take piano lessons starting when I was eight, I think, and I liked it, especially when I got a teacher who taught me how to construct chords, transcribed, etc. I had recorder lessons in grammar school that led me to want to play flute and sax, which I started doing in high school and college. In college I also studied electronic music in a Moog studio as an elective. Music was always around me, on radio at least but not only, and I've always been attentive to it. Why don't people use their ears as well as they use their eyes? It seemed to me at a young age like music is of the natural, good things to have in one's life.

Did you play an instrument?

– As above: piano, flute, alto sax, Moog synthesizer. I continue to dabble with these kinds of instruments (including Korg monotrons and Little Bits synth modules) and also like to pick up indigenous instruments when I travel. I have several wood flutes and a simply silver one that I like to play, ocarainas from Russia, the Dead Sea and Mexico, a balafon from Senegal, a Cuban marimbula, a Chinese sho, various hand drums and percussion instruments, as well as cheesy music toys. I fiddle with music apps on my ipad and smart phone, and consider the both the tape recorder and software programs like Hindeburg (which I use for my NPR productions) as music composition tools (so arguably, "instruments").

What are your earliest recollections of Jazz?

I remember, again at a very young age, hearing a sax solo on the radio in my dad's car and thinking I could anticipate where it was going to go, harmonically. Then I was excited by "jazz" such as Henry Mancini's "Theme for Peter Gunn" and Ramsey Lewis's "In Crowd." Also I was hung up on playing "The Girl from Ipanema." That was all jazz to me – plus a compilation record my parents had with Doris Day singing "Sentimental Journey" (with Les Brown), and Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump."

Many conversations about Jazz invariably turn to “impressions” and “favorites.” Why do you think this is the case?

Most people don't need to understand musical fundamentals or specifics in order to feel they've gotten something – an impression, a mood, excitement or perhaps a sense of awe – from hearing jazz. It speaks directly, without need of specialized knowledge. And people take their music very personally. They want to share their favorites – those favorites are precious to them.

Okay, so let’s turn to “impressions; who were the Jazz musicians who first impressed you and why?”

After hearing Mancini's orchestra live, I got into flute for some reason, and became interested in Herbie Mann, Jeremy Steig, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. I also was turned on by Miles Davis' quartet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones; from there to Herbie Hancock et al on Maiden Voyage. Then I dove into the Blue Note '60s catalog, ESP disks (Sun Ra, Giuseppi Logan Quartet with Don Pullen and Milford Graves), Monk, Mingus. I started listening to blues too, starting with the Junior Wells-Buddy Guy masterpiece Hoodoo Man Blues, around 1967. Being in Chicago, I was unconsiously steeped in blues, loving early on Speckled Red's solo album The Dirty Dozens as well as radio hit r&b from Aretha Franklin and Motown.

Staying with your impressions for a while, what comes to mind when I mention the following Jazz musicians:

- Louis Armstrong – a beautiful patriarch of this music. I didn't get him when I first started listening, except for his appearances in Betty Boop (Max Fleischer) cartoons. But the more I listen and have learned about the music's history, the more I've enjoy him as a trumpeter, soloist, bandleader, and responsible public figure – especially his '20s playing, his '30s entertaining, his personal and political stances from the '50s on, his writing and sense of himself as a media figure and media user.

- Duke Ellington – I respect Ellington enormously, think he was an enduring composer of mid 20th century American music and enjoy listening especially to the Jungle Band period, "Braggin' in Brass," the Webster-Blanton band, his piano duets with Billy Strayhorn ("Tonk"), his unusual collaborations with Coltrane, Mingus and Roach. I heard Ellington with his Orchestra when I was in high school, and enjoyed it but it wasn't an epiphany for me. I have not immersed myself deeply enough into Ellington's oeuvre, but then it's vast. When I do listen to recordings I often find some surprise that grab me, and not necessarily his standards. Studio sessions from Chicago in the mid '60s were one such, also the great Ellingtonian Nutcracker.

- Dizzy Gillespie – dynamic musician, somehow too smart for commercial success. I like his big band, emphasis on Cuban elements, hand-in-glove work with Charlie Parker and his own soloing. No other trumpeter can solo as Dizzy did, he greatly expanded the instrument's range, speed, moodiness (no pun intended) and obviously influenced Miles (to do his own thing, inevitably contrasting with DG's), Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard, among my favorites. Can I mention Henry "Red" Allen here?

- Stan Kenton – To me, Kenton is an advanced case of Paul Whiteman trying to make jazz a lady. Some of Kenton's music holds up as fascinating if experimental; he hired lots of good musicians over the years, too. But I don't listen to him for pleasure. He strikes me as grandiose, excessive, didactic and not very rhythmically interesting.

- Shorty Rogers – Quick witted player with an attractive, burnished but somewhat muted sound. I haven't delved into his work deeply, know some from Kenton band, have heard some under his own leadership. I hear that subdued tone as being a West Coast mark, thinking of Chet Baker who I don't care for and Don Cherry, whose melody-making on trumpet is one of my favorite things.

- Gerry Mulligan – Sure knew his way around his horn – opened up possibilities for it as a reasonable solo instrument, it seems to me, beyond what Harry Carney did of course. (I haven't spent time comparing Mulligan to Serge Chaloff). I'm not very interested in his pianoless quartets, preferring Ornette's pianoless quartets and his direction overall. I admire Mulligan's Birth of the Cool charts, but haven't listened deeply to his later work. It's on my "check out" stack, since I read and reviewed Sanford Josephson's biography of him.

- Horace Silver – Good melodicst/songwriter, memorable hooks, nice light touch on the keys, nothing objectionable but there are other keyboardists and composers of his era who interest me more.

- Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaborations – Great stuff. My favorite of the albums is Miles Ahead, but Porgy is terrific and Sketches of Spain, too. I wish they'd done more together during MD's electric decades – but whenever Gil had any influence, Miles seems to especially shine.

- Mel Torme – My mother was in high school with him. What he does is not my cup of tea. For male jazz vocalists I start with Armstrong and Astaire, have to concede that Sinatra was masterful, then Nat Cole, and after that I listen to blues singers (the Chess guys Howlin' Wolf, Muddy, Chuck Berry; the Delta singer-guitarists; the Chicago generation of Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam; soul singers including Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green).

- Maria Schneider – beautiful orchestrations, great depth and clarity in her writing, which makes room also for fine soloists – though to me they seldom step out from her arrangements to grab me as themselves. I think she is writing as a classical composer does, that level of attention and pursuit of original, personal rather than conventional or generic material – that's good. Sometimes I want to hear more distinctive and memorable themes become central to her concept, but mostly I enjoy what I hear from her orchestra. She sets a high bar for composers of contemporary instrumental music.

What made you decide to become a Jazz writer?

I felt jazz gave me something to write about that few other people seemed to be interested in, but that I was hearing and thought was important, fascinating, powerful. I got good feedback from editors, readers and musicians, and liked the people I met in the audience as well as onstage, and those who were, like me, trying to observe and absorb the music as genuinely relevant, meaningful activity. I felt like I was learning something from everyone I interviewed, and my writing improved as I was taking my subject matter seriously. I wrote a little about rock, which I listened to avidly in the '60s and into the '70s but couldn't get as committed to the aesthetic or industry as I was to jazz; I wrote about books, but had my own reading list that didn't necessarily jibe with editors' interests; I could have written more about movies or theater, but I was busy writing about jazz.

Is there a form of writing about Jazz that you prefer: insert notes, articles, books …?

I like to write dispatches from the field – reports of personal experience that mix hard fact and my responses to particular musical events within their contexts. Writing liner notes is not easy, and I like to write them for albums which I believe will have enduring listenership, because then the notes live a long time in conjunction with the music. Writing news stories was something I learned a lot from, reaching sources, taking notes, securing facts. Record reviews were and remain an important training exercise – it's difficult to be honest, descriptive, fair and do compelling writing in that form. Articles are good – I write "articles" for my blog as often as for paying publications these days, similar to when I've had regular columns in magazines. Books are hard to write, and the market being so terrible, the economics work against a long haul project. Still, writing books my ideal, I will not deny it.

If you could write a next book about Jazz on any subject, what or who would be the focus of such a book?

I'm planning a book on the effects of an annual artistic residency in Chicago that's being attempted by a noted saxophonist-composer. I'm not so interested in the effects upon this saxophonist-composer himself as I am in who is affected by their contacts with him, whether ideas he presents make an impression locally, how we can see or infer that, and whether the cost of projects like artists-in-residence are worth it, besides how they're born.

You’ve accomplished many wonderful things in your life both personally and professionally. Why is it that Jazz has continued to play a role in your life?

Jazz just makes sense to me as a way of being – creative, improvisational, spontaneous, expressive, collaborative, connected to artistic ideas and community entertainment at once, being a meritocracy, reflecting its culture and context immediately, being a music that changes and is wide open to anything while having an admirable history that still carries a lot of weight (though it may be ignored as un-commercial), representing ideals for social change I believe in. I like that it can be attempted by anyone, everywhere, and that a lot of techniques, values and strategies are applicable to other art forms, like writing.

Switching to the subject of “favorites:”

What are some of your favorites books about Jazz?

Blues People by Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow with Bernard Wolfe, Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus with Nat Hentoff, Free Jazz by Ekkard Jost, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music buy George Lewis; Jazzmen edited by Fredrick Ramsey; Hear Me Talkin' To You, oral histories compiled and edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff.

- What are some of your favorite Jazz recordings?

Solo Monk, Armstrong and Earl Hines, Complete Blue Note Herbie Nichols, Out to Lunch, Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers, Cherry-Coltrane The Avant Garde, Coltrane-Dolphy Impressions, Maiden Voyage, On The Corner, Now He Sings Now He Sobs, In A Silent Way, Jelly Roll Morton piano solos and Red Hot Peppers, Andrew Hill's Judgement, Unit Structures, Science Fiction, Air About Mountains, Inside Betty Carter, pretty much anything by Fats Waller (esp the piano solos), Into the Cool, Sonny Rollins Brass/Trio, Captain Marvel, Spaces (Coryell/McLaughlin/Corea), James P. Johnson '40s piano solos, Native Dancer, Speak No Evil, Brilliant Corners, Money Jungle, Tony Williams Lifetime Emergency!, Bobby Hutcherson's Components, Rollins' Easy Living, Opus de Jazz (Frank Wess w/Milt Jackson), Basie on Decca, early Ellington on RCA, Roscoe Mitchell's Sound, Joseph Jarman's Song For, Muhal Richard Abrams' Levels and Degrees of Light, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre's Humility in the Light of the Creator, Anthony Braxton's Three Compositions of the New Jazz, Lester Bowie Numbers One and Two, the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Full Force, Wes Montgomery Smokin' at the Half Note, World Saxophone Quartet Revue, Red Norvo trio with Tal Farlow and Mingus, Conquistador (with Unit Structures and Air Above Mountains, all Cecil Taylor), Archie Shepp's The Magic of Juju, Professor Longhair New Orleans Piano.

- Who are your favorite big band arrangers?

Gil Evans, going back to Thornhill and up through his Sweet Basil band; Nelson Riddle (the Sinatra stuff); Charles Mingus (for Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus and Cubia and Jazz Fusion); Sun Ra, Chico O'Farrill, Carla Bley, George Russell Ted Nash and Walter Blandings, John Fedchock, Jacob Garchik– Ellington, can we call him an arranger for the Jungle Band book? Basie as a head-arranger part excellence? And can we consider Lawrence Douglas "Butch" Morris an arranger, or a spontaneous composer?

- Who are your favorite Jazz vocalists?

Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Bobby McFerrin, Joe Derise, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Dee Alexander, Cecil McLorin Salvant, Eddie Jefferson, Cassandra Wilson. And did I say Betty Carter?

- Who among current Jazz musicians do you enjoy listening to?

Very very many. Henry Threadgill, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Myra Melford, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mars Williams, James Carter, Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, Marty Ehrlich, Liberty Ellman, Greg "Organ Monk" Lewis, Darcy James Argue, Karl Berger, David Murray, Kenny Barron, Tyshawn Sorey, Roscoe Mitchell, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujuwara, Ron Miles, Edward Wilkerson, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams, Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Jack DeJohnette, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Ravi Coltrane, Geri Allen, Erwin Helfer, Jim Baker, Nasheet Waits, Frank Kimbrough, Jason Adasiewicz, Harris Eisenstadt, Randy Weston, Eddie Palmieri, Roy Haynes, Ed Wilkerson, Chris Washburne, Adam Rudolph, Amina Figarova and Bart Platteau, Josh Berman, Ark Ovrutski, Duduka DeFonseca, Romero Lumbambo, Nilson Matta, Billy Lester, Michel Edelin, Ben Goldberg, Richard Bona, Taylor Ho Bynum, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Ari Brown, Jamie Baum, Craig Taborn, Marshall Allen, Billy Branch.

Of all your writings about Jazz over the years, which ones are you most proud of?

I'm proud of both my books – Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz perhaps even more than Future Jazz, because I bit off a larger over-arching topic – what's "avant garde," really? -- and presented material I think no one else has about Ornette and Cecil, especially, with Miles' story providing context. I am proud of articles I've done for The Wire in the past few years about Karl Berger/Ingrid Sertso and the Creative Music Studio, Roscoe Mitchell, Steve Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Gayle, among others (also Ornette and Cecil –  some of which was repurposed in Miles Ornette Cecil). I'm proud of many of the DownBeat articles I've written, also those from the '70s in the Chicago Daily News and the Reader and in the '80s and '90s in Guitar World, Musician, the Washington Post, Tower Pulse!, Ear, Music and Sound Output, including stories about Sonny Criss, John McLaughlin, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Charlie Haden and Keith Jarrett, Asleep at the Wheel, Gatemouth Brown, David Murray with James Blood Ulmer, Don Cherry, the New Orleans Jazz Festival, first Varadero Jazz Festival (in Cuba), the first Club Med festival in Dakar. Also chapters about Jazz in and out of Africa for the Oxford Companion to Jazz, and the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz and Blues I edited as well as contributed to for Flametree Press, published in the US by Billboard Books. I'm proud of a lot of the reviewing I did for the Village Voice, and for regular columns I've contributed to papers and mags including City Arts-New York, New York Press, Finland's Rytmi, Japan's Jazz Life and Swing Journal and The Wire.

What are you thoughts about blogs and websites devoted to Jazz?

As president of the Jazz Journalists Association, I try to keep a close eye on what's happening with jazz on the internet, as the internet has replaced so much of what we used to have as platforms for the dissemination of news and views of jazz. I think blogs are invaluable – but since they seem incapable of attracting income, they are endangered, and there's a burnout factor as well as little training available to bloggers just starting out – and there's a lot to learn. If we could get together on this, jazz bloggers might be a powerful force.
Websites are more problematic – also requiring immense attention to sustain and also incapable of attracting necessary $$. Musicians' websites serve an obvious purpose, but cannot be considered hubs of straightforward and wide-reaching info on jazz. Aggregations of musicians' websites, such as JazzCorner, serve a purpose too, as do online projects like Jazz Near You and Jazz on the Tube. But to my knowledge no one has yet struck on a business plan that can make jazz websites profitable – and hence viable for the long run.
If you could host a fictional “Jazz dinner,” who would you invite and why?

Louis Armstrong, Gil Evans and Betty Carter would have interesting things to say with no bs or huge egos getting in the way of smart, fun, interactive talk.

If you could put on an imaginary 3-Day Jazz Festival in NYC, how would you structure it and who would you invite to perform?

I'd spend some time researching the most engaging and ambitious artists from outside the NYC area as well as the very strong generation of players in their 30s and 40s based NYC. I'd bring together people from New Orleans, Chicago, the Bay Area, southern California, Boston, Philadelphia, the Catskills and let them mix together in sociable and creative sessions in a multi-space building for three days prior to the fest's official open, then I'd want to have the ensembles that came from those days (pre-existing ensembles too, if that's what the players want) in open afternoon rehearsals, leading to performances at night – in clubs in the Village, for easy walkability and intimacy of venue. On the last night of the fest, I'd encourage the musicians to switch partners, roam around the venues, meet the audiences or just listen.

If you were asked to host a television show entitled – “The Subject is Jazz” – would you like to interview on the first, few episodes?

First I'd want to interview Wynton Marsalis and Ann Meier Baker, director of Music and Opera for the NEA, inquiring about their visions and activities for rejuvenating jazz throughout the USA. Next I'd interview leaders of jazz support groups in US cities – for instance, Jazz Institute of Chicago director Lauren Deutsch, director of Seattles' Earshot Jazz John Gilbreath, and perhaps Willard Jenkins of the Washington DC Jazz Festival, about the kinds of support they deem crucial for continuation and improvement of grass rooms jazz presenting in a non-profit framework. Then I'd convene a panel of jazz club owners to discuss the challenges and pressures they face – say Steven Bensusan from the Blue Note, and principals of the Dakota in St. Paul, and the Blue Whale in Santa Monica. I've done something along these lines, moderating the JJA's "Talking Jazz" webinars. There are nearly two dozen of them, all archived and accessible for free on YouTube.

What writing projects about Jazz have you recently finished; are there any that you are currently working on?

I'm finishing up helping Oliver Lake structure his memoirs, and have liner notes to write for a German tenor saxophonist named Max Hacker (he's quite good; it's a live trio recording). I mentioned above the book that I'm in early stages of drafting about the artist-in-Chicago residency. I've just done a lengthy interview with Bob Koester of Delmark Records and Chicago's Jazz Record mart – that will be a half-hour video documentary produced for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. And I've some other projects are bubbling up. I want to expand on my fiction writing – I'm polishing and shopping my crime novel and am working on some short stories, too.

You have done a lot of writing over the years on the subject of Jazz. Have you given any thought to “collecting” these and leaving them with a college or university library for future reference?

Future Jazz was a collection of my articles that I selected, revised and shaped into book form. I'd like to compile and publish "The Uncollected Mandel" which would cover a lot of non-jazz music such as my writing about contemporary composers, electronic music and figures from "world music" as well as jazz topics that didn't get into Future Jazz or Miles Ornette Cecil. I intend to digitize my recorded interviews, many of which survive (I hope) on cassettes. Already some of my papers are deposited at the University of Chicago library, and maybe the rest of my raw materials will eventually end up there.


  1. Really fascinating. Howard has eclectic taste and is articulate even for a writer (joke Howard)....

    1. thanks Nancianne, glad you found me interesting :)


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