© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The following interview on Bill Holman’s “Working Methods, Personal Views and Influences” is from composer-arranger Bill Dobbins’ fine book Conversations with Bill Holman: Thoughts and Recollections of a Jazz Master.
The irony is that Bill Holman has never been accorded the respect he deserves in his own country by the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] as a “Jazz Master,” a point that is further underscored by the fact that the publishing house for the book - Advance Music - is based in Germany!
Conversations with Bill Holman: Thoughts and Recollections of a Jazz Master is available through online sellers.
This excerpt from Bill Dobbins insightful interview offers details about how, from very humble beginnings, Bill Holman acquired the techniques, learned experiences and personal revelations and resources that helped develop him into one of the premier Big Band Jazz composer - arrangers.
“B.D. Could you talk about the roots of your musical language and some of the ways in which you have developed it through the years?
B. H. Well, I haven't had much musical education, so I just started writing what I heard from records and the radio. I didn't have much of a clue as to how other guys did what they did. I just heard, for example, that there was a difference between Fletcher Henderson and Eddie Sauter. But it was simply there to behold. I had no idea what Eddie Sauter was doing that was different from Fletcher Henderson, but I could hear that it came out differently. So I just copied what I heard as well as I could. Triar's another thing. I was never able to copy anything very well. I'd hear something I liked and say, "Oh! I'm going to do that." And it always came out different.
B. H. A lot of people call that originality. It could also be called a lack of chops.
B. H. I remember I had heard a piece that Manny Albam had written for Charlie Barnet's bebop band that featured tenor lead: four saxes with tenor on top. It really intrigued me, so I tried to do that. But it just never happened.
Four Brothers seemed pretty logical and made sense to me because it was just the sax section with close harmony. No surprises there. But the form of that piece is perfect. [Jimmy] Giuffre packed all that stuff into three minutes. Everybody got a chance to play, the band got a chance to cook, and he got a chance to lay out that melody. It's really a good example of form.
Talking about form, when I was studying with Russ [Garcia], I took a chart in that I thought was pretty good; and he said, "You've got enough material for ten charts here." My idea of a jazz chart was that you just start "blowing", and you blow and you blow and you blow. You don't repeat anything. I thought that was the way jazz solos were constructed at the time. I didn't realize that good jazz solos had form, too. So, I was just writing a stream of consciousness thing, and he tried his best to convince me that this was not hip. In other words, that I should pick out things, use them again, alter them a little, and do all the things that writers normally do, and that I know now. I wasn't quite buying it.
B. H. But somewhere along the line something clicked, and now form is one of my big concerns. Because if you don't have a convincing form, you're going to lose the audience; and if you lose the audience, what are you doing?
B. D. Sure. And I guess form relates, in a less technical sense, to the basic idea of storytelling, right?
B. D. If you're telling a story in a verbal language, you don't want to lose people with unnecessary details or by suddenly introducing a character that has no background in the story unless you intend to weave that character into the rest of the story.
B. H. Right. It's the same thing. I got the idea after a while. My Theme and Variations #2, for example, the form of that is good. I remember that there's a definite relationship between the introductory part and the out chorus.
B. D. Yeah, that's very clear.
B. H. And the whole idea of it was to build off of that original phrase.
B. D. Well, one of the things I like about all three of your theme and variations pieces is that they're entirely composed, and don't depend on improvised solos for their development. [Reference to Theme and Variations #3 was jointly commissioned in 2008 by Roland Paolucci and the Famous Jazz Orchestra (directed by Vaughn Wiester)].
B. D. And, as I got to know Ellington's music better, that was one of the things I appreciated more and more about Duke, too. He had the ability to write pieces in which the only improvising was the way the musicians interpreted the written solo lines he wrote especially for them. But, of course, he could also do what jazz writers normally do, which is to open things up for soloists to improvise. So I like to use those pieces of yours, and a few by Ellington and other favorite jazz composers of mine, to show my students different ways of creating solid pieces by simply developing a couple of thematic ideas in a creative and compelling manner without resorting to improvised solos as we are used to hearing in jazz pieces.
B.H. Uh Huh.
B.D. Coming back to your comments about your lack of formal music education, I think that some of the most creative people have been, for the most part, self-educated. I think it's a mistake to assume that the only education or learning that has value is what you get in a school. Gil Evans is another jazz writer who was basically self-taught. But he took advantage of a lot of the resources that are available to the general public, such as the public library's collection of recordings and scores.
Of course, Ellington and a lot of the other great jazz writers were also basically self-taught. But all of you, I think, got to the point fairly quickly where you were not just hearing things in a passive way. You notice things about a particular piece of music that you like, and that information goes into the mental file cabinet for further consideration. Then, it comes out later exactly as you intend or, as you described earlier, altered through your own perception as a personal interpretation of that earlier influence.
B.D. And, I think that some of the personal aspects of music can be lost if formal teaching becomes too standardized. The important thing is to present things in a manner that can be useful for someone who wants to create in a way that is connected to a tradition, but is also done in a personal way.
B. H. I shouldn't really say that I'm not educated. I'm not well-educated. I did study for that one year with Russ [Garcia], and I learned some valuable things from him. He tried to show me the biggest thing of all, which I ended up learning through the years, which was about form. But I was thinking in terms of education today, where kids have access to scores by many different writers and they know this guy's voicings and that guy's.
B. D. I see what you mean.
B. H. I think I would have been tempted to use them all. And I may have come out with a more polished product, but it might have come too easily. I think my way is to struggle along. You know, the first things I wrote for Kenton were all four-part block harmony; and, because of the size of the band, I guess, they sounded very impressive. Basie was using the same kind of harmony, yet the two things didn't sound at all alike.
B. D. Sure. But that's also the personality of the band, right?
B. D. Because I found it interesting that a lot of people thought that all those Ellington records that were arranged by Billy Byers and other writers were actually arranged by Ellington or Strayhorn. Of course, the band sounded the same, because Duke hired the musicians whose sound he wanted to be a part of the band's sound.
B. D. So, one way of listening to a record is to hear the sound of the band, the swing conception and the conception of the rhythm section, the various uses of vibrato, expressive devices and dynamics, and so on. And then, another way is to hear that, but to also hear what the musical content is, the technical content or the story.
B.H. Yeah. Anyway, I just struggled along with my primitive harmony for years, and gradually did this and did that, and enlarged the scope, and arrived where I am now. When I'm with a bunch of well-schooled musicians, then I feel unschooled, because they're often talking about things I don't know anything about. We may be thinking about the same things, but just in different terms. But when I say I'm not schooled, I'm afraid I'm slighting Russ, because there was that one year. And I did learn something. It's just that, I think back on his book, about how to use maracas and things like that. (Laughs.) But that book has been a mass seller. It's been all over the world and translated into different languages, and it's still selling. The last arranging book I had before that, they dealt with writing for three saxophones. (Laughs.)
B. D. Wow. Speaking about schooling, I've heard great music by writers who had a lot of schooling and by those who had little or none. In terms of jazz, I'm unschooled, because the university I went to didn't want to have anything to do with jazz. But that didn't keep me from trying to figure out the music on my own. So having been schooled in classical music but unschooled in jazz, I can see advantages and disadvantages in both situations.
Some of the most valuable learning I've experienced has been out of school, especially listening to recordings of music I was really passionate about, and trying to figure out what was going on there.
B. H. Uh huh.
B. D. Then I would try to find ways of using those things that sounded a little different from the source they came from. In terms of melody, for example, the basic melodic vocabulary of jazz is relatively simple. You can find recorded examples of dozens of writers or improvisers using the same basic licks. [A "lick" is a short melodic phrase or motif that has long been in the common practice playing and writing of jazz musicians. A high percentage of jazz licks go all the way back to Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries, and can even be found in the music of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries (with less syncopated rhythms).]
But it's how and where they use them, and how they develop them in a particular musical context, and what kind of story they can tell with them that makes their music sound different.
B.D. Just as one example I can remember that, before they had the Ellington Archive in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, I occasionally took on the daunting task of trying to transcribe one of my favorite Ellington pieces. Later on, it was inspiring and humbling to have access to the original scores ten years or so after the fact. I photocopied many of the complete C score sheets in Ellington's hand, took them home, and discovered what I had managed to hear accurately and what I had misheard or missed entirely. That also relates to my own experience as a writer of hit and miss experiments, trying to get as close as I can to things that will communicate clearly to an audience.
B. H. Well, I'm too lazy to do that.
B.H. I think that's one of my big problems; that, and the fact that I never thought of getting a mentor. I think a mentor could have helped me a lot, not only teaching me a lot about the business, but also teaching me how to make music. I'm so reticent that I don't make friends too easily unless people seek me out. So I've got a bunch of really aggressive friends.
B.H. So I think, "How did I wind up with all these people?" But they came to me.
B. D. Well, the interesting thing about all the books and scores that are so readily available today is that, in a way, its connected to the mass production and all pervasiveness of music. Just as you find a lot of young people with four thousand pieces on their I-Pod, but most of it's going in one ear and out the other, you could have hundreds of books and scores that just sit on the book shelves or stacked on top of the piano. What seems to be a difference maker is being a proactive type of person who, if they're really after something, won't sit around waiting for someone else to motivate them or give them some ready-made answers.
In a way, I feel like I really profited from being in college during the '60s, which was a time when jazz was still either discouraged or forbidden in most conservatories and music departments. So, along with a bunch of students that started at Kent State about the same year, I was involved in putting together the first ongoing big band there in opposition to most of the music faculty and the director of the music department. I think I probably went through a lot of the same experiences you did as far as jazz goes, just trying to figure it out for myself most of the time.
I remember that, when we finally were playing well enough that we decided to invite a guest soloist to play, the first person we invited was Clark Terry. Being around somebody like Clark, when we were all in our late teens and early twenties and really green in terms of the music, was like manna from heaven.
B. H. That sure was a great choice for that period in your life. Because Clark was so outgoing and forthcoming with all he knew and could do.
B. D. Yeah, Clark is a really special musician and human being. And throughout the lives of the many guys in that band who are still making music professionally, whenever any of us have made contact with Clark, he has always been enthusiastically supportive and encouraging. We had a very limited budget for the band and, when we invited Clark back for the next year, he said, "I'd love to come back again, but next time you have to let me bring Joe Williams along with me."
B. D. When I told him we would love to but we just didn't have a big enough budget for both of them, he just laughed and said, "Look, just pay me half of what you did this time and I'll get Joe to come, too."
B. D. Yeah. So, when Joe came with Clark the next year, that was just after he had recorded an album with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra; and he sent us about half a dozen of those great charts that Thad and Brookmeyer wrote for those dates. Man, the guys in the band were as happy as if we'd just won the lottery.
B. H. I guess. Well, as I was saying, I needed somebody to tell me what being a musician is all about, your relationship with the music, how important the music is to you, and how you should approach it and think of it. I was just a dumb kid that learned to play the saxophone and saw some people in the movies that were playing saxophone. So I wanted to do that.
B.H. I had no idea about the value of music or the kind of people that made music, or anything besides just playing the horn.
B. H. So, I could have used some advice in that end. You know, the more I get into it, the more seriously I take it.
B. D. Well, if everybody that started out the way you did had come as far as you have, it would surely be a much richer world.
B.D. No maybe about it. Getting back to our discussion about your working methods, could you talk a little about the origins of the arrangements for Prez Conference, the group that played all the saxophone harmonizations of Lester Young solos?
B. H. Well, it was [tenor saxophonist] Dave Pell's brainchild, you know. He was going to do what Supersax did. But, of course, he didn't realize that the tenor is much lower than the alto. So how are you going to put three other saxes underneath the tenor lead? I had to work around that, and there's some finagling, going to unison or thirds occasionally and then back to the four parts. But he dug up a lot of Prez solos and I found a few. And we did several albums, or at least two. I think Joe Williams was on the last one. Did he sing on the whole album?
B.D. No, some of the tunes had instrumental soloists. And there was another album that featured [Harry] "Sweets" Edison.
B. H. Yeah. Anyway, that was it. And we found some songs that Joe could sing that had Prez solos in them, and we did those along with the strictly instrumental tunes. I tend to think of it as a poor relation to Supersax.
B.D. Why is that?
B.H. I don't know. Because it wasn't first, I guess.
B.D. I think of it as just another side of the music. Because Parker's style was so rich, chromatic and chord based, while Prez played in a rhythmically simpler and more melodically basic style.
B. H. Well, it was ideal for me, because it's mostly pretty easy to harmonize. And I had been familiar with some of those things almost since childhood. And the ones I hadn't heard before I could relate to just as well. So it was fun for me but, as you may have gathered, Dave was not one of my favorites. He's Carl Saunders' uncle.
B. H. Yeah. (Laughs.) So every time Carl mentions Uncle Dave, he looks at me to see if I'm wincing.
B.D. What are some of the different ways in which an arrangement or composition has begun for you? How do the first ideas come up? Could you give some examples in relation to specific pieces?
B.H. This sounds like when the kids ask, "How do you get started?"
B.H. Well, you've already heard my routine on that. You just sit there.
B.H. Sometimes I just start writing nonsense on a staff. Sometimes I'll write curves, with no pitches, and then try to fill them in and see what that suggests. Mostly it has to do with getting the bare germ of an idea, and then making music out of it.
B. H. Bill Cunliffe took my place up at Port Townsend a couple of weeks ago. I was supposed to do a class up there. Nancy got sick and I couldn't go. So I said, "They'll probably ask you how you get started." And I said, "Incidentally, how do you get started?" And he mentioned that he had taken the first three notes from some classical record that he liked. So he took those three notes and started with that. And pretty soon he had fleshed out a whole phrase.
B.H. I had never thought of that before.
B.D. So you don't usually start from an idea that's already in your head. You usually start from a more abstract point and then let things gradually become more concrete.
B.H. Yeah. Although, sometimes it's some abstract method that's been put in my head by hearing about someone else doing it.
B.D. Uh Huh.
B. H. You never know where those things are coming from.
B. H. Or sometimes I sit at the piano and noodle until I happen to hit on something that I like. Then I go back and say, "Well, if I use those two notes and then this one instead, it might make something." By this time I may be so into the mood of the piece, that I can just continue from those three notes. What I really like is when I'm doing something else, and something just pops into my head. I remember I had that experience with a piece on the Basie album. There's one tune that just goes... (sings a syncopated four-bar phrase). I made a blues out of that.
B. D. Oh, yeah. That one's called Ticker.
B. H. Yeah. It's just a scale up and down. I was riding in the car when that came to me, and I liked it. I thought to myself, "It's absurdly simple, but I'm going to use it because I like it."
B.D. Sure, why not. Some of the main ideas of some great pieces are absurdly simple, if you just take the germ idea. I remember one of the sketches on Saturday Night Live during the classic years in the '80s when John Belushi was one of the stars. Belushi is in costume as Beethoven, sitting at the keyboard of an early piano of that period. He's searching for an idea, and he plays... (Sings "dum...dum...dum...DUM!", the opening four notes of the Fifth Symphony, with short silences between each note.) Then he scowls and shakes his head from side to side as if to say, "No, no, no. That could never work."
B. D. That's just too simple! One of the things I try to convince my students of is that there's really no such thing as an idea that's too simple.
B.H. Yeah. When Nancy was in the hospital, they had a machine that was pumping her I.V. fluid. And when it ran out or malfunctioned in some way, there was a sound that went, (Sings a five note phrase) "do re sol, do re... do re sol, do re." And I thought, "That's got to be usable somehow." And I'm still determined I'm going to make a piece out of that. (Laughs.)
B. D. That's great. Anything is possible. Any idea can be used. It all depends on what you do with it. I remember hearing you talk about your arrangement of St. Thomas, Sonny’s Rollins tune. You mentioned that you had already worked out a fairly elaborate contrapuntal line to go with the melody. But then at one point you noticed a simple fanfare idea that had been going on in your head, and you just threw out the intricate counterpoint and the fanfare became one of the main ideas of the arrangement.
B. H. Yeah, I had devised some really clever counterpoint to the melody. I was imagining the chord progression going along as I was writing it, but imagining the chord progression was generating this other thing in my head. (Sings the fanfare motive from St. Thomas.) I finally realized that, and tossed out all that other stuff I had written. I always thought of that as a big triumph; that I was able to recognize what was happening and that I had the nerve to throw out my hard work. (Laughs.)
B. D. Yeah, what a revelation. I think Stravinsky said something to the effect that, if you want to be a writer, it's important to write something every day, even if what is written ends up in the wastebasket. It's all part of the process.
B.H. Uh Huh.
B. D. I guess it's just like practicing an instrument. Someone who's really on their game in relation to practicing an instrument feels the difference after missing just a day or two.
B. H. Yeah, I sure do. If I go for a couple of weeks and then sit down to write, it's like I'd never done it before. How do you do this? (Laughs.)
B.D. That experience with St. Thomas had a lot to do with the simple act of paying attention. I try to remind my students and myself that one of the most important life skills is learning to pay attention. And paying attention is the easiest thing in the world to do, except that I usually forget to do it. But when I do remember, I'm often amazed at what I become aware of. It can be really valuable.
B.H. Well, if you did it all the time you'd probably be insufferable.