© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Candid self-assessment was as much a characteristic of Jimmy Giuffre’s personality as was the constantly innovative approach he took to making Jazz.
Francis Davis explained it this way:
“Given a long history of animosity between musicians and those who write about music (or merely write about it, as some musicians would say), I hope that Jimmy Giuffre won’t take my suggestion that he would have made an excellent jazz critic the wrong way.
I simply mean that during his most prolific period as a recording artist, beginning with the release of his first 10” LP for Capitol in 1954, Giuffre in interviews and liner notes provided his listeners with a running commentary on his motives and methods, revealing in the process a great deal of knowledge of such other disciplines as philosophy and psychoanalysis.
Reading Giuffre on Giuffre, a critic might despair, because this is one of the rare instances in which a performer has already been as fair and impartial a judge of his own successes and failures as anyone could hope to be.
(Especially for an artist as committed to public trial and error as Giuffre was during the period in which he recorded most frequently. There is also a sense in which a new piece of music can be heard as a critique of the work that came before it – yet another way in which Giuffre beat after-the-fact commentators like myself to the punch).
Best of all, despite seeming to rebuke the jazz rank-in-file of the 1950s for their conformist tendencies, Giuffre never lapsed into what I call the existential fallacy, that leap of hubris by which an artist (or for that matter, any individual) presumes that his new direction is one that everybody should follow.
In one of his earliest pronouncement – a Down Beat [November 30, 1955] article published under his byline in 1955, in which he explained his decision to limit the bass and drums on his controversial new album Tangents in Jazz [Capitol T-634] – he was careful to point out in his lead that he wasn’t trying to “preach a sermon” in order to bring the rest of Jazz into line. “It’s just one way,” he reiterated at the end, “and every man must go his own way.”
- Francis Davis, [Jimmy Giuffre - The Complete Capitol and Atlantic Recordings Mosaic Records, MD6-176].
And Lorin Stephens further explored Jimmy’s proclivities toward truth and honesty in the following interview from THE JAZZ REVIEW VOLUME 3 NUMBER 2 FEBRUARY 1960.
This interview is intended as a beginning in exploring the impact of hipness on jazz. Jimmy Giuffre is regarded by many as one of the major composers in modern jazz, but his position has been controversial. His admirers feel that his music has great validity. Even his strongest detractors, who consider his work of peripheral concern, are struck with his deep sincerity. It is fitting to explore this question with him, particularly because of his recent marked interest (along with hip legions) in the music of Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. The interview was graciously granted in November 1959. I believe that a reader cannot help but be moved by Jimmy Giuffre's willingness to expose himself honestly in the interest of furthering understanding of jazz and the jazz artist.
Why do jazz players change styles in an almost wholesale fashion with the arrival of a Parker, a Monk or a Rollins?
The thing that's hard for a non-performer to understand is how things keep changing inside. A listener often analyzes changes as being arbitrary, but they're not. In other words he thinks that when you play a certain phrase, you've planned it out and played it, when actually a big percentage of the music comes out almost like a stone rolling down a hill, especially in improvisation. And it depends on the rhythm section, the acoustics, your frame of mind, your reed (if you play a reed instrument), and your lip. Also on your maturity at the time, and your experience—all these things. And if one little thing is out of line, you're distracted from being most natural, perhaps. For instance, a stiff reed if you're playing a reed instrument (you're always torn between reeds; you never have a perfect one).
You must go through different stages. I've been playing the clarinet since I was nine and I'm thirty-eight now— so that's twenty-nine years of playing the clarinet! I started on the E flat clarinet, and it took a lot of blowing; a little bitty thing—but it took a lot of blowing. And I don't know if the mouthpiece was right or not. I wns just a baby. But you have to start with something, so you just start blowing in this tube and years later you might start to think about whether you have the right mouthpiece, and then years after that you find out the choice you made when you were fifteen was wrong, and so you just keep going with these mechanical things. You have certain ideas in your mind that shadow your choice of reed, your choice of instrument, your choice of mouthpiece—and the choice of musicians you play with.
In high school we got a dance band together and played dances. And I started into an area of sound; I was interested in getting a beautiful sound from the saxophone, and I was complimented on my sound. In college I went further with this. We played a lot. We had this eight room house in college, and I lived with Gene Roland, the arranger and trumpet and valve trombone player, Herb Ellis the guitarist, Harry Babison the bass player, and Tommy Reeves the trumpet player and arranger. We had big bands, we had a small band and we jammed a lot. We learned a lot—we listened to a lot of records then. I liked Sam Donahue; he got a beautiful mellow sound when he was with Gene Krupa. And we got a sax section that used no vibrato; we got a perfect blend. And the sound thing was very dominant in my thinking, and it continued on that way—sound superseding anything else.
Then I went into the Army and played with a quintet, xylophone, snare drum, electric guitar, bass, and I played tenor. (I didn't start improvising on the clarinet actually, until about six years ago or so.) This little group played for the different mess halls at lunch hour and it was a groovy little group—light and straight, but still the sound predominated.
After jobs with Boyd Raeburn and Jimmy Dorsey, I came back to Los Angeles and I started studying. (I don't mean to make this a history—I'm trying to work it into the thinking inside about the instrument.) I went to U.S.C. to get a master's degree, having changed my major from teaching music in public schools to composition. Well, there were so many prerequisites at U.S.C. that it threw me back quite a bit. After a semester of that, I decided it wasn't the answer. I had heard about Dr. Wesley La Viollette and his approach. Before this, my concept had been totally vertical. I had in my mind a chart of voicings, for instance if I used five saxes and there was C-7th and G was in the lead, I could spell you out immediately, the ideal voicing vertically, right down the saxes; I knew just how to space them. This was a crazy sound if you could just play it by itself. You didn't consider where it came from or where it was going, you just thought vertically each note, and this was pretty standardized for dance band writing, and a lot of writing is still done that way. There's nothing actually wrong with it: there probably is no right or wrong. I will say this about it. it can be done by anyone; it is mathematical, and difficult to do creatively. I had no awareness of counterpoint. In my work it didn't occur to me for a very good reason. At college I had only one semester of counterpoint because the degree plan which I followed was to prepare a man to stand up in front of high school or junior high students, and you had to know a little bit about everything—how to play a trumpet, bass fiddle and all those things. They didn't have time to go into the depth of counterpoint. So that's all I got. I had studied harmony with my clarinet teacher when I was about fifteen and in college I got harmony, but my thinking was all derived from listening to records; Basie and Benny Goodman.
In college we had a pretty radical attitude, I'll admit that. We wore long hair, zoot suits and we pretty much thought we knew what things should be. A pianist friend, Bill Campbell, said to me. "Well, it doesn't matter what the voicing is, how many parts, it's how each one of them leads." It didn't strike me; I didn't understand what he was talking about. Years later Scott Seeley, who was studying with Dr. La Viollette. gave me a similar answer when I asked him a question about his writing—his writing sounded strange. I asked him. "How do you voice your brass?" He replied that he did not voice, he just wrote each part separately. I just sort of shook my head; I didn't understand. At that time, believe it or not, I had a college education and I'd been writing music for ten years and playing for fifteen years, and I just didn't know the counterpoint approach to music.
Then later on when I went to Los Angeles, I met Frank Patchen. We played together down at the Lighthouse and he'd been studying with Dr. La Viollette. They both told me this was the answer. So I started studying with him, and it turned out to be one of the most important things I've ever done in my life. His influence personally and musically has been profound on me. Studying with him began to shadow my jazz thinking. For instance, when you write counterpoint, you write a duet for a clarinet and trumpet. That's all there is to it, there's no rhythm section, a complete composition for these two instruments. If you happen to use a drum with them, you write a complete composition for clarinet, a trumpet and drum. If you happen to write for a piano too, you do the same thing. There isn't a function for any one of the instruments as there is in conventional jazz; in jazz there's a fairly set part for drums. They more or less have been called upon to keep time. Now I've come through several different outlooks on this thing. I started studying in '46 when I first came out here. At that time I didn't conceive the possibility of using counterpoint in jazz. I was studying it to become a 'composer', but found out that a 'composer' includes jazz composing. Anything that can be used any place can be used in jazz. I remember one time Barney Kessel talking to me about that. I told him I was writing fugues and canons and counterpoint inventions, and he said, "Why do you want to study writing fugues?" He wasn't negative, he just didn't understand it, didn't see the point of it. It took me about five years studying with La Viollette to shake off all the prisons I had locked myself in—the vertical prisons. This is my own opinion; there are many harmonists in the world who will take exception to what I'm saying. I felt as though I were in a prison, whether it was vertical or not I don't know, but I have that conviction in my own mind.
After about five years of studying with La Viollette I began to be able to write counterpoint in jazz—with the jazz feeling. Before, all the study was what you might call straight music; it didn't have too much syncopation, and it didn't have too much of me in it. I was writing lines of music, straight, learning how to write lines together, and to be able to put myself into each one of those lines is another thing that came later, but it took me five years to start it. After I got to writing jazz, I began to think of each man's role in the music and it just began to be inconceivable that a certain man had to sit back and play time all the while, and that another guy had to play quarter notes all night. I just didn't understand the point of it. A man is in music all these years, then why should he just have to play one portion? Why couldn't he just express himself along with the other musicians? Right away, I put this to work in the music and began writing things where the rhythm section didn't play in a conventional manner. The first one I can remember was the fugue I wrote for Shelly Manne. And also, I went overboard and wrote in the so-called atonal approach. But we got it across, and I wrote another piece for his second album.
Then I did my first album for Capitol. I incorporated the rhythm section in different ways. I remember I took out the top cymbal in the drums and had him just play the sock cymbals, the two and the four, and the bass walked. Then there were other compositions where I used no rhythm whatsoever. Then, I made a point in the next album, in Tangents in Jazz, of not having a pulsating rhythm section, I mean no definite beating out of time, any place in this album. The idea was valid and is valid. The point I'm trying to make is that I began thinking, as a result of studying composition, of the individual in the music—of each one of the musicians rather than in toto. And I began thinking of what you might call 'interesting ideas', counterpoint, and using the rhythm section in different ways, different forms and different kinds of tone — all these things that weren't conventional in jazz. And so, these things became the object of my attention. But all this time my mind in playing had still required this sound, this subtle, soft, mellow, deep sound.
Why was sound so important to you?
Perhaps it comes from my childhood. It was sort of like not wanting to go out unless I was dressed properly. I couldn't release this music inside of me unless it sounded perfect—that was the first consideration—to have a beautiful sound quality. I've run into hundreds of people who felt exactly the same way, Bill Perkins was one of them. He had the same kind of thing gnawing at him. The sound had to be beautiful and smooth. And I've known so many people like this. Lester Young, he had this smoothness. He said he idolized Frankie Trumbauer who had this kind of sound too. In other words, it dominated me—that had to be fixed up before anything else could happen. It went to such a point with me that when I got the clarinet going, this was number one. There was nothing else considered about it at all—sound was it. The ideas in the whole thing were secondary to sound.
But why so important?
Well, it goes with my personality, I'm sure. I won't accept the thing that I am an introverted personality, which some have tried to make me out. I have gone through periods, and I won't say I have shaken that off completely, but I have gone through periods where I was quiet; I like the pastoral—the country; I like Debussy and Delius—I like peaceful moods. This all came into the trio sound as I've discovered now. I don't know why I wanted it to be pretty. I can't figure it out except that I just didn't want to look ugly, didn't want to offend anybody. I've always been afraid of offending someone, and I don't argue with people for that reason—I mean I'm not a vehement person, nor forceful—and I'm not too frank for that reason; maybe I should be, but I avoid those things because I don't like them.
If this is natural for you, doesn't current hipness force you and others like you into unnatural strictures?
All I can say is for myself .. . it traces like a snail what began to happen to me. Well, I don't know what effect comments have had. I'm sure they must have had some. For instance, one time I played a performance that seemed to be very successful and a critic said it was successful, but that my playing clarinet was like mowing a lawn with an electric razor. When it was announced that I was going to be a clarinet teacher at the School of Jazz another critic passed the remark, "Who will teach the upper register?" Then another time a critic said he liked the way I played, but that he wouldn't vote for me because I didn't play the whole instrument. I don't know if these things had some effect on me. Then, another area—I couldn't go out and play with sticks and drums. The only way I could play the clarinet was the way I was playing it—very quietly. They had to play with brushes and practically no piano. That's one of the ways we got to playing some of the unaccompanied stuff, and counterpoint with two horns and all those things we played with Shorty's group. I found that to be the only way I could hear the sound of my instrument; my ears got so sensitive that I went through a period where I just wanted to play the instrument by itself and hear the sound. To have a drummer playing a cymbal next to me was grating. I couldn't hear myself, and I began to wonder what was going on. I wanted to hear clearly—something in me just demanded this clarity. So I brought the drums down or took them out a lot of times, and I worked for a blend of the instruments so that I could hear hear everything that went on in the group. This is one concept of the thing. But we sometimes change our concept—if we're not afraid to. I've changed my concept, and that doesn't make a lot of things that I did invalid. This business of the rhythm section using the drums and the bass constantly—I finally realized why this is and why it has to be perhaps. The improvisor, as he is improvising, if he is too naked as I was with my group, he's out there and he has to think of too many things. It's thrown right in front of his face so quickly. Getting a sound on his instrument and thinking of ideas, that's just taken for granted in all situations. But not just being free to think up ideas: I had to cover certain functions. I had to make something happen, to provide form, composition, and this was a very good thing, but not as a constant diet.
What then has made you change your concepts?
I went down to hear Thelonious Monk. I heard an element in his music that I didn't seem to have in my music. I don't mean ideas, style or anything like that, but it was a certain way of stating things with conviction so that he spoke clearly and surely, and he played this idea without any restraint—he played it immediately, right in front of you. I didn't know exactly what it was that was hitting me, there were many things in his music that aren't in my music, but there was one that was hitting me and that was it. Then I also noticed it in Sonny Rollins' music. I had not liked Sonny Rollins too much because of his sound. I couldn't bring myself to listen to the music because I didn't like the sound on his earlier records, but now I heard this same kind of statement. It was definite, with conviction behind it. It sounded as though he was sure of himself, and there was not any holding back, and he was ready to go ahead and say this right now. He didn't have to qualify it; he could stand behind it. I got interested in this point. And it wasn't a new idea at all—it is something inspired musicians have been doing for years, but I was gradually becoming aware of it. I heard some folk songs by Cisco Houston who accompanies himself on the guitar. He sang with this same thing, and as I look back on it, I see that he did that too.
There was another event which was very important. I was riding along in the car listening to the radio one day and I heard a violin playing Bach—all by itself—and I stopped and I listened. It was Nathan Milstein, but I came in on the middle of it, unbiased, I didn't know who it was or anything. I knew though, that he played it with this same conviction, this definite sureness. There's another thing that enters in there besides this. This conviction originates with this person. It comes out "This is my way of saying this." Milstein didn't improvise, and it didn't have anything to do with improvisation. It was like the way Marlon Brando says something in his acting. He takes a written line, and says it his way, puts his stamp on it. He doesn't change the words, and Milstein didn't change that Bach, he played it just like the thing was marked but he put his kind of vitality underneath, his kind of spark. And this is what Monk and Rollins do. But I saw there is a level of playing music, whether it's jazz or classical, where it all comes together. It's just music, and it's spontaneous sounding—it sounds like the player—it' s his personality with such a stamp that it reaches the listener immediately . . . "this man knows exactly what he is talking about—he's not afraid to say it, and he said it." That's the way Art Tatum was. It is something, that, whether you like what he said or not, you know he says these things, and that's what he believes.
And this began to be interesting. I was tired of being soft, as valid as softness is. (And a funny thing is that you can have this definiteness and still be soft—it isn't a matter of volume). So I got interested in this thing and started to work on it. Back to the reed, then. I found that I couldn't get these ideas out immediately with the set-up I had. It just wouldn't come out. I was hung up with sound. I wanted it to sound right, and in order for it to sound right it had to come out slower, not quite so quickly. Well, I knew that if I got a soft reed it would come right out. But then I also knew that I would get a thin, weak sound. But, I forced myself to try it. I had tried it before, actually, down through the years every once in awhile I'd try getting a softer reed because I knew I could play faster with it, but I could never bring myself to stick with it because of the sound. Well this time something happened, either in my experience, my success, my maturity or something, I reached the point where I'm not afraid to sound ugly for a little bit. And that is what had to happen, I had to soften that reed up so that the music would come out right now. But it sounded sort of thin and I lost some of the quality of the sound, but it didn't bother me this time. All these things had been inside of me, but I didn't let them come out because of the sound. Once I started doing this, then I discovered a lot of things. I discovered how full of fear I was before—I was holding back a lot of things because I was afraid of sounding ugly—so I was cringing and tightening up my brow and pinching my eyes and hunching my shoulders. I was afraid of hitting certain notes because they would be too brassy. That didn't keep what I was playing from being valid, but I held some things in me back. But I got the thing going, and once I got it going, I noticed these fears, this cringing, leaving. Then I put a stopper on it, I made myself practice in front of the mirror and watching carefully to remain calm, unafraid, while I played, and I made myself play anything that would come in my mind. I worked on this thing, and threw out all that other stuff; and finally got up enough nerve to throw the rock off the cliff and just play anything I wanted to play when I wanted to play it. It was a revelation. I began thawing a year ago, and recently I finally got up enough nerve to where I felt I could really handle a blowing album by myself as a soloist. It may seem funny, with so many years of experience behind me, I hadn't made one. But the other albums were well-planned in composition and all the different elements for a planned listening experience. In a blowing album, one man is up front there and has to have something to say and he's got to be sure of what he's going to say. And I wanted to make sure before that happened that I felt that I could do it. I went into the studio last July with Red Mitchell, Lawrence Marable and Jimmy Rowles and there was no planning. The only thing planned was that I wrote three tunes, just the melodies and I thought of three standards to play. (I didn't even write any music, I taught the originals to the men by ear, which is not a new idea. First time I know of it, Monk came to a record date with Art Blakey and he had all the arrangements locked up in a brief case, and he wouldn't show them to anyone. He made them learn them which has a good point to it.) But, having to do this blowing album was necessity mothering invention. A lot happened to me as a result of that—just doing that album at this particular time with the frame of mind I had of shaking off these sound prisons, and having to do it on record. It worked to shoot me out over the cliff.
Red Mitchell says it's the best he's ever heard you play. What effect did playing with Ornette Coleman at the School of Jazz have on you?
I had heard a lot about him, but then I heard him play. He was doing the same thing that I was after, in his own way. The wonderful thing about this point is that it has nothing to do with the ideas or the musical content, it has to do with the statement—and when somebody gets to this point where he can be this free and this sure in his statement, then its just a matter of his speaking. It's not competition with anyone else. You could take two men who played this way, and they could be playing completely different ideas, but they would both be projecting the maximum in immediacy and quality. So, I found that this was what Ornette was doing. He was doing a lot of other things too, but this appealed to me more than anything. Even if he said hardly anything at all, the way he said it would have come across, because he speaks directly. He has thrown out the bugaboos about being afraid of what he's going to sound like. That's what it is, it's a matter of being unafraid to stand up and be yourself—right there in public—and it's very difficult to do, but I've got on the trail of it now. Ornette's gone further with it, because he's thrown out the preoccupation with trying to fit in musically with any given situation. That's what I'd like to do. It means like almost playing flow of consciousness, playing without any regard to channeling what you're doing into a given tradition of any kind. And that means in sound, in tone, key, and all the different ways. In other words, you're so free that you're out in space, and you do what occurs to you at that instant without thinking it over. I'm not saying this is the answer to everybody's problems, but I can see a wonderful release in it for me. Ornette and I had a jam session with George Russell on the piano and some students, and Connie Kay and Percy Heath. We just cut the strings, jumped out of the airplane, and a lot of wild things happened. We didn't know what it would sound like, but it was a release anyway. But the point I'm trying to get at is that it's a matter of really not being afraid to do anything—I don't care how different from whatever else has been done. It's not just doing something because it's different, it's doing something because it occurs to you right now.
Does scale orientation (as opposed to chromatic harmonization) free the improvisor?
The first time I heard about that kind of thing was with George Russell. He's got a complete system, an analysis of music that places everything in scales. In all of his music, he can break it down as to what scale it is. As for myself. I don't know if I can really say, that clearly, what I'm doing when I improvise. I'm not sure I've ever been able to think about anything when I play. (Of course, playing I Got Rhythm when I come to the bridge I know it's E 7th. If anybody can avoid thinking about that, they'd be pretty, miraculous. It's E 7th—and it's like written on the wall.) But there are different things. For instance, the first eight bars of I Got Rhythm can be thought about as just being in B flat. There are all kinds of changes in there, perhaps, according to who you play with. But you can just think in B flat for the whole thing. I think more in keys than in scale—it might be the same thing the others, Miles and Bill Evans, are thinking about.
But does scale orientation further free or is it just a different set of rules?
I think it is another kind of limitation perhaps. But actually it doesn't matter if it's a limitation or not, all that matters is that something comes out that somebody can enjoy. They say that certain people analyze themselves way past where they are. I've heard this about Hindemith, that he's very analytical, but his music comes out. There's the musical experience; what does it matter how much he or anybody else talks about it? If it's there, it's there, and if you get something from it, you get something from it. As I say, I don't have a way of thinking about playing, I just play. And when I start trying to follow a route—harmonically or scales or anything like that—it limits me, as you say. Of course, I'm just one person, and I work in a way that's most natural for me.
Is freedom what the scale-orientation improvisors are after?
Yes. But I'll tell you what they're concerned with more than that. This scale approach requires a certain kind of composition that can be approached in a certain way arid they're more interested in playing that kind of a piece, and that's the way I am too. The piece must have longer harmony—pedal-point harmony. You stretch out on the same chord for a while instead of changing every two beats or every four beats.
Then pedal-point orientation does free the improvisor?
Yes. This kind of a piece lends itself much better to freedom than a musical comedy type of piece. Because of having to adjust to the vertical requirements, it's distracting—it's abrupt. That's why I suppose I've written contrapuntally, I can't see adjusting vertically all the time. There's going to be harmony there. This is the technique Dr. La Violette taught me a long time ago. I remember the words. 'Stretch the harmonies out, and the music will flow more smoothly.' How do you stretch the harmonies out? Well, the way you do when you write counterpoint, you don't think of the harmony vertically, but in the back you put the harmony of pedals. To explain; a pedal-point is having a certain note in tenure for several bars. A figure pedal is when you have the same figure over and over. Actually there are many kinds of pedals: it denotes a sameness over several bars. It can be one note, one chord or one figure. A sound that becomes permanent in the background—as in a painting where you would have a white background. If you stretch this pattern out over a period of time then the improvisor can just let himself go free, he can play so many things against a pedal point. He can play any note of the scale against a pedal note and it's correct and it moves on and on. This is one of the basic things in counterpoint. This is what they are discovering frees them in improvisation. Ornette, from the way I understand it, is attempting to circumvent the whole thing. In fact he and I did it this night we had this session. The rhythm section played the blues—we weren't even playing the same tempo they were. We were playing any tempo—we weren't playing any chords, any tunes, any key. We were playing anything that came in our minds. And you can plainly ask, "Well, what bearing does that have on the rhythm section playing the blues?" All I can say is that if we did it by ourselves, we wouldn't have had the way to do it. They provide a background; just like a background for a painted rose. You see that rose, and the background becomes a color. The blues is a pedal type tune you can stretch out; there are so few changes and the changes are not abrupt.
But do most musicians who pattern their ways of playing after, say Sonny Rollins do so to achieve freedom or to serve the hip ritual?
I'm fortunate to have waited until this time to look in on this thing—because if I didn't have my experience behind me, I might have done this same kind of thing—I might have done this superficially. But superficially you can't emulate you only imitate."