Listen to this article
It’s easy to think that when you hear a musician play he is exposing his inner self, but perhaps there are revelations to be found too in the more mundane dealings of life. An intriguing collection of recorded interviews with jazz players by the American musician and writer Ben Sidran marries both artistic and quotidian insight – so while drummer Art Blakey tells Sidran that when you perform, “you are in the nude…people can see clean through you,” Sidran elsewhere notes the fascination of watching musicians “trying to get paid…how they deal with the club-owner disappearing” and of “look[ing] at them in their daily round”.
Sidran’s conversations with major jazz figures – he throws in the odd club-owner and recording engineer for good measure – do precisely that. In the 1980s he did a mammoth series of interviews for US public service broadcasting, of which he has now edited 60 for release on 24 CDs.
Sidran’s punctilious research tempers the infectious enthusiasm of his insider status (he is also a respected pianist, arranger and producer), and these conversations explore creative processes, social backgrounds and musical biographies, revealing a singular mix of the prosaic and the profound.
After a battering in the 1970s, the 1980s were a turning point for jazz. The decade witnessed the jazz renaissance, the birth of smooth jazz and the consolidation of jazz academia. It was also the last decade when many leading figures of be-bop and even the swing era were still working flat out. Sidran talks to them all, from veterans such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to young Turks such as the Marsalis brothers; from commercially minded producer/composers such as Bob James to radical academics like Archie Shepp.
Many express unease at the future of jazz, at the way that younger musicians seem almost interchangeable. Some blame the loss of a hard-knock apprenticeship in the clubs – playing 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off until three in the morning, recalls bassist Richard Davis – that with cut-throat jam sessions after hours encouraged innovation and individuality. Other musicians blame jazz schools for pouring out technically proficient musicians lacking a personal voice.
For recording engineer and one-time optometrist Rudy Van Gelder, earphones have a lot to answer for. They were part and parcel of the process of multi-track recording – “a machine of mass destruction”, he chuckles – that helped separate musicians and did away with risk. But technology answers problems as well as creating them, and new direct-to-disc technology has brought risk back into the equation, with state-of-the-art sound. And anyway, as bass player Marcus Miller says, you still “have to play with some kind of feeling”.
The conversations also illuminate the huge and early influence of family and friends – the record collections of musical parents, childhood music lessons, a shared album – but all of Sidran’s interviewees reveal a near-obsessive focus on jazz as the centre of daily life. There’s something heart-warming about super-hip Miller enthusing about an album sleeve-note, or hard-bitten club-owner Max Gordon reminiscing about hanging around record shops.
But jazz goes way beyond music, lifestyle and economics. Vocalist Ken Nordine – who does a passable impression of T.S. Eliot reading poetry – insists rather grandly that “musicians are closer to God than anybody”. Though few of Sidran’s interviewees go this far, most believe that jazz has much to teach the world, and manage to explain both insights and technicalities without sounding pedantic. Gravel-voiced Miles Davis muses on creativity, blackness and Ravel; Dizzy Gillespie chuckles about art and world peace; Art Blakey lays it down straight: “This is an artform and you are going to have to work for it.”
Much of the work that Blakey refers to took place in the grubby world of nightclubs and cabarets, with racism to the fore and drug addiction lurking in the background. But this is dealt with in a matter-of-fact way. Drug addictions conquered are in the past, but racism, though ameliorated, is not forgotten. Saxophonist Johnny Griffin recalls problems in the army; blues singer Charles Brown gave up a career as a chemist, finding “problems he didn’t like”; Blakey went along with the idea that any publicity was good publicity, even when a reviewer referred to him as “the little black pygmy sitting back there”. Richard Davis, reminding us of the colour bar in symphonic music, recalls that “black musicians were out of the question, but I still went to auditions.” He eventually landed a gig with Igor Stravinsky.
At the time of clubowner Max Gordon’s interview with Sidran, in December 1986, he had owned New York’s longest-running jazz club, the Village Vanguard, for more than 50 years. This minute venue – holding an uncomfortably packed 125 – is probably the most often-used location for live jazz recording in the world. The famous “Live at the Village Vanguard” tag attaches to seminal works ranging from John Coltrane to Bill Evans.
Gordon reflects that, essentially, little has changed over the years: his advice is to “find the band and find the money to pay ’em”. He booked Evans because “I could afford him”. The club’s name came when a bill for plumbing work was deferred on the understanding that the plumber could name the club.
Economics is, as ever, a constant spur to innovation. Charles Brown’s sophisticated blues came from playing in supper clubs to an aspiring black working class audience, while the Kansas City bandleader Jay MacShann – Charlie Parker’s first major employer – learnt blues style to hold down a well-paid gig.
Business sense is probably a prerequisite for survival, but in the early years at least, a supportive family certainly helps. Van Gelder took this to extremes, building his first studio in his parents’ Hackensack living room – “it had a nice sound” – from where he recorded classic albums for Blue Note and Prestige.
Sidran is a sympathetic, if sometimes strict interviewer. He ruthlessly corrects Gil Evans on the personnel of the hugely influential Birth of the Cool recordings – the ensuing longueur speaks volumes. Rightly picky and properly focused (he even has himself interviewed, so we know where he’s coming from), Sidran still lets the interviewees roam round their personal quirks and philosophies. The result is that listening to this collection is rather like eavesdropping on a particularly eloquent and focused chat.
‘Talking Jazz: An Oral History’ by Ben Sidran, $249, available through www.talkingjazz.com.