Category Archives: Interview

Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises…

Watching this video interview with Michael Wolff, I was struck by a story he told about Cannonball Adderley:

He said “You know you’re so lucky you’re not hung up with the bebop style.” He said “Quincy Jones and I are trying to get that last food out of Birdland. He said “Bebop is hanging me up. I wanna soar with my music and i’m stuck with this saxophone style.” And he was really frustrated. So I was coming from a post-bop thing. I came up more with Bitches Brew and Headhunters and, you know, the straight ahead stuff would have been more like A.R.C. by Chick and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and that kind of stuff, you know, more free. And Keith Jarrett and all that.

Bird is (perhaps incorrectly) famous for saying something along the lines of “First you have to learn the music, then you have to forget it”. This could mean a lot of different things. In relation to what Cannonball is saying, I think it means that to fully master the music you play, it has to be natural and inherent in you. This is, in one way, a asset, but as Cannonball illustrates above, it can also be a burden. Some artists were able to get past this, Miles, Coltrane, Herbie, by relentlessly pushing themselves into new areas, but it seems that it was harder for others.

What makes Wolff different, it seems, is that he wasn’t brought up in the same “tradition”. To him, coming out of Keith and Chick makes him more flexible. But aren’t Keith and Chick themselves just extensions of the same “tradition” that Cannonball is? How can this extra degree of separation make such a difference?

Another interesting quote from this brief interview shed some light on how Cannonball viewed certain aspects of Coltrane’s legacy:

So Cannon was trying to get free and I was so impressed. When I first joined the band I said “Well, Cannon”, you know I had been in New York, scuffling to learn Moment’s Notice and Giant Steps and all the things everybody was learning at the jam sessions and I said “Cannon, can we play Moment’s Notice or Giant Steps?” And he said “No. We don’t play exercises on our bandstand. Why don’t you write me some music…John Coltrane was my favorite saxophonist, but those were exercises for him.”

It’s nice to hear, even third hand, that even Coltrane himself (as well as his contemporaries) viewed songs like “Moment’s Notice” and “Giant Steps” as ‘exercises’. This is exactly what a lot of young musicians today don’t realize. If more young musicians approached these songs the way Coltrane himself clearly approached them, perhaps it would alter the trajectory of much of their music in a positive way. I’ve opined on this before…


Bird speaks!

Found a link to a REALLY old interview:

This interview is amazing for a variety of reasons.

For one, I had never heard Parker’s voice before. I know it sounds strange, but hearing his voice on tape was very eye-opening; it was like a confirmation that he really existed.

And to hear how smart, humble and gracious he was! Oftentimes when thinking of Bird I think two things: his music and his drug addiction. To hear that behind the horn and behind the legend and infamy lay a real person, one with deep thoughts and real issues, was amazing.

Secondly, it was really interesting to hear his relationship with Paul Desmond. If one week ago you had asked me if Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker ever crossed paths, I would have said “doubtful”, let alone that they knew each other and had a mutual respect for each others playing.

Most interesting of all, though, is Parker’s plans and hopes for his future. Clearly, Parker did not foresee his health’s decline, and had many interesting plans for the future.

To qualify his comments in this regard to the right degree, it is important to contextualize Parker at the time of this interview in his own life as well as in the jazz scene in general:

If by “early 1954” we are to assume sometime between January and March 1954, this interview was conducted around the exact time that the first lineup of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger’s were recording their legendary Birdland sets, with Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson taking what Dizzy and Bird had down and developing it slowly, planting the very first seeds of Hard Bop. Miles was about to record Walkin’, still a few years from forming his first great quartet. Sonny Rollins had just recorded his first album, taking the saxophone in a slightly different direction, and Lee Konitz, who had diverged from Parker’s omnipresent style very early on was just coming out as a leader after years engrossed with Lennie Tristano.

As for Paul Desmond, this time may have been at the peak of his first round of fame (the second being after Time Out) as Jazz at Oberlin had just been released and the famous Brubeck college touring was well under way. This might explain why the radio station chose Desmond to be the interviewer: Desmond was most likely the most famous white jazz saxophonist (and thus probably the most famous jazz saxophonist overall) at the time.

Parker was truly in his last days, though. This is just a few months after the recording of Jazz at Massey Hall, and only a few before his last known recordings. His health was most likely already deteriorating, but from the way he speaks, you can’t tell that he’s realized yet.

Parker sounds extremely optimistic, and this comment, in particular, makes me wonder, as probably so many others have, what might have come about if Parker even had just another 5 years:

Well, seriously speaking I mean I’m going to try to go to Europe to study. I had the pleasure to meet one Edgar Varese in New York City; he’s a classical composer from Europe, he’s a Frenchman, very nice fellow and he wants to teach me; in fact he wants to write for me because he thinks I’m more for, more or less on a serious basis you know, and if he takes me over, I mean after he’s finished with me I might have the chance to go to the Academy of Music out in Paris itself and study, you know. My prime interest still is learning to play music, you know.

– Charlie Parker

Parker was clearly still trying to develop as a musician, and just to think about what could have come of him leaving new york and digging into new ideas in Europe with Varese is overwhelming.


Hearing Bley

Paul Bley is an interesting and elusive figure in jazz. Yet somehow it’s hard to even avoid hearing people talk about him and his music. Just the other day I came across a version of Jazz.com’s “The Dozens” featuring Aaron Parks on Paul Bley. “The Dozens” is an occasional feature that lets musicians and/or critics pick 12 tracks representative of a particular artist or theme. Sometimes the choices and commentary can be very bland (the Steely Dan Dozens is terrible), but there are also some very worthwhile and illuminating posts. One of those is Aaron Parks on Paul Bley.

I am by no means an expert on Paul Bley. I mean, how can you be? With over 130 recordings to his name, and having recorded everything form solo piano records to live synthesizer shows, Bley’s discography is one of the most physically and aesthetically daunting of any musician’s in the past century (Bley himself could only compare the sheer mass of his discography to that of Louis Armstrong). But still, I would say i’m pretty knowledgeable about his most important recordings. Yet Parks managed to come up with a list that I was mostly unfamiliar with, which is pretty exciting. And of course, no comprehensive Bley list could be complete without the famous solo on “All the Things You Are.” It’s interesting to hear Parks’ take on it.

I also recently came across a very interesting radio interview with Mr. Bley from 2000. This was my first time hearing the pianist speak, and I was surprised (based on a lot of the stories I’ve heard about him) at how cordial and open he was. It’s not uncommon for artists who have been around and through as much as Bley has to be quite obtuse and prevaricatory in interviews that ask pretty basic questions, but Bley was more than willing to answer very open-ended and straightforward questions regarding his own development and the effect other artists have had on him and expound upon similar topics in very concise ways.

There were a few moments in this hour-long interview that stood out:

  1. I’ve always known that Bley has had experience playing with a veritable ‘who’s who’ of jazz throughout his career, but I was amazed at the sheer breadth of individuals that he mentioned having been lucky enough to play with. They included Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Evan Parker, Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie and even poets Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs. A lot of these weren’t just one-off’s either. He recorded with Parker, hired Don Cherry and Ornette coleman for a band that became Ornette’s famous quartet after Bley left, ‘discovered’ Pat Metheny and even mentioned being quite close with Miles Davis.
  2. Bley had an interesting take on the development of free jazz, which he mentioned twice. According to Bley, there were two stages in this development. One occurred in 1958, when jazz began to lose form. The other occurred in 1964, when it began to lose meter. He loosely associates Coleman and Cherry with the former, and Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp with the latter.
  3. Bley also had an interesting take on the role of the piano in free jazz. He seems to agree with Keith Jarrett (or Keith Jarrett agrees with him) that it is ‘impossible’ to play ‘free’ on piano. In his interview with Ethan Iverson, Jarrett says that Cecil Taylor ‘did everything he could’ in this regard. Bley seems to agree, and the interviewer contrasts Bley’s approach with that of Taylor’s. Bley talks about how the challenge of the pianist when Ornette’s group came out was to create sounds with the piano that could be altered/adjusted after they were created (I’m assuming he means the act of bending notes/creating polytones with one sonic output). He then briefly explains the difference between trying to do this with the piano itself as oppossed to using prepared piano.
  4. Bley offers the most concise explanation of why jazz is considered “America’s classical music” that I’ve ever heard. Responding to a comment about how his most recent work sounds very much like the work of early 20th century European classical composers for piano (Schoenberg, Webern), Bley remarked that his music was innately separate from classical music because what we call “classical music” is actually European classical music. What he means by this is that these composers were of a European influence. Bartok, for example, derived a lot of his compositions from European folk music, and Tchaikovsky from Russian folk music, etc. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, draw their influence from American folk music. Thus it is immediately a different type of music, if not just in name only. So, even though some of it might sound similar to European Classical music (Bley’s later work in particular), it is by definition jazz because it has grown out of an American Folk tradition: the blues.

When I re-find the link to this radio interview, I’ll post it. It’s more than worth an hour of your time. This, in the meantime, is worth 6 minutes of your time for sure: