A well-liked, seemingly ever-present member of the jazz media was honored this summer at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
DownBeat Senior Contributor Michael Bourne received the festival’s Bruce Lundvall Award, which is presented annually to a non-musician who has left a mark on the world of jazz or contributed to the development of the music.
In addition to writing for DownBeat since 1969, Bourne has worked in jazz radio for the past 45 years, the last 33 as an on-air host for WBGO-FM in Newark, New Jersey. He is also a regular visitor to—and an avowed supporter of—the Montreal Jazz Festival, having missed only one edition in the past 25 years.
Throughout his career as a writer and broadcaster, Bourne has traveled to jazz festivals all over the globe. His travels have informed his philosophical views about jazz and shaped his concept regarding the role of the jazz critic. He also is a New York theater critic, an aspect of his professional life unknown to many jazz listeners and DownBeat subscribers.
As this year’s recipient of the Bruce Lundvall award—named after the late record label executive, who was highly influential behind the scenes in jazz—Bourne joins the company of producers Tommy LiPuma and Michael Cuscuna, journalist Bill Milkowski, impresario George Wein and record label executives Jim West and Jean-Philippe Allard.
DownBeat caught up with Bourne in Montreal on July 1, the day after the award presentation by André Ménard, the festival’s co-founder and artistic director, and Laurent Saulnier, vice president of programming.
Talk about your appreciation for the Montreal Jazz Festival, and describe some of the more meaningful experiences you’ve had here.
I used to say that this festival redefines jazz. The festival doesn’t actually do that, but the festival allows and encourages it to happen, and you can hear it happening, because the music evolves itself. And if you look back at the history of jazz, every generation has hated what was coming next. They always say, that’s not jazz. Yes it is. I came up with calling groups up here “very Montreal”—they’re playing music in a way I’d never heard anybody play it before. Surprisingly, there are an infinite variety of ways to play music that we’ve never heard played before.
I first experienced this in India, on my very first trip outside of America and my first big jazz festival. I heard musicians from around the world who absorbed jazz into their culture, or absorbed their culture into jazz. That’s what jazz does: It embraces the world and the world embraces it. So I was hearing Indian musicians not playing in 4/4, not playing imitation American straightahead. They were playing real Indo-jazz in those rhythms and those harmonies. I heard a cat play a drum solo on drums from all around the world—Japanese drums, Brazilian drums—and he just whipped up this thing and I could not tell you where “one” was. But the whole audience was into it. That awakened me to the infinite variety that is the music.
Then I came here. And I used to run screaming from hip-hop and rap and “electro” this and “house” that. And Laurent Saulnier, who’s really the one who has expanded the musical horizons of this festival, challenged me to go to Club Soda at midnight where they would have all these groups. And it was a group called Plaster. It was keyboards, bass and drums, and all three were hooked in to synthesizers and samplers and a variety of electronics. I remember at one point there was a phrase from a politician’s speech that was stuttered and repeated and became the rhythmic groove. And also the things they were throwing back and forth. And somehow out of all this you would actually get the feeling of a melody. It may not be a melody like you normally hear, but you’d feel it. And then they were throwing them back and forth, and you could hear them, feel them, actually creating this music as they were playing, improvising.
What they were doing is everything that jazz was supposed to be. And then all of the sudden I realized that what they had gotten into was, they were creating riffs, the three of them. And they were throwing the riffs against each other and they were bouncing off each other. And my foot was actually patting, and I could hear a voice in my head say, “Count Basie, Kansas City 1930s.” This is exactly what the Basie band was doing with its different horn sections, throwing riffs off each other, and spontaneous, head arrangements and so forth. And that’s what jazz is: It’s about patting your foot.
Anyway, I got it. And then I started listening more and more to other things when I come here. I just love this festival. I don’t come expecting anything. I learned a long time ago not to expect anything.
You have a unique way of writing about jazz, and you have shown a tendency to create question-and-answer style articles that let the artists speak for themselves.
Somebody just today on Facebook was commenting on something he had learned during a conversation with me decades ago. He remembered talking to me when he was a young actor. And I had said that I had this principle that I had got from Goethe, and that’s that the first question a critic should ask is, “What is the artist trying to do?” The second question is, “How well is the artist doing it?” And the third question is, “Was it worth doing?” And I said too many critics went right to number three, and that’s all they talk about it—what they think it should be. I don’t. I go to number one, which is to try to describe what it is, to try to encompass what it is that’s happening, not saying it’s good or if I like it. And then, are they getting across what they’re trying to do in a way that, ideally, the listener or reader will think, “Oh, I want to hear that,” or, “No, that doesn’t sound interesting to me.” But number three, catch as catch can.
Yesterday somebody said to me that if you take a free trip, you’re obliged to write good things. I said, “No I’m not.” They don’t expect me to gush about everything. They respect me and I respect them. If I think something isn’t really wonderful, I should say so. Because they’ll know when something doesn’t work.
What makes me nuts is people who look for things to complain about. My attitude is, at a jazz festival, if you hear something you don’t think is interesting, get up and go hear something else, because there’s always something else happening. I don’t know how many times—I think most of us have been there and you gotta acknowledge it—you’ll be surrounded by people who are really into what you don’t like. And you gotta acknowledge that, too. So that’s just philosophy, and I’ve always been that way.
When I started writing for DownBeat it was mostly not about what I thought of the artist; it’s what the artist thought, for me to get out of the artist whatever was going on. What is your music about? How did you get started? Where are you going with it? What does it mean to you? And then slowly but surely I throw in something about what it means to me. And, ideally, it means something to me. That’s when it gets to be the best, when you find that happy medium.
What do you expect your legacy will be to jazz journalism and broadcasting?
Who knows? We’re all different. Nobody does what I do, and I don’t expect them to. And I don’t do what anybody else does. I never think of myself as being better or best or anything. All I want to be is unique. I want it to be what I did—and if you like it, great, and if you don’t, OK. I lost my travel legs, so I can’t meander all over Europe anymore. But I did that. And I’m really happy to have gotten the chance. Jazz took me around the world. I can’t complain. That should be on my tombstone: “He could not complain.”
Do you feel you’ve done a good job and made the most of your opportunities?
I think so, I hope so. I kept getting invited back. I’m always amazed that people like me now, because I think of myself as a grumpy old fart. I was a grumpy old fart when I was 20—that was 50 years ago. I don’t take it for granted, and I’m grateful. I think it’s probably one of the things that’s gotten me through. I’m really grateful for everything. I’m lucky. I have no ambition, never have, never strived for anything. Things come along that you want to do. And I’ve been very lucky to be able to do things that I wanted to do. And to do them … well enough, is that the right way to put it? … to do it in a way that people liked and wanted me to do it some more.
When I first came here I had to jump through hoops and get an assignment. I got an assignment from Jazz Journal in London. And I wrote it and then my editor didn’t print it. So I called Caroline Jamet, who ran all the media for the festival, and I apologized and I said I’m embarrassed that they didn’t print my review, and that I had quit the magazine. And she said, “We don’t care. We like you, come back next year.” And I’ve come back for 25 years. I only missed one year because I had a heart attack. And I was angry. Not that I had a heart attack—I figured I earned the heart attack by eating all those cheeseburgers. But I was angry that I missed Montreal. DB