Jazz Artists, Jazz Interviewers

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Autobiographical memoirs and oral histories are common categories of jazz literature. Less so is the first-person context referenced in Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews, as drum master Arthur Taylor titled his book, originally published in 1977 and still in print in expanded form (DaCapo Press). It comprises Taylor’s candid, insightful conversations with 29 friends and colleagues, all grandmasters of the art form.

Taylor created a genre now greatly expanded with the recent publication of three musician-authored books inspired by Taylor’s masterwork: Jon Gordon’s Jazz Dialogues (Cymbal Press), Joel Harrison’s Guitar Talk: Conversations with Visionary Players (Terranova Press) and Jeremy Pelt’s Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz’s Great Storytellers (Pelt Jazz Publishing). To elicit back stories and common threads, DownBeat convened the three for a Zoom roundtable conversation.

Ted Panken: What prompted each of you to undertake a book?
Jeremy Pelt: Since I read Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones when I began college, I’ve thought someone should do something similar for the contemporary generation. I finally got going in 2018, after coming across a YouTube video of Art Taylor being interviewed at the Schomburg Center by [drummer] Warren Smith, who I know. I decided to start interviewing cats myself, and by the time the pandemic began I had about 30 interviews — now I have 80. Until the end of last year, I’d been approaching the book like a musician looking for a record deal, but then I realized how easy it is to self-publish.

Joel Harrison: It began when I started to do podcast interviews for the Alternative Guitar Summit, the festival for non-commercial guitarists that I founded in 2010. I also started to produce concerts featuring a guitarist’s music — Pat Metheny and Ralph Towner, for instance — where I’d interview them on stage. It struck me that I’d accumulated 15 or 16 interviews, and that they’re easy to transcribe with voice recognition software. Then David Rothenberg of Terra Nova Press told me he’d do a book, and I started thinking about who I could add. I tried to represent as many different kinds of creative guitar playing — and age, gender, race, etc. — as possible. I left out some of my closest friends — I know I have to do a volume two. To sum it up, it’s all about my unquenchable curiosity about the creative process through talking to improvisers on the guitar.

Jon Gordon: My impetus was starting with ArtistShare at the end of 2005 into 2006, at the suggestion of Maria Schneider, who I was working with quite a bit. Brian Camelio, who runs ArtistShare, encouraged me to augment the recording project, and I decided to interview my heroes and mentors and friends. I did a dozen over the first few years, which I uploaded to my ArtistShare website. The first person I interviewed was Eddie Locke, one of a handful of men in my life who was like a father, and over the next few years, I interviewed — among others — Maria, Mark Turner and Bill Charlap, one of my closest friends since high school. It expanded from there.

The book begins with me, at 20, stuck in Heathrow Airport, bumped off a flight, running into Jay McShann and talking with him for an hour about what it means to be a jazz stylist. He said, “Guys now, they play their horns good and all that, but in my day you heard Charlie Christian, Benny Carter, Bird — everybody had their own thing; you knew it was them right away.” Eddie Locke said the same thing about coming up in Detroit, that all those great piano players — Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris — sounded totally different. Although I don’t ask anybody explicitly how they became a stylist, what frames the whole book is: “What are your influences and what things are important to you? What is this art form?”

Panken: Why are musician-to-musician interviews important?
Gordon: Perhaps musicians are a little less guarded, a little more open together — we laugh and we joke. The world is crazy, and to the extent we can laugh, that’s where I find my hope for sanity.

Harrison: I remember how I enjoyed the unguarded responses when I read Notes and Tones years ago. Perhaps, as a colleague and a musician, my questions will have a different flavor than a journalist’s. There are levels of trust, relaxation and engagement. We’re just talking. It’s not for anything, not trying to sell a record. It’s just to share wisdom. I was amazed at how much I learned about people I was only acquainted with, at the depth of intelligence outside of their music.

Pelt: Just to piggyback on what both Jon and Joel said, it comes down to trust. They recognize that you’re from the same tribe – then it goes more smoothly. All of us have been interviewed by writers and had conversations with fellow musicians. Certain things you don’t have to spell out that other cats obviously know from experience.

Panken: What was your editing process?
Pelt: I did very little editing. I tried to stay true to what they said. Therefore, a lot of the text is verbatim. I didn’t really edit anything out unless someone named someone else in a bad light.

Panken: Jeremy, your interviews follow a line of questioning, subjects you wanted everybody to discuss.
Pelt: My focus was streamlined. The subject matter through the 80 interviews is: We’ll spend a bit of time talking about how you came up, where you were born, your family and who influenced you, but we’ll talk about Black social issues in this country, as it pertains to playing the music, and what you’ve experienced in the industry and amongst your peers. Just because we’re all musicians doesn’t mean we all experienced exactly the same thing. Sometimes I was completely surprised by their answers.

Harrison: I decided that I wanted to leave almost everything in. Bill Frisell did a workshop, which ended up being a long interview. Bill told me I’d probably really achieve my goal by including all the stuff that I thought doesn’t belong. I did cut out 90% of the “you knows” and the “ums’ and the run-on sentences. People talk with enormous incoherence. I hate it when I read an interview I’ve done when I say something with mangled English — and they leave it. Why would you make me sound like an idiot? I’m actually articulate. So I cleaned up all the prose, and the only stuff I took out was when someone was repeating themselves, or maybe going so far into the weeds on an issue that I didn’t think it would be interesting.

Gordon: I had back-and-forth with all the musicians. I looked at it like a record date. How many of us have had a producer release a date or a take you said “don’t release,” or put a cover on it that you didn’t want? So after the first draft, I asked if there was anything they didn’t like, or any names they didn’t want mentioned. I wasn’t trying to shape what they were trying to say; I wanted them to feel comfortable and confident about honestly expressing their feelings and to be sure I didn’t misrepresent something important to them.

Harrison: With a couple of exceptions, I did not have people vet their interviews. Everybody was just telling their story, and I didn’t want them to second-guess. What you said is what you said. We were in a flow, talking and letting it all hang out – and I wanted that to be the feeling of the book.

Panken: One leitmotif in Griots is what the musicians you speak with think of the word “jazz.” What does the word “jazz” mean to each of you?
Harrison: To me jazz just means whatever you want it to mean. I play music. I don’t know what I do. I know it’s rooted in jazz, but plenty of jazz musicians who’d hear a record of mine would go, “That’s not jazz.” They’d be absolutely right, in my opinion, because I do so many different things. To me, jazz is globally something whose practitioners changed my life and made my life better, and an inexhaustible resource of wisdom in America. Whether or not I am truly a part of that, I don’t know. I just tried to learn my lessons as best I could and be myself.

Gordon: My framing as a young person coming into the music was that jazz was sacred. However anybody wants to present their music, you acknowledge and respect the words that are meaningful to them. That’s where I would leave it.

Pelt: I brought it up because it’s a discussion that gets reiterated every generation. It’s certainly not a new grievance. Art Taylor talked to certain people about it. When I asked Justin Robinson what he thought about the word, he said something that summarizes my feeling — jazz has changed over time; jazz, like symbols, evolves. For me, it’s evolved for the better; a certain respect comes to it that was not there at the beginning.

For me, growing up, it was a big deal to immerse myself in jazz as a genre. I kind of separated myself from all of my peers in high school once I got into it, because I was the only one listening to it. So I always had this early reverence for the music, for jazz as it was. Right now, here in Harlem, I can’t walk down the street and meet one person who will associate the word “jazz” with a whorehouse. That’s a fact. Nor will I meet any layperson on the street who’ll say, “That’s a white man’s term.” That’s a fact. But the real problem is that the word “jazz” has evolved to being regarded in a way that you almost can’t have fun listening to it — which is what we want you to do. I’ll always understand the argument against it, but I just don’t see the fix in terms of what we’re going to call it.

Panken: Can you speak to anything you’ve learned in a meta sense through the process of doing these books?
Harrison: It struck me that virtually everyone had a dark night of the soul, where they just couldn’t figure out how to get where they wanted. I loved hearing about the various roads that each individual took towards mastery, towards finding some deep inner sound they present to the world; in a way, they’re all the same and all beautifully, uniquely different. Nobody seemed to have a choice. They had to do what they did. Some were born geniuses, in my impression. Others had maybe a bumpier road. But it was grueling for everybody. Not for the faint of heart, this thing that we do.

Pelt: What’s fun for me is to try to draw a common thread, if I can, that spans several generations, extending from somebody born in 1934 to somebody born in 1984. I learned immense things from following their respective trains of thought about the subject matters that I presented to each person, which is the soul of the book.

Gordon: I remember Phil Woods saying, “If you have a choice between being a brain surgeon and an alto man, pick brain surgery, baby” — or something like that. Dedicating your life to music — and to this music — is a passion. You have to do it. You have to find your way. We’ve all been through that dark night of the soul. This gets probably too meta, but it’s finding that light in the darkness, finding that truth and meaning in your own personal struggle in the journey, in ways that people can relate to what you’re doing. Again, I come back to laughter and humor. That is an opening and a healing, a way to reach a place of commonality and community and connectivity with one another, to relax and get to some of those truths we’re trying to get to in the music. DB



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