Talking Jazz - An Oral History
In jazz, there are only six degrees of separation between Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman, or beween any other pair of musicians you care to name. Perhaps a six-degrees/small-world theory which suggests a jazz critic from Ohio can find a connection with a fisherman from Fiji by way of just six steps is little far fetched, but six step connections between jazz players are made real in Talking Jazz - An Oral Historya collection of 24 discs containing 60 radio interviews conducted, in the main, by musician, writer and producer Ben Sidran (one interview, with Sidran himself, is conducted by Craig Werner).
Twenty-some years ago, Sidran was asked by National Public Radio to interview jazz musicians for a show called Sidran On Record. The pieces, recorded between 1984 and 1990, were taped in New York and were unscripted, free-ranging conversations between Sidran and musicians or other people involved with jazz. The interviews reveal themselves on a variety of levels: Sidran acts as interviewer plus fellow musician, fan and record collector. Non-playing fans can easily identify with Sidran, because he emotes a mutual enthusiasm, but he also brings along the perspective of a musician who has shared the experience of trying, at the end of the night, to get paid for a gig.
The closest comparison that can be made to this audio document is drummer Arthur Taylor's Notes And Tones (Da Capo Press, 1972/1993), which consists of transcriptions of interviews Taylor recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Sidran displays more depth than Taylor, both documents reveal the spirit and heart of the jazz player.
The six degrees that emerge over these 25 hours of interviews include continual references to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Whereas today, diligent collectors, music students and researchers can download digital files of King Oliver one minute and Don Ayler the next, jazz scholarship twenty years ago was just beginning to move away from an oral history and bandstand apprenticeship towards a more formal academic structure. As you absorb these interviews, you can envision a jazz family tree with the roots grounded in gigs and experiences. Red Rodney with Charlie Parker, Charlie Rouse (and many other interviewees) with Thelonious Monk. Jazz's transition away from the bandstand and the road and towards the universities began 25 years ago; Sidran's talking points acknowledge this new route, while simultaneously documenting the music's rich oral history.
Along with younger voices, the old garde is captured hereArt Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Village Vanguard owner Max Gordonto be juxtaposed against the neo-cons Wynton and Branford Marsalis. The (then) twenty-something brothers, who were the darlings of the music business, display a swagger and boldness that has (thankfully) mellowed over the years. Their false modesty seems to be part of a calculated marketing effort not apparent in any of the other musicians. None of the other artists are working from a press release or explicitly promoting product. Instead, Sidran has the interviewees talking about such things as their influences, technique and early history. It is a revelation, for instance, when Don Cherry speaks about the first time he heard the music of Albert Ayler and how it forever changed him.
When interviewed himself, Sidran observes that each musician's voice and manner of speaking is essentially jazz expression: hearing a musician play may be the chief key to unlocking their message, but hearing their voice completes the picture. I'm not just referring to the all too familiar raspiness of Miles Davis or the ubiquitous Marsalis brothers. I'm also referring, for instance, to the tender voice of saxophonist Frank Morgan describing his beautiful and brittle tone, and the force-of-nature that was Betty Carter. Yes, Gil Evans is a bit flaky, but his voice belies his genius, as do those of Carla Bley and Mose Allison. The articulate Jon Hendricks and Keith Jarrett explain the mastery they have in their fields. The gentleness conveyed by Sonny Rollins and Tony Williams is surprising.
Twenty years ago the digital revolution was just beginning and it was embraced by both Miles Davis and record engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and tamed by Marcus Miller and Steely Dan's Donald Fagan. Sidran interviews each of them, and also touches on the new technology with Michael Brecker and Herbie Hancock.
The interviews touch on jazz fusion and popular music, which at the time was believed to be the downfall of the jazz tradition. Freddie Hubbard agrees that "selling out" was a straight jacket from which he fought to escape, Joe Sample embraced his popularity, and George Benson seemed quite uncomfortable with popular commercial success.
Attending a concert by Sonny Rollins or Dizzy Gillespie can constitute a six degree experience for a jazz listener. With that experience, a small part of the tradition is carried forward inside you, as it is too by listening to these interviews. Sadly, many of the people heard here are now gone: including Davis and Gillespie, and recently Michael Brecker and Jackie McLean. By my count, sixteen of the artists are no longer with us. These interviews are a valuable complement to the recorded legacy of these jazz giants and an oppurtunity to draw jazz fans closer into the history and culture of jazz.
Personnel: Ben Sidran: interviewer.
Tracks: Interviews with: Miles Davis; Dizzy Gillespie; Don Cherry; Red Rodney; Freddie Hubard; Wynton Marsalis; Phil Woods; Sonny Rollins; Jackie McLean; Johnny Griffin; Frank Morgan; Charlie Rouse; David Murray; Arthue Blythe; Steve Lacy; Branford Marsalis; Michael Brecker; Grover Washington; Paquito D'Rivera; Pepper Adams; Archie Shepp; Herbie Hancock; Keith Jarrett; McCoy Tyner; Charles Brown; Jay McShann; Dr. John; Horace Silver; Les McCann; Joe Sample; Don Pullen; Barry Harris; Michel Petrucciani; Art Blakey; Max Roach; Mel Lewis; Tony Williams; Paul Motian; Steve Gadd; Richard Davis; Marcus Miller; Jon Hendricks; Betty Carter; Bobby McFerrin; Ken Nordine; Dave Frishberg; Donald Fagen; Mose Allison; Guitar: George Benson; John Scofield; Steve Khan; Larry Coryell & Emily Remler; Kevin Eubanks; Gil Evans; Carla Bley; Clare Fischer; Max Gordon; Rudy Van Gelder; Ben Sidran interviewed by Craig Werner.