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Bill Kirchner: Renaissance Man

By Published: February 23, 2004
AAJ: My next question was going to be: What led you to academia? But I can see with people like Martin Williams, it might seem natural.

BK: I don't really consider myself an academic. I've been teaching at the New School Jazz Program [New York City] as an adjunct for 10 years. But that's a couple of days a week. That's not a full-time position. At the New School Jazz Program there are about 70 of us who are adjuncts, including a lot of people who are very well known: Jimmy Owens, Benny Powell, Junior Mance, Reggie Workman (full-time), Joanne Brackeen and many others. We teach two or three courses a piece. But I really don't consider myself an academic.

AAJ: What led you to writing? Not compositions, but liner notes, essays. How did you get into that field?

BK: When I was studying with Lee Konitz when I was in college. I was like, 19. And Lee told me that Dan Morgenstern, who at the time was editing Downbeat, was looking for transcribed solos to publish. So I had a couple transcriptions of Warne Marsh solos. So he said 'Go take them to Dan.' So, I took then to Dan and he looked at them. Actually, he never ran them, for whatever reasons, but at the time I had just gone to a concert that Lee had played in. Just for the heck of it I had written a review of that concert and I showed it to Dan. And he liked it. So, that was the first thing I ever had in print, at the age of 19.

Then I started writing for the next few years for Downbeat and what was then called Radio Free Jazz, which later became Jazz Times, and Jazz magazine and the Washington Post. As of the late 70s, when my own music career began to take off, at that point I said 'I can't do this anymore.' Because I felt like it was too much. Writing record reviews and articles on people and stuff like that just felt like too much of a conflict of interest. Because you start to wonder. You have to be on the same bandstand with these people the next week or you're looking for gigs. And then you're wondering: is the club owner hiring me because I can play or because they think I can do something for them? So I just bagged all of that.

Then, fast forward to about the early 1990s. I started getting involved in jazz history-type projects. I got signed by the Smithsonian to do Big Band Renaissance, the five-CD box set of post-war Big Band recordings. I co-produced that and wrote the booklet. Then I started doing other liner note things and produced both reissues and new recordings and what have you. So I just kind of got back into that aspect of the business. But at the same time this was mostly concerned with jazz history projects. It felt like something I could do without feeling this kind of conflict of interest that I had felt years earlier. So that was my window back into that.

AAJ: Is that what you do most now, as far as the journalism side. More editing, compiling-type work?

BK: I do a lot of different type things. Producing, compiling, doing liner notes. Editing the Companion was a four-year project. But also I have my own music projects active as a composer, arranger, as a player, as an educator. Also, I've done four NPR hour-long jazz profiles on Johnny Mandel, Benny Carter, Artie Shaw and Bob Brookmeyer. So, I've kept my hand in a lot of different areas of the business.

And last summer I was in LA for a week. I was a composer-in-residence with the American Jazz Philharmonic for a week.

AAJ: How did the anthology thing come to be? I've read the Miles compilation [A Miles Davis Reader, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997] which I think is great. How did that kind of work, which is kind of what the Companion is also, come into being?

BK: About eight years ago, Lewis Porter had done a Lester Young reader for the Smithsonian. He had told me they were looking for someone to do a Miles reader. I said 'Well, I can do that.' So he put me in touch with the Smithsonian. I submitted a proposal to them and after some back and forth correspondence, we finally arrived at an agreement and off I went. From start to finish, that took about five years before it finally came out.

AAJ: What kind of insight would you say being a player and a trained musician gives you on the writing side? Has it helped?

BK: Oh yeah. It gives you a view from the inside. Because I've actually been on bandstands with a huge number of people. I've played with people ranging from Benny Carter and Doc Cheatham and Clarence Hutchenrider to Muhal Richard Abrams and Jane Ira Bloom. Plus all the things I've done as a leader with my nonet and my small groups, and as a composer and arranger. Just all this experience really gives you a hands-on feel. You know what it is to play with a group. You know what it feels like to write music and have people play it. Whatever other projects I do as a jazz historian or a producer or whatever. I've been there, done that. There's no substitution for that kind of experience.

AAJ: Having said that, do bad reviews get under your skin? Do you have a different perspective?

BK: Luckily, I've gotten very few bad reviews. Also, I know the field pretty well, as far as people writing their reviews. I know the people who know what they're talking about and the ones who don't. I understand the sources of the reviews better than a lot of people. Luckily, the press I've gotten over the years for whatever projects I've done, with rare exception, has been very good. So I've been lucky, I guess.

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