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Bill Kirchner: Renaissance Man

By Published: February 23, 2004
AAJ: How is the nonet coming? How much time do you get to do that, you seem so busy?

BK: Not enough. Part of the problem is it's harder than ever to get bookings.

AAJ: On the scene today there seems to be a lot of bickering lately about traditionalists versus those that want to stretch, people that hate the old fusion, people that think Wynton Marsalis and company are either right on the mark or way off the mark. What do see from the business side of the music industry right now?

BK: You got an hour? [Laughter]. It's very complicated. One thing we can say with certainty is that anyone who knows the slightest thing about jazz has an opinion about Wynton Marsalis. I think one problem that makes evaluating him very difficult is it's hard to separate his genuine accomplishments from the enormous amount of paid publicity that's been generated on his behalf. So I think as far as his standing ultimately in the course of jazz I think we're going to have to depend on the verdict of history for that.

AAJ: There's the school of thought that says those people are just digging up what's been done before and not doing anything new. I think that's a little harsh myself. The answer's probably somewhere in between.

BK: The ultimate goal of a jazz musician is to develop a personal voice. So has Wynton Marsalis developed a personal voice or not? It depends on whom you talk to. I think, frankly, that he displayed far more potential 20 years ago than he's actually realized. As a player and a composer, I don't think he's fully realized the potential that he had in either area. James Carville said something a few years ago. He said once you become famous your job is being famous. And I think Wynton Marsalis' job at this point is being famous.

AAJ: How about the whole school of neo-bop or whatever term you might want to put on it? Do you think these younger musicians should be trying to stretch more?

BK: It depends on who you're talking about. One problem is there are a number of young players who've gotten too much too soon, long before they've matured and long before they're ready to handle it. And some of them have already gone by the wayside.

AAJ: The press and the record contracts early on and then it fades out.

BK: Yeah. I was just reading an interview with Bob Belden in Jazz Times. He said something interesting. He said that the hardest thing for a jazz musician is 'What happens after you turn 40?' He's got a very good point. It ultimately comes down to staying power.

AAJ: Do you see any music out in the vanguard that you like? There's a lot of World Music influences now.

BK: Yeah. There are people out there that are doing it. I'm heartened to see Dave Douglas' success, for example. I've been really impressed with Ingrid Jensen. I think she's an extraordinarily talented player who's really developing a voice of her own. And I think a lot of what's going to be innovative in jazz is going to come about as a result of mixture with various kinds of World Music. Some of the freshest writing I've heard has been from Brazilians. People like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal. And there are various other kinds of world music. Music from Africa. Music from Asia. I think the Europeans are putting their own stamp on things now.

In the Jazz Companion, Mike Zwerin wrote an essay on jazz in Europe. He called jazz the real World Music. And I think he's got a very good point. It's being played and listened to all over the world. Everybody who's doing it is putting their own individual stamp on it. I think that's where the growth is really going to be coming from, from these various kinds of hybrids. And jazz has always been a hybrid. Jazz has been multicultural long before the term became a clich'.

AAJ: Let's get over to the book. It's massive. It must have been extremely daunting when you first got into it.

BK: Oh yeah.

AAJ: You said it took four years? And those are all fresh articles, correct?

BK: Absolutely. Everything was specially commissioned for the book.

AAJ: You spoke a little bit about it in your intro, but when you first looked at this mountain of a project, what did you think?

BK: Well, I thought it was doable. Until you have the actual experience of going through something like that, you have no idea what it's going to entail. But, actually I'm very pleased with the job that everybody did for me. Everybody displayed a high level of commitment and conscientiousness and I can truthfully say, as far as the essays in there, I don't think there's less than a first-rate one on the bunch.

AAJ: Was there anything you had to leave out?

BK: No. I decided on topics ahead of time and went for it. There are always more topics you could put in, but that's not the same as leaving something out. I decided the parameters up-front and just made the phone calls.

AAJ: What kind of process was that, deciding how it's going to be laid out and what it was going to cover?

BK: I basically just made a list of topics I thought should be in there. And then got some good suggestions from Sheldon Meyer at Oxford and from Dan Morgenstern and Gary Giddins. By the time I had gotten their suggestions I had a pretty good handle on what I thought needed to be in there.

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