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Bill Kirchner: Renaissance Man

By Published: February 23, 2004
AAJ: It touches on individual instruments and styles and some of the important folks over the years. Was it intended to be a jazz history?

BK: It's intended to be, basically, a survey of 100 years worth of music. There's a lot of history involved in it, of course. So, do I call it a history book? Well in part, yes, but not exclusively. It's intended to be a book that could be picked up by anybody, ranging from somebody who's an absolute novice to someone who's extremely knowledgeable. And I think there's information in there that anybody can benefit by. No matter what your level of expertise is, you're going to learn quite a bit from reading this book.

AAJ: But you're not trying to cover every base'like: this happened, then that happened, and this person and that person'

BK: Well, you cover as much as you can within the parameters of the book. There's no way that everything can be covered, but I think the amount that we did cover is very, very substantial. You can learn quite a bit about the usual suspects, but there's quite a bit of other people in there who are less well-known who get covered as well. Just to pick one example, Joel E. Siegel's essay on singers, 'Between Blues and Bebop,' he talked about some well-known singers, but he also talked about people like Valaida Snow or Annette Hanshaw, whom you seldom read about. In the miscellaneous instruments category, Christopher Washburne deals with a lot of people who are pretty obscure, but who made important contributions and that's true throughout the book.

AAJ: I like the idea of going into the separate instruments, because they all have a lineage and a history. If you talk to somebody who's a trombone player, they know. A saxophonist, they can tell you from Coleman Hawkins on through. I thought that was a nice way to approach the topic of jazz. It doesn't necessarily start from Year One and come up; it starts from the instruments themselves and how they fit in.

BK: Absolutely. There are concurrent threads running throughout the book. There are individual bios of people. There are chronological topics, then there are the instruments. And also dealing with separate scenes, such as Japan, or Africa, or Europe, or Canada, or Australia, or Brazil. There are different threads running throughout the book, often in several different ways.

AAJ: I particularly enjoyed one comment in your intro about thanking the inventor of e-mail.

BK: Oh god, yes. I don't know how I would have gotten this book without e-mail. People would send me their drafts, then I would get back to them with comments, they would incorporate the comments and send me another draft. Sometimes that would do it. Sometimes there would be additional comments or something. If it hadn't been for e-mail, this would have been 10 times as laborious a process as it actually was.

AAJ: I don't think you would have ever slept.

BK: Uh-uh. That, or it would have taken a helluva lot longer. Because I was dealing with people all over the world.

AAJ: You mentioned the Miles book took five years and this one four. Was that a factor? Back when you did the Miles book you didn't have that kind of communication.

BK: There are various reasons. With the Miles book, it was an anthology of previously published stuff, so I had to go through the extremely laborious process and tedious and time-consuming process of getting permissions to re-print. Some of those took seemingly forever. With this [The Companion], it was starting from scratch. I would go to people and say, 'Write this and send it in. Once it's OK, you get paid.' End of story. I had much more control over the process with this one. I didn't have to go looking for permissions from people.

AAJ: The response was good from the people you asked?

BK: Yeah. I didn't get turned down by many people. Fewer than I expected. I was very happy with the affirmative responses that I got.

AAJ: Anyone you were surprised you were able to enlist?

BK: No, not really. There were some people I didn't know before. A lot of the people I did know before, to varying degrees. There were some people I was meeting for the first time. Somebody like Mike Zwerin, I'd been reading his writings for years, but that was the first time we met. There were a few others like that, and then there were a few people who were recommended to me by other contributors. I was just happy to get everybody that I got.

AAJ: So you're obviously pleased with the product.

BK: Yes, very.

AAJ: It's huge, but I think it will make an impression on people. So today, are you a composer, arranger, writer, historian?

BK: All of the above. Composer, arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, jazz historian, record producer, radio producer, educator. Partly that's by choice, partly that's by necessity. I mean, unless you're one of the anointed few who gets the fat record contracts and the promotional pushes and all the lucrative bookings, it's what one must do to make a living as a jazz musician. There are a number of people I know who have taken similar paths for similar reasons. Richard Sudhalter, Bob Belden, Loren Schoenberg, Kenny Washington, myself and others. We've all taken these multifarious paths, and that's part of what you've got to do to make a living as a jazz musician in the beginning of the 21st Century.

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