Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
Billboard Books, 1998
0-8230-7833-7 As a reporter, part of writing a good profile piece is knowing when to step out of the way to let your subject shine through. Let the person you're writing about speak for him or herself. Let the cadence of your subject's voice, or the choice of his or her words show the reader what this person is all about.
The purest form of this is the Q&A piece. When you've got a great subject and a great conversation between subject and reporter, such interviews can be memorable. Jann Wenner's marathon "Lennon Remembers" Q&A session in Rolling Stone stands out for me as one of the most fascinating pieces of music journalism ever published.
The risk, however, comes when the conversation is dull. Consequently, so is the piece.
The Q&A piece is so overdone, and so often done poorly, that I'm strongly skeptical when I encounter one of them. Probably a holdover from my journalism school days, when my professors wisely forbade students from using the format until we'd learned that there's a heck of lot more to reporting than simply asking questions willy nilly and jotting down the answers.
But Bill Milkowski, who jazz readers will know from his reviews and articles in Jazz Times, Downbeat, Musician and other publications, knows what questions to ask.
There are several captivating conversations in "Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries," a collection of 30 Q&As with folks ranging from Keith Richards to Joe Henderson. It's an interesting mix.
Not all of it stands out as special. For example, Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis say pretty much what you'd expect them to. But there are some nice conversations with people who are rarely interviewed, including Henderson and John Zorn.
There are some colorful moments, too. Bootsy Collins recounts how James Brown drafted him and his teenage cronies into service as a last minute backup band after the regular JBs mutinied before a benefit show. Tony Williams spits venom at Stanley Crouch. Dr. John talks of coming up in New Orleans. But most colorful, and entertaining of all is organist Jimmy Smith, who between profanities talks about an upcoming session with some young hip hop-jazz musicians:
Smith: ... I'm doing a rap thing with the Plus three. Milkowski: Plus Three? S: We Three? M: You mean Us3? S: Well, somebody's damn three.
I was most entertained, however, by the conversation Milkowski had with session guitarist Robert Quine, who's played with Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet, Tom Waits, John Zorn and others. Though I've enjoyed his playing on a lot of records, I didn't know a lot about Quine, and I was impressed by his musical knowledge and open ears. He's equally at home talking about Skip James, James Burton, Django Reinhardt, Eric Dolphy, Chuck Berry and Richard Hell. It's nice to see him get some attention.
Most of the interviews date from the mid to late 1980s and early 90s (which explains the inclusion of such Reagan/Bush-era bores as Billy Gibbons [ZZ Top] and Joe Satriani). However, Milkowski has introduced each piece with prose that puts the interview into context and tells us what the artist profiled has been up to in recent years.
I'll be PC for a moment and say that it's disappointing and a huge oversight that Milkowski didn't include any pieces about female artists. But, that aside, this is a fun book.