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David Chesky: Making Music in the Moment

By Published: March 9, 2004

AAJ: It came off very well. The New York theme of the compositions, does that come from anything in particular?

DC: No. I just live in New York. But it is a very New York thing, because you have the uptown Latin feel, and you have the jazz players. We’re all New York musicians. We’ve lived here all our whole lives. I’ve known these guys since we were kids, you know? This is sort of like New York. It’s a blend of jazz, Latin and classical music. That’s the way New York is. It’s a big stew, Asians, Chinese, ethic everything. You walk down the street and you walk by Lincoln Center and you hear people on the street playing bongos, and you walk inside and hear an opera. That’s the thing about New York City, you hear all these kinds of music just walking around.

AAJ: How do you think this is going to go over. There’s a conservative group of people out there who like their jazz more standard, and there’s a group out there that maybe likes things more wild and free.

DC: I think it will go over well. All I know is I like it. You know something? Conservative is great, but the world goes on. Otherwise we would have never had Ellington. We’d be stuck with Scott Joplin, because people would say, “What is this Ellington?” And then you’d never have Dizzy.

People try to play post-Bach now, but you know, we’ve had 50 years to hear this. Imagine if we just walked into a club in Boston and heard Bird and Dizzy for the first time, after listening to Glen Miller. We’d probably say, “These guys are from Mars or something.” But now it’s not so strange. I believe music has to reflect its environment and time. That era is done. These guys did it. Miles and all those guys. They did it. Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Clifford Brown. It’s been done, and done fantastic. So I think younger players have to go forward.

I have a label, right? And we do Clark Terry. Clark plays in his style, because that’s Clark. We’re not asking Clark to do something different. That’s his thing. But for the new young people coming up, they’re not supposed to play like Clark. They’re supposed to take it to the next thing.

AAJ: Do you think they’re doing that, by and large?

DC: No. Everything today is so commercial oriented that people forget what it’s about. You hear all these singers today, it’s like torch son singers. You listen to the harmonies. It’s like you walked into a club 50 years ago. It’s the same changes. With the exception of a few people.

Our society has become so conservative. Look at the people who are doing the urban ghetto music, the rap thing. They’re reflecting their contemporary culture. Whether you like it or not; it’s different, it’s new and it reflects contemporary urban ghetto life. Jazz is supposed to do the same thing.

AAJ: You started out in Miami. From a musical family?

DC: No. Mom was a schoolteacher. She made everyone play music. She just thought it was good for discipline.

AAJ: You started playing pretty young?

DC: Age 5.

AAJ: What was the scene like down there?

DC: I left Miami before I got out of high school. Miami’s a great place if you want to go to the beach and chill. But the reality is New York is where it’s at for everything. For jazz, this is ground zero. That’s where I had to come, and at 17 I left.

AAJ: Who were your first influences in New York?

DC: I used to see Thad Jones. The Buddy Rich band. Oscar Peterson, when I was about 13 years old. But then I came to New York and just got on the scene, started writing and I had my big band, a Monday night rehearsal band. It was fun, great. One of the best times of my life. I always had a big band. We did a record for Columbia called Rush Hour. This was 1978, something like that.

From there I started getting into writing for television. I became an orchestrator, then I started my own label. The television thing was work for hire. Everybody did that in those days. TV shows, jingles, anything. That’s where you made your living. Jazz paid you nothing, so in the daytime you were a studio musician. That’s where you’d really learn because every day you did something different.

AAJ: Who are your influences as a composer?

DC: I like Strauss. I like Stravinsky. The French composers. All those guys. Most of my work is in the classical area. I enjoy both. There are two musics: good and bad. I don’t look down on jazz for being jazz. It’s great. Sometimes I play drums in the park and some of those African guys are like those guys at the Philharmonic. It’s just a different thing. They play these polyrhythms and I sit there and can’t comprehend how they know what they’re doing. Because if you wrote that stuff up and had great players look at it, they’d be baffled.

There’s all kinds of great music. There’s just different styles. We tend, in this country, to be very elitist about music that’s in a symphonic hall.

The other day I went to one of Giovanni’s workshops, the conga player in my band. He just sat there alone and played and this guy is like Heifitz. He’s just playing congas. But nobody can do what he does. Nobody. He’s a great musician. Phenomenal. And I’m humbled by all of it.

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