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Eight Questions for Skip Heller

By Published: March 12, 2004
I've always been under the impression that the idea of playing music for people was to communicate an idea or a mood to them. To get your idea across, you really have to deal with music as a language that the audience speaks. I've heard certain musicians'whose abilities I'd kill for' get so far into a variant of the language that's only spoken by musicians. The only people who speak that dialect are on the bandstand. The people who paid ten bucks to hear the band aren't really being included. The music never makes it out into the room where the audience is. It's just up there on the bandstand and it never gets out to the audience. You're playing in front of them, not to them.

When you play the music so it gets off the bandstand, so that the audience feels like they're being addressed and communicated to, they start sending some energy back up to the bandstand, and the band plays that energy back to the musicians, and that's when the magic stuff happens. The dialogue is between everyone in the whole place and not just the guys on stage trying to outdo one another.

5. What is you philosophy regarding playing 'standards?'

I've heard great musicians take standard songs and make them totally unrecognizable. If you walked in after the band had played the melody, you'd have no idea what the tune was. I mean, if you're that sick of 'Green Dolphin Street' that'immediately after stating the melody'you stay away from any reference to the tune that a member of the audience could trace, you're probably sick of playing 'Green Dolphin Street'. Why do you want an audience to sit through you playing music you're sick of?

Maybe you could play some other tunes. There are worlds of other tunes out there that are wonderful vehicles for playing jazz on. Tunes that haven't been played into the ground, but tunes that an audience can get inside of and that still have some blood in 'em for the players. And tunes that sit well with the tradition, which is a huge tradition that includes so many wonderful threads.

6. Relate the elements of what I call Skip Heller's 'Holy Trinity' of Louis Armstrong, John Hartford, and Merle Haggard (adding Benny Goodman as St. Peter)

Pops played music that'no matter how advanced'it included everyone who listened. 'Weather Bird' or 'West End Blues' were really seriously progressive performances, and still are. He's totally out on the edge of the music'even more than Bird or Trane would be, because Pops pretty much invented the role of the jazz soloist. He also invented the means by which that role was to be fulfilled, which we're still living by'but what he's playing never sounds like some intellectual trying to be 'outside', even though all this chromaticism is being introduced and rhythms are being displaced. He takes everyone out to that edge with him. It's non-elitist innovation.

There's that part at the end of the movie Office Space where the evil corporate headquarters burns down, and the music has to indicate that the clouds have lifted and happiness is once again in the hands of the little guy. So what music do they choose? Pops''All That Meat And No Potatoes' from Satch Plays Fats'The Music of Fats Waller. Whenever you want the sound of everything that ever personified the love for mankind, you go to Pops or Big Joe Turner.

John Hartford was very similar to Louis Armstrong. His humor was more overt, but he was a brilliant improviser, full of drive and ideas, kind of the Sonny Rollins of bluegrass. His album AEREO PLAIN was the first album I ever had where I really noticed interactive improvising. It wasn't just about solos. It was about empathy and response in the ensemble. I'm lucky I heard that when I was young. It gave me a good value system early on. Plus, Vassar Clement's fiddle solos on the record had a jazz attitude about them, and I think his playing really helped open my ear to that.

As for Hag'aside from his being probably our greatest pure country singer and songwriter'I always loved the dignity he afforded the people that he sang about and the respect he gave his audience. His songs were about guys in my family's income bracket' like that depicted in the TV show Roseanne. The Conners were a lot like my family. If the Darlene character had been a son and the Dan character (John Goodman) wasn't funny, that would be like my family. Merle Haggard's lyrics spoke about people and places that guys like my father knew up close, that my whole family knew up close. So to have songs that reflected that without romanticizing it out of proportion meant something to me. I wouldn't call these guys a trinity. I don't really unite them. However, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley is another story.

7. You once told me that you were a huge fan of the WNBA and that Los Angeles Women's Professions Basketball Team offered a great example or your own philosophy of performing.

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