A Fireside Chat With Lew Tabackin
“ It was a cynical approach when you try to think of ?art? music as something that is a candy bar or breakfast cereal. It doesn?t make any sense. This is why jazz was better off with smaller labels. Large companies don?t know what to do with it. ”
Tabackin is most widely known for his collaborations with wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, but Tabackin is a terrific player and proof is in the pudding (e.g. Desert Lady with Hank Jones and Dave Holland, or his rhapsodic rendition of 'I Wished on the Moon' on What a Little Moonlight Can Do, or Ella worthy 'But Not for Me' off his In a Sentimental Mood release). Our, the collective our, inability to recognize and more importantly appreciate artist like Tabackin is the tragedy of the times we live in, which is often why I bow my head in shame, most days. But enough about me. Folks, may I present Lew Tabackin, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
LEW TABACKIN: I started out on the flute and when I was fifteen, I decided I wanted to play the tenor. Once I started playing the saxophone, I really started to get interested in music. Before that, it wasn't that important to me. From that point, I started to really try to make up for lost time because I felt that I started late. I picked up the tenor and within an hour, I had a sound and a concept that was quite respectable. It didn't take me very long. I started going to jam sessions and playing and one thing lead to another and I just went with it and never turned back. It's like the old Lester Young quotation. Lester Young was the drummer in his family band and he decided he wanted to switch to another instrument and they took him to a shop and he picked up the tenor and he said, 'When I put the horn in my mouth, I knew the bitch was for me.' It is kind of a similar thing. I had an empathy for the saxophone, for the tenor saxophone. It was fairly natural.
LT: At the time, it was the very beginning, but Philadelphia, for some reason, there was a lot of interest in Al Cohn and I had some of his records and that was probably my first influence. There was a guy who lived next door to me in Philadelphia who had a record collection and I started to listen to some of his stuff, but Al Cohn was my first guy.
FJ: The historical significance of Philly jazz, due in part to John Coltrane, has had considerable weight.
LT: Oh, yeah, one of the few things that was good about Philadelphia was there was a very strong jazz music scene. After I started playing the saxophone for a few months, I started to go and try and sit in in a lot of jam sessions and they were fairly tolerant of novices. The better players, the more experienced players would be encouraging. There were the jazz coffee shops where we could play and experiment and then move on to second tier jazz clubs. It was OK. I was still going to school when all this was happening. It was a good place to get started. There were a lot of great, local musicians to listen to.
FJ: Who mentored your development?
LT: Oh, boy, Fred, I haven't thought about that. I think it was more of a collective thing. It was more of peers discussing the latest discoveries and then you can kind of relay your own experiences. It was more like a peer group situation. When I was twenty, I decided I wanted to know more about the history of my instrument and at that time, I was kind of a Coltrane clone and I figured it was counterproductive to emulate someone. It was a dead end, so there was a trombone player who had a large record collection and he let me listen to many great players and it opened my ears up. It opened my whole concept and so I began to find my identity through understanding the tradition.
FJ: Tradition can also become a burden.
LT: I don't think that tradition is ever a burden. I think tradition is an asset because nothing comes out of nowhere. Anything of value doesn't just come out of nowhere. Charlie Parker didn't come out of nowhere. Even Ornette Coleman, who was a revolutionary in a sense, didn't come out of nowhere. We all carry the tradition. It is just how you absorb the tradition and make it yours. You find your voice through absorbing the tradition and the more you know, the more you have absorbed, the more you can create. When I was very young, I used to say that I was going to try something really different and see if I could be the next great innovator and it didn't take long to realize that that was not the way to go. Innovation is something that comes out of an evolution. It is more of an evolving thing than a radical thing. That is how I feel about it. The players that hit me are usually the players that actually understand the tradition. There are a lot of 'avant-garde' musicians that dabble in the tradition and they usually screw it up and they haven't really worked hard enough at understanding where everything comes from.
FJ: When did you begin your collaborations with Toshiko Akiyoshi?
LT: We met in '67. I was playing in Clark Terry's band. It was kind of an all-star band that I got into. I was one of the few un-all-stars. I was in the band and Toshiko was subbing for the regular pianist, Don Friedman, and she was looking for a tenor player to play her concert. She had Joe Farrell and Joe couldn't do it and then she heard me and said that I was the guy she wanted for her Town Hall concert. So that is how we met. The strange part about it is that I didn't do her concert. I went to California with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn't make her concert, but I guess she didn't hold it against me too badly. Once in a while, she brings it up even to this day. Toshiko has an elephant's memory when it comes to stuff like that. Anyway, it is kind of a joke. It has been an ongoing joke for all these years. Later on, she had some small group gigs and she called me to do and we had some projects that we did and that is how we started out. The first gigs that I did with her, there were no arrangements involved. We just played. But then, she wrote a lot of music for her trios in the old days and then she started to write some quartet music. In fact, we used to get together fairly regularly with rhythm sections and she would bring in some arrangements that we would play. Eventually, we did a recording with the quintet with Kenny Dorham, where she wrote most of the music.
In a way, some of the stuff in the big band is an extension of that. So she is very compositional. I think she always was. When she was a trio player, she was very compositional. She listened to a lot of Bud Powell and he was too. His compositions are quite remarkable. The big band thing was basically, almost an accident. When she did the Town Hall concert in '67 that I didn't make, she wrote three or four arrangements for big band and the concert consisted of solo, duo, trio, big band, something like that. So when we moved to Los Angeles in '72, people were calling me to play in their rehearsal bands and most of them were pretty boring and I just didn't find them interesting. So I just offhandedly mentioned to Toshiko that I knew she had a few charts that she wrote for the concert, maybe I would get some guys together and we would just play for fun. We started rehearsing at the musicians union in Los Angeles, Local 47. I think in those days, it was fifty cents and hour or three hours. I don't remember, but it was nothing. We started doing it and we had all kinds of people come in and out of the band. Some guys couldn't relate to the music and other considered it a challenge. We kept on doing it. It was ten in the morning on Wednesdays. It was quite interesting. She started to write more stuff and before you knew it, we had music to play and we started to get the personnel that made sense and that was the beginning. But it was never meant to be a real working band. It was just something to do like a workshop. It snowballed. You are in Los Angeles right, Fred?
FJ: I am.
LT: We used to play at the Ice House in Pasadena and we used to play for the door. We would go out there once a week and play and it was really bad. We didn't get hardly any money. We divided it up and it would come to two, three dollars a piece, so I would always chip in a few more dollars. We used to do that and it was pretty interesting. We decided that we should put on a concert because everybody's been donating their time and we should do something. So we rented the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and we gave our first concert in '73. In fact, Shelly Manne did the gig with us because our regular drummer was playing with some singer, Olivia Newton-John or one of these people, somebody silly like that. So I asked Shelly and Shelly was rehearsing and he did the concert and we produced it ourselves and that was the first thing. A Japanese record producer who was mostly a classical music person, he recorded the band and we made our first album called Kogun. We recorded it to eight track in a rather small studio and the budget was really low, but the music was really interesting and it came out quite well. It was a big hit in Japan. It sold 30,000 copies almost immediately. It was the biggest serious jazz music hit, if you want to call it a hit. It sounds kind of stupid, but it was successful. That was very important. It was a fusion of Japanese sounds and American jazz. It was early world music in a sense. It was the first type of Asian/jazz fusion was recorded with our big band.
FJ: As a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, I am curious as to what prompted you to leave for New York?
LT: (Laughing) Well, you have to know the reason why I left New York. I really loved New York, but in the early Seventies, I was playing some gigs with Doc Severinsen and he offered me work in Los Angeles when the show moved. The show had moved to L.A., the Tonight Show. New York was very strange because there was almost like a Black revolution happening. Martin Luther King was assassinated earlier and Malcolm X and it was very difficult for white jazz musicians. It was really tough and I respected it and I understood it and I didn't have any bitterness, but I remember Duke Pearson was trying to get me a contract with Blue Note and they weren't interested in white musicians. It was rough.
I felt that a move to Los Angeles might bring more opportunities in a sense. So that is why we moved. The reason we left was basically my fault. I felt disconnected with the jazz community. Los Angeles is more of a commercial industry. Music is more industrial, TV and movies, a lot of studio work. The jazz scene was relatively small and I felt like I wanted to get back to New York and get closer to my roots in a sense. Its proximity to Europe is better and I left that for my next level of development, I had to return to New York. I gained a lot in Los Angeles. When we moved to Los Angeles, Toshiko, she was pretty much out of the music scene. She was pretty much resigned to the fact that she wasn't going to be that active. The band started and one thing led to another as you know and she got more and more involved and that was really great for her and it was great for me in a sense because when I was in New York, I was involved in everyone else's projects. I played in so many bands at the same time, but I never focused on my own thing. In Los Angeles, I felt that I had to make an attempt to create my own little world, which I did. I had groups with Billy Higgins and various bass players. I was part of Shelly Manne's quartet. There were some wonderful things that happened and it forced me to find out who I was because I had to create my own identity, so the ten years we spent in L.A. were quite important. But I felt like I had to get back to a certain energy that I missed in New York.
FJ: Does Los Angeles lack that vibe?
LT: Well, it is not a real city. It is not an urban reality, at least most of it. The weather is nice and people are generally more relaxed. In New York, it is survival of the fittest. It creates a certain kind of urban intensity that doesn't exist in Los Angeles. There are extremes on both sides. There was a period where the music in New York was over-intense. In Los Angeles, there is a tendency to be more relaxed. I remember when I first moved to L.A., I brought in a trio to Dante's and it was crowded and we started playing and by the end of the first set, the place was almost empty. There were only a few musicians left and I thought I was playing what I thought was normal, straight-ahead.
I realized that the people were uncomfortable with what I was doing. People preferred a more relaxed approach to music, so my first experience was quite interesting. At times, I would get on the bandstand with other groups and I felt like when I played, the band became something different. I didn't feel quite comfortable and it took a while. I remember Billy Higgins came over to my house, Billy Higgins and John Heard and we played in studio and it felt so great. I realized that Billy Higgins got me on track in a sense. That is not a costal thing. Maybe I needed to play with a great drummer. There is an intensity gap between the West and the East, although things are changing. A lot of the younger musicians are now almost becoming more European in their approach. That is another development. I guess the dynamics are always changing. I felt at that time that there was quite a difference.
FJ: These are curious times, a time where an artists like yourself is in commercial limbo.
LT: Well, I recorded four albums for Concord and the last one was five or six years ago and the company just basically changed direction. The industry, it is really hard to describe, I can't worry about it. The only reason why I worry about it is because if I had some more product, then I could be working more. It is not an economic thing. My philosophy is basically the concept of in becoming. It is the process that is important, so I am in the process of being a jazz musician or saxophonist or flautist. I am in the process. The more I play, the better I get, the more I can express and the closer I can get to reaching my potential. I get frustrated because I would like to have some product out which would lead to more playing. I can't dwell on it. I try my best to create my own little world and I create my world on my own terms. I don't really allow myself to worry about what is fashionable or where the general direction is going. I have to develop my own little thing, my own little world. That is where all my energy is. I am a hundred percent involved in that. As I get older, I am not less involved in it. I am maybe more involved.
FJ: Is jazz a casualty of the times we live in?
LT: I think everything is a casualty of the times. I think that jazz, maybe twenty years ago, years go by so fast, I am not good with chronology, but there was a decision quite a few years ago to try and treat jazz like pop music and raise the expectations of the record companies. That is when music started to become watered down and terms like 'crossover' and 'fusion.' A little bit more recently, the powers that be, not being too successful, decided that the demographics, everybody is reaching for young audiences, which I think is a fallacy, but the idea would be to reach young audiences, you have to record young, attractive musicians. That was the beginning of the end because they were picking out all these talents before they were ripe and creating toy jazz, a regurgitation of what went down before and not nearly as good. It is still not commercial enough for the young people and the older people, they can buy reissues or listen to their old records. They tried to go after a young audience and it was a total failure.
It was a cynical approach when you try to think of 'art' music as something that is a candy bar or breakfast cereal. It doesn't make any sense. This is why jazz was better off with smaller labels. Large companies don't know what to do with it. They spend too much money. They try to approach it the same way they approach pop music and it doesn't work. I read an interesting thing the other day. This girl, Norah Jones, who I must confess, I have never heard, shows you how connected I am, but it said something like, 'she is very successful because older people seemed to relate to her and older people don't know how to download.' I've been thinking for a long time that it is a shame that record companies would think about creating product for mature people because it seems to me that people over forty, fifty, sixty, seventy have a lot more economic power, but I guess they are looking to develop new customers. It is silly thinking. That is my theory on one of the problems with jazz music and now that the whole scene is in trouble and the whole world is in trouble.
FJ: Is the climate for jazz warmer in Japan?
LT: Japan was really jumping. They had a bubbly economy and there was a great interest in jazz music, mainly from young people. Another thing happened. I have all these theories on why things fail I guess. The bubble economy was happening in Japan and there was a tremendous amount of discretionary income from business people. Jazz clubs opened up, a lot of large scale jazz clubs opened up and they were hiring musicians from America and the management and musicians were getting a tremendous amount of money. They were getting maybe four or five times what they would get in America and the club has to charge a hundred, a hundred and twenty-five dollars a set, which drove away the young people. Young people couldn't afford it and so you have clubs patronized by businessmen and the younger people moved in other directions and so we lost a lot of the younger people because of that whole economic interaction that existed. Now that the bubble has burst, the situation has changed. I go there and I do basically a grassroots tour. I call people and I bring my little group and play in small clubs and small concert halls for money that is workable, but nothing that is extraordinary. That was the way it used to be before the Japanese economy swelled. We used to go and play in small towns and the young people would be in tears, they were so moved by the music and it went from that to becoming big business and now it is trying to readjust in some way.
FJ: We live in strange times and how tragically ironic that Hiroshima was composed with a theme of peace in mind and now we see ourselves on the brink of war.
LT: Well, it is pretty interesting. We recorded quite a bit. The big band has recorded a fair amount of stuff that hasn't come out in America. We recorded for a company called BMG, which is associated with RCA. We recorded for Japanese BMG and America BMG wouldn't release our stuff because for some reason, they didn't think it was marketable, which really was. The few albums that we recorded for them was quite accessible. The Hiroshima thing was done and it has come out in America on a small label and it was obviously, the least commercial thing that has been releases in America. I think it is quite ironic that it is so appropriate today. Toshiko was commissioned to write this and that is some heavy stuff. She didn't know if she could do it and she has done some strong stuff. But then she found something beautiful and tried to base the piece on hope in a sense. That is the only way she could deal with it. I don't know if you can imagine, Fred, but it was a live recording and was done on the anniversary of the bomb dropping and it was done in Hiroshima. You can imagine how heavy that situation was. It was a lot of stuff to deal with. It was quite a moving experience. I don't know if you noticed, but she used a Korean traditional flautist.
FJ: I did.
LT: She did that for two reasons. One, because the sound is really incredible. It is a very special sound. It doesn't exist anywhere else, definitely, not in Japanese music. It is a very expressive sound. And also, there were a lot of Koreans who were killed by the Hiroshima bomb because they were working in the factories. There were a lot of Korean victims, so she felt it was important on two levels to utilize that voice. We played in Korea a couple of times and we met this flautist and he was like the main guy in Korea for traditional Korean music. So that was important. She also involved a Japanese drummer, George Kawaguchi and of course, there was the young girl who did the narration. The whole thing was quite extraordinary. We live in a strange society. People don't really listen to music. Everything is background music. People just don't approach the oral experience for what it is. They listen to this when they eat and listen to this when they read. I hope people actually take the time and effort to listen to the music and hear what she is trying to express.
FJ: Any tour dates?
LT: This year, we are doing better than last year. This year is our thirtieth anniversary of the band. It started in '73 as I mentioned. We have a concert in Detroit Symphony Hall and from there, we will be at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. We did two pieces for Lincoln Center. We will be touring Japan. This year, there is a little bit more activity. Last year, we didn't do much. I forgot the mention the main thing. We are giving a concert at Carnegie Hall on October 17 to celebrate the anniversary. I am going to the other extreme. I have been working with my trio. It is an international jazz trio. I have a Russian bassist, Boris Kozlov, who has done recordings with the Mingus Big Band and a drummer, who I have been working with for twenty years from England, Mark Taylor. We have been working on that project. In fact, I will be at the Jazz Bakery starting July 22 for five nights. Ruth was kind enough to give us five nights. I am trying to get a little West Coast tour going. I have a new CD that came out in Japan. I am trying to get involved with doing some stuff with small dance companies. I am trying to find ways to be more expressive and reach a larger audience without doing anything stupid. I am trying to develop little projects and trying to keep my music as pure as possible.