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Mort Weiss: Sets Sail With Clarinet

By Published: December 18, 2006

Every note you hit, you're going down a certain road. You paint yourself in a corner sometimes and you have to work your way out of it. Even Bird did. Everybody does it.

Mort WeissThe world of jazz seems to be ever changing. It accepts change, with new modes of expression, new influences, new players spawned from the long lineage of musicians who created and followed an fused the great American art form over the last century

But some things don't change, and one of those is that a player who's proven himself is a player. Period. Circumstances and situations may get in the way; they may delay. Sometimes situations, bad ones, have even done people in. But a player is a player, is a player.

Enter Mort Weiss, a West Coast clarinetist who, over the last few years, has produced some bitchin' recordings, exhibiting a biting, aggressive tone and spirit of adventure that is opening eyes and ears. It's influenced by his idol, Buddy DeFranco, and the boppers of the 1940s, but different than some of the cats out there—Ken Peplowski, Don Byron, et al. He's 71 and has only been on the scene for about five years, but two of his latest discs, The B3 and Me (SMS Jazz, 2006) and Mort Weiss Meets Sam Most (SMS Jazz, 2006), show him in fine form with some of the heavyweights of jazz—the former featuring none other than organ wizard Joey DeFrancesco and the latter, obviously, featuring Most, whose reputation on flute and saxophone precedes him (though it may be time for some to rediscover him).

Okay. Correcting a little misnomer: "Only on the scene for about five years. It's actually a return to the scene. You see, Mort Weiss has been playing clarinet since he was nine, back in the mid-1940s. A guy who incessantly practiced—including carrying the instrument around with him when he drove a taxicab at night through Hollywood and adjoining areas of Southern California, practicing on the cabstand when waiting for fares—he was a player then.

And he's a player now. Just listen to the recordings that also include his first, No Place to Hide (SMS Jazz, 2002), with guitarist Ron Escheté; The Three of Us (SMS Jazz, 2004), with Escheté and bassist Dave Carpenter; The Four of Us: Live at Steamers (SMS Jazz, 2005), and The Mort Weiss Quartet (SMS Jazz, 2003), also with DeFrancesco on the B3.

Weiss' playing, by his own admission as well as to listeners' ears, has grown better and better, and his latest two discs, Meets Sam Most and B3 And Me are testament to a man who understands his instrument, as well as the language of jazz. Both bands cook. The excitement is palpable and Weiss is rightfully excited about the music. Listen to him burning with DeFrancesco on "Ornithology or sailing along effortlessly over the organ comps on "Falling In Love With Love, showing his grasp of harmony. The session is a gem of mainstream jazz. With Most, recorded live at Steamers Jazz Club and Café, the horn players are simpatico, both capable of cooking, swinging, and beautiful balladry, ably supported by Escheté, drummer Roy McCurdy and bassist Luther Hughes.

"We've never rehearsed one song on any of those dates, says Weiss. "Any time you hear something from me, it's all pure, extemporaneous jazz, man, made up on the spot. And there are warts, a lot of warts. But I've left all the warts in. I got into sailing quite heavily in my life when I wasn't playing. There's an analogy I thought of from jazz to sailing: It's a series of corrections. You can't sail in a straight line. You have to make adjustments with every little puff of wind that comes along. The same with jazz. Every note you hit, you're going down a certain road. You paint yourself in a corner sometimes and you have to work your way out of it. Even Bird did. Everybody does it. That's the brilliance of the guys that worked their way out of it and go down a different road. That's what separates the legends from the wannabes.

Indeed.

"I'm not a legend. Far from it. I have a few more years before I become a legend. I have the date on my calendar, the quick-witted and congenial clarinetist says with a chuckle. "You have to forgive me, I was in a penitentiary.

True enough. Troubles with alcohol and drugs are what caused the long hiatus for Weiss. He wasn't incapacitated for that time. Far from it. But it pushed him away from music. Thankfully, he's back. The world could use his musicianship and his infectious good nature and genuine good spirit.

"I've always felt that I had something musical to say. It was a great sadness to walk away from it. But you don't fool around with it. If you quit smoking, you quit smoking. That's why I never touched the instrument (during his hiatus), he says matter-of-factly. "But as I got older and I felt that I had something to say, for my own ego I wanted the world to know that I passed through here. We all have that feeling. What's it all about Alfie? I knew if I could line myself up with some heavyweights...

The Weiss saga started with him taking classical lessons as a youngster. He was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to the Los Angeles area where he's been based since (currently in San Clemente). Among his teachers was Antonio Remondi, a clarinetist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. During his years in high school, he was a Dixieland fan. His reputation got around and appeared as a soloist in a number of live TV performances and playing in local bands. Among the groups he played with was the Freddie Martin Orchestra with singer Merv Griffin. It also had Frank Morgan on alto sax.

"There was a resurgence of Dixieland in 1947 and I loved Dixieland, and still do. A friend said, 'Did you ever hear this?' It was Jazz at the Philharmonic (Verve, 1994). Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, playing "Perdido. It just knocked me out. Then there were two guys at the high school where I went and they said, 'You gotta hear this.' It was Bird. For about fifteen seconds I had no idea what I was listening to. It was like music from another planet. All of a sudden I understood what was happening. It was an epiphany. It screwed up my life. I was instantly hooked.

"They didn't have all these play-along jazz records like they have today. I practiced. I was studying with the second clarinetist with the LA Philharmonic [Remondi]. He knew, and I knew, that I wasn't going to be a classical clarinetist, but the chops were there. I used to practice three and four hours a day as a kid. Then listen to all the Buddy DeFranco I could, which was on MGM Records. Then he came to town and my parents took me to see him. The rhythm section was Art Blakey [drums], Curley Russell, bass, and Sonny Clark on piano and Buddy. Even today, that's insane. That's what I wanted to do with my life, says Weiss.

He practiced intensely to pick up the nuances of the new music and become proficient in the language of bebop. DeFranco was his main man, but he also listened to everyone around, Lester Young, San Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. But he was drafted into the Army in 1954, where he played tenor sax in an Army band. After that, he kept up with the sax for some time, leaving the behind the clarinet.

"I was working Vegas and all that with the tenor sax on shows and so on. Nobody hired clarinet players in jazz then, and they don't today. The instrument fell out of vogue when Bird hit the scene. The clarinet doesn't lend itself, says Weiss. "Buddy DeFranco, who I have a phone relationship these days, I'm happy to say; he's always been my hero. He said you have to abuse the clarinet to play jazz on it. You have three-and-a-half working octaves and every note is fingered different in every octave. It didn't lend itself. It was the antithesis. In the swing era in jazz it was like rock guitar today. Then they did a 180- degree turn when Bird hit it, harmonically and rhythmically.

Weiss never took a lesson on sax, but took to it well. Though his heart was with the clarinet, "my bucks were made with tenor sax. He still practiced clarinet like hell, including in the taxi. "I'd sit there at two o'clock in the morning in a 1958 Plymouth with no heat, practicing, man. When I look back, talk about obsessive compulsiveness, which one has to have. But he's proud of it. At the funeral of a friend about a year ago, "somebody came up to me and said, 'You're the guy we used to see always carrying a clarinet.' That's right. Sometimes I was locked out of where I lived because I didn't pay the rent, but I always carried the clarinet with me. Kind of a sad story now I think about it, he says with a soft chuckle. "Phew! But I did learn how to play some ballads, though. I wouldn't recommend the school to anybody.

The "school, was the school of hard knocks.

"I got into the thing with the drinking and the pill taking and the whole shot, man. Psychologically, my life just went into the toilet like almost everybody goes. I didn't handle it very well. I ended up literally in a padded cell, Weiss says without pity or sadness. It was what it was. And he's past it.

"Standing in a padded cell in downtown Los Angeles in the police building, it ain't joy, brother. I'm standing there naked in a padded cell in the '60s, all of a sudden I had this epiphany. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I would call it some sort of a religious experience. I said, 'You know, Mort? You're doing something wrong.' [laughs] It caught my attention. 'I think I better make a 180-degree course change.' And that was the beginning. I put the horns down, everything down.

"I put it down when I was thirty years old. I was consuming like a fifth of vodka day, if I had the money. If not, it would be cheap wine. Three packs of Salems, and about 25 grams of Benzedrine. Cocaine wasn't available then, thank goodness. I never stuck a needle in my arm because I knew I would like it. I didn't need that.

Weiss took a job in a large chain of retail music stores, Willach's Music City, whose owner Glenn Wallich started Capitol Records. He worked as a clerk for fourteen years until it went out of business. Then Weiss opened his own store, the Sheet Music Shoppe. He eventually owned a group of stores, but has sold them off and now runs one shop, very well known, near South Coast Plaza. "We carry all the accessories for instruments and things of that nature. But print is so hard to get. It's not a sexy thing. It's a lot of librarian work. So I have teachers coming in. I have people from all over the world coming in. Not specifically to come to me. They are on business trips four or five times a year from Europe or someplace. I'm always on their itinerary, because I have things nobody else has. One of the biggest and most extensive collections of jazz. They didn't have these things in my day. Fats Navarro transcriptions, Buddy DeFranco, Stan Getz—note for note. It's amazing. That's what I do. That's what I was doing for the better part of those forty years that I didn't play.

Weiss was married during that time (He's been with Jean for thirty-two years). He's unruffled now by the hard times, and rightly so. "The reason I talk so freely about is I pulled myself out of this whole thing by myself. There was no going around and having counseling and everything. In fact there wasn't that much open to you in those days. I paid a lot of dues and I learned a lot of lessons.

But in the new millennium, Fate tossed a slow-pitch softball down the center of Weiss' plate.

"I received some junk mail from Irvine Valley College. They were starting a jazz ensemble and they were holding auditions. I still hadn't played all these years. My wife was in Italy visiting. I got the horn out, man, Weiss says, excitedly as he recounts the tale. "For fourteen days I couldn't play more than two minutes. Your embouchure, the muscles around your mouth, you just can't do it [after such a layoff]. I worked hard on it. And this teacher was so encouraging. He said, 'Wow!' That kicked me in the ol' butt and I just started practicing again. I had customers like Luther Hughes and Ron Escheté coming in. And I said let's get together a couple nights and see what's happening. One thing led to another, to another. Ron knows Joey DeFrancesco, because he plays with him periodically, he sent No Place to Hide, my first CD, a duet with Ron, to Joey.

"I get a call one day. I said, 'Hi.... Is this Joey?'

'Yeah.'

'This is Joey DeFrancesco?'

The organist had heard a recording and wanted to play with Weiss. ("He plays his ass off, DeFrancesco would later say.) "I'm thinking: Who me? And I started doing a Ralph Kramden—hummana hummana hummana...[laughs] We set up some time. He lives in Arizona in a place called Cave Creek. We got together and we put out the first CD.

But DeFrancesco was under contract to Concord at the time, and the large label gave Weiss a very difficult time, says the clarinetist, but he continued to fight and eventually released it without the organist's name mentioned in the title, The Mort Weiss Quartet. "That was my second CD. I had only been playing not quite two years when we did that. I play better now than then, but there was some excitement that got going that night.

The same with The B3 and Me, which was recorded in 2003 but not released until earlier this year. At the time, Concord was releasing DeFrancesco's Falling In Love Again, with singer Joe Doggs, aka actor Joe Pesci. "Joey and I were too much like musicians. We forgot it was the music business. I kind of followed Joey's lead. He's played with many people on numerous records. The shit hit the fan when Concord found out, says Weiss.

"Joey's name is not on it. It says: "Featuring a very special guest: The finest jazz organist in the world, Concord Recording Artist ... You guessed it. It's Him on Hammond B3, says Weiss, and after a long legal wrestling match, and at large expense to the clarinetist, the album was released. He says it's getting outstanding air play on jazz radio as more and more people find out about it. "I signed a contract they put out, which said as long as I didn't mention his name... I followed the edict of their contract to the period and each comma. They left out one very important thing. It's called innuendo, and I used that to the utmost.

So things are good these days for Weiss, whose music business is still thriving. He jokingly describes his days when not playing club dates: "I get up at the crack of noon now. I get home about 9:30, 10 o'clock (p.m.). Then I start practicing. You're got to practice. It's like an athletic thing. Especially the older you get, your lung capacity diminishes. ... I got into karate when I was in my 50s. I have a treadmill in the house, so I'm able to keep up. But if I miss two days it's like the setback of a week. So I practice 12:30, 12:45 (a.m.), and I have dinner about 1 o'clock. Then I hit the TV and lay there in a stupor. Infomercials. Thank god for the Turner Movie Classic channel. I fall asleep and get up about 4 o'clock (a.m.) and jump into bed. It's a complete change of life.

He hopes to be playing jazz festivals nationally and internationally in 2007, getting his name out there. He feels it's important for his legacy (and his ego, not that there's anything wrong with that) to be known and remembered for music he gave to people. He's very flattered when people interview him, and even when fans seek autographs he calls it "surreal.

"There's so much bullshit in this world. I was raised Orthodox Jewish, but I don't practice any religion. I believe there's a god and all that, but I don't believe any religion has the exact answer. But in the Talmud, ancient writings from very wise men, the mission of every Jew when they wake up is to cure the world. Well, that's analogous to "light one little candle. This playing gives me the satisfaction that I feel I'm lighting that candle.

He's proud of his accomplishments and happy to be part of mainstream jazz, though he admits his playing stretches more the more he goes at it.

"Nothing happened after 1958 (in jazz), he says. "Nothing new. It never got better after 1958 to '60. It just got different. Trane started another direction. I have all the respect in the worlds for Trane. He's wonderful, man. But it went in a different direction. With Ornette [Coleman], with Pharaoh Saunders and Archie Shepp. Although I am playing some things now, I'm stretching out a little bit and I'm getting some Eric Dolphy comparisons going, [chuckles] much to the dismay of Buddy DeFranco. He wrote me a very nice letter. He said, 'I can't hear all the notes.' The same with Terry Gibbs, I played some with him. He said, 'I hear all these notes, but I can't define it.'

"But that's what I sell, he quips.

"Nobody plays like me. By the way, the word "ego isn't necessarily a bad word. When you get to be my age, there's no time for bullshitting and screwing around, kidding yourself or kidding other people.

"The mere fact that we're having this conversation will help me to open the case tonight and practice for three hours. Because I'm very flattered anytime anyone wants to interview me for something. It's so surreal. I've been playing for five years. During my hiatus, I never stopped listening. I listened constantly. I started in with the big guys right away. One thing led to another and another and I got headlined at the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival in Portland, Ore. Sometimes I sit there and I go: 'What?'

Mort Weiss Weiss has also become a record producer, after a fashion, with his label SMS Jazz that has cranked out his own music and the works or others, like Gerry Gibbs and the Thrasher Band. "They're from Austin, Texas. Gerry has a club outside of Austin, in San Antonio. They've been together for three years. It is so tight. They all moved, en masse, to Los Angeles six months ago. The two CDs came out. I can't tell you what kind of music it is. It's fusion, a tad of rock, a tad of mainstream jazz. It's ass kicking. All of the guys play three or four or five instruments, the flute and reed players. It is so tight, man.

"I also have a singer named Melody. She's a vocal stylist. She's like a Peggy Lee, Chris Connors, June Christy type of thing. She's got a CD out called Nocturnal Velvet. A big production with a lot of heavyweight people in Los Angeles, Weiss says. "I never set out to do this. I just did an album thing to promote me. All of a sudden I'm an independent record label owner.

"The words from a raging lunatic, he humorously called his discussion with AAJ. "One of my proudest things is, I'm sitting here in my store. I was able, with my wife, of course, to make this business go. This is major thing. I guess as far as self esteem goes, I must have it. I look in the mirror and I say, 'Good god.'

"But that's another story, he adds with his wry humor and endearing demeanor.

Selected Discography

Mort Weiss, Mort Weiss Meets Sam Most (SMS Jazz, 2006)

Mort Weiss, B3 and Me (SMS Jazz, 2006)

Mort Weiss Quartet, The Four of Us: Live at Steamers (SMS Jazz, 2005)

Mort Weiss Trio, The Three of Us (SMS Jazz, 2004)

Mort Weiss Quartet, Mort Weiss Quartet (SMS Jazz, 2003)

Ron Escheté with Mort Weiss, No Place to Hide (SMS Jazz, 2002)

Photo Credit

Vince Outlaw


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