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Jack Reilly: Making the Most of the Gift of Life

By Published: January 14, 2008

JR: I had heard jazz early on maybe eight or nine years of age. We always had the radio going, it was an oversize RCA Victor. There was much jazz played on the stations. When we had dinner as a family the music was going and I heard early jazz; I was born in 1932, so the Swing Era was hardly underway then. I heard a lot of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and that kind of settled in my ear. There was one particular [song].... I think it was Beiderbecke, and ran from the dinner table, tripped over a chair, broke my nose and made my way to the piano and was glued to a till the song ended!

AAJ: You grew up in Staten Island in the shadows of lower Manhattan. Did the proximity to the Mecca of jazz have any early influence on you?

JR: It did in the sense that they had live musicians playing. I heard Art Tatum live, I heard wonderful DJs promoting the music; but the proximity was not as close as we think. I had to take a ferry to get to Manhattan when I was a teenager. That's when I started, at about sixteen, to answer your question about self motivation. The music took precedence over everything else.

AAJ: You have mentioned getting into jazz club galleries as a young man and seeing, up close and personal, the likes of Bud Powell and other legends. At what age did you start taking an interest in these live performances?

JR: Interestingly enough, on Staten Island they had Sunday afternoon sessions at club where you could sit as an underage [patron] wouldn't have to worry about being ousted because you weren't drinking. A friend, who lived around the corner from me, Joey Cetani was his name, played all styles that were prevalent at the time. From the early boogie-woogie style, to stride, all the way to the block chord style of [George] Shearing. Joey invited me over to his house to come and play and study, because I was taken with his playing. We both loved [Lennie] Tristano. In fact, Lennie Tristano, was the first major pianist that actually drew me in before [Bud} Powell and [Charlie}Parker, the bebop school, which was going on at the same time. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time.

AAJ : It is well documented that you took lessons with Lennie Tristano. What so intrigued you about what he was doing on the piano initially?

JR: I would have to define his style and that's impossible. It was esoteric, it wasn't the bebop school, it was somewhat more outside of the normal harmonic patterns when he improvised. He had an uncanny sense of rhythm that was different from the bebop players. [With] the quintet, of course, he was surrounded by [saxophonists] Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, who were influences in my teens.

AAJ: Tristano is often considered to have dissected the music into its most technical aspects and in doing, some say, it lost some of its spontaneity. Yet he is quoted as saying "It would be useless for me to play something I don't feel. I wouldn't be doing anything. If I played something that I'd have to impose on myself, I wouldn't be playing anything good."

As a former student what is your take on this apparent dichotomy of thought about Tristano's approach?

JR: That's a great question, because he used to say to me during lessons, "Don't play it unless you feel it." Feeling is connected to thinking. He was a thinker and to me it didn't come out intellectual or cold as some other listeners would define it. To me it had tremendous feeling and that's what attracted me in the very beginning; the unusual compositions that he wrote over standard songs, most of them, and also the freeform or spontaneous playing that they did as a group.

Jack ReillyAAJ: I was under the impression that even when they did that [freeform] they practiced it precisely?

JR: No, they didn't. I read several books on Tristano, one was a dissertation by Jack McKinney, who was on WBAI [radio] for years and worked for Savoy Records. Jack did his Ph.D. on Lennie, and he was nice enough to lend me a copy of his dissertation, which was about three hundred pages. He said in his book, and he talked to Tristano as well, [that] they would play gigs and do this [freeform improvisation] on the gig, not to work it out but to experiment with it. They would start something and just go from there. I don't know for sure, I never asked Lennie myself, as a freeform player I don't do that and I don't think Lennie would have either.

AAJ: Do you think Lennie Tristano is under-appreciated, and if so why?

JR: I think he is and I think it's partly because his style is esoteric. It's so unlike the music of the time or even of what we like to think of as jazz. It might be too subdued for some ears. To me it's not, it's very exciting. I guess you would say it takes a little willingness to develop a taste for it like good wine. For me I liked it right away.

AAJ: Its interesting that on some levels he is revered as a tremendous innovator and yet on other levels there are those who feel there is no soul to his playing. How do you account for this dichotomy of thought?

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