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Bob Perkins: The Art of Listening

By Published: November 25, 2009

BP's Advice for Aspiring Musicians

AAJ: Having sat for a long while in the "catbird seat" as a DJ, what advice would you give an aspiring jazz musician to develop his or her career?

BP: Good ears; big ears! I often tell young people, "Don't open the book at the end to see if the butler did it. Go to the front of the book to get the whole story." Learn about Miles when he couldn't play well, when he was in Billy Eckstine

Billy Eckstine
Billy Eckstine
1914 - 1993
's band and Eckstine was passing through St. Louis and invited Miles to sit in, and he said Miles was "terrible." Then Miles went to New York, studied at Juilliard, played with Charlie Parker for a while, came back to Eckstine's band for a short time, and then he could really play. You can't hang around with a master like Bird and not learn something.

So, listen. Have big ears. Like I did—I listened to people smarter than me and figured out what they were doing. I may have copied them in the beginning, until I got my own sea legs. Your personality will emerge after a while. Pretty soon, no one will be able to identify who you "sound like," because you'll sound like yourself, you'll be a composite of so many people whom you listened to. And even listen to musicians you don't like, because that tells you what you don't want to sound like.

AAJ: Guitarist Vic Juris

Vic Juris
Vic Juris
said something similar, that it's the listening that makes for great playing. You should base your playing on what you're hearing when you're listening to the other guys in the group.

BP: Concentrate on what you really love, and get in tune with that.

AAJ: Saxophonist Ben Schachter has a similar viewpoint and feels that when you're playing, it's not "you" calling the shots. Rather, you're a conduit for something other than yourself.


AAJ: To change the topic, you're an African-American who came up at a time when society was still segregated, and then you lived through the Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and so on, until now, when we have an African-American president. In the midst of all that, you just steadfastly pursued your career without much obvious attention to race. But is there another side to you? Were you ever were involved in Civil Rights, and do you have some particular views about race relations and minorities?

BP: Of course. In fact, I wrote and voiced my views when I did the editorials for WDAS. I made a point not to attack any individual or group. Instead, I talked about issues. Several organizations gave me awards for my work. I came in on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. Many of the politicians in Philadelphia got into office on the basis of my editorials—some of the city council members, for example. When WDAS supported black candidates, most of them got swept into office. The station was called "the voice of the African-American community."

Back in the day, in the 1970s and 1980s, we put a lot of people into state offices in Harrisburg, and many into city council. I wrote the editorial endorsements for Congressman Chakah Fatah and State Representative Dwight Evans. I wrote about fairness and what you can do to counteract unfairness. How and where you spend your money. Buy from your friends and don't give your money to your enemies. If someone's unkind to you, don't patronize him. Spend your money with people who are fair-minded and love equality. I never attacked people, although we did have something going with the late Mayor Rizzo.

AAJ: Everyone had something with Mayor Rizzo.

BP: He was a very controversial individual. But I never attacked him as a person, just the issues. Nothing strident—deal with issues, vote your conscience, spend your money with people who treat you right. I did those editorials for about fifteen years, and they went over very well.

AAJ: You're an advocate rather than an iconoclast.

BP: This country is based on money. Money talks. Just withhold your money, people will come around. Think of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King drove a bus company into the ground. But the people had to walk, they had to suffer. All you're asking for is quid pro quo.

AAJ: But you're leaving out the dark side of the cash register, especially regarding the music. Mediocrity rises to the top with money. The best musicians are often not taken seriously, not even given a decent wage for their gigs. It takes as much training and experience to be a good jazz musician as to be a physician, and many of them get paid next to nothing when they perform. Also, the executives take control of the music for monetary gain. J.J. Johnson became very upset when Verve took control of a couple of his later albums and told him what to play and not play. Here's a man who had over 50 years as one of the world's top jazz musicians, and they're telling him what to do!

BP: The truth is that jazz was born in the brothels and the bars, and then later drugs came into it pretty heavily. So there's always been a social stigma attached to the music. And of course, there is always racial prejudice. Someone once said that if Duke Ellington were white, he could have run for President or even run for God, and won.

Unfortunately this country is not as strong as it used to be. We're very fractured as a nation. We've bought into the idea of survival of fittest too much. It's not very good for the country. For example, for the first time, we owe other countries like China and the Arab Emirates tons of money. Foreign businesses outdoing us.

AAJ: Yes, we seem to have lost touch with certain values, like tolerance and trust for others, and valuing ideas that differ from our own.

BP: Ellington wrote "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and Porter wrote "Anything Goes." They were prophetic.

AAJ: Jazz and popular music have a strong socio-political element.

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