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Interviews

Richard Cook, Author Of 'Blue Note Records: The Biography'

By Published: May 15, 2003

AAJ: It is generally agreed that Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer, has played a major role in the evolution of recorded modern jazz, especially on the Blue Note label. Yet, on the surface, he seemed to have approached it as an avocation, utilizing his own home as a recording studio. Given the improvisational nature of it all, what was he able to accomplish that was revolutionary? How was he able to achieve such objectives, and what should a listener notice when comparing Van Gelder's recording quality with that of other sound studios and engineers?

RC: The point about Van Gelder's recordings is that they sound like nobody else's. Nobody recorded pianos like Rudy, for one thing. He found an impeccable balance within a jazz ensemble - remember that this was in the days before things like bass amplifiers and whatnot. He managed to distil the essence of quiet instruments and loud instruments with equal clarity. And he just seemed to be right in tune with what Lion and Wolff wanted. In a way, he still is - he doesn't much like associations with major labels and prefers to keep his own counsel in such matters. The fact that he basically did all this from his own home lets you know how comfortable he felt with everything!

AAJ: In the early development of the Blue Note venue, pianists and piano style appear to have played a central role. You indicate that the very first Blue Note recordings were of boogie-woogie piano, exemplified by Albert Ammons, and then there are the likes of Art Hodes, Todd Dameron, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly. Why do you think the founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were drawn to the piano, when most others considered the innovators and stars to be found in the brass and saxophone sections?

RC: Piano was certainly crucial for Blue Note, but I don't think the label especially placed it ahead of the rest of the band. Alfred was much inspired by the boogie pianists and that was how he got his start as a producer, but I think once the label had momentum they were just interested in whatever had the right feel. They were lucky to pick up on Monk as early as they did, and Powell too - but these two were difficult characters who needed the kind of special relationship which Lion had with his musicians. I don't think they would have found as much in the way of a sympathetic environment elsewhere at that stage. Besides, Blue Note had a lot of signature musicians who weren't pianists - Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, and on and on.

AAJ: Among the marvels of the book are your remarkable capsule descriptions of various recordings, which provide an amazing 'feel' for the musicality and strivings of the performers in a very few words, being purely descriptive and without exaggeration or sensationalism. Do you have a sense of how you acquired this ability, and what would you recommend to aspiring jazz writers in terms of the way they listen to the music, what they should be listening for, and what they should strive towards as writers and critics?

RC: Well, I'm blushing! If I have any talent in this direction, it's probably been acquired through many years of picking the wrong words first! I think writing about music is one of the hardest things you can do. Describing a piece of music in a way which isn't either cliche-ridden or merely fanciful is desperately difficult. I suppose if I have any advice to offer, it's the simple truth that you have to listen properly, and hard, and ask yourself what's going on and why - like, what are these guys doing? Technical knowledge helps, but remember that the majority of your audience are unlikely to be technically-minded. I think if I have an approach, it's impressionism tempered by a backbone of accurate reportage. The beautiful thing about this music is that you can have five hundred versions of blowing on "I Got Rhythm" changes and each one will be different from the other - not merely as a matter of interpretation, as in the classical canon, but in the very marrow of the music, in the rhythm, the interaction, the harmony, the improvisation, the inscrutable equation of feel, form and content. The challenge for the writer is to go some way to figuring out that equation - and, indeed, celebrating it - for his or her audience.

AAJ: It is sometimes held, and to some extent your book reinforces the idea, that the 'Golden Age' of modern jazz occurred in the nineteen-forties through the seventies, and that everything since that time is a mere postscript. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that new life is being or can be breathed into jazz as both entertainment and as a genuine art form?

RC: No, I don't agree at all. Jazz is alive. It may have ended the seemingly straightforward cycle of evolutionary change which characterizes the period you mention, but there's still so much to say and do. I have the peculiar belief, for instance, that there is still a tremendous amount to say with two horns and a rhythm section, certainly enough to fill up the rest of my lifetime. Maybe we're going through a period of consolidation, taking stock, transition or whatever, but I still hear exciting new music in what I would continue call the idiom of jazz every day. It's become fashionable to describe jazz as being `over', that other musics are fresher and more exciting, that hip hop is the new jazz, Wynton Marsalis has killed everything, blah, blah, blah....these are judgments from people who don't do their homework, I'm afraid. I bet Alfred and Frank would be finding plenty of new music to record now which they'd be excited by.



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