Herbie Mann: An Amalgamation of Everything
HM: Well, I wanted to have backgrounds on the album we did, and rather than try to teach somebody else how I wanted it phrased, I did it myself. Claudio played valve trombone, and I played tenor. And it's taken a long time to get my chops back together again. Actually, we recorded two albums together. The first album coming out I just played backgrounds, but on the second album I play tenor on a Carol Bayer Sager/Marvin Hamlisch tune, "Sweet Alibis."
I've been getting at it, and I've been working it a little bit together. In fact, yesterday I was in the studio playing on the next Jay McShann album [The Big Apple Bash (Atlantic, 1979)]. Now this is really a fusion recordcoming from a different directionJay McShann, Milt Hinton, Connie Kay, Doc Cheatham, Dicky Wells, Earl Warren, myself, and John Scofield. And next week, it's Gerry Mulligan on Tuesday, and on Thursday the same band as yesterday. So, I'm playing tenor again, and my style is weird.
One time I stopped playing because I thought I sounded too much like Zoot Sims or Al Cohn. Now, I've developed a completely different style that's based on my flute style, so it's really strange. I've reached that point where I don't care anymore that it may not be as contemporary as my flute playing. I grew up listening to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.
Combine that with 20 years of not playing the instrument, and playing very contemporary jazz/fusion, whatever you want to call it. My tenor playing is a very different kind of tenor playing. It has no name to the style that it is.
Now we play standards and there's a whole audienceimaginefrom the Beatles or "Comin' Home Baby" that never heard "Embraceable You." We're playing "Walkin.'" We're playing "Scrapple from the Apple." And people are saying, "Wow! What's that song? Who's Charlie Parker?"which is really great. Now I can go as a change of pace and play some bebop, and play some swing things. What would be nicer for my first tenor record than to play with Jay McShann? Yesterday we covered "Jumpin' the Blues," which Jay wrote with Charlie Parker.
I'm at the point now where Robert Mitchum was a couple years ago, when he won an Academy Award or something like that, and took a year off and worked in a repertory company in Ireland just to do some classical things. I'm at the point where I now can have some fun. I don't have to go and play in any lofts. I don't have to play in any clubs. I have a built-in audience, and I can now start playing "Lester Leaps In" and things like thatplaying on a Jay McShann record. I've only done two sideman dates in the past ten years: the Bee Gees and Jay McShann. You can't go any further apart than that.
JAA: But about five years ago, you said you didn't want to be considered a jazz musician anymore. You said jazz meant to the general public a music that was either outdated or hard to understand.
HM: At the time, I was a little adamant, mainly because critics were saying that I wasn't a jazz musician. So, I said, "You're right, I'm not a jazz musician." To the critics, jazz meant Count Basie or Benny Goodman. Electric instruments weren't jazz. They didn't understand what music is.
But probably if I have to categorize myself, I probably have been a jazz musician all along, but improvising on a wider range of music forms than most jazz musicians. I wouldn't consider myself a rock musician. I wouldn't consider myself a symphony musician. If you have to oversimplify, I'll say I'm a jazz musician. I'd rather say I'm a musician, but if you need a category, that's it.
JAA: Very early in your career you said one of your ambitions, or maybe your biggest ambition, was to "be as synonymous with the flute as Benny Goodman is to the clarinet." Do you think you have reached that point?
HM: Oh, definitely. I think I have. To the lay public, that mass out there who don't read Downbeatwho read Playboy and other thingsthere was a time where every flute record they thought was me. Remember when I started, there was nobody else playing it. Now Hubert Laws is very successful, but what I'm hoping to do this year is to win the Downbeat poll again. At this point, I'd like to say, "OK all you kids, now it's my turn again." It doesn't mean anything else than pride, but I would like to, this year, go after it. I think I'm playing better than I ever have before, and I'm enjoying it more. The other thing I would like to do is to now completely reverse the whole thing and start playing clarinet, because nobody's doing that now. When I started playing flute everybody played clarinet. Now everybody's playing flute. So, now I'll play clarinet again and completely screw them up.