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A Young Person's Guide to the Jazz Bastard Podcast

A Young Person's Guide to the Jazz Bastard Podcast
Patrick Burnette By

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Tension makes the podcast work. You’re wrong–I’m right–that creates tension. —Michael Caldwell
Dr. Michael Caldwell, a lecturer in humanities at San Diego State University, and Dr. Patrick Burnette, a lawyer's helper in central Indiana, or, as they are known on their podcast, "Mike and Pat," have been discussing jazz in public since December 5, 2012, when episode one of the Jazz Bastard Podcast went live.

Since that time, they've published over 165 episodes (along with a couple "specials") totaling over 200 hours of content, and discussed over 700 albums in depth. Their goal is simply to "talk about jazz" as honestly as possible, discussing what they think works—and doesn't—about recent releases as well as catalog chestnuts, crate-digging discoveries, and established classics. They figured an interview would be the quickest way to cover the podcast's start, goals, and ethos, so they enlisted an old friend to help...

Central Scrutinizer: When did the idea for a podcast talking about jazz first arise?

Mike: We'd talked about starting one for five years before it finally happened. My ex-wife used to make fun of us for talking about doing it but never following through. We discussed the idea of podcasting by email, during visits—but nothing came of it. Then one day, you finally said "that's it," and it began.

Pat: Yeah, that was back at the end of 2012. I'm a famous procrastinator so it's not surprising it took so long. I think what happened is that the infrastructure for putting up podcasts finally became idiot-proof enough that I could see how to do it. We use Buzzsprout, but there are a number of providers out there now. I needed someone to handle the backend so all we had to do was record and post the podcasts, and Buzzsprout's done a great job of that. All About Jazz has been kind enough to feature the podcast for the past couple of years, which is much appreciated!

I always thought there was a need out there for a podcast about jazz like podcasts about video games, sports, other topics—one from the fans' perspective and informal—not solely a promotional or educational tool. Not reverential or "white-glove."

CS: What (briefly) is your history with jazz? How did you get interested in the genre?

Mike: Evil companions.

Pat: (laughs) Low and evil companions, indeed.

Mike: Jazz meant very little to me growing up. I played percussion in concert band and learned some basic theory before quitting. My brother played trumpet in jazz band for a while. He would dig out Maynard Ferguson's album Conquistador and play the 33 rpm LP at 45 or 78 rpm to make the music even more manic and supersonic than it already was. We wore the record out doing that. Maynard sounded like a chipmunk.

Also, a guy in my high school class, Gene Smith, was a really great saxophonist and exposed me to jazz as well. He went to North Texas State and got into one of the "O'Clock" bands—I don't know which one. A ferocious player.

In college, sophomore year I became your roommate and the brainwashing truly began.

Pat: For my part, I picked the saxophone in fifth grade because it was shiny and had so many buttons (and I didn't know how to buzz my lips to play brass) and then I went looking for recordings featuring saxophone. Most of that turns out to be jazz. When I got to junior high school, the principal found out I liked jazz and loaned me maybe a dozen of his records from his college days—Dave Brubeck, Dave Pell, Jimmy Forrest—and I taped those and listened to them a lot. Things just grew from there.

Back in high school and college, I just naively assumed that other people might like the music I liked and I shared it all the time, but I eventually figured out that many people find jazz somewhat inaccessible and got more self-conscious about talking about it as I aged. So, the podcast gives me an outlet to talk about what I love without inflicting it on people who don't like or understand the music and don't want to listen to me ranting about it.

CS: Why is the podcast called "The Jazz Bastard"?

Mike: This is your fault. It has nothing to do with me. The main bit on the sound bumper at the start, by the way, is taken from the Alexei Sayle's show. Alexei's show was like a working-class, Marxist Monty Python. He was bald and a bit rotund, and his show opened with someone asking "who is that fat bastard?" You just stole that bit and spliced in "jazz" for "fat." Listeners, that's Pat's voice, by the way, saying "jazz"—don't blame me.

I get more grief from people who listen to the podcast and ask me "what is a 'jazz bastard'?" They want to know—is it some kind of club you have to join? I tell them absolutely not. Where did the name come from?

Pat: Two reasons. Assonance—the vowel sounds match nicely...

Mike: Oh for God's sake! Really?

Pat: It's a beautiful echo. I should have been in advertising—I missed my calling.

Mike: You really thought about that?

Pat: Absolutely. The other reason being that a lot of jazz discussion is extremely reverent, or aimed at school children. I think if you're not down and dirty and talking about what strikes you and doesn't—what touches you or fails to—it's not honest. Are you viscerally reacting to something or do you just say "that's nice, that's accomplished" every single time and every single recording is four stars? We just try to be engaged. And it's sheerly opinion—we know that nothing we say is "definitive"—it's pure opinion.

Art cannot survive on the basis of worthiness. It needs to engage with you—challenge you, please you, frustrate you, surprise you—or it's dead.

Mike: Yes, that kind of reverential, dare I say, NPR Terry Gross kind of treatment, can become a form of disrespect. If you really love something, you're willing to say what's good and bad about it, not hold it at arm's length.

Pat: We respect what musicians accomplish but try not to treat them like plaster saints. And heaven knows, we aren't saintly. I'm pretty sure we're the only jazz podcast with an Adult Content rating, though I haven't checked recently.

CS: How did you choose your format? How long did it take for the format to solidify?

Mike: The format of the show has a lot to do with Pat's insatiable appetite for music and my more ruthless willingness to impose constraints. The tipping point came on episode 10 when Pat programmed TEN albums of Weather Report. Ten! Ten! Ten albums! No one should own ten Weather Report albums, much less discuss them in public!

Pat: (sheepishly) I know, I know, I was crazy. I am sorry. That's what I'm telling you now and that's what I told the European Commission on Human Rights when they contacted me about the matter, and I'm pretty sure they bought it.

Mike: So, I imposed an artificial but pretty workable limit, I think, of four main albums a show, though you keep finding ways to sneak around that. You put in a double album or a "just two cuts" from an album, but they turn out to be sixty minutes each...

Pat: (laughs)

Mike: You're the maximalist—I'm the sane one. And you know more technical things about music, so typically you let me discuss an album first. It's like I get to test the ice. Sometimes I fall through and you let me sink—sometimes you throw me a lifeline. It depends.

Pat: Originally, I had video game podcasts as my model. Those tend to be modular—a "what you've been playing" segment, a news segment, an email segment, and so on. So I'd thought about that approach, but the structure turned out to be looking at four or five albums in detail, sometime a random assortment, sometimes based on a theme or around an individual musician. And then we ended up adding a 'pop matters' segment at the end of the show as a catch-all for other kinds of music and, sometimes, live performances or films or something.

CS: How do you feel about interviewing musicians on the show?

Mike: In interviews it's been pretty organic. We don't really plan things—we just kind of go.

Pat: Yeah, that's been great. And we've had consistently wonderful guests. We haven't had one who wasn't great to talk with.

Mike: It helps that there are two of us. When one of us is asking a question, the other one has time to think about a follow up, or where the interview needs to go next. We don't really write out questions—we just have general directions in mind and then play off of each other and the guest.

Pat: I think we should do interviews a little more often—we need to reach out more.

Mike: I'd like to do one where we talk to a couple people on the promotional side of things and discuss what they go through trying to help sustain jazz musician's careers.

Pat: Yeah—I think doing this podcast has made us both think more about the economic side of the equation—how the music gets packaged, promoted, discovered. Jazz promo people have it tough! There's an intimidating amount of music out there—sometimes we get five review copies a week, plus there's catalog stuff we listen to and I'm getting more deeply into classical music, and there's pop... and eating and sleeping and work. So it's hard for a recording to stand out in the flood, and part of what we do is talk about what reached us—and didn't—through the static of daily life.

CS: How often do you include "non-jazz" music on the main portion of the show, and why?

Mike: This has more to do with you than me. Every now and then you come up with an idea for a "non-jazz" show. We did one on smooth jazz . . .

Pat: That was your idea. We did one on prog. One on the saxophone solo in pop.

Mike: There's been three or four. Kendrick Lamar, for instance—we did To Pimp a Butterfly. We haven't done one in a while. I think it depends on what we've been encountering recently—what's come across our desks. Every now and then an idea pops up.

Pat: I think our generation was brought up to be very eclectic —to listen to lots of different kinds of music. So that's bled through.

CS: How do you define "jazz"?

Mike: (laughs) bleep if I know! I think Clint Eastwood said—he may have stolen this from someone else—he said there are only two art forms that originate in America: the Western and jazz. A lot of people from different nations play jazz, of course, but I think there's something uniquely American in its essence. It's about incorporation, adventure, and risk-taking. We both listen to a ton of jazz by musicians who aren't American and I wouldn't say jazz has to be American, but I think there's a quality in it you can associate with American culture.

Jazz is something with strong improvisational content. Other music has improvisation, but when I hear improvisation I think of jazz. Even Flanders and Swann (the British musician comedians)—if the pianist in that duo started improvising on a Mozart piece and the singer started making up nonsense lyrics to go with that improvisation, that would be like jazz.

Pat: We hope to write this up fairly soon—for me, what makes jazz interesting is its liminality—it's "between-ness." The tension between African rhythm and European harmony, between high art and popular art. You've got popular, cyclical forms—pop songs have forms that repeat themselves—and over that you put improvisation that's more like through-composed music you find in art music. You play a twelve-bar blues, but you don't repeat the melody over and over—you improvise a line that doesn't repeat itself and has a certain complexity. Just the tension between popular and art. You've got people taking popular songs— something a reasonably broad audience might recognize— and transforming them (jazzing them) into art.

"Jazz" used to be more a verb. You jazzed up popular music, the blues, even light classical pieces. I still think much of the most successful jazz plays on the tension between popular music and "art" music. I wish more musicians would encounter the popular music of today and "jazz" it rather than playing the old warhorses.

Mike: Yep—and tension makes the podcast work. You're wrong—I'm right—that creates tension.

Pat: Exactly. Except I'm right.

CS: How do you define "bastard"?

Mike: (laughing) Anything "Pat." Oh, is this a serious question?

Pat: Sure, why not? For me it's just being honest.

Mike: Yeah, it's being willing to take on a sacred cow and say what you really think. There might be an artist you like and admire but a given album by him or her —not so much. Like, Charles Lloyd has been around forever, and I admire him, but every new release by Charles is treated like a five-star masterpiece. But not every album by him meets that standard.

Just because you're a "name" doesn't mean everything you do is good. I mean, even some of our podcasts aren't gems. Most of them are... (laughs)

Pat: (laughs) I think because jazz is so abstract, some reviewers fall back on narratives—this is album by a "lion in winter," or a "child prodigy," or it's about America's National Parks, and they avoid asking whether the album works in musical terms. They get caught up in the story around the album rather than the content of the album itself. You need to use your ears—react to it on a visceral level.

CS: Who do you think of as the audience for this podcast?

Mike: For years, I've made the url for the podcast part of my email signature. I'm a university professor, so hundreds of students a semester see that in my sig, and I know many students have listened to the podcast at least once because they've clicked on the link, on purpose or accidentally.

Pat: Remember, kids, in general it's a bad idea to click on email links.

Mike: True—but mine are ok.

Students can be curious about their teachers, so some listen for that reason. Some graduates from years ago tell me that they still listen and get music recommendations from the podcast. In general, I think of our podcast as intended for people fairly new to the music, though I think jazz fans can find material for them, too.

If we can turn new listeners on to the music, that's a good thing. I mentioned before on a podcast, a listener who uses Rate Your Music looked me up and told me that our podcast on Ornette Coleman helped her understand and appreciate his music. That's God's work!

Pat: I guess I assumed at the beginning that it would appeal more to lovers of jazz, though I knew that somebody who was a superfan of, say, Sarah Vaughan or Ornette Coleman—someone who spent their life devoted to that artist, would claw their eyes out listening to us generalize, since we rarely know everything about a given artist.

But I think you've taught me that at some of our audience appreciates some background and some basic definitions. I tend to assume everyone knows all these weird references I'm making but I should know better. My co-workers tell me I say a lot of weird stuff and they just nod, like it makes sense. I live in my own little world. So, you help me focus better on the listener's needs.

CS: How often do you hear from listeners? Are their comments productive?

Pat: I'd have to say "not as often as we'd like," and "yes."

Mike: You got me that podcast email way back, but I admit I don't check it.

Pat: I can get you the credentials for that, you know.

In general, the suggestions have been great, and we've based a couple podcasts around them. I did get an angry comment from a musician whose album we reviewed once, but he was mature about it.

Mike: He was mad at me.

Pat: We worked it out. We try not to be nasty or counterproductive on the show, but we are honest. Nobody, that I'm aware of, has the money or the time to listen to every new record that comes out. So, we want to tell listeners what they might like—or not— because it's overwhelming.

CS: Name three favorite podcast episodes.

Pat: Besides the Weather Report show?

Mike: Yeah, (sarcastically) that was so great. So, our interview with Charles McPherson was a really good one (episode 132). For a musician of that stature to share his time with us, and tell such great stories, was fantastic. All of our interview shows went well, but that one stood out.

Any episode where we unreservedly like an album—really get enthusiastic about it—is a good one. So the one where we discussed Branford Marsalis's collaboration with Kurt Elling, Upward Spiral (episode 118), was good. You are rare in your unalloyed praise of something, and you really liked that album.

Pat: Yes, it was a pleasant surprise. We recorded that podcast in person, I remember.

Mike: Right. You said that Elling turned the Sting song "Practical Arrangement" on that album into a standard, and I think you may be right. It's exciting when there might be a new standard to add to the list.

And another podcast was on a collaboration between Tom Harrell and Mark Turner—I forget the name.

Pat: (after a quick research break) The album was Trip—it was on episode 72.

Mike: We both were surprised that that team-up worked so well, though on the face of it, the chemistry shouldn't have been so good.

It's always nice when we both like something, but especially when it's a surprise that an album turned out so well.

Pat: I'm going to plump for a really early episode since I like flute so much: "Baby-Making Music"—episode 6. We got to talk about one of my favorites on that one: James Newton. And we talked about how sexy Lew Tabackin is.

Mike: What is wrong with you? You just like that episode because we made so many stupid jokes.

Pat: I also like episode 18 from the early days, where we compared versions of Complete Communion, Love Supreme, and Interstellar Space. And I guess episode 114, "Sonnymoon for Four," where we discussed for jazz musicians named "Sonny" who weren't Sonny Rollins.

CS: Last question. Name three favorite jazz artists.

Mike: Ok, this is going to be really obvious. Brad Mehldau, of course.

Pat: Of course.

Mike: Lately, for me, more and more, Kurt Elling has become a thing. And because he got me started in the music, Ornette Coleman.

Pat: I'm going to be super predictable. Duke Ellington, Miles Davis...

Mike: Now, hold on. You've got to be honest. There needs to be a least one white alto saxophonist and one flutist in there.

Pat: Okay, I guess Art Pepper and James Newton.

Mike: Sure you don't want Sam Most on flute?

Pat: I'm super sure. So, who's my third favorite? Can I keep Miles Davis?

Mike: OK. You can keep Miles.

Pat: Alrighty then.
The Jazz Bastard podcast appears every other Wednesday on many of your favorite podcast providers, and can be streamed directly from All About Jazz. View the archive.

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