Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: You haven't mentioned any horn players so far other than Desmond. When did they take on importance for you?

AB: I did play with a couple of horn players in New Zealand, but more importantly, I was listening to recordings. I guess it was Charlie Parker, of course, who I'd listen to over and over. And then I found Lee Konitz, loving the way Lee phrases, and his beautiful sense of time, even deeper than Paul Desmond, and that feeling of unpredictability. I could tell that Lee was hearing things for the first time every time he played. I aspire to that too. It's a very dangerous way to play because you don't have anything to fall back on. Every day is a new day for me. Right now, I'm waiting for my bassist friend, Don Falzone to come over. I don't know what's going to happen when we start playing! But that's what you have to be vulnerable to in order to express this feeling. The great thing that players like Louis Armstrong gave us is this spontaneous outpouring of beautiful music. So I'm this kid ten thousand miles away from the jazz scene suddenly feeling this music. That's how it all started, and I've been ruined for life! [Laughter.] And along side with that, I was developing my love for the orchestra.

AAJ: Parenthetically, I wanted to ask whether you were exposed to any Maori music in New Zealand.

AB: Very little. I listened to some Polynesian, and Maori music on the radio, but most of it has westernized harmonies and I don't feel any connection to it. It belongs to their own cultures. I grew up in a very white Christian Protestant environment. I had a couple of Maori friends, but I later lost contact with them. The 1950s in New Zealand was quite backward, still a lot like it was in the late 1800s. Even Mark Twain would back me up on that. When he visited New Zealand in the late 1800s, it was even further back in time. When I was growing up there, there was no free trade. TV was in its infancy even in the 1960s there. There were no new cars -you had to buy a used car, the technology was backward, and it was a very prudish society. Playboy magazine was banned. The wonderful British actress Diana Dors came to New Zealand and was railed upon because of her supposed promiscuity. I remember an uproar over a visit by the great Eartha Kitt, for God's sake. It was a very closed society, except for a few "insurgents" whom I was lucky to meet.

Berklee and Lennie Tristano: The Weekly Commute

AAJ: By contrast with what you grew up with, the jazz world is very earthy and very multicultural. How did you come to make that huge leap half way around the world to Berklee and a whole new life?

AB: The jazz I know is an art form. And that's what I as a boy of age fourteen got interested in. Pursuing that art form was what got me to the famous Berklee College of Music in the 1960s. When I was eighteen, I received the Downbeat scholarship to go to Berklee in Boston. There, I was able to really develop my skills more seriously. For one thing, Boston unlike Auckland, had a lively jazz and classical music scene. Right away, I got a student ticket to go to the Boston Symphony concerts. I heard Ravel and Stravinsky for the first time live. I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct, and sat very close to the podium. I remember standing up excitedly after Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe's section called "The Sunrise" and everybody looked at me like I was strange because it just wasn't the proper time to do that! And besides all that, within half a mile from Berklee, down Boylston Street, was the Jazz Workshop nightclub. Within my first few weeks in Boston I saw they had Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley. And Lee Konitz!

AAJ: At the school itself, with whom did you study?

AB: My arranging teacher was Herb Pomeroy.

AAJ: Many of the best composers/arrangers, like Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider were mentored and inspired by Pomeroy.

AB: I also studied with Ray Santisi, but that was interrupted by the fact that I was going to New York every Monday to study with Lennie Tristano.

AAJ: You studied with Lennie already while you were still a student at Berklee?

AB: At my first summer break, I made contact with Lennie through a friend. I called him, and at first he turned me down, but my friend said, "Keep at it. Call him again." After a couple of calls, he agreed to teach me. So every week I'd take a plane from Boston to LaGuardia Airport and study with Lennie. It was in 1967-68, and he was living not far from the airport at the time in Flushing, Queens.

AAJ: Did you take formal lessons, or was it more like mentoring?

AB: It was a personal connection. I was sort of a lonely kid, and he was a father figure to me. Musically, I could swing. My technique was somewhat lacking, as it still is, but Lennie refined my ability to play what I hear. For example, he would have me transcribe Lester Young solos, not by writing them down, but by being able to sing it back from memory. They were solos from LP re-issues of Count Basie's 1938 records, tunes like "Lester Leaps In," "Taxi War Dance," and "Lady Be Good." The way Lennie instructed, I would put the LP on at half speed, listen to a phrase, and try to sing it back. And when I learned the whole solo, I'd go and sing it for Lennie. And then, when he felt I was ready, I'd go to the piano, put on the metronome, and play it as if I was improvising it myself.

AAJ: Wouldn't the pitch change if you played it at half speed on the record player?

AB: It would be an octave lower. Lennie felt that even at half speed, Lester's intensity remained the same. The same was true of Bud Powell: the intensity and engagement with the time was there even at half speed. This is an important point. If you listen to some other pianists at half speed, you can hear that the music isn't embedded in the time the way it is with Lester and Bud. Bob Brookmeyer said that if you can't "feel" the time, you can't get membership in that special club of those who can. It's a very special ability. And we musicians all know when we play together that that feeling is of paramount importance, because if one of us is not engaged in the time, then it all just goes to hell. But if the group of us are all embedded in that feeling of time, then we can communicate it to our listeners. I could make a comparison to a sailboat, where to catch the wind, everyone in the boat has to lean the same way to the sides. If someone isn't leaning, we're screwed!

AAJ: Listening to a group, you can feel them leaning the right way into the time. It's hard to explain, but it really has to happen for the music to be great. And some musicians can never get that, like some classical players can never swing.

AB: Even Leonard Bernstein didn't quite get that feeling. [Broadbent sings the "Jets" song from West Side Story, mocking the halting rhythm.] I have all his show scores, and they're great, but his jazz writing, even his virtuosic "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs," is just an imitation of the rhythm and not the thing itself. They don't quite have the jazz rhythm.

AAJ: I thought that Bernstein really picked up on the jazz idiom.

AB: No. Well, he got the notes and the phrasing of jazz. But the "time" is different. It's that special feeling of flow that only some musicians can get. Bernstein got as far as Dixieland music with that part.

AAJ: So, Tristano really instilled that flow, that special feeling in you, by having you sing back solos that exemplified it.

AB: Tristano taught the two things that Oscar Peterson said were really important to learn: sustaining the long line, and getting the time right. In an interview, Oscar said he's interested first and foremost in the time. And then the long line. Together, they create the elastic thing that's supposed to happen. Bud Powell really had that sense of time at a very deep level, but Oscar got it from a different source, an older feeling than from Bud's, Peterson had more of a Coleman Hawkins feeling.

AAJ: Getting back to Berklee, did you play gigs while you were there?

AB: All the time. I played at the Hotel Vendome, which later burned down.

AAJ: Your bio isn't clear what you did right after you finished Berklee. What happened next?

Woody 'N You

AB: After Berklee, I needed a gig. At the time, Jake Hannah and Nat Pierce were scouting around for players, and Herb Pomeroy told them to go hear me at the hotel. They liked what they heard and asked me if I wanted to join Woody Herman's band. I listened to Woody's album Light My Fire (Cadet, 1969), liked it, and joined Woody's band as pianist and arranger. It was three years on the bus. I had to unlearn everything I learned from Pomeroy because it didn't work with Woody's band. I wrote extravagant, over the top charts like "Variations on a Scene" and other such nonsense, still not knowing how a big band was supposed to sound. I just wrote piano music, and then tried to figure out what each of the instruments would do. That started ten years of learning how to write for big bands, eventually culminating in an album called America The Beautiful (Jan Matthies Records, 2014) that I'm very proud of, featuring my original tunes with the NDR big band in Hamburg, Germany. They're a wonderful group. It was recorded four years or so ago and produced by my dear friend Jan Matthies. But for me big bands are a bit one-dimensional and loud, and I'm not so interested in writing for them too much anymore. It's a case of been there, done that.

Anyway, being on the road was stressful. I did three years with the band. At one point, we did eighty one-nighters in a row—imagine eighty one-nighters on a bus, "ghosting" (doubling up, to save money) in hotels, sleeping on the bus with bottles of Nyquil and three pillows, feeling every pothole bump of the bus. It was a personal hell for me, and I just sort of fell off the bus in Los Angeles and settled in there. I didn't work too much at first. I couldn't bring myself to make phone calls, I was shy about socializing, and I was going through personal problems. I was living in a crummy little apartment and then when one day I got a phone call from a wonderful guy named Tommy Shepard. He asked me if I had a tux or a dark suit (I had a sort of dark suit), and said to come down to the Sheraton Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. "We start at eight o'clock" I said, "O.K."

Nelson Riddle

I go there, and as I'm walking to the stage, I see it's for a big dance band, and there are all these older guys. I sit down at the piano, and as I'm looking at the music, I see Nelson Riddle coming towards me! Imagine me, playing with Nelson Riddle! I figured that his regular pianist needed a sub for that night. At the time Riddle had his own big band without strings, and he had a young woman vocalist who sang his charts in the same key as Sinatra, which I knew from all those wonderful Sinatra recordings. Riddle liked to do a dance gig every once in a while. He had all these guys he enjoyed working with, like Willie Schwartz, Harry Klee, Alvin Stoller, wonderful guys whom I still remember fondly.

Nelson liked players who could sight read well and had that correct feeling with the time that I spoke about earlier. He felt I could do that well, so he got me to do some of his TV shows (this was long after his work with Sinatra). I came to the studio at 8 am. I had no idea what to do, so I asked Willy Schwartz, "What am I supposed to do?" He said, "When you hear the click, count to eight and play!" [Laughter!] But it all worked, I figured out how to do it. What Nelson particularly liked to do after the session was to have the rhythm section play some "source music," original tunes he wanted to use for some purpose, say, the guy in the TV show turns on the radio in his car as he hurtles down the Pacific Coast Highway. So there I am swinging away with Nelson sitting beside me. "Okay," he'd say, "Let's try this one." Precious memory. So for a while I worked in the L.A. studio scene, but then synthesizers came along, and I hated them. To me, synthesizers are built to replicate sounds, not feelings, and I never could get anything out of them that I felt about the music.

Working With Singers: Irene Kral, Natalie Cole, Others

AAJ: Did you work in clubs at all?

AB: At that time, there was only one club of any note in L.A.: Dontes.' That's where I met Irene Kral.


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