Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Billie Holiday's sidemen often said that her timing, her placement of the notes, was exceptional. They loved working with her because of that.

AB: A lot of singers don't have that special timing, and so the harmonies of the next bar get mixed up with the previous one. To a seasoned jazz musician, that's very unmusical. Jazz to me is the art of rhythm. Play the rhythm first, and then the notes come. When I have the great honor of accompanying Sheila Jordan, it's a different experience, because a singer like Sheila is really relating to the rhythm section like a horn player, and we can feel her engagement with our time. And it's exhilarating at any age!

AAJ: Another quality of Billie is that she sang with the most natural expression of emotion which many singers and instrumentalists have tried to duplicate but few have been able to accomplish at her level. To me, that's also her art. Perhaps the emotions are related to the rhythm.

AB: Yes it is, because the rhythm creates the intensity of feeling. Billie's intensity doesn't come from acting out the words. It is the thing itself and it comes from that placement of the notes in the time. And that's the great contribution that jazz has to the art of music. Not everyone can achieve it.

AAJ: The philosopher Henri Bergson wrote about time as we experience it, as a living force in our lives, as opposed to the clock time of the physicists. I think you're talking about jazz rhythm as we feel it and experience it as distinct from the strict beat of the metronome. Time in this sense is very personal and carries the past and the future within the moment.

AB: And it's elastic, too.

AAJ: I would also say that when a jazz group is really in a groove with the rhythm, that is when we listeners derive the greatest pleasure from it. There's a real communication taking place between the musicians and with the audience. Ingrid Monson, in her exceptional book, Saying Something (University of Chicago Press, 1996), documented how the interpersonal relations among the musicians affect what they play. She took a recorded and transcribed set led by pianist Jaki Byard, interviewed the musicians intensively, and showed how the music was related to the verbal and non-verbal exchanges between them. The relationships fuel the music. Rapport has a lot to do with it. For example, your bassist Harvie S seemed to be interacting with you very intensely at the Deer Head performance. Can you say something about the nature of that interaction which seems to affect, among other things, the rhythmic pulse?

AB: Yes. We know within two bars whether another musician in the group is listening. Again, it's a little bit like all of us being in a sailboat. If one guy is sitting in the middle of the sailboat, arms folded, while we're all trying to find this balance to catch the wind so we can go, there are going to be problems.

AAJ: The wind is the rhythm, and everyone has to be in synch and connected to sail with the rhythm instead of just beating time.

AB: When we're all connected and listening to one another, it really feels like catching the wind. We're all trying to capture that moment so that we don't have to be aware of ourselves. We're caught up together in the music.

AAJ: When the whole band is connected together and catching the wind, then the music really flows.

AB: The music takes on a life of its own. We're not so much aware of ourselves as we are of each other, and we start to trust each other to take us where we want to go.

AAJ: Does that rhythmic flow explain why jazz is the most fruitful medium for improvised music that ever existed?

AB: There are other wonderful forms of improvised music, like India raga, for example, but most of them don't have the endless variety that Western harmony has that I need and that special relationship to time that Armstrong invented.

AAJ: So can we say that there is something about that time element in jazz that stimulates and facilitates very complex improvising?

AB: Yes. It's hard to explain, but the notes actually come from the rhythm. Something about the jazz rhythm stimulates the ability to improvise.

AAJ: If you take Tristano, or Dave Liebman, who studied with Tristano, or yourself -the improvising is so complex, has so many ideas and turns of phrase in just a few bars. Rock 'n Roll has a strong beat, but it doesn't get the players into as many unique improvisations. I suspect that one of the reasons you got into jazz is that you could do so many things with it -the possibilities of what you can do with a simple tune are infinite. Armstrong was one of the first musicians to improvise with that level of complexity.

AB: If you want to hear that, all you have to do is go to YouTube for Armstrong's fast paced performance of "Dinah" in Copenhagen, 1933. His band is playing in the rhythm of his generation, very stilted, straight up and down, but the minute Louis starts to play, he's pulling, he's stretching the time, like a boxer bouncing off the ropes. That feeling from Louis is where the greatness of jazz music begins. Then, with the beginnings of bebop, Charlie Parker bounced around the ring with a few thousand more notes! But he still had the right rhythmic bounce. Similarly, the way Red Garland or Wynton Kelly or Hank Jones play those eighth notes, they have a certain skip and a bounce to them. It's very profound to me. Keith Jarrett has that feeling, whereas in my opinion Chick Corea does not, or at least won't.

AAJ: And that rhythmic bounce, as you call it, created an opening that allowed musicians to create all kinds of unbelievable improvised lines. In my opinion, something happened that was a breakthrough in musical history.

AB: Yes, and I think Lennie Tristano had the best insight of all, that jazz is not a style, it's a feeling! That idea encapsulates everything that I'm trying to say. Within that feeling there are many styles: Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan each have their own unique styles, but they all have the deep rhythmic feeling of jazz. Lennie felt it was a life force, innate in all of us. The things that last forever are the things that have passion and intensity to them. I have to work hard and practice every day, because that special feeling is something that dissipates if you don't use it. This special elasticity of time dissipates if it's not used.

AAJ: So I get your sense that it's this lived rhythm, what you call elasticity, that allows you to get into the feeling, and the feeling allows you to create all the magnificent variations that you do. It's like someone gives a great painter the right paintbrushes and canvas and a particular kind of paints or acrylics, and they can produce a masterpiece. The medium facilitates the art, the medium allows the message to happen. Once you get the rhythmic sense going, it frees you to invent creatively around the melodies, harmony, and so on.

AB: Exactly. Remember the metaphor I used before, of the rhythm being the wind in the sailboat. If you catch the wind, you can steer the sailboat in any direction you want to go. Without the wind, nothing happens. Or, if you like, the surfer who finds the sweet spot in a wave that will take him to shore.

Broadbent's Career Since the 1990s

AAJ: Earlier, in Part I, you took us up to somewhere in the 1990s, working with Natalie Cole and so on. Can you bring us up to date on your career, some of what you've been doing musically over the past couple of decades since then?

AB: Well, in truth, I'm mostly waiting for the phone to ring.

AAJ: You're too modest. I can't believe that you just sit around waiting for someone to offer you an occasional gig! I see you all over the web with indications that you're working on this project or that composition or this recording! I think of you as going non-stop, like you can't get off the train. You seem like the busiest man on the block.

AB: No, it doesn't work like that. What you're seeing on the web is a list over a long time period of time. But it actually amounts to only two or three major gigs a year. And all this time I've had to front the costs of my CDs. It isn't like people think it is. During my Natalie Cole period in the 1990s, for which I am very grateful, I was on tour all the time, and the record company paid for the full orchestras needed for my arrangements. But after that, I've tended to lay back and not pursue gigs. I'm not someone who goes after things. I did tour with Charlie Haden Quartet West between the 1990s and 2015 or so as well, but it was difficult traveling and not much money, although I learned a lot and very much enjoyed working with Charlie.

After that, I've done an occasional arrangement. I'm very fortunate that I know Diana Krall. When Diana was only nineteen, she called me. She was studying with Jimmy Rowles. She called me looking for a different take on things. So she studied with me for one summer in the 1980s. That was a lovely experience. I taught her what Lennie Tristano taught me, to sing along with Lester Young solos. Then I got to conduct on the road with her after her first album came out. Sometimes, when I'm conducting, she will quote Lester Young, look over at me and give me a wink.

What I regret is that I wasn't as well prepared for these gigs as I should have been. I just learned as I went along. When it I came to conduct for Natalie Cole and then for Diana, I learned by practicing conducting as I listened to the Mahler symphonies on recordings. I didn't study formally, I never could afford it. I got offered a conducting gig, so I said, I'd better learn to conduct! By the way, I wrote some of the string charts for Diana Krall's album Turn Up the Quiet (Verve, 2017) just prior to the one she just did with Tony Bennett.


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