Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Does she like jazz?

AB: Not so much. A little bit. She likes Paul McCartney, the The Rolling Stones, the music she grew up with. And she likes to dance, which is lovely to see. But I never could dance, so I don't get that much enjoyment out of most pop music to be able to share her enjoyment. And when you dance, you can't concentrate on the music.

AAJ: When and how did you meet her?

AB: We like to say that she picked me up at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in L.A. when I was playing there one night. She sat at the bar with her girlfriend, and we struck up a conversation. I happened to mention my man, Mahler, and she really dug him, loved his work. That really hooked me. And, of course, that was it.

AAJ: I have an impression of you that you have a heightened awareness of the quality of life, that you're sensitively aware of what's going on around you, and that you care a lot for people, even those you don't know well.

AB: We live in difficult times. And I have the same feeling a lot of other people do. I see homeless people on the street, and I feel compassion and empathy for them, and I feel badly that I can't do very much to help them. I do seem to be more aware of some things than others are. I sometimes walk from Penn Station down to NYU, and within one or two blocks in New York City, there's every form of human life that you can imagine. I really feel for them. I'm very aware of people around me and that we are all going through something, struggling or suffering in some way.

AAJ: Do you have an overall philosophy of life, an understanding of the deeper meaning of existence?

AB: I don't think I have some any particular viewpoint or approach to life. I get a feeling of peace from hiking. I'm a "born again atheist" if you will. I consider myself a survivor of Catholicism -I never was happy with that part of my childhood. In the end, no matter what my personal regrets, my strife, my worries, all the things we all go through, I find in the end that when I'm improvising or composing it's some kind of act of love, and that's the only way I know how to respond. Hopeless in the face of it all, I suppose, but I press on with a smile.

AAJ: Despite the troubles of the world, there really is something heartening about the best music.

AB: Yes. I mean I can't live without my Mahler symphonies. Also, I should mention that I've not always been as relatively content as I am today. Alcoholism was in my family, and I succumbed to it in the 1970s, which was when I had to get off the road. I became quite depressed. A little later on, someone turned me onto cocaine, and I spent three or four years trying to get off that, all the while managing to sober up during the day and doing my gigs at night, which is about when I met my wife. Somehow, I stopped drinking and using and recovered. I think I may have learned something about what's really important in life from those difficult experiences.

Message to Young Musicians

AAJ: I've observed that a lot of young musicians today are struggling with how to pursue a career in music. They're very talented and well-educated, but many graduate from music school in the dark about how to sustain a career as a jazz artist. Having negotiated your career over many years and knowing the joys and struggles, what would you tell a young musician about how to pursue the practical business of a career while maintaining a sense of individuality and commitment to the ideals?

AB: Regarding maintaining the ideals, one of my first questions to my NYU students -I say to them, "When you go home, and shut the door and leave the whole world behind, what's the one piece of music that you will listen to that will open up your spirit and make you feel connected to the history of your art and the history of humanity?" And they're stunned! They don't know what to say! In effect, I'm asking them, "Why do you want to do this music? Why are you a musician?" That's my question. "What is it that propels you?" If you want to be famous, jazz is the wrong business for you. Do you want to be a great technician? A lot of them say yes to that. But none of them say, "I want to feel something deep inside me that the music brings out in me." For me, and many of the jazz musicians of my generation, I could tell you from the word go, even as a child, I knew that I could never not be this! That's what I want to hear from a young person: "I'm doing this because I can't help it."

AAJ: You're talking about the passion for expressing yourself in jazz. But many of the young students I've spoken with have that passion, and they have all the technique as well, but they don't know what to do with it. In the past, you just started playing gigs, you'd get those phone calls or sit in with an established group, and you get gigs. But today, there aren't enough gigs to go around. You have to find a way to make contacts, get noticed, hook up with a group that gets plenty of work. And you have to make a living at the same time. Do you have any suggestions to the young musicians about how to finesse all those complications?

AB: I don't have any off the cuff advice for doing the business end. What I can say is that the best way to start out -the proven way -is to hook up with the more experienced guys, listen a lot, and get your on the job training from them. Find all the musicians who are willing to give you a leg up. It's harder to do that than in the past, but it really helps when you can get it. And by your hard work people will eventually come to you and want what you do. Also, there's a difference between being gifted and talented. The gifted musician has it from the start. The talented person has a lot of what's needed, but they have to work hard to achieve some sort of mastery, but in the process never stops growing. At 71, I'm still doing that.

AAJ: It took John Coltrane over a decade to find his groove, and even then he continued to practice all the time and keep reaching for something new.

AB: That's what it's all about. And it's difficult, because you're always never quite there where you want to be!

AAJ: Like Sonny Rollins, who took a year off and hung out playing on the Williamsburg Bridge so he could find himself musically, even when his career had already taken off. Do you think something like that can still be done?

AB: It has to be done! Whether you can manage it financially is always a question. The point is that if you're passionate about this music, you have to find something in your inner self that keeps you going regardless of your situation. I'm still discovering myself as a musician. I'll open up a page of a Mahler score before I go to bed, and there are little things in there I hadn't noticed before, and there's this wonderful sense of communicating with a master. Same when I hear a phrase of Charlie Parker or Bud Powell. It's a constant lifelong searching and learning how to do it. But along with that comes the gratification of understanding, in a profound way, the healing power of the art of music.

AAJ: It reminds me of T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets:

"We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time."

You seem to be saying to those starting out to stay open to possibilities, be creative and passionate about both life and music, and don't become rigid or caught up in the rat race. Perhaps they could follow the examples of guys like yourself, Charlie Haden, Max Roach, and the others who were always growing and learning, going back to the beginning and knowing it in an entirely new way.

AB: Yes, and always to be listening to what the guys around you are doing. Charlie Haden was always listening. If he heard something interesting in what I was playing, he would let me know all the time. He was fully involved and listening in everything that he did. That to me is what makes a great musician. According to Ruth Cameron, Charlie's wife, he asked for me on his deathbed. I loved this man dearly.


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