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Bill Kirchner: Renaissance Man


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Like it or not, it's a 'What have you done for me lately?' world in many respects. If that phrase has grown tiresome on you, consider Bill Kirchner in the world of jazz music. With him, it's more like 'What haven't you done?' Period.

The art form has gone through periods of struggle in the country where it was invented, but don't blame Kirchner. He's done his part. As a player, arranger, composer, educator, producer, author and historian, he could easily be called jazz's Renaissance Man. He's produced both records and radio programs. He's written and arranged music for a variety of bands, including his own nonet. He's won a Grammy for Best Album notes for Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio recordings and an Indie from the former National Association of Independent Record Distributors (now the Association for Independent Music) for the liner notes to Big Band Renaissance: The Evolution of the Jazz Orchestra, which he co-produced.

He's played sax with the likes of Mel Lewis, Tito Puente, Anita O'Day, Sheila Jordan and many others. He teaches fledgling musicians and conducts clinics. And he has two current recordings as a leader: Trance Dance (a 2-CD set with his Nonet) and Some Enchanted Evening (duets with pianists Michael Abene, Marc Copland, and Harold Danko), both on A-Records.

His latest accomplishment is one that also teaches, not just musicians but everyone. It's called 'The Oxford Companion to Jazz' (Oxford University Press, 2000), a mammoth work of some 800 pages containing essays by top writers about the people, scenes, history, instruments and impact of jazz worldwide. It's in bookstores now and will keep people reading, and learning, through cold winter nights and hot summer days at the beach. You don't need a bookmark, just an interest. The essays can be read in most any order and all provide valuable information. It won't get outdated.

All About Jazz discussed the book project recently with Kirchner, as well as his intriguing life covering all aspects of the music business. From his childhood getting hooked by the jazzy soundtrack to the 'Peter Gunn' television series, to his emergence as a musician, to his rise in the literary and historical fields, Kirchner has been a success story.

Still, perhaps illustrating the status of jazz in the US, Kirchner says it's hard to find bookings for his band and that good record contracts go only to an 'anointed few.' He addresses these issues with eloquence.

Kirchner is affable and energetic. Knowledgeable? Fuggedaboudit. He's a walking font of knowledge. Everything he does, it seems, helps perpetuate the art form he so loves. In doing so he helps the rest of us that love it too.

All About Jazz: You're a musician. When you were first growing up, with training, lessons that kind of thing...

Bill Kirchner: I started playing clarinet when I was 7 years old. And even before that, when I was 5, the "Peter Gunn" TV show with Henry Mancini scores was on the air and that was the first jazz and probably the first music that had any impact on me. So I think I was hooked even before I started playing. But I was definitely hooked throughout my childhood. When I was 11 years old I got my parents to take me to a jazz festival in Pittsburgh that had, in one night, Earl Hines, Carmen McRae, Stan Getz with Gary Burton, John Coltrane's quartet and the Duke Ellington band. So, after that I think I was set for life.

AAJ: So you went into music in high school and beyond?

BK: Yeah. I was playing in high school stage band. I had a very good band director, so by the time I was in high school I was playing clarinet, saxophone and flute and starting to write arrangements and what have you.

AAJ: How about beyond high school?

BK: I went to school in New York City, but interestingly enough I didn't get a music degree. I was going for a BA in literature, but I was studying privately with Lee Konitz and Harold Danko, the pianist, and soaking up as much music as I could.

AAJ: At that point, you knew where you were going, or were you still torn?

BK: I guess I was still torn. I mean, it wasn't until I was in my early 20s and out of college that I really realized that music was what I was supposed to be doing for a career and there were a couple of players, both great saxophonists, like Pat LaBarbera and Gregory Herbert, and they both gave me encouragement and a kick in the ass at the right time. So that really set me on my course.

AAJ: So, professionally, as a musician, where did you break in?

BK: After I got out of college I moved to [Washington] D.C. for five years and I was doing various things in Washington. For a while I was working at the Smithsonian jazz program for Martin Williams and J.R. Taylor. I was working on the NEA jazz oral history project as assistant curator. Martin Williams gave me my first record date. He asked me to write arrangements for an album's worth of music of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller that was performed live, in concert, by a band that included Bob Wilber and Dick Hyman and Dick Wellstood. So that was my first record.

So I was doing that and I was playing with different people who lived in Washington. A great composer and arranger named Mike Crotty, who had a big band, and also a lot of other great players in Washington, like Buck Hill, the tenor saxophonist; Nathen Page, the guitarist; Marshall Hawkins, the bassist; Ken Navarro, the guitarist, who since then has become a 'smooth jazz' star. He lives in LA now. Washington was a great place just to play with some guys who were some really great players. It was a great place to get your act together. So I spent five years there and then I decided after that I had done everything I could do in Washington, so I moved back to New York in 1980.

AAJ: My next question was going to be: What led you to academia? But I can see with people like Martin Williams, it might seem natural.

BK: I don't really consider myself an academic. I've been teaching at the New School Jazz Program [New York City] as an adjunct for 10 years. But that's a couple of days a week. That's not a full-time position. At the New School Jazz Program there are about 70 of us who are adjuncts, including a lot of people who are very well known: Jimmy Owens, Benny Powell, Junior Mance, Reggie Workman (full-time), Joanne Brackeen and many others. We teach two or three courses a piece. But I really don't consider myself an academic.

AAJ: What led you to writing? Not compositions, but liner notes, essays. How did you get into that field?

BK: When I was studying with Lee Konitz when I was in college. I was like, 19. And Lee told me that Dan Morgenstern, who at the time was editing Downbeat, was looking for transcribed solos to publish. So I had a couple transcriptions of Warne Marsh solos. So he said 'Go take them to Dan.' So, I took then to Dan and he looked at them. Actually, he never ran them, for whatever reasons, but at the time I had just gone to a concert that Lee had played in. Just for the heck of it I had written a review of that concert and I showed it to Dan. And he liked it. So, that was the first thing I ever had in print, at the age of 19.

Then I started writing for the next few years for Downbeat and what was then called Radio Free Jazz, which later became Jazz Times, and Jazz magazine and the Washington Post. As of the late 70s, when my own music career began to take off, at that point I said 'I can't do this anymore.' Because I felt like it was too much. Writing record reviews and articles on people and stuff like that just felt like too much of a conflict of interest. Because you start to wonder. You have to be on the same bandstand with these people the next week or you're looking for gigs. And then you're wondering: is the club owner hiring me because I can play or because they think I can do something for them? So I just bagged all of that.

Then, fast forward to about the early 1990s. I started getting involved in jazz history-type projects. I got signed by the Smithsonian to do Big Band Renaissance, the five-CD box set of post-war Big Band recordings. I co-produced that and wrote the booklet. Then I started doing other liner note things and produced both reissues and new recordings and what have you. So I just kind of got back into that aspect of the business. But at the same time this was mostly concerned with jazz history projects. It felt like something I could do without feeling this kind of conflict of interest that I had felt years earlier. So that was my window back into that.

AAJ: Is that what you do most now, as far as the journalism side. More editing, compiling-type work?

BK: I do a lot of different type things. Producing, compiling, doing liner notes. Editing the Companion was a four-year project. But also I have my own music projects active as a composer, arranger, as a player, as an educator. Also, I've done four NPR hour-long jazz profiles on Johnny Mandel, Benny Carter, Artie Shaw and Bob Brookmeyer. So, I've kept my hand in a lot of different areas of the business.

And last summer I was in LA for a week. I was a composer-in-residence with the American Jazz Philharmonic for a week.

AAJ: How did the anthology thing come to be? I've read the Miles compilation [A Miles Davis Reader, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997] which I think is great. How did that kind of work, which is kind of what the Companion is also, come into being?

BK: About eight years ago, Lewis Porter had done a Lester Young reader for the Smithsonian. He had told me they were looking for someone to do a Miles reader. I said 'Well, I can do that.' So he put me in touch with the Smithsonian. I submitted a proposal to them and after some back and forth correspondence, we finally arrived at an agreement and off I went. From start to finish, that took about five years before it finally came out.

AAJ: What kind of insight would you say being a player and a trained musician gives you on the writing side? Has it helped?

BK: Oh yeah. It gives you a view from the inside. Because I've actually been on bandstands with a huge number of people. I've played with people ranging from Benny Carter and Doc Cheatham and Clarence Hutchenrider to Muhal Richard Abrams and Jane Ira Bloom. Plus all the things I've done as a leader with my nonet and my small groups, and as a composer and arranger. Just all this experience really gives you a hands-on feel. You know what it is to play with a group. You know what it feels like to write music and have people play it. Whatever other projects I do as a jazz historian or a producer or whatever. I've been there, done that. There's no substitution for that kind of experience.

AAJ: Having said that, do bad reviews get under your skin? Do you have a different perspective?

BK: Luckily, I've gotten very few bad reviews. Also, I know the field pretty well, as far as people writing their reviews. I know the people who know what they're talking about and the ones who don't. I understand the sources of the reviews better than a lot of people. Luckily, the press I've gotten over the years for whatever projects I've done, with rare exception, has been very good. So I've been lucky, I guess.

AAJ: How is the nonet coming? How much time do you get to do that, you seem so busy?

BK: Not enough. Part of the problem is it's harder than ever to get bookings.

AAJ: On the scene today there seems to be a lot of bickering lately about traditionalists versus those that want to stretch, people that hate the old fusion, people that think Wynton Marsalis and company are either right on the mark or way off the mark. What do see from the business side of the music industry right now?

BK: You got an hour? [Laughter]. It's very complicated. One thing we can say with certainty is that anyone who knows the slightest thing about jazz has an opinion about Wynton Marsalis. I think one problem that makes evaluating him very difficult is it's hard to separate his genuine accomplishments from the enormous amount of paid publicity that's been generated on his behalf. So I think as far as his standing ultimately in the course of jazz I think we're going to have to depend on the verdict of history for that.

AAJ: There's the school of thought that says those people are just digging up what's been done before and not doing anything new. I think that's a little harsh myself. The answer's probably somewhere in between.

BK: The ultimate goal of a jazz musician is to develop a personal voice. So has Wynton Marsalis developed a personal voice or not? It depends on whom you talk to. I think, frankly, that he displayed far more potential 20 years ago than he's actually realized. As a player and a composer, I don't think he's fully realized the potential that he had in either area. James Carville said something a few years ago. He said once you become famous your job is being famous. And I think Wynton Marsalis' job at this point is being famous.

AAJ: How about the whole school of neo-bop or whatever term you might want to put on it? Do you think these younger musicians should be trying to stretch more?

BK: It depends on who you're talking about. One problem is there are a number of young players who've gotten too much too soon, long before they've matured and long before they're ready to handle it. And some of them have already gone by the wayside.

AAJ: The press and the record contracts early on and then it fades out.

BK: Yeah. I was just reading an interview with Bob Belden in Jazz Times. He said something interesting. He said that the hardest thing for a jazz musician is 'What happens after you turn 40?' He's got a very good point. It ultimately comes down to staying power.

AAJ: Do you see any music out in the vanguard that you like? There's a lot of World Music influences now.

BK: Yeah. There are people out there that are doing it. I'm heartened to see Dave Douglas' success, for example. I've been really impressed with Ingrid Jensen. I think she's an extraordinarily talented player who's really developing a voice of her own. And I think a lot of what's going to be innovative in jazz is going to come about as a result of mixture with various kinds of World Music. Some of the freshest writing I've heard has been from Brazilians. People like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal. And there are various other kinds of world music. Music from Africa. Music from Asia. I think the Europeans are putting their own stamp on things now.

In the Jazz Companion, Mike Zwerin wrote an essay on jazz in Europe. He called jazz the real World Music. And I think he's got a very good point. It's being played and listened to all over the world. Everybody who's doing it is putting their own individual stamp on it. I think that's where the growth is really going to be coming from, from these various kinds of hybrids. And jazz has always been a hybrid. Jazz has been multicultural long before the term became a clich.'

AAJ: Let's get over to the book. It's massive. It must have been extremely daunting when you first got into it.

BK: Oh yeah.

AAJ: You said it took four years? And those are all fresh articles, correct?

BK: Absolutely. Everything was specially commissioned for the book.

AAJ: You spoke a little bit about it in your intro, but when you first looked at this mountain of a project, what did you think?

BK: Well, I thought it was doable. Until you have the actual experience of going through something like that, you have no idea what it's going to entail. But, actually I'm very pleased with the job that everybody did for me. Everybody displayed a high level of commitment and conscientiousness and I can truthfully say, as far as the essays in there, I don't think there's less than a first-rate one on the bunch.

AAJ: Was there anything you had to leave out?

BK: No. I decided on topics ahead of time and went for it. There are always more topics you could put in, but that's not the same as leaving something out. I decided the parameters up-front and just made the phone calls.

AAJ: What kind of process was that, deciding how it's going to be laid out and what it was going to cover?

BK: I basically just made a list of topics I thought should be in there. And then got some good suggestions from Sheldon Meyer at Oxford and from Dan Morgenstern and Gary Giddins. By the time I had gotten their suggestions I had a pretty good handle on what I thought needed to be in there.

AAJ: It touches on individual instruments and styles and some of the important folks over the years. Was it intended to be a jazz history?

BK: It's intended to be, basically, a survey of 100 years worth of music. There's a lot of history involved in it, of course. So, do I call it a history book? Well in part, yes, but not exclusively. It's intended to be a book that could be picked up by anybody, ranging from somebody who's an absolute novice to someone who's extremely knowledgeable. And I think there's information in there that anybody can benefit by. No matter what your level of expertise is, you're going to learn quite a bit from reading this book.

AAJ: But you're not trying to cover every base'like: this happened, then that happened, and this person and that person'

BK: Well, you cover as much as you can within the parameters of the book. There's no way that everything can be covered, but I think the amount that we did cover is very, very substantial. You can learn quite a bit about the usual suspects, but there's quite a bit of other people in there who are less well-known who get covered as well. Just to pick one example, Joel E. Siegel's essay on singers, 'Between Blues and Bebop,' he talked about some well-known singers, but he also talked about people like Valaida Snow or Annette Hanshaw, whom you seldom read about. In the miscellaneous instruments category, Christopher Washburne deals with a lot of people who are pretty obscure, but who made important contributions and that's true throughout the book.

AAJ: I like the idea of going into the separate instruments, because they all have a lineage and a history. If you talk to somebody who's a trombone player, they know. A saxophonist, they can tell you from Coleman Hawkins on through. I thought that was a nice way to approach the topic of jazz. It doesn't necessarily start from Year One and come up; it starts from the instruments themselves and how they fit in.

BK: Absolutely. There are concurrent threads running throughout the book. There are individual bios of people. There are chronological topics, then there are the instruments. And also dealing with separate scenes, such as Japan, or Africa, or Europe, or Canada, or Australia, or Brazil. There are different threads running throughout the book, often in several different ways.

AAJ: I particularly enjoyed one comment in your intro about thanking the inventor of e-mail.

BK: Oh god, yes. I don't know how I would have gotten this book without e-mail. People would send me their drafts, then I would get back to them with comments, they would incorporate the comments and send me another draft. Sometimes that would do it. Sometimes there would be additional comments or something. If it hadn't been for e-mail, this would have been 10 times as laborious a process as it actually was.

AAJ: I don't think you would have ever slept.

BK: Uh-uh. That, or it would have taken a helluva lot longer. Because I was dealing with people all over the world.

AAJ: You mentioned the Miles book took five years and this one four. Was that a factor? Back when you did the Miles book you didn't have that kind of communication.

BK: There are various reasons. With the Miles book, it was an anthology of previously published stuff, so I had to go through the extremely laborious process and tedious and time-consuming process of getting permissions to re-print. Some of those took seemingly forever. With this [The Companion], it was starting from scratch. I would go to people and say, 'Write this and send it in. Once it's OK, you get paid.' End of story. I had much more control over the process with this one. I didn't have to go looking for permissions from people.

AAJ: The response was good from the people you asked?

BK: Yeah. I didn't get turned down by many people. Fewer than I expected. I was very happy with the affirmative responses that I got.

AAJ: Anyone you were surprised you were able to enlist?

BK: No, not really. There were some people I didn't know before. A lot of the people I did know before, to varying degrees. There were some people I was meeting for the first time. Somebody like Mike Zwerin, I'd been reading his writings for years, but that was the first time we met. There were a few others like that, and then there were a few people who were recommended to me by other contributors. I was just happy to get everybody that I got.

AAJ: So you're obviously pleased with the product.

BK: Yes, very.

AAJ: It's huge, but I think it will make an impression on people. So today, are you a composer, arranger, writer, historian?

BK: All of the above. Composer, arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, jazz historian, record producer, radio producer, educator. Partly that's by choice, partly that's by necessity. I mean, unless you're one of the anointed few who gets the fat record contracts and the promotional pushes and all the lucrative bookings, it's what one must do to make a living as a jazz musician. There are a number of people I know who have taken similar paths for similar reasons. Richard Sudhalter, Bob Belden, Loren Schoenberg, Kenny Washington, myself and others. We've all taken these multifarious paths, and that's part of what you've got to do to make a living as a jazz musician in the beginning of the 21st Century.

AAJ: The future of jazz in general. You and many others, your livelihood depends on that. Does that look good to you? Do you see problems for the music in general?

BK: Put it this way: I'm old enough to remember in the late 60s when people were going around, with absolute seriousness, saying 'Jazz is dead.' So it's 30-some years later and it's still around. I don't know how well it's doing. You read the reports of jazz record sales as a percentage of the overall market. A decade ago it was about 4 or 5 percent, now it's less than 2. So I don't know what that means. Of those, probably at least half, or more, are reissues. So, it's in a period of transition, to be sure. And I think jazz is going to be around for a long time. What form it's going to take? I don't know any more than anyone else. I think it's continuing to grow, but I think the nature of its growth is changing. Whereas in the past, we kind of depended on and expected the appearance, about once every 10 years, of a new seminal figure. A Louie Armstrong, a Duke Ellington, a Lester Young, a Charlie Parker, a Miles Davis, a John Coltrane.

I think the growth is going to come in a more subtle and less spectacular way from a variety of sources, and a variety of people. And it's not going to come from a handful of giants, the way it has in the past. There hasn't been a single musician since Coltrane died who's had the kind of impact that Coltrane had on virtually every aspect of the music. And some 30 years later I think people are getting accustomed to the fact that that's the way it's going to be and the music is going to grow in a different way. I think they're getting accustomed to that and accepting it. Whereas, until recently, many people were in a panic.

AAJ: Waiting for the next prophet.

BK: Exactly. The music is on the move; it's just in a different way. The influences are coming from all over the place. Mike Zwerin in his essay on jazz in Europe said something good. He said it's moving closer to the ground. I think that's a very good point.

AAJ: I think projects like yours help it, and people like you help it.

BK: Thank you.

AAJ: If you suddenly had the opportunity to play more and compose and concentrate on performing, would that be what you'd prefer?

BK: Probably, yes. Although I wouldn't want to cut everything else loose. Part of it is simple self-preservation. You know that even when things get good in a certain area, you know the bottom can suddenly drop out without warning, So I think it's just prudent to keep as many balls in the air, if I may use a juggling metaphor. I think it's good to keep all those balls in the air as much as possible, because things can change overnight in any given area.

AAJ: I admire your energy. You've gotten a lot of awards in various fields, are there any you hold above others?

BK: I've never quite thought of it that way. I've got a Grammy, I've got a NAIRD Indie award. I'm pleased with having both of those. But the main reward is just doing it. I feel like I've hit home runs in all these areas that I've been involved in, and I'm very proud of that. I think the reward is doing work that you're proud of.

AAJ: Future projects?

BK: Oh a couple of book projects that are in the wind and some other music projects of my own that are also in formation. Basically, keeping out there in as many different ways as possible. It's like John Hicks, the pianist, said: 'If you're not appearing, you're disappearing.' So the main job of all of us in this business is to keep appearing.

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