Bill Kirchner: Renaissance Man

R.J. DeLuke By

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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 It won't get outdated.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.
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