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Chris Walden: Big Band Magic With No Bounds

Victor L. Schermer By

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I would actually say it
Chris WaldenChris Walden is a highly gifted and creative composer and arranger who is equally at home writing and conducting music for film, TV, and jazz venues. Based in Los Angeles, he came to the U.S. from Germany in 1996, where, in his twenties, he had already established a fine reputation in multiple aspects of the music business. His recent Grammy nominations for his debut big band CD Home of My Heart (Origin, 2005) and the release of the follow-up CD, No Bounds (Origin, 2006), provided the occasion for an All About Jazz interview. I wanted to pick his brains about the big band, the inside story of how a composer-arranger works creatively, and how he made the cultural transition from Germany to America.

On August 7, 2006, I called Walden at his home in Bel Air, California, and he proved to be a delightful person with a winning spontaneity and candor. His ever so slight German accent gave an international feel to the dialogue, and his insightful understanding of music and life made the interview stream forth as it makes his music flow into interesting pathways and byways. It is as much a pleasure to talk with him as it is to listen to his music. I think you'll very much enjoy and be enlightened by what Chris has to say.

Chapter Index

Coming Up in Germany
Adjusting to the Music Business in L.A.
Composing, Arranging and Conducting for the Big Band
Working With Vocalists
The European Influence and Other Subjects

All About Jazz: OK, we'll begin with what seems to be my trademark first question: the notorious desert island. What are a few recordings and perhaps musical scores you'd take with you to that desert island?

Chris Walden: The first recording that comes to mind is The Bill Evans Trio with Orchestra, arranged by Claus Ogerman. That's really high on my list. And also a recording of Brahms' Symphony No. 4. And Miles Davis with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead, with "The Duke, the first recording they did in that series.

AAJ: You didn't mention any saxophonists.

CW: When it comes to sax players, probably something of Mike Brecker.

Coming Up in Germany

AAJ: Your many accomplishments and credits are remarkable, especially since, in your photos, you look very young.

CW: I'm thirty-nine. But most people think I'm younger. In my profession, when you go to conduct an orchestra, or audition for a film, or have a meeting with producers, they often expect somebody gray-haired. I had a few experiences, especially in Germany, in my late twenties, I'd walk in, and they'd say, "Oh, you must be Mr. Walden's driver, or "Could you send in your dad? [Laughter.] And when you're standing in front of an orchestra, it can actually hurt you if you look young on the podium. They're often older musicians, and they often don't take you seriously. For me, I have to prove within the first five minutes that I know what I'm talking about. And my music speaks for itself. I started early, and I was thrown into cold water, so to speak, very early on.

AAJ: You started out in Germany. You're originally from Hamburg?

CW: Yes. My mother is a classical choir singer. So from a very early age, I already saw musicians coming to our house for rehearsals. Since my mother was into old Renaissance and Baroque music, these musicians were bringing old instruments, like Baroque trombones and viola da gambas, and lutes! I asked these musicians if I could try out these instruments, and a few of them let me do it. That fascinated me. And then at age seven, I started playing piano. At age 13, I picked up the trumpet, and that almost naturally led me to jazz and big band. I played trumpet in my high school big band.

AAJ: How did you first start listening to jazz? Were there nightclubs in Hamburg, recordings, radio?

CW: My parents occasionally took me to jazz concerts and jazz clubs, like Sunday matinees when they allowed kids in. I was hooked, and I wanted to do that too. My first record was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie Live at Birdland. "Night in Tunisia was the first jazz song I ever transcribed from a recording. Then, my trumpet teachers taught me a little bit of jazz. At age 16, I started earning my first money as a musician, playing on weekends in casual bands and dance bands. At about the same time, I started taking an interest in arrangements. I transcribed "Jumpin' at the Woodside for my high school big band. At some point, I joined the German National Youth Big Band, had just been founded in 1986 or 1987. Their conductor, Peter Herbolzheimer, was really responsible for my later career, as he encouraged me to write for that band and also took me under his wing for the arrangements he did for the local radio big bands. He gave me the opportunity to arrange for those bands.

At that time, in the 1980s, almost every German city had a fully employed radio big band. That was very unique, unlike the U.S. or any other European country. The only exception was the U.K., which had big bands funded by public radio. These bands consisted of great players, and they rehearsed, recorded, and worked every day, and they needed parts and arrangements every day, so there was a big demand for arrangements. So by the time I was 20 or 21, I was staff arranger for one of those radio big bands.

AAJ: How do you learn to be an arranger?

CW: Well, I learned by taking down arrangements I liked, arrangements for the Basie Band, for example. I just transcribed them. And then I also learned it from Peter Herbolzheimer. He really didn't teach me to do it this way or that way. He just said, "Do it, and then whenever we played it through, I heard what does and does not work. I think to this day that that's the best learning experience for any composer or arranger—to hear what you write.

Later on, when I then studied composition and arrangement at the University of Cologne, I was the only one in my class fortunate enough to actually hear my work. The others wrote their pieces and showed it to the teacher, who said "It's good or "It's not good, but there was no chance for the students to hear why it's good or not good. Whatever we wrote in composition and arrangement class, we never had a chance to actually listen to it being played. And that's what you need—you need to listen to how it sounds being played by the musicians. And I was lucky enough to have that opportunity. On the other hand, I wasn't really allowed to screw up! I always had to be careful when I tried out something new, because it was always for a professional, real life production. But my philosophy was always to write just what I knew musicians could play, and slowly tried something new, but always in ways I knew would be safe. So that's how I learned.

AAJ: Did you woodshed your work on the piano before you wrote it down?

CW: Yes, I would play it on the piano before I wrote it.

AAJ: At that time, and also today, which have been some of your own favorites among the big bands?

CW: Basie was one of the first big bands I really liked, and to this day it's still one of my favorites. It was from the period where they had composers/arrangers like Neil Hefti, Sam Nestico—late fifties, early sixties. The band sounded never better than then. But later I got into more contemporary big band writers. I'm a big fan of Bob Florence and Bill Holman and Bob McConnell, that's a Canadian band. And Bob Brookmeyer. Thad Jones.

AAJ: How about the swing bands: Les Elgart, the Dorseys, Benny Goodman? Did they influence you at all?

CW: Not that much. I started listening to jazz in the late seventies, and those bands were all gone by then. I discovered those bands later. After I discovered Basie and Ellington, I found the swing bands like Dorsey and Goodman. I liked them, but I was never such a big fan as I was of the Basie band. For me, the Dorsey Band, early Woody Herman, and Artie Shaw, were more like dance bands, and they served a certain purpose in my view, to play music more for dance than for listening. Not that I didn't respect it, but for me it was not so much listening music.

AAJ: I'm interested in social and historical issues, and if it's not being too inquisitive, I'd like to ask you the following. As you know, the recent generations in Germany have had to do a great deal of soul searching about the Nazi Era and the Holocaust. Can you tell us if that was a significant part of your own life, and whether you yourself needed to work out some of those issues of guilt, historical truth, social responsibility, and so on?

CW: Oh, definitely. I come from a fairly unique background, since my mother is from Switzerland, and my father is from Germany. On my mother's side, I'm actually part-Jewish, since my grandmother was half-Jewish. And my dad, even though he was born in 1933, and by the time the Nazi Era was over, he was twelve years old, he was very much influenced by those times. And he was pretty much what you would call a left winger in Germany, not really Communist, but a social democrat.

So I was raised in a very much politically conscious family. And from early on, my parents made me very aware of our German history. And I always felt that, even though I was born in 1966, Germany to this day has the inherited responsibility never to let something like the Holocaust happen again. Whenever I heard others talk as if, well, some day we'll have to forget it, I always objected and said that my opinion is that we shall never forget! That it will never happen again. And even when I see something like that going on anywhere in the world, I feel the Germans have a responsibility to object, even if it's elsewhere that another country is coming to something similar. That's also why, rightfully I think, Germany opted out of the Iraq war. Because of Germany's own past, they knew the dangers.

AAJ: It's so heartwarming to hear you have that position and for you to speak these words. I hope you'll continue during your life to take a strong stand. I think we all need to. In fact, in the jazz business as such, the racism that affected African Americans and the opposition to that played such an important part in jazz history. I feel that it's part of the music itself to stand up for humanity and equal rights.

CW: Oh, absolutely. And then, coming back to jazz during the Nazi times, when I was 16 or 17, I discovered German jazz history. A remote uncle of mine was a big jazz fan during the Nazi times. He told me fascinating stories about how he and his friends got together during the Nazi period and traded jazz records, all secretly, of course. How they rented a small boat, and took a gramophone out on the lake, and listened to jazz records! It was the only safe place for them to do it!

I read lots of books and followed the biographies of German jazz musicians in the Nazi years, and there was a jazz thing going on, just secretly. And that's also why in the fifties Germany had such a flourishing jazz scene, because after WWII, there was such a vacuum in Germany, and the American occupiers brought all this interesting music that the German people hadn't had a chance to listen to.

It opened up a lot of possibilities for German musicians after the Second World War. Jazz was so in demand, and there were very few people capable of playing that sort of music, so that a lot of my early idols like Peter Herbolzheimer, and other early German band leaders that I had the pleasure to work with, and I asked them about that time and they told me that it was like a Gold Rush in the early fifties for German jazz musicians. They worked constantly in American G.I. clubs, where they hired German jazz musicians. It was a flourishing time for them.

AAJ: I'm not sure about the precise time period, but Chet Baker was stationed in Germany.

CW: Chet Baker was stationed in Germany around the same time. And then it was also the time that a lot of American jazz musicians were drug addicts, and went to Europe for one or another reason—to get sober or run away from law enforcement or something. And a lot of them stayed in Europe and were coming in the fifties and sixties to Germany. People like Herb Geller, Bobby Burgess, and they became musicians in the radio big bands.

AAJ: Dexter Gordon....

CW: Dexter Gordon was in Paris for a long time.

AAJ: The European audiences were much more appreciative and enthusiastic about jazz than in the U.S. in fact.

CW: Yes. And jazz musicians who could only work in jazz clubs in the U.S. filled concert halls in Europe. It was a fascinating time. I researched it a lot, and I'm still researching it. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


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