Chuck Israels: Tribute to Bill Evans

Robin Arends By

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The method for making jazz is a wonderful method for making jazz and not a good method for making other music. —Chuck Israels
Isn't it nice to meet someone who takes time for a good chat in these hectic times? Especially if this person has a lot to tell, carries the living memory of an important part of jazz history, and is called Chuck Israels?

Bassist/arranger/composer Chuck Israels is in expansive form for this interview conducted in a room of a former monastery in Oegstgeest, a small town in the Netherlands near the North Sea. He is happy to be reunited again with his long-time friend and pianist Hod O'Brien. During the interview, in the small hall beneath the room, Margot, Israels' wife and companion, a professional singer herself, is on the lookout for a good chair to have a perfect view of her husband who is preparing for a concert with his trio.

Israels, who has played on some of the leading albums in jazz history, started his career playing with Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, and is best known for his work with Bill Evans' trio in the early 1960's. He is still very active and frequently tours with his orchestra and trio throughout Europe and the United States. In May he will accompany drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath during a performance in honor of Heaths' 79th birthday. Recently he published the album Second Wind (Soulpatch Music Productions, 2013), a tribute to Evans.

All About Jazz: You are 77 now and have been professionally active in music for six decades. What has changed in jazz music since you started performing in the mid 1950's?

Chuck Israels: We are living in a different world. In the mid 60's the baby boom generation reached adolescence. There were suddenly 76 million teenagers with money. With so many adolescents, the culture that had been supported by educated adults was overtaken by uneducated adolescents. And this young population was pandered to by the music industry. The industry gave them what they wanted: popular music designed for, and often created and performed by teenagers. Nowadays it is possible for an adult to grow up and live his entire life without being exposed to any good music. The space is now taken up by this commercially manufactured imitation of music. So things are very different.

AAJ:How did the world look like in your childhood?

CI:I grew up in a golden age of popular musical culture—like the Elizabethan theater was the golden age of theater. I thought it was normal. All this richness, the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen, now is classical music. In history, great music has always been supported by specially educated people. The best music has been supported by the court, or other elements of elite society.

AAJ: And today?

CI:Today even fairly educated jazz musicians are sucked in by the erroneous idea that jazz must be associated with its contemporary popular music. Jazz was created as a more complex and more interesting way of creating popular music, building on popular music. That was a good idea when the building blocks were strong. But today even the "OK" popular music is not strong. So that is a serious problem. The world that created good jazz music no longer exists.

AAJ: So today jazz musicians should use Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, George Gershwin as their starting point?

CI: Yes, you have to build on to something. The idea that anyone is original and comes up with his own ideas is not really accurate. You have a personality which has been developed by which ideas you take and which ones you reject, but it all comes from behind. You can't start with John Coltrane and go from there. That doesn't work.

AAJ: You were part of the golden age of jazz yourself playing with Billie Holiday, Stan Getz and Eric Dolphy; your career reads like a who's who in jazz music. How do you look back at this?

CI: In most cases it was the normal world. If I played with Roy Haynes or with Kenny Clarke I was thrilled, but it did become rather normal. Otherwise, not everyone who does something very well gets known. So there were also a number of other people whose names are not on your list who are also really good and who nourished my artistic growth including Hod O'Brien [the pianist who accompanied Israels during his 2013 European tour], whom I've known since 1955. He plays beautifully.

AAJ: You studied the cello and played guitar in junior high school. A few years later you turned to the bass. Why did you choose this instrument?

CI: I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because I was going to become an engineer and I went to the first MIT-symphony rehearsal with my cello. When I looked around, there were 12 other cellists and no bass players and 4 or 5 basses in the instrument room. The particular cello that I had was not a good one. I loved the cello but didn't like my cello, it didn't have a good sound. So I wasn't that interested in playing. I thought: "Let me see what these basses are like and there were 2 or 3 of them that sounded very good to me. 12 cellists, no bass players, nice bass, lousy cello": I decided: "I'll play the bass!" It is one of those things that just happen. And I enjoyed it. I picked up the bass and played it without any training. The bass strings are tuned as the bottom four strings of the guitar, so I knew where the notes were and the technique is simply an oversize version of cello technique, it's not different, it's just bigger. I did that and one thing led to another.

AAJ: Which bassist inspired you most?

CI: I'm inspired by Oscar Pettiford and Hod O'Brien was Oscar's pianist. Hod and I were friends. So I would go and check my friend play. He was playing with a great bassist and I liked it a lot.

AAJ: Who are you inspired by nowadays?

CI: Well, that's difficult. I like Christian McBride's playing very much! There are other ones, less well known, like Yasushi Nakamura who is a young Japanese-American bassist in New York who plays very well. We are friends and he plays in a band of a friend of mine. I have helped Yasushi a lot. There are some others as well. I think Peter Washington is a very good bassist. Rodney Whitaker and Reginald Veal. But I'm not really that interested in the bass. I play the bass because it puts me in a nice position to play with other people. In fact I am a composer and arranger.

AAJ: You were 25 when you started to play with Bill Evans.

CI: Well, as far as the experience of playing in a group with other musicians goes, it is the best experience I had, with the exception of the situations that I control now. I can say with considerable assurance that the situations I control now are modeled on the successful elements that I have taken from my experience with Bill's music. That doesn't mean the music is identical but it means that I have extracted the whole esthetic system that made that work, and held on to it in new situations.

AAJ:You played in his trio for five, nearly six years. How was the experience of playing in this trio?

CI:It's not easy to find other musicians who can understand how Bill's trio did what it did. And in order to make something like that music happen I needed to write a lot more than I would write in a trio. I have an octet that I write for, and there I can control high, low, loud, soft, dense, spacious, conflicted or resolved, I can change colors, I control the dynamics. I control a lot more with a larger group, because the individual people—while their personal contribution is not only important, but essential—still don't control what a pianist controls in a trio. If I were with a piano trio I would give up much control to the pianist. Mostly those situations are not fully satisfying. I'm a little bit of a control freak in that area of my life.

AAJ: You took the place of Scott LaFaro who died in 1961. How do you rate his impact on bass playing?

CI:He had a terrific, an enormous input on bass playing but, as is usual in the world, there are several people at the same time who are thinking the same way and doing the same things. If it hadn't been for Watson and Crick, the DNA- discovering people, someone else would have found it. Many were searching for it at the time, and they were both good and lucky. What was going on with Scotty's playing was happening with a few other people—and I was one of them—who heard music that way, and it wasn't such an enormous revolution. We didn't think that quarter notes and half notes were the only note values that you can play.

Scotty was far more competitive for attention in the trio than I was, I was much happier to assume an accompanying role. I didn't find that the least bit boring. I didn't need attention all the time. I was delighted to be a part of the sound of Bills' music and to do that in such a way that it was a lot less competitive, it was much more embracing Bill's esthetics and trying to find my way inside the music. It was partly because he [La Faro] was more developed and more confident than I was at that time. Never in my entire life have I felt I had to go far beyond what Bill was doing. Only to be personal in my own way.

AAJ: So La Faro took much space, playing like he was equal to Evans?

CI: Yes, and I think he took up as much space and tried to be equally interesting, but, as great as he was, I think he wasn't nearly as interesting as Bill. I think Bill was much more, he was an extraordinarily complete musician.

AAJ: Later on you focused on arranging/composing and teaching music at the university level. Between 1973 and 1981 you conducted the National Jazz Ensemble.

CI: Yes, I had started writing three or four years before and I have had some rehearsal bands. Then the National Jazz Ensemble became a way for me to get funding by embracing the idea that we would play not only my music but [Duke] Ellington's music and Basie's music and Gerry Mulligan's band music. All that music was available but wasn't being played. We would be like a symphony orchestra that could play Bartok and Mozart the same night. I used that as a model. Some musicians were very enthusiastic.

I had no idea at that time how lucky I was to have Jimmy Maxwell as the lead trumpet player and Jimmy Knepper as the lead trombone player. To come in every day and to have these people working for me and with me, respecting my work, was a pretty remarkable thing. It was a greater honor than I realized at that time. In retrospect, I recognize that. You never know when it is "the good old days."

AAJ: What happened to the Orchestra?

CI: Running the NJE was a big struggle economically and administratively, not artistically, and I didn't understand how much energy I should have put into either doing that myself or finding someone who could do it well. You need to have money and the possibilities to do the work and that was very difficult. Sixteen people is a lot of people. It was a small industry. And then Margot, my wife, got a job, singing in the San Francisco Opera Company. It was her turn to do something, so we went to San Francisco. And that was a revolution to go from New York to San Francisco!

AAJ: Nowadays you work a lot with European jazz musicians. How do you look at the development of European Jazz?

CI: I see some European musicians who want to play jazz and some European musicians who want to use jazz techniques to make some other kind of music that isn't jazz at all. Most of it isn't good music because they are using the wrong tools to make the kind of music that they want to make. There is more than 400 years history of European music and how do you use that? What kinds of processes created Chopin and what kind of processes created Debussy or Fauré, Ligeti or Lutoslawsky? Those people are not using jazz technique. The method for making jazz is a wonderful method for making jazz and not a good method for making other music. To me it is a sad situation that doesn't produce anything that interests me. There is not enough development in it, there is not enough rhythmic interest in it. It is some kind of background music that I don't care for. There are some American people doing the same thing, I'm just as bored by them.

AAJ: There is still an audience for contemporary jazz. A few months ago your colleague Peter Ind said to me: "In striving to become cleverer than the next player, many jazz musicians have lost their following—simply by becoming too clever." Do you agree with him?

CI: Yes and no. Yes, any kind of music, any kind of art, can become too clever for its own good, It can reduce its audiences only to those who are in the inside track. Nevertheless, every kind of art has to have an educated audience. There is no such thing as universal language. Even music is not a universal language. Chinese music is not my music. There are elements of West-African music in my music, so when I hear West-African music I recognize these elements, but West-African music doesn't speak to me like American music does. We have our limitations in our spoken languages as well. If you don't know the idiom you lose the nuances. When we are conversing I am making the considerable effort to try to be as clear as possible so that we can overcome what possible gaps there may be in familiarity with the vocabulary and the nuances of words. It takes an effort.

AAJ: And what does that mean, related to contemporary jazz music?

CI:There are two polarities: pandering—I explained before—and overcomplexity, things that get too complicated and too self-referential and repetitive. Somewhere in the middle is a big area that has enough complexity and development to be interesting and enough simplicity and directness to reach people where it can connect with their history and their emotional responses. So you can't get entirely away from folk music. I don't want to stay there either, but I don't want to throw it away and say there are no elements of this in my music. I never think of this when I am writing music. I simply write what sounds good to me. I think that when you learn what sounds good to you, you have to be careful that you are writing what sounds good to you and not what you think is going to bring people's attention to you, because you are doing something clever.

AAJ: Maybe jazz, as we call it now, is a thing of the past?

CI: If you are asking me who is making new jazz music now that is interesting to me? Then I'll answer: I have yet to hear it. After Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, early Sonny Rollins, the best of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, before they became panderers. Those were great things and, believe me, I hear the difference when I hear Dave Douglas or Bill Frisell, even Wayne Shorter. I know they are not doing that. People who believe they are, have a very different idea of music than I do. It is OK to be connected to folk music but when Bill Frisell plays his music it is not interesting to me. In the same way Aaron Copland's Americana music is not powerful to me, the way Bernstein's music is. It feels superficial to me.

Durability is the only test. When you are fifty years from now, will you still put on a Miles Davis fusion record, like On the Corner (Columbia, 1972), Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) or Water Babies (Columbia, 1976)? Maybe, but most of the stuff before that was better and will last longer. I compare the various qualities it has with the qualities of other durable music. I compare it with Bach, Stravinsky and Bartok. It reminds me of that pretty strongly. And other things you like for a moment and then it evaporates.

AAJ: We are living in a different world...

CI: Jazz came from a particular period under certain conditions, as Baroque music did. What is the future of Baroque music? It is still there, and it still gives us satisfaction, but that particular kind of music is unlikely to happen again. What is the future of Romantic Music? Also those conditions are gone. You cannot stop the human spirit. Some creative, wonderful thing will happen but it will not be likely to be this particular thing, and I feel blessed to have lived in the period of this, because it is so resonant for me, and perhaps it is resonant for me because I lived in that period.

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