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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.

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