The International Association for Jazz Education's annual conference January 11-14 offered ample opportunities to not only hear great music, but to hear the stories behind it from some true music masters.
I managed to catch interviews with Billy Taylor, Clark Terry and writer Dan Morgenstern, but missed out on a rare chance to hear Sonny Rollins because the hotel ballroom where he spoke was filled to capacity.
Dr. Taylor is "thinking about" writing an autobiography. Terry has written one, yet to be published. Morgenstern's Living with Jazz came out not long ago. All three interviews were chock full of these jazz icons' insights and wonderful anecdotes about their long careers that are sure to make their books rewarding reads.
Taylor, pianist, composer, educator, TV advocate for jazz, dwelt on his early days in New York, where he came from his native Washington, D.C. He was awed on his first visit to find himself playing piano in the company of Willie "The Lion" Smith and Thelonious Monk, at the home of James P. Johnson in Harlem.
Later, in the early 1940s, he was invited to audition for Ben Webster's band at the fabled Three Deuces club, and discovered to his shock that Art Tatum was in the audience. He won the job, but years later, meeting Tatum, he inquired whether the maestro recalled how he'd played that night. "It was fast" was the diplomatic reply.
There was a memorable encounter with Duke Ellington. Taylor was by then the house pianist at Birdland, where Duke's band was making its first appearance, drawing a huge and boisterous crowd. The place was abuzz as the first set ended. Ellington, ever gracious, took the mike and called for silence. "There's a young pianist here from my home town, and I'd like to sit and listen to him," Ellington said. You could hear a pin drop after that, a grateful Taylor recalled.
Taylor discussed his role in founding the Jazzmobile in New York, his long career hosting radio and TV shows, his hope to someday record the six works he's composed for symphony orchestra. He also recounted the battle he fought after waking one morning to discover a stroke had robbed him of the ability to play. Thankfully, he's overcome that.
On jazz today: "There's too much division. Jazz people need to join as one voice to say, "this music is important."
The low key, mellow musings of Taylor were in contrast to the effervescence exuded by Clark Terry, aided and abetted by interviewer Nat Hentoff. Terry's body has been slowed by age and ailment, but his mind remains as crackling sharp as the trumpet solos he once contributed to both the Basie and Ellington bands.
As a youngster of 12, he was befriended by Sy Oliver in St. Louis and wangled his way into rehearsals of Dewey Jackson's band. After he tried out his chops on a borrowed horn, "someone told me, 'son, you're gonna be a trumpet player.' And I was stupid enough to believe him."
Terry talked about his early fling at boxing. There's a funny story there, but I'm letting him save the "punch line" for his book. He reminisced about learning to play from older hands in the big bands, lamenting that that kind of education is now passed into history. He himself became a mentor, early on, to both Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, two "skinny kids" trying for a break.
Terry spoke of Ellington's genius for hiring distinctive players and then composing music that showed off their strengths. And of Basie's mastery of time and space. An example:
Arranger Neal Hefti brought a new tune and the band played it through. "Too fast," exclaimed Basie afterward. He reined it in, and what emerged was the beautiful, languid ballad, "Little Darling."
Terry was asked about New Orleans post-Katrina. "It wouldn't seem right for this world not to have New Orleans," he said sadly. Amen to that.
Terry is proud that a new music building at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., will be named for him and will be the repository for his collection of jazz artifacts.
Near the end, Terry was asked for an encore of his "Mumbles" routine. He obliged with a nonsensical poem, richly accented total gibberish, ending with: "And if I keep talking like this, I might get elected."
Got my vote, Mumbles.
Living with Jazz is the Dan Morgenstern memoir, going back to his family's fleeing from Austria to Denmark in 1930s, his first encounter with jazz "in the flesh" when Fats Waller played in Copenhagen, his emigration to the U.S. at the outset of World War II and his immersion in the jazz world in Boston in the late 1940s as a Brandeis student and concert promoter who got to know George Wein. He also became a lifelong friend and admirer of Louis Armstrong, whom he speaks of with reverence.
Much of his interview was about the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, which he's headed for 30-some years. It's got one of the world's great collections of jazz records100,000 of themliterature, magazines, news clippings and memorabilia. It's open to all, Morgenstern said, then, with a twinkling eye, "With collectors, we keep a close watch on them."