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Out and About: The Super Fans

Meet Tony Gleeson

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Jazz is about endless possibilities, like life, so it’s always something new, fresh and provocative. There’s always a reason to come back.
—Tony Gleeson

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I'm an artist by vocation and a musician by avocation (I've played guitar all my life and picked up keyboards a couple of decades back). Music of all kinds has always been a major part of my life, but early on I made the choice to pursue the visual arts as my career. I spent my so-called formative years on the east coast, in upstate New York, Washington DC, and New York City. When I attended art school in Los Angeles, I fell in love with southern California and after a few years back in Manhattan, I persuaded my wife Annie to move there— quite an adventurous step for her as she'd never been on the West Coast. We've been Angelenos since 1977. We have three grown kids pursuing their own lives and adventures, but the house is hardly empty or still with our two cats, Django and Mingus, and our bird Charlie.

Annie's been an NICU RN and I've run an illustration and design studio ever since we got here. I figure I've had around a thousand illustrations published: magazines, newspapers, book covers, catalogues and product illustrations. I've also done concept art for film, TV, advertising, and toy and product design.

I was a bookseller for several years early in the new millennium. I'm also a writer, with ten crime novels published in Britain and the United States. The most recent, A Different Kind of Dead, was released in the U.S. by Wildside in 2021. The new one, Find the Money, also by Wildside, is due for release before this year's end. I'm kind of a polymath with a lot of interests (including film, baseball, classic mysteries, science fiction, and comic art) that tend to veer into obsessions.

I've always had a lot of musician friends and can relate to them at least as well as I do to my artist colleagues. In fact, I joke that I used to see myself as kind of a visual "session guy."

What's your earliest memory of music?

There were all kinds of 45s played on the old phonograph when I was a toddler in the early '50s. I recall those colored labels on records by Les Paul, Stan Kenton, Spike Jones, Frankie Laine, The Weavers, Ella Mae Morse—just a weird and wonderful conglomeration! My older brother, Paul brought home scads of blues, rockabilly, rhythm & blues, and early rock and roll—singles by Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and so forth. That same brother later became enamored with a lot of jazz artists, and that's how I first heard Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Anita O'Day, and many others. By my teens, I had a very unorthodox musical background. Like most kids my age, I gravitated to rock at the time when the Beatles and other English bands were arriving, but I also was aware of the original background of a lot of the music those groups were playing. In early adolescence I bought a lot of singles, mostly pop/rock. I was fond of finding unusual stuff that nobody else had heard of. I have to admit I didn't have a great interest in jazz through my high school and college years, though I was certainly aware of a lot of what was going on, particularly in the late '60s when Miles began his electric adventures with Bitches' Brew.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

I was about eleven when my brother brought home Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. That one really stuck with me for some reason, and it figured in my becoming a rabid jazz fan—but not right away. It wasn't until over a decade later that it actually opened the door for me.

The real epiphany was when I moved to New York after art school in the early '70s. That's where I met Annie, the lovely lady who was to become my wife. She had a collection of jazz records including a number of artists I had heard of but was not familiar with: John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders, Ahmad Jamal. This was a new world for me. To get on her good side, I dug back into my memories and went searching for an LP of Kind of Blue (which she didn't know, strangely) for her birthday. In those days, that recording was not an easy thing to find, even in Manhattan! I recall going to three or four midtown Manhattan record stores in search of the LP and encountering more than one store employee scratching their head at my inquiry. It's not like it was totally unavailable, just required some effort on my part. I had no trouble finding lots of other albums by Miles, so whether it was a supply or a demand issue at the time, or just one of those cusps between reissues, I don't know. But hey, you should have to put some effort into a memorable birthday gift, right? Especially when it turns out to be for the person you spend the rest of your life with!

As Annie and I got to know each other better, I also got to know her record collection better and started exploring and contributing to it with increasing gusto. There were decent radio stations in New York for me to hear new (to me) things—I particularly remember DJ Les Davis on WRVR-FM—and plenty of record stores for me to stop into on my way home from work. There's just something about jazz that gets you under its spell. And that's the journey I've been on ever since, finding new and interesting recordings, reading in detail about the history of the music and its people, and happily discovering kindred souls along the route.

How long have you been going out to hear live jazz?

The first live jazz I experienced was in the mid '70s, so we're talking close to a half a century. It would have been either Return to Forever at a midtown Manhattan venue (I forget which one but remember the acoustics were great), or one of Norman Granz's Pablo festivals with Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, et al; that was at Carnegie Hall and was absolutely amazing! Two very different approaches to the music but each in its own way a pretty memorable door-opener to someone about to step in. My first intimate club experience was probably hearing Sonny Fortune and Charles Mingus; it's certainly the one I remember vividly, and it was something of an epiphany because of the immediacy of it all. There was still an element of newness to what I was hearing that made it particularly wonderful. When we decided to make the move from New York to Los Angeles in 1977, many of my Manhattanite friends expressed dismay, saying things like, "You're not going to find anything interesting out there, and it's especially going to be much harder to find jazz!" The funny thing is, I found TONS of it out here. There were plenty of live venues, record stores packed with great stuff to discover, and for a while, not one but two jazz radio stations, KBCA (later KKGO) and KLON (which became KKJZ). I began to make friends who were active musicians and rabid enthusiasts. If anything, I was able to delve even deeper into the music as an Angeleno! My adopted hometown is for sure the farthest thing from a wasteland!

How often do you go out to hear jazz?

Unfortunately, in recent years, we haven't had the occasion to go to many clubs or concerts. The pandemic just made it even more problematic. A lot of the live jazz I've heard lately has been on a smaller scale with some of the terrific local artists that show up at sometimes impromptu jams. But that's a great thing about living in Los Angeles, which is crawling with great musicians; there are always new ones to discover and meet.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

I'd say the fact that anything can happen. Life's all about stuff that just happens when you're lucky enough to be there. You just might be present for something memorable. I can liken it to another of my loves, baseball. There is nothing like the sheer thrill of going to a major league game and seeing some of the most celebrated players in the world at the top of their game. But I've also been known to stop and watch softball games, high school games, even little leaguers, and it's the game itself that "jazzes" me. I get the same feeling when I catch friends and other local musicians playing at a coffee house or an outdoor concert—or in Covid times just setting up out front of a home or school. As soon as the language starts to be spoken and that collective simpatico starts, this wonderful thing begins to happen.

What are the elements of an amazing jazz concert?

That's a hard one to quantify. As soon as the language starts to be spoken and that collective simpatico starts, this wonderful thing begins to happen, where the players are in their zone individually and collectively and they pull the audience in with them. You might not be able to describe it or explain it but you definitely know when it's happening!

One of my all-time favorite live performances was Charles Mingus' at the Bottom Line in Manhattan in January 1977. Somehow Mingus, hardly a small man, jammed himself, his bass, and his entire band (at least a sextet) onto a fairly small bandstand. It was around the time of Cumbia and Jazz Fusion; the band was with Jack Walrath, Ricky Ford, and of course Dannie Richmond, augmented by a bass clarinet and other players.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

Eric Dolphy, at any point of his career, with anyone. Because as great and often inconceivable as almost all of his recorded performances are, I have to believe that hearing him in person would be an even more profound experience. Maybe I could stop shaking my head and saying "I don't believe he could do what he just did." Oh, man, there are so many great musicians and bands I would have loved to be able to see in person. The great Miles Davis sextet with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Bill Evans. Art Blakey's The Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter. John Coltrane's classic quartet in their 1964-65 heyday. Just to hear one of those perfect storms of great musicians all at their peak creating that mystical synergy among one another. To be present at one of those moments....

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?

JAX, in Glendale. It was close to us and easily accessible, always had fine talent and a friendly atmosphere and, as a bonus, had really good BBQ ribs! I'm sad to say I never got to the legendary and relatively short-lived Blue Whale in downtown LA. My friend, the bassist Matt Cory, played there many times with various people. There was, I don't know, some kind of jinx on me every time I planned to go.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

Yes, a nice illustration of how the love of this music connects us: I was meeting with an art director to discuss an illustration project I was being considered for. We were just talking over coffee, and it came up that I was a jazz fan. His eyes narrowed conspiratorially and he said, "So tell me someone you especially like. And don't give me one of the usual suspects like Miles or Duke." Without hesitation I said, "Wayne Shorter." He got a huge smile on his face—turns out he's an enormous fan of Wayne Shorter himself—and we instantly bonded. By the way, I did work with him on the project and we had a great time.

How do you discover new artists?

Wow, that's become a lot more difficult in recent times. Sometimes I just take some time and surf the web looking for artists and music I'm not yet familiar with. Word of mouth is a big thing, friends who share similar sensibilities, who might say, "Hey, you need to check out so-and-so," whether in person or via recordings. We've really liked an annual summer jazz concert series sponsored by Descanso Gardens in nearby La Cañada (we're supporting members) that brings in really interesting and diverse artists, most of whom are local and new to us. It's a great way to be introduced to a lot of good people at once.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

In recent years I've been very much a CD guy. I can listen to them almost anywhere, including in my car and my studio. I can always find new things (which is something when you've got a big collection that you've built over decades) and they're not prohibitively expensive. And CD reissues tend to have a new level of comprehensive perspective, with bonus tracks from session outtakes, and liner notes and documentation from a greater historical perspective. For someone like me, who's deeply into the history of the music, CDs have a lot of advantages. And while there's good and bad sound quality to be found in every medium, I'm pretty firmly in the camp of those who like the sound of CDs.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?

Well, I've played guitar for close to 60 years now and keyboards for a couple decades, but if I could have my fantasy fulfilled, I'd be a break-down-the-walls alto saxophonist navigating sweet, miraculous high-octane journeys of the kind I've gotten taken on by my favorites like Phil Woods, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Arthur Blythe, Jackie McLean, Cannonball Adderley, and Eric Dolphy.

What's your desert island disc?

I'd need a whole crate! Maybe a shipping container. Hopefully it's a big island! If I have to choose one, the most extra-special album in my psyche that would be like my comfort food has got to be Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth. That's the one that's stayed with me over the decades through all my own personal vagaries and changes of taste and affection. It might well be the "perfect storm" moment in music: the players, the material, the spirit that just burst forth, everything.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

It's clear that not everybody likes or "gets" jazz, but I've found that those who do tend to become lovers and enthusiasts. Maybe one reason is that it's endlessly surprising and involving. You're never just going to hear a predictable verse and chorus. Jazz is about endless possibilities, like life, so it's always something new, fresh and provocative. There's always a reason to come back.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

...missing half the colors of the spectrum

Is there anything else we should know about you?

Maybe that you shouldn't ask me questions like that, because you'll always be in for a much, much longer conversation!

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