Mort Weiss: Mort to Come

Sammy Stein By

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Mort Weiss is a clarinetist with attitude. He has also achieved what few would dare—taking a break from music for almost 40 years and then making a successful comeback. Every man is a sum of his parts, his life story put together like pieces of a jigsaw. For some, the puzzle is simple, pieces slot together easily with all the clichés: steady home, school, college, first instrument, the break, career, marriage, kids, life, more or less in that order. For others creating the overall picture is hard because the pieces do not fit together easily. Such is Weiss' life.

Weiss is a master of illusion. Anyone trying to get underneath the veils which Mort deftly erects around his private life is treated to a lot of information but nothing deep at first. Weiss tells a few stories, gives ideas, throws a few red herrings and, to put it mildly, messes with your head given half the chance. However, persistence prevails and over time, the layers roll back off to reveal a man of deep sensitivity. Those around Weiss cannot help but be drawn in by his energy, the pictures he paints of characters he knew, places he's been and how he feels.

Weiss is a man who is surprising, deeply caring and reflective on occasion. He will suddenly, in the midst of seriousness, chuck a curve ball by telling you something—usually unprintable—which offers a small window into his soul and events which have made Weiss who he is today. Around each corner is a surprise—a few shocks and, more often than not, a revelation. Under the bravado, the delightfully colorful language and the middle-of-the-night emails to say how pleased he is to be creating a profile, is a musician who, unbelievably, still has self-doubt. And yet, when he plays, Weiss exhibits such talents that it either makes you wish you had never taken up the clarinet or vow to practice diligently until you can at least meet him halfway. Life has thrown a lot at Weiss and it is a testament to his tenacious nature that he is still here, still playing and still sharing his talent.

Weiss' overriding attitude to life is "first take." He says, "As in quantum physics, it's an empirical fact that two or more observers can and do change the outcome of an experiment. I have found this to be true in our three-dimensional existence as well—like too many cooks spoil the yada yada. I don't care how my portrait is painted, just so it's from the heart. Anything different would be analogous to me asking someone what notes I should leave in or take out of one my choruses. Life for me (and as in all of my albums) is all a first take print, warts and all." That kind of sums up Weiss; everything is on a first take—literally. No rehearsals, no prep, no preamble; the answers he gives one day might be different the next because he feels that way.

He reacts to the moment, expresses his thoughts, for better or worse, and goes for everything with the tenacity of a bulldog. He cares deeply about people, family, life and music, though not necessarily in that order. Maybe because he took a break before he met death head on, maybe because he eventually allowed himself to build a solid network of family, home life and friends, Weiss is sure enough of his foundations to show the world a "come on then" attitude, but underneath is a guy who cares one hell of a lot about a lot of things.

Chapter Index

Early Influences

Weiss' maternal grandparents—the Steins—came to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from the Ukraine after fleeing the anti-Semitism and infamous Pogroms (Russian attacks on Jews, often violent) around 1900. His grandfather became a butcher and the Steins had five children including Weiss' mother and favorite uncle (crippled from polio from an early age from the waist down), Maurice Stein. In 1939, his grandfather had a stroke which left him unable to work so his grandmother bought a bar on Center Avenue, Pittsburgh, near the steel mills that ran 24/7, turning out not only processed steel but multitudes of thirsty men who gravitated to the Stein Café for a well-earned drink.

"My uncle Maurice started playing a clarinet (an old all metal one), with Graville-Paris stamped on the bell," says Weiss. "He never really learned to play, so in 1944 I inherited it. Oh boy; my parents and I lived in a little town about 13 miles from Pittsburgh named McKeesport, where the main industries were steel mills and coal mines. My father, Sidney P. Weiss, at one time took alto sax lessons from a steel mill worker named Mr. Lamb, who became my first clarinet teacher. I remember going to his home for my first lesson. He was about six-foot-five and looked like a wrestler, with fingers the size of sausages. After the lesson, he kept my clarinet and gave the mouthpiece back to me on its own to take home to practice making a sound.

"I made plenty of sounds/noises" Weiss continues. "Chickens in the neighborhood started laying eggs; dogs were biting the hands that fed them. As a young man, one of my reasons for playing the clarinet was that I wanted to play music as snippets to show the many freeze frames of existence of people in their daily struggles just to live and provide for themselves and their loved ones within their frame of reference and existence. I wanted to tell their stories in the harmonic language of words/notes to maybe inspire/encourage my brothers and sisters in this cosmic, sometimes not so grand opera that we find ourselves performing in. I also thought if I practiced a lot and got really good as a musician I could play in venues where there were a lot of chicks/groupies and that might lead to getting laid a lot. It really did happen when I worked in Las Vegas and Reno, not playing the clarinet but the tenor sax for shows. The tenor sax seemed to be a lot sexier."

Weiss showed an ear for music from a very young age. He explains, "I strongly feel people are born with certain affinities such as being athletic, good at math or painting. I was told that when I was 18 months old, if my folks missed turning on the radio at 7 pm for the Lawrence Welk Show with his orchestra playing I would cry until they turned it on; later in life I would cry until someone turned it off. The point is that, from very early on, I distinctly remember music of any kind got my attention and I mean really focused. Sad songs made me sad and even then I could feel the emotion in the music."

Mort Weiss—I'll Be Seeing YouWeiss remains deeply attuned to emotions and observes people surrounding him. He says that he loves the sound of children playing, gets emotional at the look of love between two people and claims to have "even cried at a supermarket opening."

Musically, his early influences included clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. From 1947, there was a great revival of Dixieland music in the US and in the UK. Acker Bilk and people like him emerged and started the trad jazz movement that exists to this day. Weiss got heavily involved with Dixieland and used to enjoy players like trombonist Kid Ory and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Then, he says, "One day someone turned me on to sax players Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet, on trombonist Juan Tizol's [1942] song 'Perdido.' In 1950, two sax players, Elmo DeLay [alto] and Herb Adams [tenor] took me to their respective homes and played some weird stuff that this fellow named Charlie Parker was doing and, for about 15 seconds I had no idea what I was hearing. Then, all of a sudden, wham!—I knew, and I've known ever since.

"And right after the epiphany I discovered the only real hero that I ever had as a young man—clarinetist Buddy DeFranco," Weiss continues. "From then I only played and studied the clarinet. Later, when I was in the army, I picked up and played alto and tenor sax—I never practiced them, but made money playing them in rock and R&B clubs in and around Hollywood, Reno and Las Vegas. I dug other people too, like guitarist Jimi Hendrix, rock pianist Little Richard, guitarist/vocalist Bo Diddley and singer James Brown."

Weiss also listened to classical music as a youngster, including Richard Wagner, Bach and Richard Strauss. "The 'Liebstod.' from Wagner's opera, Tristan and Isolde ," he says, "would bring me to my knees, eyes awash." He describes Bach and Bird [Charlie Parker] as, "The baddest mother fuckers that ever lived, bar none." He says, "When I hear anything by them it gives me, 'what in the hell am I even doing trying to play music other than massaging my own ego?' Those cats did everything possible to do with the 12-tone scale that all musicians use to express themselves with. Bach had had the biggest influence on me."

Weiss listens to other musicians and lists them as sax players Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon; trumpeter Miles Davis up to the 1970 album Bitch's Brew (Columbia); saxophonist Sonny Rollins up to The Bridge (Bluebird/RCA, 1962); everything that saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Hank Mobley did; pianist Kenny Barron; "Mr. Clarinet" Buddy De Franco; organist Richard "Groove" Holmes; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. "Many are cats" Weiss says, "that I have played and recorded with."

The Break

Weiss' decision to leave the business around 1965 came after a seven-year stint playing clubs and dance halls (during which time he also was a film extra and jammed with some of jazz's greats). In the '50s, Weiss had an early incarnation as Mort Wise and the Wise men, and they played rattling jazz/rockabilly tunes like Eden Ahbez's "Wild Boy" (released as "Nature Boy," Capitol, 1948), playing clubs and dance halls in Hollywood and casinos in Las Vegas and Reno. Of this period, Weiss says, "Yep, back in the day that's the name I went by for about six or seven years. Rocky Holman was my [Elvis lookalike] lead singer, and guitarist. Oh, on "Wild Boy," that's me on tenor sax and making all of the jungle sounds.

"I also recorded (on clarinet) part of a serious album of Eden's, called Eden's Island ( Del-Fi Records, 1960)," Weiss continues. "OK, back to my singer Holman (who gets top billing on the record, as the agency that I was working for—WAM world artist management—was footing the bills for all the above and they put Holman and me together and he became one of the Wise men). Rocky was a sex maniac. Wherever we were working—no matter the type of venue—during our breaks/intermissions he'd be prowling around, scoring chicks for later that evening. The problem was that by the end of the gig he'd have three or four lined up at various key points of the building—front door, mezzanine, parking lot and other places.

"Many nights," continues Weiss, "he would make his escape (with one or two or three of the ladies) in his high powered car—sometimes with irate boyfriends and/or husbands in pursuit—ultimately leading them to our hotel or where ever we were staying at the time, but we were all so freakin' high and stoned on whatever, that it used to turn into a great party, usually with the police breaking things up at about daybreak. Yet, let's back up a few hours and picture about 10 to 15 stoned out people in a hotel room. Rocky was in his element under those conditions."

The years of this kind of living took their toll on Weiss, and by 1965 this hedonistic lifestyle, together with a combination of drink and drug excesses, were beginning to exact a heavy payback, both personally and professionally. He was on a downward spiral to an early grave if things did not change and would have been consigned to the history of jazz had he not made and stood by a decision which would save his life but perhaps deprive jazz music of one of its most prodigious talents. He quit. Not for a few years but for almost four decades. He got his life together, made an uneasy peace with the past and became almost settled. About his break, Weiss comments, " If I wouldn't have quit playing in 1965 and made some course changes, I would have been dead a long time ago—yes, dead as in died—as still might happen someday if it gets to be too boring."

Coming Back

Except that, for Weiss, "settled" could not be without music forever. He hung up his axe, but still practiced after some years. Practicing and making the occasional recording with other people got so it was not enough so, almost 40 years after taking his "break," he came back in 2001, and then annually for several years after, he released CDs, all of which received positive reviews. Weiss realized he was still able to produce some of the best music around. His playing had, if anything, improved and he felt inspired. In 2010, he released the acclaimed solo album Raising The Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss (SMS, 2010), and in 2011, Mort Weiss Meets Bill Cunliffe (SMS) came out, to critical acclaim. Weiss was back—and how.

Few musicians could take such a long break from the scene and return with such success, but Weiss is a musician who still has a great deal to offer. He has lost none of his acuity or passion for the jazz he plays and the industry has welcomed back one of its most talented players with open arms. Now Weiss has a new album out, I'll Be Seeing You (SMS, 2012), which holds within its silver disc, some of the most mesmerizing clarinet playing possible. Fourteen tracks recorded over five or six hours on a summer's day combine to make a wonderful treat. Weiss has made one of the coolest and most varied collections around.

Although Weiss played tenor sax in the '50s and '60s, he now plays solely clarinet. His playing has been described as "amazing," "ncredible"—all the clichés—but in Weiss' case, clichés are not quite enough. He has something to which only a few clarinet players ever get close. His fingers move at the rate of knots; he seems never to breathe; and he places the clarinet centert stage. Sidney Bechet, Goodman and Bilk can all create a sound around a clarinet, but Weiss is the clarinet from the moment he leans forward playing with the band to the final solo, when he plays the last note of the last bar. His clarinet speaks the emotions within.

Regarding what he feels when he plays, Weiss says, "While waiting in the wings, while the announcer introduced me at a jazz festival I headlined in Portland, Oregon, I developed a way to bring a thousand people (which there were at this event) mentally down to a single person that I play to. I've emptied many an auditorium. I play with my eyes closed and I am acutely aware of the cats on the stand with whom I'm playing at that moment. When I record I won't go into an isolation booth. I need to be right up close and personal with the cats I'm playing with. Recordings today are layered with multiple tracks and intonation adjusters, but not for me. I am very old school on many things—not least being truthful and honest, especially in my work. On all ten of my recordings since 2001, there haven't been any rehearsals beforehand, and no over dubs except on my solo album, Raising the Bar. Where I talk over the song 'My Way,' and on my new album only the crowd sounds were overdubbed on the track called 'Gots the Horn in My Mouth Blues,' on this one I sing and shout an original blues tune (that I wrote) singing and accompanying myself simultaneously—another first!"

Asked whether he prefers playing in a small group or a bigger band, Weiss comments, "I prefer small group playing. When you are playing jazz in a group not larger than eight people, it's the closest in thought, action, creativity and being of the same mind that we humans can reach. You can hear the results if someone falls out of the loop—it's a wrong tone/sound/dissonance of thought and reaction. When you play and everything falls in place and the pocket/groove is upon you, there is no greater feeling of happiness, joy or nirvana that would make me want to seek another outlet for whatever creative experiences life must have to offer." He then adds a typical Weiss observation: "Small groups are also easier to book."

Because Weiss can be evasive when discussing his philosophy, it might seem as though he takes nothing seriously, but he has a lot of interest in the spiritual connections made by people through music. He talks of " the Tao of jazz music" and " the combined spirituality created by and from inner feelings," and adds theories about "understanding the vast singularity of rebirth as so clearly laid out in the delineated work of Uspensky the Tertium Organum, the 1920 publication exploring universal mysteries and logic." Describing his beliefs, Weiss describes himself as an "Orthodox Digresser."

Asked about what inspired him with his new album, and what is there about it which is definitive Weiss? His reply: "The devil made me do it. What inspired me? The need for money and more recognition. What is on there that is essential Weiss? My name." He then elaborates, "The question is analogous to asking any serious artist what makes them breathe and why they do so. I'm not trying to be flip here, but just giving you the answer that comes to mind without going into a whole freakin' dialogue about expressing myself regarding the human condition, and wanting to share my innermost feelings with my fellow man so that I can rest easy, knowing that my artistic efforts made visible/audible have given him a moment's pause to reflect on the glory of a baby's cry and the wheels that are in constant motion in this (as some call it) clockwork universe that we find ourselves in sync with the songs and glories of the cosmos. To sum it up, everything that I do is the essential Weiss." He goes on, " All seriousness aside, what came down that day at the Voice of the Arts Studio [where the recording was made], I strongly feel is and will be looked upon—my solo album Raising the Bar. Notwithstanding—as my magnum opus, as long as there are people that dig pure jazz, since the numbers are in great decline."

Weiss is adept at throwing up screens, misting the atmosphere and sidetracking, but underneath is a man as sharp as a pin, whose passion, talent and simple love for his music is his testimony. Weiss has a lot to say and it is important, but he still does not quite believe in himself, but he believes in people still in spite of—or, maybe, because of—the many things which have happened to him. Weiss has a passion that comes from living the experiences about which he plays. He genuinely connects with people because he can—and does—relate to them.

Weiss once admitted that he finds opening up difficult, yet has persisted because he feels it makes the music make sense. As he says, "I've lived a multifaceted life, done many things and worn a lot of different hats, and the driving force behind it all was to play the music."

He recently said that, "You don't learn how to play a ballad from a book unless you wrote it"—and he has had his share of ballad-worthy things happen to him. His mother committed suicide in 1962 on the same night as Marilyn Monroe, and when Weiss decided to take his break from the scene in 1965, he was broke financially, physically and mentally. At the time he had a five year-old daughter and three year-old son, both by a high class prostitute, still married to her husband. His son went on to a successful career in law enforcement, but his daughter committed suicide at the tender age of 32. Weiss took jobs driving an ice cream van and selling equipment to bands like Jefferson Airplane and Iron Butterfly. He worked in Wallich's Music Store and lived in boarding houses and (briefly) in jail. Whilst coming home from the army by train in the '50s, still in uniform, he met another young man of the same age: Elvis Aaron Presley was his name. When they got off at the station, the other young man rushed to the newspaper stand and held up a paper with his picture on the front—his first cover page. Weiss, who had grown up making music with some of the jazz greats, been in films as an extra and grown up around Hollywood, was not really impressed, though he liked the young man a lot. Oh, and, importantly, just over 38 years ago, he met and married Jeanne.

The most recent ballad-worthy event was that five years ago both Weiss and Jeanne were told, within five months of each other, that they both had cancer. They both underwent treatment, including surgery and medication, and have been in the clear for the past four years. Typically, Weiss sees this as just another life lesson. In a rare serious mood, he comments, "If taken properly these little bumps in the road of life are, in reality, just that: reality checks that serve to enhance your appreciation of the next sunset, the look in someone's eyes that tell you that you're not alone in the allness of this universe and being. At my age you look back to where you have been and how and why you have reached this place in time—I've been places that most people never return from—but having done so I'm strongly aware of the wonderment that surrounds us: the next breath. the next song, the next goodbye, the next homecoming. In life, as in all things, there is a recipe, and the ingredients that go into the final outcome are what make the sum total of existence." Life for Weiss was never preordained or scripted; like he said, all first takes.

"Weiss insists his latest album is his magnum opus, but it's a good bet that there will be more to come. Tracks like "Here's That rainy Day," "Touch of Your Lips" and "Spring is Here" provide moments of reverie and musical amazement few will find again in the near future. Like Weiss said only recently, "Enjoy the day and live in the moment—for that's all there really is, isn't there?"

Selected Discography

Mort Weiss, I'll Be Seeing You (SMS, 2012)

Mort Weiss, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Mort Weiss (SMS, 2010)

Mort Weiss Trio, The Three of Us (SMS, 2004)

Mort Weiss Quartet, Mort Weiss Quartet (SMS, 2003)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Steve Gugerty

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