Remembering Art Farmer


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This interview was first published at All About Jazz in November 1999 and is part of our ongoing effort to archive pre-database material.

This interview was originally broadcast at the time on Blue Lake Public Radio; portions of this interview appeared in an advance article published by the Grand Rapids Press.

Lazaro Vega: How long is this tour in the U.S.?

Art Farmer: My tour is going until the 31st of October, and then I'm going back over to Europe. As far as I know I'll be over in Europe for the rest of the year. I have some things to do over there in German, France, Belgium, and Finland.

LV: Do you have a family in Vienna?

AF: Yes I do.

LV: Do you have children?

AF: Yes, I have one 16 years old. My wife is born in Vienna, and my son is also born there.

LV: I've never been there but I know people that live there; they vacation in the region I live in now. At home they see some of the greatest music in the world.

AF: That's right, there's a lot of great music being played there. That's one of the nicer things about the city.

LV: Do they appreciate you as a jazz player there?

AF: Yes. Yes, there's a very good jazz audience in Vienna. There's a good audience in Austria in general, in Europe in general.

One of the things that I like about living and working in Europe that's not the case over here so much is that there's more activity in the smaller cities. Like you can go into a town in Europe that has a population of maybe 10,000 people and manage to play a concert there and there will be, say, like a thousand people will come to the concert. You're not just restricted to the larger cities.

Here in the United States I'm playing at a place now, here in New York City, called Sweet Basil. This is only one of the places in New York City, there are quite a few here, that are well attended. But once you leave New York City the next stop is generally Chicago, and then after that it's all the way out to California as far as playing in a club. There might be one club in a town. But all these nice sized towns, say, like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, even Detroit, there's not that much going on as far as the size is concerned. If you go into smaller towns it's actually zero in most cases.

LV: That has to be comforting to know you can put things together like that in Europe. So you're playing Sweet Basil right now.

AF: Yes, I'm in my second week at Sweet Basil now.

LV: I was there last November.what do you think of that place?

AF: Well, the audience is very nice. I think physically it's not so comfortable for the players because we don't have anyplace to go when we have a break. But other than that, what? Then it's a hard room for drummers, because you have a brick wall on one side and a wooden wall on the other side and it seems like the drum sound is just magnified there. So the drummer sounds louder than they would sound in a place that had sound deadening material.

LV: When I went there I stood and wondered how they ever fit the Gil Evans Orchestra all up there on Monday nights. That made me curious. I had a great time seeing jazz in New York.

AF: Yes, well, this is the greatest place in the world for jazz because you can go out and you can find so much going on in any one given night.

LV: Who are you playing with there? Is it the quintet with Fred Hersch?

AF: No, it's the quintet with Clifford Jordan on tenor and soprano, the pianist that's been working with me for about the past couple of years is James Williams; and Rufus Reid on the bass. And I have a drummer named Tony Reedus, who's like a nephew of James Williams. This group with the exception of the drummer is the group that's recorded the last two albums that I made.

LV: Sure, on Contemporary, with Helen Keane. That and the record on Soul Note are beautiful. I love them. Especially that one, I like this "Flashback." Man, that's a great composition.

AF: Oh yes. Thanks, thanks.

LV: I heard you at the Chicago Jazz Festival with the Jazztet a couple of years ago. Do you remember that? You guys (lit the house up). I hadn't heard that kind of bop played with that much intensity in a long time. That was Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums?

AF: Well thanks. Yeah, Smitty is my favorite drummer, really, because he has a concept of playing in a group that the younger drummers don't have. But to go along with that he has the concept that the younger drummers do have as far as being inventive and creative. He just doesn't sit out there and sort of plug away. He always adds something to it. He's very inventive. He's a rounded musician, you know, he composes, he understands harmony, and notes. He's not just a person of rhythm, but he's a person of harmony and melody, too. And since he understands the function of harmony and melody he knows how to respond to it. And anytime you hear him play a drum solo, why you can hear the form of the piece in it. It's just not filling up 40 seconds, but what he plays goes along with the harmonic form of the piece.

LV: So he'll play an AABA drum solo.

AF: Right, exactly. You can hear it. You can hear the change from one 8 bars to the next. He really makes the group sound like a group. That's from the Art Blakey school. Every thing has a beginning. Like if somebody takes a solo, he brings you into the solo, and then he responds when you end the solo. He's on to everything that's happening up there and he responds to everything that's going on. He's just not going his own way, the way some guys play, as if they're only concerned with what they do.

LV: I sat at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago just this summer and listened to Wilbur Campbell play. The Chicagoan.

AF: Yes.

LV: And really dug it. He's real conversational like that. And then Kenny Washington sat on the stand...

AF: Yes, yes.

LV: ...and he's real loud, maybe a little insensitive like that, but he's a good drummer. So, I think I know what you mean: you're talking about a real subtle shaded area.

AF: Yes, somebody who has a sense of dynamics. Now I've heard Kenny play with Tommy Flanagan, with the trio, and he wasn't too loud then. But I haven't heard him that much with horns, so I couldn't say anything about him.

LV: He came into town with Johnny Griffin. But anyway let's talk about these records: three with Clifford Jordan, a Chicagoan originally, on tenor. How about the Billy Strayhorn songbook, "Something To Live For"? Or, "Something to LLIVVV For."

AF: (Laughing) Oh, thanks.

LV: I like "Raincheck" and "Johnny Come Lately." Everything seems to work really well with you and Mr. Jordan.

AF: Yes.

LV: Your tonalities blend perfectly on the heads.

AF: I think a great deal of that is due to Clifford Jordan. His ears are open, too. Whatever little, no matter how small the degree of subtle shading that I might do he's right on it. I never have to say to Clifford, 'Clifford play it this way, or play it that way,' because he is listening. In my opinion he's really a great player.

LV: When did you form this quintet?

AF: I've been working making recordings with Clifford in the quintet context for about the past four or five years. I think we did a couple of things on Soul Note, at least a couple.

But as far as a working group I really can't say when we actually started working this time. Because it was always a matter of if something came up where I could use a quintet then I would call Clifford, but I hadn't made a deliberate effort as far as the quintet.

When we made the first records on Soul Note I was actually working with the quartet, with Fred Hersh most of the time. But then, like I say, if I were able to use a second horn I would call him. (I) made one quartet record called "Warm Valley" and one called "Work of Art" for Concord.

LV: I imagine the reformation of the Jazztet was a little more conscious. Would you please talk a little bit about that project?

AF: Well that came about when a Japanese concert promoter suggested to Benny (Golson) that he should ask J.J. (Johnson) if J.J. would come over with him to go on a tour, but J.J. wasn't available. Then the idea came to the Japanese promoter to, instead of getting J.J., what about the next logical step, getting Curtis Fuller? Then the once you have Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller, what about getting the Jazztet back together? So that's where the idea really came from; was a Japanese tour. So we did that around 1981, maybe '82, '83. I don't remember exactly now.

After that first step was taken and people heard about it, clubs back here were interested and festival promoters in Europe were interested also. That's how it sort of got off the ground.

The initial idea didn't come from Benny or me, though. Like I said it came from the Japanese.

LV: How do you feel about that?

AF: It was fine, but it doesn't exist now at this time. No, we did it for maybe three years or so, but now Benny has said that he would like to for once in his life work in a smaller format with just a rhythm section where he would feel no restrictions as far as what he plays from one night to the next.

The more people you have up there, the more your sort of bound to stick to what's been already agreed on. Because you just can't tell everybody I'm going to change it now and do it a certain way. Because it's hard to communicate that when you're on the stage. So the less people that you have up there, the more freedom you have to take the unexpected turn. He said that this is something that he actually has never done. He's always been in a group where there was at least one other horn, going all the way back to The Jazz Messengers.

He said for once in his life he would really like to have the experience of just playing with a rhythm section.

LV: That period with the Jazztet, from 1959 to 1962, was a period of great change in the music.

AF: Yes, that's true: absolutely.

LV: Great change for you, too: when did you make the switch from trumpet to flugelhorn?

AF: Actually, I made that change it must have been in '62. When it was almost at the end of the Jazztet I started doubling (trumpet and flugelhorn). Then, when the Jazztet did come to an end, the next thing that I wanted to do was to work with a quartet with Jim Hall (guitar).

I had made a record for Mercury with a big band and I'd only played the flugelhorn on that record. It seemed to me that the sound of the flugelhorn would go better with Jim's sound, so I decided to stick with the flugelhorn.

So that's when I started really concentrating on the flugelhorn. It was in '62 because I remember when I was getting ready to make this record. In order to make the record just playing flugelhorn, I just had to concentrate on the flugelhorn. I put the trumpet in the case and really worked for a few months like in the woodshed just on flugelhorn in order to feel comfortable with it.

So, after finishing this record, I just didn't feel like it made any sense to go back to the trumpet to play with a guitarist that plays like Jim does. So that's how it all started.

But now I'm starting back to playing the trumpet again. Yeah, this is my first engagement in about 26 years where I've played the trumpet with a small group.

LV: This one you're doing at Sweet Basil? Are you going to be doing that in Grand Rapids?

AF: I don't know. I might do some playing on it, yeah. Right now what I'm doing as far as the programming is concerned is sort of experimenting and seeing what piece goes with what instrument better. So like I try it one-way tonight and then another way the next night. So, I'll probably do some playing on it out there, too.

LV: So where are you going on this tour?

AF: I know the first stop is Interlochen (Note: Interlochen Arts Academy, Interlochen, Michigan), and Kalamazoo is the second. I don't have the list in front of me.

LV: And then Grand Rapids on the 23rd, but I was wondering where are you off to after Michigan?

AF: After Michigan is to Chicago to the Jazz Showcase starting on the 25th. I'll be with the quartet in Chicago. Clifford won't be there, but James Williams and Tony Reedus will be there. Rufus Reid won't be there, there's a bassist from Boston named John Lockwood who'll be there. From Chicago, I close in Chicago on the 30th, and then my last date is just a free concert at a prison in Southern Illinois. A guy that I met, one of the inmates started writing me a couple of years ago. He's like an amateur trumpet player. We got to be pretty good friends through writing and he set up this concert. In fact I'll probably play a couple of concerts during the day that I'm there. This is something that I usually do whenever I'm asked, which is to play these concerts in prisons or jails or whatever. Because these people seldom get to hear anything. I think just because of what they have done. Who knows what they have done. Music doesn't do anybody any harm: it can only be a positive force. It makes me feel good to be able to give something to someone and it's just a good feeling.

LV: I have a few records that have been made in Chicago jails.

AF: Yeah! I remember playing out at the Cook County Jail. Let's see, it was me and Joe Williams.I don't remember everybody who was on it but it was quite an experience because we just went to the whole jail, one section to the other. When Joe was in one section, well then I would be in another section, and then we would change places. It just felt like we were doing something worthwhile.

And those people are really not blasé about the music.

LV: No polite applause, huh?

AF: No, (laughs).

LV: Do you play a different repertoire for them, do you play real bluesy?

AF: No! Oh no, no: I play whatever I feel is the best that I can play. I wouldn't change my repertory. I always try to play something that I think the people would like, but that doesn't mean to play down to anybody, though.

LV: Mr. Farmer, how old are you?

AF: I just turned 60 in August.

LV: Well, congratulations. Actually I should tell you this before I go on to the next point. It was I think last year that Dizzy Gillespie came through Grand Rapids and some people threw him a birthday party before his concert. He was talking and I don't remember exactly how the conversation went, but somebody was asking him about, you know, who do you consider to be a great young trumpet player? And he said, "Art Farmer."

AF: Oh yeah? (Laughs) Wow! (Laughs) That's a kick. (Laughs). Yeah, that was nice to hear.

LV: In your lifetime you've played with some great cats, some guys that aren't that well know like Wardell Gray.

AF: Yeah.

LV: Farmer's Market, and Hampton Hawes: that little band. That was a great little band, or the recording sessions that came out. Do you ever play "Farmer's Market"?

AF: We played it with the Jazztet sometimes. It's a nice line but it's just a blues line, it's just a bebop line.

LV: Well, what about Wardell Gray?

AF: Wardell was really a great guy. He was like a big brother to me. He was the first person that I would see everyday that really knew what was going on as far as the music was concerned.

Frank Morgan who's here in New York now, we were just speaking about Wardell yesterday. Just talking about how much we missed him and how great he was to all of us. Speaking of all of us I meant Frank and Hampton Hawes. Because he was like the big brother who had gone and done everything and he's coming back and telling us how it was. So he was the soul of patience. He just had a way about him, he was very relaxed. He had a way of teaching without teaching, he was teaching by example. He was a big force in my life as a jazz player.

LV: From your California days, huh?

AF: Yes, the last days that I actually lived in California that's when we were playing together, it was in the early '50's.

LV: Now was that before or after Lionel Hampton?

AF: That was immediately before Lionel (Note: pronounced 'Lye-nel").

LV: I see, in '53?

AF: Well I joined Lionel in the fall of '52 and stayed with him until the fall of '53 and then I started to live in New York City as a freelance musician, playing with whoever would give me a job.

LV: So while with Lionel Hampton you went to Europe...

AF: Yes.

LV: —and you were with Brownie.

AF: Yes, that's when I met Brownie was when I was with Lionel. I met a lot of (musicians): Benny Golson, Alan Dawson, Gigi Gryce, Quincy Jones, and James Cleveland, you know, because it was quite a personnel in his band.

LV: It's hard to imagine that being put together now.

AF: (Laughs at the thought of it).

LV: Well, that's the band for your record, that 'Art Farmer Septet' record on Prestige.

AF: Yes, yes, well that was the first record that I made under my name. I was with Lionel. Let's see, Quincy was listed on that record. He wrote the arrangements and played piano on it.

LV: Yeah, "Work of Art" and "Up in Quincy's Room."

AF: Yes, that's right.

LV: So what about Clifford Brown?

AF: Well, Clifford Brown was one of the true giants. He was one of the true giants of jazz and, of course, of trumpet. It was like he was already 300 years old. He was just —(pause). It's hard for me to find words to say how much I feel about Brownie as a player.

LV: Well you guys stood shoulder to shoulder and traded phrases.

AF: Yes, we would do that every night. When I first went in Lionel's band I was thee soloist, thee trumpet soloist. When Brownie came in, well one good thing about Lionel was that he just didn't take solos away from me and give to him, but he would just open up the arrangement and make it longer. So instead of there being one trumpet solo there would be two. I would say Brownie was much more advanced in his stage of development as a trumpet player than I was. So knowing that, well there was no doubt that was the reality. But being that it was the reality well then that really made me try that much harder. Because I felt sort of desperate that I had to really put my best foot forward. I couldn't relax a minute because if I did and didn't do my very best I'd then just get washed out, just get wiped away, because he was really firing. That was a pretty hot environment. (Laughs).

LV: When you were younger who were the guys you were listening to? Were you listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro?

AF: Yeah, well the first guy that I listened to was Harry James. Strange enough Miles did, too. (Laughs). Well you see Harry James was the guy that was getting all the airplay. Say as far the trumpet player was concerned, boy he was the rage, the rage of the United States in the early '40s, and that's when we started playing.

You could hear Harry James no matter what cow town you were in. You could hear him on the radio all day long. He was one of the hottest things there ever was. And he was, yeah, that was the first guy that I listened to and then after that I started listening to the trumpet players in the big bands, like with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, guys who would come to Arizona. Like Erskine Hawkins had a great trumpet player named Dud Bascomb. This was prior to the days when I was listening to small groups.

When I started listening to small groups well then there was of course Dizzy Gillespie, and Fats Navarro, Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham.

LV: What about Miles, I mean, what do you think of his current direction?

AF: His direction as far as what he is surrounding himself with, I don't like what he's surrounded himself with. I still think that he's a great player. He can still come up with an idea that just knocks you over, but the style of the group in general is not what I like to hear. What they've got in the rhythm with the electric guitar and electric bass and all that sort of pop, or whatever you want to call it, that's really not to my taste.

I love Miles. I think he has a great sound. He has one of the nicest sounds on trumpet I've ever heard.

We worked on the same concerts but I've never worked in the same group with him. I've known him and I consider us to be friends. I've known him for a long time. I think I first met Miles in 1947 out in Los Angeles, and he's been one of the major inspirations in my playing. For sure. He's always had a nice sound, a great sound.

LV: I'm looking at the current situation in jazz right now, the way things are, and there are people like you and the generation before you who have left so much great recorded music and have given your entire lives to the music, and I just wonder about the people coming up behind you: it's a whole different ballgame.

AF: Yeah sure, that's life, things change. I think as long people are coming up like Smitty (drummer Marvin 'Smitty' Smith), (laughs); well the music is going to be here. It's hard for me to imagine Smitty doing something that wouldn't be musical. He's a young guy and I don't expect him to be doing the same thing 20 years from now that he's doing right now. But he might change. He might just develop into a higher degree, but I don't expect him to do something that I would call un-musical, or that I wouldn't be able to like. Because of his background I just don't think it would happen.

I think the music will prevail because right now there's more interest: there's more younger people trying to play than ever. I don't expect everyone to stay in it because there's not room for everyone. It's just impossible, but when there's so many people involved on the learning level, on the educational level, then some good has to come of it. There's no way that the whole thing's going to degenerate into just another form of pop music. Everybody's not going to go that way. Somebody's going to say, "Hey wait a minute." (Laughs).

That's the great thing about jazz, is that it never reaches the point where everyone is doing the same thing. Someone is always going to come up with another twist to it. Say like 30 years ago when the Jazztet first got started, complicated harmony was the thing, and then along comes Ornette Coleman going exactly the opposite way. And he was accepted on that. A lot of people didn't like it, but a lot of people did. There's always a freedom there that someone is free to try to do something a different way. So the music just doesn't stay one way all the time. It doesn't stay one way and no one is forced to sort of knuckle down and do what everyone else is doing. In fact you just can't force people that way. The people just say, 'Oh the heck with it, this is what I want to do make it or not.'

LV: Sometimes waiting for society to come around to appreciating that.

AF: Right. You're right. It can take a long time, too. It can look like it's never going to happen, but then that're the rules of the game, that's life. You know Monk was out here scufflin' for a very long time. He was around here in New York doing nothing! When I first left Lionel's band Monk hardly ever got a gig. It's like slowly and slowly, year-by-year he started to, it took a long time for him to become accepted, but he stuck to his guns; and he was right; and the music has proven itself. I think that's what people have to be prepared to do.

LV: Do you think that will happen with guys like Cecil Taylor?

AF: Umm, "with guys like Cecil Taylor"?

LV: Well. The avant-garde. Do you think people will ever come around to listening to that more frequently than they do now?

AF: Well, actually, it's much more accepted over in Europe than it is over here. Already. I think it depends on the ability of the player, on the ability of the player to strike a responsive chord in the listener.

Cecil Taylor is a player who just hasn't done that as an example, as an individual. But that doesn't mean that it's not possible for someone else to do it.

LV: I just wondered. It seems like the evolution of the music is about a decade ahead of the evolution of the public's appreciation of it.

AF: Yes, yes, that's a pretty fair estimate.

LV: Well you sure would know. Man, there's a lot of musicians from your generation that live in Europe, or there were. Maybe even guys a little bit older, Kenny Clarke, Kenny Drew.

AF: Well the reason is not the same for everyone. People live over there for various reasons and I would say it would be a mistake to generalize and put everybody in the same category.

For instance, I live there, but I'm over here at least half the time. It's gotten to be now where if you want to play as an active musician it doesn't matter where you live, especially if you're a horn player, because horn players have to travel. It's not like a rhythm player. If you're a bassist, a pianist or a drummer you want to live in the United States and live in a place like New York City. You can work almost all the time just in New York City. But a horn player can't do that unless you work in the studios. So, I could be living here and I'd still be traveling just as much as I do travel.

LV: So you're a citizen of the world.

AF: Yeah, by necessity (laughs).

LV: Well, I think I could talk to you all day, that's the way I feel with this conversation anyway. You're very approachable and it's a joy to hear you. I really feel honored that I've had a chance to talk to you for this brief period.

AF: Well thank you very much. Thank you.

LV: We're all looking forward to hearing you play in Grand Rapids, (Michigan).

AF: Well I'm looking forward to playing there. I don't think I've played there in about thirty years. I think I played there with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet many years ago. Somehow that name rings a bell: Grand Rapids, yeah.We played a concert, that's all I know.

LV: You know that song from when you were with Mulligan, that song called "Blueport?" Did you write that?

AF: Yes, yes.

LV: I like that tune. I know people who really dig that -it's on their party tape. How long were you with him?

AF: (Laughs hard). Oh, for a year, maybe a little less or a bit more I don't remember exactly right now.

LV: Things were different there, eh? no piano.

AF: Yes, because I had been with Horace Silver right in front of that and Horace was a very dominant pianist. But I enjoyed working with both of them. I think Gerry Mulligan was a great musician.

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