Richie Beirach: Indelible Memories and Thought-Provoking Reflections on a Life in Jazz, Part 2

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: You've worked with Randy Brecker many times. Did you ever work with Michael Brecker?

RB: Of course! I did a whole bunch of recordings with him. We worked concerts here and there. We did a live concert with an audience in a recording studio. The record is called Inborn, a double CD on Jazzline Records (2018). It's a wonderful document. It was recorded in 1992, and re-released last year. Michael was my friend, and he and Randy were like my brothers.

AAJ: To me, Michael Brecker was one of the greatest musicians who ever walked the face of the earth.

RB: He absolutely was.

AAJ: For you as a seasoned musician who worked with him, what was it about him and his music that made it so incredible and memorable?

RB: It was his humanity. His humanity as a person came out in his sound. It was his sincerity, his modesty. He was very hard on himself. He often didn't like what he played and wanted to do another take. There's a track on Inborn where I do a duo with him on my piece, "Sunday Song." He came in and sight read it, and everyone in the studio was crying, including me. His sound was so honest, no bullshit. Plus he had unbelievable chops. He was like Stan Getz in that both had incredible technique, all the right stuff. And for Michael, the saxophone became an extension of him as a person. He was a warm guy, great sense of humor, very self-deprecating. He was a natural on the horn. And the way he developed his ideas was extremely brilliant. Because the instrument was so much a part of him, he could really concentrate on the music. He had perfect intonation, and there was nothing he couldn't articulate at any tempo. He was all about the musical ideas, unlike the guys that have great chops, but they play without any concept of what they're doing.

AAJ: There are very few who literally compose the music while they're playing.

RB: Right. Wayne Shorter was like that. Stan Getz was. But there are a lot who don't have that knack. For example, I love George Coleman, but he plays riffs all the time. The same with Dexter Gordon. Great, but predictable. And I really like the way they play. But they didn't have the incredible ability that Michael had to invent new ideas one after the other.

AAJ: Did you play with any of the wonderful European radio big bands?

RB: I played with all of them. I played with the WDR big band with Gregor Huebner on a recording called Crossing Borders (Zoho, 2019). Rich DeRosa led the band and wrote many of the arrangements. I played with the NDR big band, with Mike Gibbs' arrangements. They are a fantastic band. And I played with the NHR band in Frankfurt, with Jim McNeely's unbelievable arrangements. I did three recordings with them. These are terrific bands. Over the last thirty years, they got to know all our American big band music, not just the classic bands like Count Basie. We'd do a week each in Hamburg, Cologne, and Frankfurt. I want to do more work with big bands. I'd like to work with Maria Schneider and her fantastic band, and do some more work with Vince Mendoza. Those are two things I'd like to have happen in the future.

Maria Schneider is super-talented. We loved Maria when she came to New York from Minnesota. We used to call her "Pinkie" because she had strawberry blond hair. She used to work for Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. She worked as a copyist for Gil, and I used to see her around all the time back then. In her own arrangements, she has a beautiful harmonic sense and elegant sounds. And she avoids all the big band clichés and all that shit. She's great! She's also a very good promoter of her own music. She's very positive, very articulate. She's not a neurotic bitch. She's gorgeous, level headed. She's got everything!

Comments on the Jazz Business

AAJ: When I interviewed Maria for All About Jazz, one of the things we discussed was the jazz business as such. She's very active in advocating for the rights of musicians, their recordings, performances, and compositions.

RB: I have the same passion about it that she does, and we had a lot of contact when she was working with the U.S. Congress to effect changes in the internet copyright laws.

AAJ: You've been around the circuit as much as any musician I know, from the 1970s right up to the present. The jazz business seems to always have had special difficulties, and even more so now. Please share some of your views about what's happening and how it affects the musicians and the music.

RB: When I started my professional life as a jazz musician in 1968, there were BMI, AMRA, Harry Fox, Gema, and a few other organizations that were available to us to collect and distribute our royalties to us. And I had my own publishing company. Back then, there was none of all that digital stuff that we have now, with all the downloads, Spotify, Google, and YouTube. I have mixed feelings about it all.. I'm conflicted because I use that shit myself. I go to YouTube and with one click, I have almost everything ever recorded! But most of it is free or costs a few cents, and musicians are deprived of copyright protection and record royalties. These are our creative productions, and we deserve to make a living from our work and have some control over its use and distribution.

AAJ: It's great for the consumer, but not for the working musicians.

RB: And it also has an upside and a downside for the students. It's so available and easy now to get whatever you want to listen to and study. And that's why we have so many great jazz musicians today, because they have access to everything on the internet. It's great, but it's also bad, because it's too easy. You don't have to pay for most of the music. You don't have to buy a CD because it's on YouTube or Spotify. The digital revolution has been great because it opened up access to the music. Some guy in Zimbabwe with a cellphone can hear my recordings!

In the past, there were simply record companies and there were artists. The only way to make a record was to contact a record producer. I would call Manfred Eicher of ECM, and I would say. "I have a trio recording I'd like to make." And he'd say, "Yes!" Or he would contact me. And then we would negotiate the details: cost, pay, personnel, track and tune details, and so on. So the know-how was all there on both sides.

Now, anyone can make a recording! A musician can self-produce his own CD at his own expense. I get a couple of hundred of these every month. And the truth is there is so much garbage and things that should not be released. The market is flooded with these records. Now this is democracy and in that sense it's great, and people should have every opportunity. But the result is that there is so much poor quality work. Number one, listeners don't know what to buy. Number two, people don't want to pay for a CD. They want to download the tracks for free. The result is there's very little income and respect for musicians. My mother, when I got interested in becoming a jazz musician, said, "Oh no! You should be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher and play music on the weekends," like a hobby. Jazz musicians are not regarded with respect. You go to a club, and people are drinking, getting drunk, talking loud, making out. They want to party, and they don't realize we musicians are there to work professionally and create art. And this is made even worse by the fact that anyone can make a recording, and there are no high artistic standards to be maintained.

As a result, my record royalties twenty years ago were twice the amount I get now. I'm lucky to have a few hit songs: "Elm," "Zal," "Pendulum," "Broken Wing." These tunes I wrote were recorded a lot by Chet Baker and other musicians. Everybody plays them. Now, nobody buys shit! And it's systematic, it's not because of a decrease in popularity, it's the result of the change in the way music is accessed.

In the U.S., it's worse. Jazz and country music are the only "real" American music. And rap is not really music. It's just a rhythm machine. They're not songs, they're just "hooks." For jazz, the statistics are scary. Jazz is only one percent of all music sold! America is a young country, and it's still a savage country in many ways. It's a good place to do something new, but it's not a place to become a real creative artist. Europe has a cultural awareness that we do not have in America. Only a few cities, like New York, Boston, and L.A., still have an active jazz scene. The rest of the country, no one knows what jazz is, who the musicians are, and so on. I'm still a New Yorker, I'm an American, I love my country. But it's not a good place to be a jazz artist. Even the grants and subsidies for us are going away.

We used to get a few thousand dollars up front for a recording. Now we often don't get anything. What smart popular musicians like Madonna and Sting are doing to compensate for the lack of recording income is charge a lot of money for a concert in a big stadium. And now they even have a gigantic mobile recording truck they bring to the stadium, so they record, produce, and sell the concert album right after the concert! Things have really changed!

Because of the overall financial crunch, Dave Liebman's message to young musicians is therefore to "find something else that pays money, because you won't earn enough from making music. Most of you will not be able to make a decent living from being a jazz musician." I used to make a very good income doing tours, records, and so on. Now all that money is drying up. An exception might be in China, where they have a middle class in Shanghai and the other big cities who are turned on by jazz. But most of the aspiring jazz musicians won't be able to get a sufficient income from jazz. They will have to do what Dave says and find a new way to make a living. I'm lucky in that respect because I was established in the 1970s and everybody knows me for better or worse. They have many festivals, but some, like the Montreux Festival are no longer specifically for jazz. Unfortunately for us, jazz, which used to be the popular music of the time, today is totally a "niche" music, appealing to only a small segment of the population. Again, one percent of all records sold are jazz albums.



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