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

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: That is indeed a very sad statistic. What I'm hearing you say is that the art form of jazz is suffering greatly today. Everything seems to be going against the idea of a musician who dedicates himself and his life to creating new music in a community of like-minded musicians and fans. We finally have had a couple of generations of musicians who are not getting hooked on drugs and alcohol, who are talented and very serious about the music, yet they can't be part of a thriving community to develop the art form.

RB: The community is what made it happen. In the seventies for me, it was me and Dave and Randy and Abercrombie and Steve Grossman, Bob Berg, Lenny White, and Michael Brecker, and a whole bunch of others you might not know. And we bonded and formed a real community of music makers. And at that time, all the founding fathers, our forebears, our inspirations, were still alive, except Coltrane who died in 1967. And these guys gave us gigs. There was a ladder, there was a way up. And guys like Dave Liebman went to the top of the pyramid with Miles. And everybody was in New York City.

In the 1970s, all the major jazz musicians were there. Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Art Farmer. They all had their own bands and hired younger sidemen. So you tried to get a gig with Chet Baker, Stan, or Art Farmer. I was a young sideman. Among the pianists, I remember Cedar Walton was there, Harold Mabern, Kirk Lightsey, John Hicks, Albert Dailey, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Roger Kellaway, Jimmy Rowles, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner— everybody was in New York City! You could go to the Vanguard and hear McCoy. And then you could go hear Woody Shaw or Freddie Hubbard at the East Village Inn. So on any given day, you go to a club like Slugs, you hang out, you smoke a joint, Then go to another club later on, go to an after hours club, have breakfast, get home at six in the morning!

AAJ: It was 24 hours of learning and growing as a musician almost every day, while the music itself was happening all around you.

RB: When I heard Tommy Flanagan play "Lush Life," I was amazed by the chord changes he was using. And I went up to him and asked about it, and he sat down at the piano and showed me! And then after hours at Bradley's or the Vanguard after the show ended, guys would hang around, and I heard discussions between Red Mitchell and Jimmy Rowles arguing about one note, with Rolland Hannah saying, "Well, I thought Billy Strayhorn wrote it this way!" And I'd be hearing tunes and writing them down. They knew all the tunes, even ones you wouldn't know existed.

AAJ: I thought Jimmy Rowles was from the West Coast.

RB: Cmon! He was in New York all the time. He used to play at Bradley's, He was living in New York with his daughter Stacey, who was a good trumpet player. He stayed in New York after he finished touring with Ella Fitzgerald. Jimmy knew all the tunes, and also had a very light touch, and he taught all of us just by his playing. And he wrote beautiful tunes like "The Peacocks." Stan Getz and Bill Evans both recorded it. Jimmy knew all the tunes and had a very light touch. And he taught everyone just by playing. And all of us were approachable by the other musicians. If someone asked me, "What are your chords for "Round Midnight," I would show them!

AAJ: That seems to contrast with the young musicians today. They do share a lot with one another, and they have great teachers who are working musicians, but they don't have mentors on their gigs, and not many opportunities to interact with them.

RB: Yes, there is a lack of that kind of community that we had in the day. It could be that that's happening now with some cats. I don't know. But we definitely had it with all the major cats alive and burning. I could go hear Chick Corea at the Vanguard and then go hear Bill Evans at the Top of the Gate, and hear McCoy and "Lush Life." These were the major players in their prime. I don't want to be nostalgic and dismiss the great things that are happening today. But back then, there was an incredible world-wide community of jazz musicians all interacting with one another at clubs, festivals, tours all over France, Germany, all the countries. And we'd come back from our trips with a lot of money and great music. And we'd meet so many great people along the way. Today, only a few of the top names can do such tours, like Branford and Herbie. Most of the guys don't get much opportunity to do that today.

AAJ: I really empathize with what you're talking about. There's no ladder to climb any more, and there's no sense of a lively musical community. There are pockets of intense activity in some places, and advanced players like Steve Coleman are leading guys along, but often the new guys once they graduate are left to themselves. Perhaps this interview will contribute to re-vitalizing the jazz scene in various ways. We all want it to happen.

Personal Life, Spirituality, and a Message to Young Jazz Musicians

AAJ: What do you like to do when you're not doing music?

RB: I'm living in Hessheim, Germany, about an hour from Mannheim, and 40 minutes from Frankfurt. I'm a retired professor, and I have an adequate pension. I'm living and have some friends in a small town. It's a beautiful place surrounded by farms, asparagus, the wine countries in the Rheinphalz. I can walk out of my apartment and see the stars. It's a perfect place for me to live now, because I'm older. If I were 40, it would be terrible because there's nothing happening, even though the locals know me as the American professor.

For the first time in my life really, I have a lot of unstructured time. I use a lot of it for music. I plan recordings, I work some gigs. Liebman works all the time. I do it more as the spirit moves me. My life is very good here as an auslander [foreigner—Eds.], and I do miss my old friends in New York. But I'm in touch with everyone by computer and phone, and I have time now to do what I want. I have time to listen to chamber music and operas.

Aside from music, I love action movies with stunts, Transporter I, II, and III. I like Scott Atkins, the martial arts guy. It makes me relax because I don't have to think about it a lot! I used to read a lot of books, but I don't read so much now. But some books I read again a few times.

AAJ: Who are your favorite authors?

RB: Hemingway, Rilke, James Jones, Phillip Roth. I've read everything Hemingway wrote. I read The Old Man and the Sea every ten years or so, and it means something different to me every time. First, I identified with the shark, then I identified with the old man, then with the young kid, and then with none of them! When you have a real masterpiece, there's so much room to discover new things in it. And the same is true with musical compositions. If you listen to Mahler's Fifth Symphony, or the Shostakovich Fifth, or the Ravel Piano Concerto or Prokofiev, each time you listen to it you get more out of it.

And now I have a new band, a quartet with Chris Scheuber, a great drummer whom I trained to be looser and more contemporary. My bassist is Gregor's younger brother Veit Huebner. Regina Litvinova is a great keyboard player who was my student and now is my colleague. My relationship with Chris and Regina has been growing for the last six years. We have a recording called Gaia on the Jazzsick label (2017). I'm very proud of this record. And, since I have this band, I can record and work as the spirit moves me.

We have a concert here August 10th, at the Festival called JAZZAMREIN. This year, it's a fifty year anniversary tribute to the Miles Davis Quintet. So we're playing tunes like "So What," "Paraphernalia," "Blue in Green." In September, I'm doing a duo gig in New York with Dave Liebman at Mezzrow on September 12th. And then we'll go up to Woodstock, NY and make a trio record with myself, Dave, and Jack DeJohnette. It'll be free improvisation, something I've wanted to do with Jack DeJohnette for a long time. I'm honored that he agreed to do this recording.

After the record date, I'm just going on vacation out to Ohio to hang out with my second wife. We're divorced, but we still love each other. I didn't get along at all with my first wife, but I got a couple of good songs out of her [laughter]. My second wife LeeAnn Ledgerwood, whom I first met at Bradley's in New York, is wonderful. She's a great pianist too by the way. She has about fifteen recordings on Steeplchase. She lives in Ohio now, taking care of her ageing mother. We're close like two peas in a pod. I love her. And she inspires me a lot musically too.

AAJ: Did she inspire any of your songs?

RB: Yes, she did! I wrote a song called "Eternal Melody" with her in mind. That song will be on an upcoming duo record I made with my German drummer Chris Scheuber which will be coming out in September on the Jazzsick label. It'll be called Avala. It's like art imitating life.

AAJ: It could be called "The Other Side of Richie's Midnight." [laughter.] Now, I always ask a question about the musician's spiritual side. Coltrane said, "Music is my spirituality." Some musicians have a spiritual practice or are on a spiritual journey of some kind. What is your take on this subject?

RB: That's complicated. I'll answer it this way. I believe music is my only religion. I don't believe in religion as such. I think religion and nationalism have divided the world. As soon as someone says "This is the truth, and you're going to hell if you don't believe it," the fighting starts. And by the way, the Bible was written by humans. I agree with Christopher Hitchens, one of my favorite writers, who is very critical of religious beliefs. But, on the other hand, do I believe in something I can't see? Yes. Just look at your own hand. It's amazing. This was not made by a human being. They can make robots, but they can't make a hand, they can't make a brain. So, to my mind, somebody or something made it. There's more than we can see. And there's a great mystery. The conditions for human life are so specific. So why would it be that on some little shithole planet in the whole gigantic universe there are us humans? Do you think it's an accident that the temperature was just right, and there was enough oxygen and water? It's so improbable. So there's an inevitability and inexorability about life. And it's not of our making.

And I believe in the unknown and the unspoken, and I love the mystery. It's better that certain things are not answered. Music is the highest art because it's not in words, it's not in colors, it's not visible. It's not translatable. It's just sound! It's mysterious. It's beyond all the other arts. It's an impossible truth. You can analyze it all you want, but you cannot prove it. It's just sound! And I love that about music. You as a writer know how hard it is to describe music in words. I can tell you how someone looks. But you can't tell me how to describe Miles Davis' sound. I love that dichotomy, that impossibility of definition. I love it, I live in it. And I'm always looking for a surprise. Leonard Feather said, "Jazz is the sound of surprise." And I want to be surprised. So that's my religion. OK?

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