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Trumpeter John Swana

Victor L. Schermer By

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A turning point was in 1990 when I got the record deal with Gerry Teekens of Criss-Cross.
In addition to being one of the finest contemporary jazz trumpet players, John Swana is a human being who is spontaneously authentic and refuses to play a false role. Having reached the ripe old age of 38, John has performed side by side with many fabulous musicians, from Benny Golson to Tom Harrell, to Chris Potter, and a myriad of others whose names connote excellence in jazz. A consummate musician whose playing always attracts your attention for its straightforward solidity, virtuosity, and originality, John is furthermore a "big" person in the sense of both generosity of spirit and physical height! He stands 6 foot 3 inches tall and can't be missed in a room! So I approached this interview with awe and respect. Then, after I had trouble reaching him because, so he told me later, his cat sometimes jumps on his tape machine and erases the messages, I knew something was up. At the interview, which was conducted in person at my office on Rittenhouse Square, I found out what was up: John is just so very human, does not place himself above anyone (man nor beast!), and, like the proverbial Zen master, likes to run with where he is at any particular point in time (and isn't that what jazz is all about?) So we jumped from subject to subject, wherever the impulse took us, and the end result was a very enjoyable and interesting conversation about jazz, John, his very interesting family background, and the musical life. I hope you enjoy reading what John has to say as much as I enjoyed interviewing him.

AAJ: To get us going, what CDs would you take to the proverbial desert island?

JS: I always get that question, and I hate it, because I can never make up my mind! For me, well, Joe Henderson, Our Thing. I've always loved that record.

AAJ: What about trumpet players?

JS: Our Thing has Kenny Dorham on it... I would take a Miles record. Can I take a double CD?

AAJ: Yes.

JS: Miles' recordings Live at Carnegie Hall/My Funny Valentine. And then maybe I'd take Aaron Copland, Rodeo and Billy the Kid. I grew up with those. I like Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Firebird. Debussy. Ravel, different piano styles. There's a couple of Schoenberg things that I heard recently that I like too. I studied Pierot Lunaire in school.

AAJ: Believe it or not, there's a 33 rpm vinyl recording of that with Cleo Laine singing the soprano part! Actually, she does quite a good job!

JS: I grew up with the Aaron Copland compositions. My mother had the recording of the New York Philharmonic with Bernstein conducting Billy the Kid on one side, and Rodeo on the other. She would always put it on when I would go to bed. She also had recordings by a Russian trumpet player named Timofei Docshizer, in which he played the Haydn and the Hummel, so I grew up listening to those classic trumpet concertos.

Also, I've got to throw Bartok in here- I like Bartok. Especially that string quartet with the celestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celestra. I have the box set with the Emerson quartet playing the Bartok string quartets.

AAJ: You're setting the stage for a number of questions that I want to ask you a bit later on. But for now, just to get an idea of your performance preferences, what are some of your favorite standard tunes?

JS: Often, the way I like to do gigs, which I don't think is necessarily good, is that I kind of go with the flow. I'm talking about the gigs around Philly, so the other guys are comfortable, and then if I'm not that familiar with the tune, I kind of get to learn it. The tunes I really love to play I don't call a lot, because I want to play tunes that I don't know as well.

AAJ: OK, but do you have a couple of tunes that are your favorites?

JS: Yeah, "Stella" [by Starlight], "If I Should Lose You."

AAJ: Any Miles tunes?

JS: I've been doing the old Milestones lately, and Kind of Blue. I always like playing his ballads. Also, I've been playing [Coltrane's] Giant Steps lately. And I've worked on "Countdown," but I don't play them on a lot of gigs. "Alone Together" [Dietz-Schwartz, composers] too. That's a nice tune for me to start a gig, because its right in the middle register.

AAJ: I like Chet Baker's version of "Alone Together" on the album, Chet. To change the subject, as a time frame for discussing your musical development, what's your date of birth?

JS: 4/26/62.

AAJ: So you would have been an adolescent in the seventies. By the way, do you know your astrological sign?

JS: Taurus.

AAJ: Does you personality fit with that sign?

JS: I don't know enough about it- don't you have to know the planets? Like Taurus, I've always wanted to get a lot of things done, but no, I must have had another planet come up behind it.

AAJ: For the record, I'm Aquarius.

JS: Joe Magnarelli is Aquarius, you know, he's on the Joe Magnarelli/John Swana two trumpet recording.

AAJ: Returning to the subject of your early musical development, I understand that your mother has been around the choral scene in the Philadelphia area. Tell us a little about your mom, and about your early exposure to music- you mentioned Copland's Billy the Kid as a classical piece to which she exposed you.

JS: Another really important piece for me that I love, is Menotti's Amal and the Night Visitors. I grew up listening to it. My mom performed in it in one of the churches on Chestnut Street [in Philadelphia] when I was a kid. She was part of the choir, so we would come out and see it live. She was in the Singing City Choir. She'd gone to New York to Julliard to study with Bernard Taylor, and he left Julliard, so she studied with him privately, and was singing in the New York area, and my father was going to Columbia. They married and moved to Ithaca, New York. Then they came down here, and she stopped doing music for a while, then got back in with Singing City, then took her masters degree at Temple University. She became the choir director at a Presbyterian Church when I was growing up, and then she got her choral conducting degree and taught music at Immaculata College.

So I was very influenced by her. And my father listened to Beethoven. But I didn't hear much jazz. They had a George Shearing record and some Al Hirt records from the sixties. But my mother was surrounded by music-she'd be giving lessons, I'd hear people singing, the folks from Singing City, and so I grew up with a lot of different music around, and her playing piano and singing a lot, and in church embarrassing us, because she'd always be the one singing loud, not obnoxiously, but she studied voice, so she stood out, and when everyone else was singing softly, she'd be packing a punch!

AAJ: Did you listen to church music as a child?

JS: There was a lot of music there. I always thought the church services themselves were really boring, but I was a kid.

AAJ: What sort of experiences first whetted your appetite for performing?

JS: We were always singing, my sister, brother, and me. I still have a tape from when I was five— we're all singing on the tape, and my father has me play the theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth. My oldest sister played flute and piano. But for some reason I always wanted to play trumpet.

AAJ: I think it is interesting how musicians choose their instrument or have it chosen for them. I was surprised to learn, for example, from the recent book, The Musical World of J.J. Johnson , that J.J., the later-to-become legendary trombonist who seemed made for that instrument, was initially going to take up baritone sax in high school. As fate would have it, he attended a black school in a poor neighborhood, with a paucity of equipment, and the only useable instrument available for him was a trombone! We're all grateful for that happenstance! But in your case, your first choice was the trumpet?

JS: Oh yeah, the beautiful stuff by this Docshizer guy, and of course the Al Hirt records. He'd play certain things with the plunger mute, and made it sound like the human voice. It's funny, I don't even use the plunger, but I always thought it was really some great stuff. And in Copland's Rodeo and Billy the Kid, there are beautiful solo trumpet parts, and I chose trumpet without a second thought. And once, I went to a Mummers Day parade, but you know, those horns they give you, they're long and plastic and you just blow? I got one of those, and was blasting it around the house thinking it was the greatest thing.

AAJ: Your public relations bio states that you were born in Norristown, PA, took up the trumpet at the age of 11, and that you were drawn to jazz at the age of 17 after hearing Dizzy Gillespie. Then, the interest in jazz developed into a passion while you were in college. However, it's my impression that your style of playing is virtually the opposite of Dizzy's. His sound is frenetic and strained, deliberately so, as if to convey a tension, an electricity. Your playing on the other hand is very clear, natural, well-considered, even reserved. You seem always to be "on top of" the music, not straining, knowing just where you are at every moment. Of course, so many musicians feel tremendously indebted to Dizzy. What did you derive from Diz?

JS: Well, I got the whole bebop concept from him, his whole bebop feel. And the reason I didn't play like Dizzy was because I couldn't play like Dizzy: when he was at his top form, his trumpet playing was amazing. I love the album, Diz and Roy. I had the original vinyl, with Diz, Roy Eldridge, and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Diz just destroyed everyone-unbelievable! Like after playing screamingly high, he'd come down and play some really humorous stuff. I loved hearing him. I saw him live at Ambler when I was a teenager.

AAJ: I understand that Diz came to the Philadelphia area often. We know, for example, that in June, 1945, he and Charlie Parker played at the Academy of Music. Benny Golson and John Coltrane (and coincidentally Jimmy Heath) went to hear them and were, of course, floored. [Lewis Porter provides this information in John Coltrane: His Life and Music.] Later, of course, they were very moved to be able to perform with Diz.

Your bio says that you started to transcribe the solos of Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Tom Harrell. A propos of Miles, again you seem to have evolved your own style, very different from Miles. So what do you find valuable in his work?

JS: Well, it depends on the context. Actually, if I hear that kind of style with a group, I tend to move towards Davis' kind of texture. In my early twenties, Miles left Columbia Records, and they sold all his recordings at an incredibly low price! I just went nuts and bought all the sixties Miles. Every night, I'd go off by myself and put on a Miles record. I love Miles. If I'm in a certain texture, especially with the mute, I start to hear more of the Miles thing. I really come out of Freddie Hubbard more, and the stronger I'm playing, I sound more like Freddie.

AAJ: You definitely play more towards Freddie than Miles, I mean as far as your sound and your musical intention.

JS: I think that might also have to do with my classical background.

AAJ: Your sound is so clear and your articulation so fine, that I have wondered if you had had any aspirations to be a classical musician.

JS: When I went to West Chester University, I was slightly aimless. I knew I wanted to play trumpet, but I had no plan of action. I studied with Ken Loudermilk. He took students he thought had potential and would really get them ready for auditions for the masters programs at New England Conservatory and Julliard, etc. I was one of those guys- he was going to do that for me I was one of his protégés and did move in a classical vein for a while.

But even in the first year there, I started getting into jazz. I listened to Miles Davis' album, 'Round Midnight, where they do "Tad's Delight." And also the Miles Davis album, Bags' Groove, with "Oleo," "But Not For Me," and "Airegin." Sonny Rollins is on it and sounds great. But when I first heard Miles, I didn't like his tone- now I actually love it. And I think a different horn might give me a different texture. He played a Martin, and a different mouthpiece than I use. In fact, in terms of their sound, I like to listen to certain trombone players and consider how that would translate into trumpet. When I hear a really good trombone player, they have a resonant, open sound.

AAJ: Like Steve Davis, with whom you've recorded.

JS: Yeah, he was just at Ortlieb's [jazz club in Philadelphia]. And of course, J.J. Johnson has a beautiful tone. Have you ever heard the Billie Holiday record, Lady in Satin?

AAJ: One of her last recordings.

JS: Its a great record. J.J.s on it, and Urbie Green. When Holiday sings, it's really soulful and dirty, and then the trombone players, like J.J., come in and he's right there, and Urbie. The perfect notes.

AAJ: Urbie introduced J.J. to studio recording, and they hung out together after recording dates. J.J. tells some very light hearted stories of their drinking escapades!

Since you've alluded to your equipment, I wanted to say that Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which the Philadelphia Orchestra performed recently, has a bass trumpet part. It's close to the trombone register.

JS: I used to have a bass trumpet.

AAJ: Do you play the flugelhorn? The cornet?

JS: The flugelhorn, yes. I don't play the cornet, however- I feel as if it's cheating. Its darker than the trumpet, but if you can't get that dark sound on the trumpet, then its cheating to use the cornet. That's just me- no criticism of others who play the cornet.

AAJ: Do you have trumpets of different registers?

JS: No, because I don't do the classical thing any more. I do have a pocket trumpet, which I've used to warm up on the highway before gigs, while keeping my car on cruise control!

AAJ: What's your basic equipment?

JS: A Bach medium large 72 bell, lacquered trumpet with a one and a quarter C Bach mouthpiece. I don't change equipment often- I'm conservative in that way.

AAJ: What mutes do you use?

JS: The Harmon. On "older style" type gigs, I'll use a cup mute. On that Dizzy and Roy album, Roy is using a straight mute and a Harmon, and Dizzy uses a cup.

AAJ: We've talked about Dizzy and Miles as major influences. Which other musicians would you see as role models, mentors, inspirations?

JS: In my second year of high school, I saw Tom Harrell with the Gerry Mulligan Big Band at Glassboro [subsequently called Rowan] State College.

AAJ: My trombone teacher, Alan Raph, played with the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band in the 1960's.

JS: This was in 1979 or 1980. Tom walks in front of the band, up to the mike and starts playing. I was listening to him, and a light bulb went off in my head, and I said to myself, "I want to play like that!" I taped it and transcribed everything on that tape. Eventually, I did a recording date with Tom Harrell (John Swana and Friends) and I ended up lending it to him. Everything he played was beautiful, right in there. At the Mulligan concert, I was afraid to introduce myself, he looked scary, so I didn't go up to him. He blew me away. The next year, I heard him with the Mel Lewis Big Band. With Mulligan, he played more in the bebop style, but with Mel Lewis, he played a blues, and was stretchin' it, taking the harmonies out, very heavy, very deep. Tom was a big influence on me. I checked him out with Horace Silver, and a two trumpet record with Harrell and John McNeill. McNeill is also known for his jazz method books.

And of course, Freddie Hubbard, obviously. Freddie totally knocked me out. He's so cocky, in a natural way.

AAJ: You mean he's not arrogant, as some have said, but assertive and confident?

JS: He'll take risks. He's so open. Then there's Kenny Dorham, he's really slick, and he's great with blues. Like on the Joe Henderson recording, Our Thing. Kenny has a melancholy quality that I really like.

AAJ: I love Kenny Dorham's recording of the Billy Strayhorn tune, "Lotus Flower," where he and J.J. seamlessly mesh their solos.

JS: Dorham's ballad playing is beautiful. Then, of course, Clifford Brown. I couldn't believe he was improvising, it sounded so perfect.

AAJ: How did it happen that you got to do that recent recording with Benny Golson dedicated to Clifford?

JS: Benny called me on the phone. He got my number from Cousin Mary Alexander [John Coltrane's cousin, who now runs the John Coltrane Cultural Society in Philadelphia.] Benny was looking for a trumpet player, and she recommended me.

AAJ: Were you thrilled to do that gig?

JS: Oh, yeah, yeah. And what's cool is that I just got a call to do a record date with Horace Silver in September. I'm looking forward to that as well. These guys are my heroes.

AAJ: I have the Helen Merrill CD, I Remember Clifford , which includes the Golson tune by that name. They ingeniously utilized a trumpet choir of three jazz trumpet players. The arrangements are wonderful, going from solo improvs to written out chorale sections for three trumpets.

JS: I'm not familiar with it. I'll look for it.

AAJ: On the Merrill recording, the trumpets sound like they're imitating Clifford a bit. Do you try to emulate Brown or other trumpet players?

JS: I just try to sound like myself. On the Golson album, I didn't even know the record was going to be named for Clifford! If I'd known, maybe I'd have been a bit more awestruck- why was I chosen to be on a recording dedicated to the master? I should have figured it out, however, because one of the tunes Golson wrote is based on the changes of "I Remember Clifford" but faster.

I'm more directly influenced by other players if I do a gig with them. I did a two trumpet gig with Terrell Stafford, and he's got such a powerful sound, very extroverted. I tried to adjust to his way of playing. I have mixed feelings about doing that. But on my own, I would never attempt to simulate Terrell, Clifford, or anyone else.

AAJ: In addition to the album with Golson, what are some of your career and performing highlights, thus far?

JS: A turning point was in 1990 when I got the record deal with Gerry Teekens of Criss-Cross. I was playing around Philadelphia, and performed with Don Patterson, a great experience, and met Jed Levy, a tenor saxophonist, and Jed introduced me to Peter Leach, a guitarist in New York. I was living in Jersey City then, and Peter called and told me to contact Gerry. I didn't think it was serious, but I got a call from Europe. It was Gerry, and he said in his unique gravelly voice, "I hear you're a good trumpet player. Do you have any tapes of yourself?" I said, "No, not really. But I'm playing a gig with Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker at Ortlieb's in Philly this weekend and I'll tape it and send it to you." And I also found a tape of a radio broadcast I did on WRTI. I put it all together and sent it to him. Gerry listened to it, and said, "I'd like to do something with you, but nobody knows who you are! They won't use you as a sideman. But maybe we'll do something with you in the future." He hung up, then a day or two later, he called and asked, "I'd like you to cut your own album. Can you do a recording date in two weeks?" [Laughter.]

AAJ: And he's in the Netherlands, right?

JS: Right. I asked him for a month, and he said, yes. I hung up the phone feeling overwhelmed, thinking, what the hell am I going to do? I get my own record, but I never was on a recording date! It was really traumatic. I immediately composed two tunes for that album, which was called "Introducing John Swana." It's a fine recording because the rhythm section is good, and they were great to me. Benny Green, Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, and Billy Pierce on tenor sax.

AAJ: Am I right in assuming that Teekens records in New York but that the company is in the Netherlands?

JS: He flies into New York twice a year. I'm doing a record with him in June. So that recording set me on a different path. I was trying a number of different things, including the use of an electronic device called the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument), a synthesized electronic trumpet. I played "free music" once a week with Steve Giordano and Tony Miceli. I use a computer as well- it's so different than what I do with Criss-Cross. Still, there's a thread that's similar, but I have a different side of me that nobody knows. I've been playing the EVI for twelve years. Recently, I purchased a CD burner, and I filled two CD's with my sequences to review for various projects.

AAJ: If folks want to hear some of this creative electronic work, where do you perform it?

JS: I did a gig last week with Ari Honig, Steve Giordano, and Dave Posmontier where I played EVI on some tunes, and I'm on a couple of Charles Fambrough records playing EVI. Also, I've been doing a project with Gerald Veasley, playing Mingus tunes, two of us (myself and Chris Farr) play winds ynthesizers, then I play real trumpet, and he plays real saxophone. We did a gig- all Mingus- in Erie. I use enough distortion to give the sound a little "dirt" so it sounds more organic, less synthesized. Of course, the "straight ahead" community hates it. I've used it on gigs, and people love it or hate it. Some folks at "straight ahead" gigs will come up to me and say, "Why the hell do you play that stupid thing?" Or they say, "That thing sounds so great! You sound so expressive!"

AAJ: To change the subject, let's talk a bit about your philosophy and attitudes. I'm interested in knowing what musicians think about various subjects. For one thing, there are, in my opinion, some really incredible musicians in Philadelphia, my friend Tom Lawton , the pianist, being an excellent example. Now my impression is that most of these guys don't seem to go for the fast lane, the big time. Certainly, Tom is a "world class" pianist, and does at times travel the international circuit, but most of the time he's happily boppin' around the Philadelphia area playing various gigs. Could you reflect on your own approach to living, and why someone with the talent that you have is living in an inner city poor white neighborhood, hanging out with local musicians, and not doing that fast track lifestyle?

JS: Well, truthfully and sadly, Philly, where I live now, is a kind of provincial city. But for me, there are a lot of reasons why I didn't move to New York and stay. For one thing, there was a slight fear of just breaking ties in order to move there. When you speak of Tom Lawton and the other players around Philadelphia who don't go "far" in the sense of fame and fortune, I believe that there's a very real personality type that you need to have in the music business- it's a social thing, and part of it is what "looks good" to people. For example, I was playing with Ralph Bowen last night, and he said, I've come this far, and I realize I'm not going to get anywhere unless I do it myself- like I won't get to be a big name if I keep waiting for the break- I have to be more proactive.

I chose Philly for a number of reasons. I'm comfortable here, I have friends here. There's something that I like and don't like about the music scene here. I like playing with Sid Simmons, Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Tom Lawton, Larry McKenna, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, Bootsie Barnes, Steve Giordano, Tony Miceli, Pete Smyser, and Mickey Roker, to name just a few. Uri Caine came from here. Did you ever hear of a club called Gert's Lounge? It was an organ place open from the late sixties to the mid to late eighties. There was a warm feeling there. There's a feeling about Philly that's "homespun," but not so homespun that it loses touch with what's happening in jazz. Philly's close to New York, and those guys come and perform with us.

AAJ: Philly also has some excellent music schools and teachers of jazz.

JS: At the same time, there's something about Philly that can be rough. This is a hard bop town, at least at Ortlieb's and Chris' [two jazz clubs in Philadelphia]. You can't be a Dave Douglas. You can't do a Knitting Factory type of thing and expect to work a lot of gigs in Philly. Except maybe at the Painted Bride, and then you can't really make a living. But there is a homemade thing that really has a lot of heart in Philly. At the same time, new material is hard to get played because the guys don't read as well [as in NYC]- they're not as quick. Like I love going to New York because I just get so inspired- the guys there are really on top of it, and they're really schooled.In New York I've performed with Eric Alexander, Richard Wyands, Jammil Nasser, Cecil Payne, Joe Magnerelli, Mark Turner, Ravi Coltrane, and Jerry Gibbs. All these guys, and many more, have also come down to Philly to play. Philly has a certain vibe, and it's hard to push out of that. There is a Philly sound, really. I feel blessed to be accepted by the guys in Philly. And it's easier to live here, it's comfortable to live here. At the same time, I love New York, and want to get up there more. But I feel more at home here.

AAJ: One of my interests is the duality of intellect and emotion that goes into music.

JS: I've always listened to music in terms of how I feel. The technical stuff doesn't impress me. If it doesn't go right to my heart, it doesn't mean much to me. I'm realizing I need a heartfelt connection. Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Bird, Diz, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Tom Harrell, Chet Baker, Brownie, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, etc. hit me where it hurts. With Herbie, it comes from such a natural place. And it's intellectual too. But it's primarily intuitive. Chris Potter is also like that- intuitive. Expression along with "head." The key is that the intellect be subservient to feeling and emotional intent.

AAJ: Optimally, the goal is to master the technique so totally that you can forget about it when you play.

JS: Exactly. I played a gig in L.A. with Gerry Gibbs, and Brad Mehldau was on it. Brad is a pianist with tons of technique and an incredible ear, who virtually lets the music play him. And what comes out is him, unique, and original. That's a great player. I think Joshua Redman is like that, except that some of his albums "go for house," a little too much for my taste. Wynton has that also.

AAJ: Part of what makes jazz special is that there is an implied protest in it. There's chaos in jazz- it's an attempt to master chaos. And there's certainly a very deep sadness, coming from the blues. When players try to do what sounds "nice," as in so-called smooth jazz, for example, they compromise the music. What makes jazz great is when it expresses a deeper part of the self.

JS: And even if you come from a beautiful space, you can still have that connection. Chet Baker was an example of that: sad, melancholy.

AAJ: By the way, what's your overall opinion of Chet Baker? I've read some devastating critiques of him. He was either loved or hated by the critics- he inspired extremes.

JS: Maybe I should give my opinion of critics.

AAJ: How does Chet rate in your view as a trumpet player, not as a singer or personality?

JS: Well, you can't compare him to a Dizzy Gillespie or a Clifford Brown or a Freddie Hubbard, in terms of technique. I'm not always in a "Chet mood," but I think he really epitomizes what jazz is about- he comes from a natural place, and he really had a special vibe.

AAJ: One critic feels that Baker was musically a phony, a fake.

JS: Oh, no, I think that's a crock of [bleep]. Well, I take it back, maybe the critic is right. Maybe Baker was a type like Hannibal Lechter-and was able to fool us all- just kidding of course!

AAJ: You're comparing Baker to the psychiatrist in Silence of the Lambs???

JS: What kind of person is that?

AAJ: A psychopath.

JS: Now if Chet is a psychopath...

AAJ: Chet was indeed a narcotics addict. Addicts sometimes act antisocially, but by and large my experience is that they are not psychopathic, although some of my colleagues might disagree [Vic is a psychologist by profession].

JS: Yes, he had a total sincerity when he played. He epitomizes what I believe jazz is about- you want to bring across your personal "vibe" and he is totally that way- there's no extraneous bullshit, and it's always about music, he always sounds musical.

AAJ: He was like you, in that he knew exactly where he was in a piece.

JS: Plus he was a vocalist and really connected to the lyrics when he played.

AAJ: At the outset of Chet's career, Charlie Parker chose the young Chet for his group at a huge audition of trumpet players in L.A. because Bird felt that Chet played like Bix Beiderbecke. Chet's father gave his son Beiderbecke recordings when he was growing up, so Parker heard right!

JS: The first trumpet solo I learned was a Beiderbecke solo.

AAJ: We were talking about Philly jazz, and I've heard both good things and rather serious complaints from the musicians about Philadelphia as a jazz scene, and I wonder what your thoughts are about how jazz could be improved and revitalized here in Philadelphia.

JS: I'm here for a reason. Tom's here, Bootsie [Barnes, tenor sax], Larry McKenna [tenor sax] who's really mastered the melodic concepts of bebop from Stan Getz and Hank Mobley. But about the scene- I've been pretty successful on the scene here, but I wish it was more open to cutting edge stuff and that people took more chances. I would never want to lose whatever is already here and established, but from that, it would be neat to see more chances taken.

AAJ: Does the conservatism have something to do with the audience in Philly?

JS: It's probably a combination of the audience and the people who are booking the gigs.

AAJ: I have two objections to jazz hiring practices in Philadelphia: One is that at the big jazz festivals, they don't use enough local musicians.

JS: I don't like that either- it's jive.

AAJ: And, secondly, they don't support enough large concert formats at the local colleges and so on. Tom Lawton, for example, has done some memorable jazz performances on the concert stage, but the opportunities are all too few.

JS: The colleges are the way to get the venues out, to really do it creatively. And by the way, it really ticked me off when WRTI [an FM station run by Temple University in Philadelphia, which had for years offered the best jazz on a 24-hour basis] merged with classical station WFLN, so that it has jazz for only part of the day now. I like classical music, but to me the merger stunk of upper class white takeover! The whole jazz community was so unorganized, that nobody could do anything about it.

I love the Philadelphia Orchestra, but I felt like telling them when they went on strike- you guys are complaining about an $80,000 starting salary- I'm playing at Ortlieb's for peanuts for G-d's sake! Someone came up to a friend of mine and asked him to sign a petition to support the Orchestra, and he said- you guys get over a million dollars in grants from the foundations, etc., and the whole jazz community gets next to nothing! Jazz music needs more concrete support here, whether financially, or with its own radio station, etc.

I like both classical and jazz, and I think everybody should be exposed to them, because the popular music is getting worse and worse, and people's attention span is getting less and less.

AAJ: There's no reason why this town shouldn't have a fine, excellent jazz station, and a fine, excellent classical music station. We're talking here about creative vitality in a city, and what's happening more broadly in a culture which is being increasingly compromised.

JS: Isn't it because money talks first and it's about making a buck?

AAJ: It's about that and it's about a deleterious cultural change. I was lucky enough to be sent a recording of a radio interview show that Irene Kral, Loonis McGlohon, and Billy Wilder did together in the 1970' s, and the sheer intelligence and sincerity of it blew me away, as if it were in some forgotten time. Indeed, that show occurred just at the time that the society was transitioning from a hippie culture to a yuppie culture, and in some ways that tells it all.

JS: Who is Irene Kral?

AAJ: She was a marvelous vocalist who sang with Kenton and some other big bands, then went on to her own career with small groups and with Alan Broadbent, the pianist. She achieved some posthumous fame a few years ago when her singing was heard on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood's The Bridges of Madison County. Clint Eastwood, is, of course, a devoted jazz fan.

Kral recorded a song called "Wheelers and Dealers," which is about the money hungry, valueless culture that you're talking about. You're talking about a city, Philadelphia, which is touting the Avenue of the Arts, and building a multi-million dollar Regional Performing Arts Center, but has so little support for creativity itself. Just compare, for example the Clef Club to the Knitting Factory.

JS: The Clef Club shouldn't be like the Knitting Factory. It should be a place where you can hear tradition and you can hear extreme, and it should be the whole gamut, not just the cutting edge. I like hearing all that stuff. The Clef club should be a forum for everyone who loves jazz, encompassing and embracing, all the different styles of the music

AAJ: People are too busy today to really listen. Hopefully, some of those who read this interview will be in a position to do something about the jazz scene in Philadelphia and respond to the points that you are making.

JS: The musicians themselves have also got to get out there and do something, be proactive.

AAJ: Let me mention a few musicians mentioned in your bio. I'd like you to tell me any thoughts and memories that might come to mind. The first one would be the great pianist, Kenny Barron.

JS: I love Kenny's playing. He brings a really strong quality and consistency. He's so matter of fact, and yet he has a really beautiful side to his performing. He has a real sensitivity, yet he can totally burn in a direct manner that I like.

AAJ: Mary Ellen Desmond, Philadelphia vocalist. You're on her debut recording, Darn that Dream.

JS: I like doing the standards with her. I like her repertoire. I'm playing with Mary Ellen tonight, in fact.

AAJ: Johnny Coles.

JS: He was a character, an original! We played a two trumpet gig at Bix [a defunct jazz club in Jenkintown, PA]. We played chess a couple of times. One time, he whispers, "John, when you practice get high."

AAJ: [laughter]: Some fatherly advice! OK, Chris Potter.

JS: I just think Chris is great, one of the real cutting edge sax players of our time, the new generation. He encompasses all of jazz history in his playing, he wraps it all up and plays in his own way. Any emotion he wants to express is immediately connected with his fingers and his horn. He has harmony, rhythm, time, and soul. Through it all, he's a melodicist, that is, he has a strong concept of melody.

AAJ: Uri Caine.

JS: I'm going to Taiwan with him to play the Mahler stuff. I totally got a lot from Uri. He was playing a Rhodes at Gert's and he was swinging. "Who is this guy?" I wondered. Blown away, I asked him for lessons immediately. "Do you teach?" He said, "Aw, c'mon, we'll just hang out. Gotta get Herbie [Hancock] from the sixties, The Prisoner, Speak Like a Child, Mc Coy, The Real McCoy, Time for Tyner, Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs." He would just whip off these records. The big four pianists- Keith Jarrett, Herbie, McCoy, and Chick. He turned me on to all that stuff. And more! He was a big influence.

AAJ: Tell us about the Joe Sudler Swing Machine.

JS: I was really young and excited to play with this big band. It was a great experience. I remember Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, Bob Minzer, Lockjaw Davis, J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton all came in. There's even a video out with the band backing up Phil Woods. We were playing with all these great players, then suddenly the next thing I know we're playing weddings, and Bar Mitzvahs, with the same band! It was quite a shock.

AAJ: And Joe Magnarelli.

JS: What I love about Joe is that he's really soulful, warm, honest. I have a good rapport with him when we play: we're not trying to cut each other. I learn from listening to him. He's a beautiful person too, real warm. He's on the road at the moment with the Harry Connick Big Band. On June 15 at Chris' Jazz Cafe, Joe, myself, and Eric Alexander will be performing together for the Mellon Jazz Festival.



AAJ: Could you reflect on your own approach to living, and why someone with the talent that you have is living in this city, hanging out with local musicians, and not doing the fast track lifestyle?

JS: Well, truthfully and sadly, Philly is a kind of provincial city. But for me, there are a lot of reasons why I didn't move to New York. For one thing, there was a slight fear of just breaking ties in order to move there. I believe that there's a very real personality type that you need to have in the music business- it's a social thing, and part of it is what "looks good" to people. I chose Philly for a number of reasons: I'm comfortable here, I have friends here. There's something that I like and don't like about the music scene here. I like playing with Sid Simmons, Mike Boone, Byron Landham, Tom Lawton, Larry McKenna, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts, Bootsie Barnes, Steve Giordano, Tony Miceli, Pete Smyser, and Mickey Roker, to name just a few. Uri Caine came from here. There's a feeling about Philly that's "homespun," but not so homespun that it loses touch with what's happening in jazz. Philly's close to New York, and those guys come and perform with us. At the same time, there's something about Philly that can be rough. This is a hard bop town, at least at Ortlieb's and Chris'. You can't be a Dave Douglas. You can't do a Knitting Factory type of thing and expect to work a lot of gigs in Philly. But there is a homemade thing that really has a lot of heart in Philly. Philly has a certain vibe, and it's hard to push out of that. There is a Philly sound, really. I feel blessed to be accepted by the guys in Philly. And it's easier to live here, it's comfortable to live here. At the same time, I love New York, and want to get up there more. But I feel more at home here.

AAJ: To conclude, can you tell us your future goals, what's coming up?

JS: I'm recording in June with Sid Simmons, Byron Landham, Mike Boone, and Bootsie Barnes. I talked Gerry Teekens of Criss-Cross into doing something that these guys create. I've played with Sid for years. Also, I'll go to Taiwan with Uri. And in September, I'm to record with Horace Silver. I want to work on some compositions, take some chances on my next Criss Cross recordings. I also plan to keep exploring with my electronic equipment, to grow and get a stronger voice in that area.

AAJ: Well, we could go on and on- you're a musician's musician, that's obvious, and we'd like to hear a lot more of your thoughts. More importantly, I hope this interview will inspire readers to listen to your outstanding playing, whether live or on recording. But that's all we have time for, John. I can't thank you enough.

JS: It was a real pleasure doing this with you.

About John Swana
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