Swinging Spoken Words

When I came upon video interviews with 280 jazz musicians (available on CD, DVD, audiocassette and in print), it was for me like hearing the voices of participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where our swinging liberties were being improvised by James Madison and other sidemen and set down for posterity.

I had known about this Jazz Archive at Hamilton College in upstate New York, but only recently discovered its history and extent under the supervision of Monk Rowe, whose formal title is the Joe Williams Director of the Jazz Archive. In his dressing room once, Joe talked to me about chronicling the survivors of this music. Along with his own continuing presence on recordings Joe, in his connection with Hamilton, has been instrumental in giving permanence to more jazz history.

While Rowe has conducted most of the interviews, those with Milt Hinton, Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson and George Shearing were done by Williams. To give you a small indication of the range of the other voices, with future interviews to come, they include: Jay McShann, Jimmy Witherspoon and Sherrie Maricle, creator of the all-women Diva, currently the most swinging big band in jazz. Also: James Moody, Frank Wess, Phil Woods, Roswell Rudd, John Levy, Joe Wilder, Al Grey, Jane Ira Bloom, Ron Carter, Maria Schneider, et al. I can attest to the knowledgeable skills of interviewer Monk Rowe because I’m among the “Arrangers, Composers, Authors, Etc.,” as are Albert Murray, George Avakian, and the walking equivalent of Google as a jazz search engine, Phil Schaap.

The vital enabler of the Jazz Archive was a Hamilton College alumnus and trustee, the late Milt Fillius, drawn to the music as a drummer in high school bands, and later a friend of Williams. A successful businessman, Fillius, intent on documenting the lives of these musicians who had enlarged his life, started the videotaping, in 1995 that became the Hamilton College Jazz Archive.

Joe Williams’ participation gave credibility among his peers to this preservation of jazz history in the actual voices of its makers. Upon his death, Williams’ estate donated to the Archive his private collection of live open-reel recordings and other material from his own archives.

In this column, from time to time—depending on the theme I’m exploring—there’ll be excerpts from these interviews. To start, I was intrigued by a statement in an Archive brochure that read, “The holdings are particularly viable for material pertaining to the learning process employed by young musicians prior to the establishment of jazz education programs, and the realities of making a career in jazz.”

So here is Harry “Sweets” Edison in an illuminating personal addition to the January/February 2008 JazzTimes excerpt from Dave Gelly’s invaluable book, Being Prez (Oxford University Press) that focuses on Basie and Lester Young, among others, during the genesis of the band that was flowingly synonymous with the word “swing.”

Sweets joined Basie when he was 19, and Rowe asked him, “How much of the music was written out?”

“We didn’t have any music,” said Edison.

So how did he learn what to play?

“When I first joined the band, everybody had played with Bennie Moten’s band. They all had notes to play on, like, ‘One O’clock Jump,’ ‘Swinging the Blues’ and ‘Out the Window.’”

For these head arrangements, “The brass section would get together and set a riff, and we’d all come back to the rehearsal hall.”

But Sweets became very frustrated because not having been in the band at the creation of the heads, when his colleagues played those numbers fast, “You’re trying to find a note [for you to play] and it’s past. They’re finished before you can find a note.”

What he meant, Rowe interprets, was that as the music whizzed by, Edison couldn’t find a note to fit the fleeing chord—and a note that Ed Lewis, sitting next to him in the trumpet section, didn’t have.

“I really was disgusted,” Edison recalled, and gave Basie his notice. “Why?” asked the Count. “You sound good.”

“Well, all these arrangements you play every night, I can’t find a note.”

“If you find a note tonight,” says Basie, “that sounds good, play the same damn note every night.”

Encouraged by the boss to stay, Edison was in the band for 20 years, in and out. Having found his notes, Sweets adds, “I should have paid him to be in the band because I was having so much fun. You couldn’t pay for that kind of education.”

Years later, there was to be a tribute to Count Basie at Carnegie Hall, and that morning, in a rehearsal room nearby, an arrangement was distributed to the Basie alumni, most of whom were in their 60s and 70s. They started on the arrangement, and Sweets stopped the music. He told the arranger that he was going to take some of the notes out of his parts, and slow down the tempo. The arranger, who hadn’t been on one road trip with Basie, was smart enough not to argue.

Sweets had not only found his notes long before that rehearsal, but he’d also learned what notes not to play so that the music could breathe.

To learn more about the Hamilton College Jazz Archive—and the availability of these interviews—the contacts are: www.hamilton.edu/jazzarchive, www.monkrowe.com and (315) 859-4071. In time, there should be a book on all these themes and variations of the jazz life.

Maybe a publisher will come forward.

Originally published in April 2008

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