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Praise from the Rock: Rockers on Jazz

Ask an average rock ‘n’ roll fan about jazz-mainstream, progressive or otherwise-and you may receive a blank stare or a mumbled reference to Kenny G or David Sanborn. But ask the same question of many performers those same rock fans idolize, and you will get a very different response.

Indeed, jazz is a music of choice for an unusually broad array of rock, pop and hip-hop artists-even if their own work seldom reveals a trace of jazz. And many of these performers jump at the opportunity to give props to the jazz greats they admire.

“I love Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker,” says veteran rock vocalist Rod Stewart, who names Al Jolson as his all-time favorite singer. “Did you ever see the movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day? I’d really like to get a copy of that.

Stewart has yet to record an album of classic jazz songs and torch ballads. But Linda Rondstadt, Carly Simon, Sinead O’Connor and former Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry all have. And the list of pop stars with jazzy inclinations is a constantly growing one.

I’d love to do an album of jazz standards,” admits folk-rock sensation Jewel, whose concerts ofter feature her Ella Fitzgerald-style version of “Too Darn Hot” by Cole Porter. “When I was attending Interlochen in Michigan, I made money by singing in a jazz bar with a trio. I never thought I’d be a folk artist or a pop artist.

Then there’s Bob Weir, whose love of jazz goes deeper than many of his pop and rock peers

The former Grateful Dead singer-guitarist, now the leader of the improvisation-happy band Ratdog, is completing a musical about African-American baseball great Satchel Paige. Weir has been working on it for several years with Grammy Award-winning bluesman Taj Mahal and jazz sax dynamo David Murray, who sometimes blew a few solos at Grateful Dead concerts.

“In our writing, Dave, Taj and I are trying to quote a lot of old greats, like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan; people from Satchel Paige’s era,” Weir said recently. “Jazz is the direction in which I’ve been drifting for the last decade or so. Ratdog is not a jazz band by any means, but we can go there.”

The love of jazz shared by many rock and pop stars was reaffirmed at the 1999 American Music Awards in Los Angeles. Although the live awards telecast failed to feature even a single jazz category or artist, it provided a timely opportunity to ask a wide array of musicians backstage to comment on the legacy of Duke Ellington, whose centennial was then barely three months away.

With only one exception, each performer enthusiastically and knowledgeably sang Duke’s praises. My respondents ranged from rap star Coolio and Ally McBeal TV songstress Vonda Shephard to Billy Joel, Everclear rock band leader Art Alexakis and longtime jazz fan Elvis Costello (who cited Ellington’s “Money Jungle” album as a personal favorite). The only performer who declined to offer an opinion on Ellington when asked was country-pop superstar Garth Brooks. “I wouldn’t be intelligent enough to say anything about him,” Brooks demurred. “I’m sorry, I’m not that intelligent when it comes to the real stuff.”

Happily, many other rock and pop musicians are. Their comments, which have been gleaned from interviews I conducted in 1999 and previous years, make it clear you don’t have to play jazz to have a passion for it.

R.E.M. Guitarist Peter Buck:

“I’m a really big jazz fan, although I resolutely do not play jazz. I had a teacher when I was 15, and we’d listen to Barry White albums and big band albums. Then I went to a record store, and this guy gave me some fusion records. I listened to them, and I said: ‘I don’t get that.’

“Then I got [Miles Davis’s] In A Silent Way, and it was great. And then I got [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme. I was 16. The four minutes after the bass solo on A Love Supreme is my favorite music, ever. I listen to free jazz-Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, and some Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra. That’s what I think jazz is.”

Metallica Drummer Lars Ulrich:

“My dad owned a jazz club in Copenhagen in the ’50s and would review jazz for a lot of newspapers. So I grew up in a very musical environment. He was always playing records by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and then he started getting into the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. He was very open-minded.

“My dad would sit there and talk about Max Roach and Elvin Jones, but it was people like [Deep Purple drummer] Ian Paice who got me going. My dad would play a lot of jazz for me, which I could respect, and he’d pound these ideas into me, like ‘playing sideways.’ And he’d always say, ‘Don’t be too square in your drumming.’ Because in rock and metal, everything is always in 4/4. And he’d challenge me, when I was learning, to break things up into weird time signatures. And that happened later on with [Metallica] albums like Master of Puppets.

“It’s funny to be asked about my dad and jazz. Because I never thought it had a direct effect on me, and it did.”

Lenny Kravitz:

“I met Duke Ellington when I was a little kid, so I’m down with that. He was playing at the Rainbow Room in New York, and he and Paul Gonsalves played ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. It was my fifth or sixth birthday. He had long, white hair and a goatee. I knew ‘Take the “A” Train’ and a couple of the tunes, and I thought he was a nice man. But I didn’t know it was Duke Ellington ’til I grew older, and then it was like: ‘Oh shit!’

“My parents took me around a lot to hear music when I was young. I saw Duke, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Kenny Burrell, Miles, Ella, Lionel Hampton, Cleo Laine, Bobby Short. From the age of 6 to 9, these were the kind of acts I used to go see. And, at the same time, I’d got to the Apollo Theater with my mom and see the Jackson 5 when they were young. So I saw a lot of shit at a very young age, and that’s probably why I’m doing what I’m doing today, besides the fact I had it in me.

“These experiences made my life so much more rich. I mean, Miles Davis was a guy to me before he was Miles Davis. He was a friend of ours. And, in fact, we shared the same birthday. So, on certain occasions, I went to his birthday party. It was fun. Later on, we talked about music. We ended up playing together, after my song ‘Let Love Rule’ came out. I’m also a huge Sarah Vaughan fan; I love her version of ‘April in Paris.’ Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage album is awesome. And I love Miles’s Jack Johnson album; if kids today heard that kind of thing with the beats and stuff it has, they’d go nuts.

“In school I played drums and guitar in the jazz band. I mean, I’m not a jazz player, but I have jazz in me, and I think jazz and understand jazz. Live, in concert, we throw in elements of jazz-improv-and we take it out. I think I wanted to be a jazz player, but it ended up being something else. And the musicians in my band are very versatile. I hired Cindy Blackman because she’s a great drummer. She’d never played rock before, or whatever you want to call my music. She’s a straight-ahead jazz player, but she had the chops, the ear and the musicality. Both of the horn players in my band have a jazz background, and the keyboard player.

“Jazz, to me, means freedom, really. There are places when you listen to these guys play, and it just gets out there and it becomes it’s own monster. It’s so free, the amount of notes you can play. It’s like there are no rules; if you can finesse it, it can work.”

Bonnie Raitt:

“I am a jazz fan, although I wish I was more aware of jazz than I am. I stick with Coltrane, Miles and Charlie Parker. I didn’t know about the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane album before everyone wrote about it [following the inclusion of songs from the album in the 1995 Clint Eastwood film The Bridges of Madison County], so there’s a whole generation now falling in love with these classic melodies.

“And Ornette Coleman is fantastic, his lyricism and the way he plays. I’m particularly grateful he’s around playing these days. Because people need to hear what that authenticity sounds like, as opposed to fusion or pop-jazz.

He’s a legend, and deserves to be listened to by this newer generation.”

David Bowie:

“Jazz was a music that seriously paralleled rock music for me when I was young, between 8 and 12. I don’t know why, but I really felt at home with modern jazz. I don’t know whether it was the clothes, but the Modern Jazz Quartet had a huge appeal to me. And because I liked what it looked like, I wanted to understand how it worked.

“I think I often approach things like that; my eyes are very sensitive to what they receive and that can often help me make a first assessment. So I liked rock because of the way it looked and I liked jazz because of the way it looked, and from that I was able to sort of get into it. I feel jazz may have set me off on this idea that ‘planned accidents’ are truly wonderful experiences in music.

“Earl Bostic’s [1951 hit] ‘Flamingo’ and Little Richard’s ‘She’s Got It’ [featuring New Orleans tenor sax stalwart Lee Allen] are two things that were total inspirations about what I wanted to do with my life. My father kindly got me a saxophone on what we call ‘hire-purchase,’ which was a little money down and then pay monthly for… 15 years! I got a white Ebonite saxophone; [top English jazz saxophonist] Johnny Dankworth used to play one. It was flashy, an alto, and it was a sax.

“For a year or two after that, I delivered papers and did odd jobs to pay my father back. And I got a plastic reed to get something somewhere near the Bostic sound. Then I took lessons from Ronnie Russ, a baritone saxophonist who was England’s answer to Gerry Mulligan. After seven lessons, I knew I had it under control and said: ‘I know it all; I’m joining a rock band!’

“The irony is that when I produced Lou Reed’s [1973 album] Walk On The Wild Side, I hired Ronnie to play a solo. I walked out with red hair and no eyebrows, and said: ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you gave me sax lessons when I was 10.’

“Jazz has inspired me, just by giving me an understanding that it’s okay to drift between the spaces created by the melody. The melody is a schematic, an outline for what you can do. Sometimes mistakes-or events one can consider mistakes-can actually be spontaneous impulses worth building on. The most important thing for me was [learning] that the spaces between the notes are where the action really is.”

Michael Jackson/Jeff Beck Band Guitarist Jennifer Batten:

“My dad was, and still is, a jazz fan, so I heard it in the house for years. He turned me onto Django [Reinhardt] and Jim Hall. I remember I once asked him who Jim Hall was, and he sent me home with 28 Jim Hall albums! When I left San Diego in 1979 to study at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, it was very jazz-oriented. I studied with Joe Diorio, and he turned me on to people like Ira Sullivan.

“The music of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were part of a class that Joe taught on bebop, and I got heavily into their solos. Learning a lot of that really expanded my playing. And by going heavily into jazz, and then coming into rock, it brought whole new aspects to my playing. Jazz changed how I see the guitar. A lot of times I see it in arpeggio forms based on the chord changes, rather than just in a blues form, the way a standard rock player might.

“On the Jeff Beck tour bus, we listened to Weather Report, Miles Davis and the new Mahavishnu Orchestra album. We did a couple of riffs from Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson album in a medley of Jeff’s stuff. Weather Report is one of my all-time favorite bands, and I still really love Charlie Parker, because I spent so much time learning his stuff and getting his records. And I can play part of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ solo, note for note, still.

“When a lot of players get into music, people suggest they get into classical. I think if you want to get into rock, jazz will be a lot more helpful in the long run, as far as improvising. I think most classical players don’t improvise.”

Comedian Chris Rock:

“I never met Miles Davis, but when you walk in my house, there are three pictures of Miles. Every place I’ve lived, I’ve had photos of him-some close-ups, some magazine covers. Just Miles; I like the best. And Grandmaster Flash [the pioneering rapper and musical director of Rock’s HBO-TV series] is a jazz fan, especially of Miles. I keep a copy of [Davis’s 1989 compilation album] Ballads on me all the time. It just relaxes me. Jazz is like mood music; it’s always the subconscious.”

Melissa Etherdige:

“When I went to the Berklee School of Music in the late 1970s, there were a lot of really talented jazz artists, a lot of notes going on, and I didn’t fit into that. I wasn’t manually talented. I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to hear the [latest] song I wrote. But I caught enough of the technical aspect to make myself truly a musician.

“I remember we had to study ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ until I was blue in the face! We also listened to Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and all these great, older artists that I could relate to. But I could never get off the train at the fusion stop. I’m a fan of the Ella, Sarah, Charlie Parker school. I do have Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I like that; his other stuff, no. I like the popular stuff, like Weather Report’s ‘Birdland.’ I’m just a kind of pop music-oriented person.”

Rolling Stones Guitarist Keith Richards:

“I grew up listening to the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio, Wes Montgomery, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, the lot. My mother is a jazz freak, so I had no choice! But there’s so much in rock ‘n’ roll related to jazz. And they’re both bastards of the blues anyway, which is at the root of them all.

“We also listened to jazz because that was the only alternative music. We were stuck with just one radio station, the BBC, where we grew up. And, basically, you got a little bit of jazz here and there, some very good classical music and loads of very turgid, disgusting, middle-of-the road stuff. So you had to pick your spots.

“I got turned on to Charlie Mingus at the same time I was listening to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters in 1958 and ’59, when I went to art school. Blues and Roots was the album that turned me on to Mingus. After that, I picked up everything he did. And if I didn’t have it, [Stones drummer] Charlie Watts would.

“Jazz is something you grow up with, and you realize that there’s a strength in it. I mean, jazz is the best thing America did to the world! When I listen to Charlie Christian, I don’t think, ‘I’m listening to jazz.’ It goes beyond that; to me it’s all just music. You know, I hear blues in Mozart; good music is good music. Give me some of those [Louis] Armstrong cornet records from 1926, and, hey, you’re talking.

“If you’ve got a preconceived notion of what’s allowed to be done and what ain’t, then you’re already missing something. I don’t give a shit if it’s a polka, or a piece of Beethoven or Mozart, or Thelonious Monk or Muddy Waters… whoever the hell it is… or even me. Music is music. And if you can’t get over that, and you just have one bag to groove in, then you’re cutting yourself out.

“As far as I’m concerned, music is meant to be expanded, it’s not meant to be put in some pigeonhole. And jazz, of all things, is totally anti-pigeonhole. The concept of guys thinking that a certain kind of jazz is the only kind that’s right is like a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?

“The guys in this band did grow up listening to Miles [Davis]. And Darryl [former Miles Davis band and current Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones], and I were talking about it the other day. There was a connection between Miles and myself. You know, Miles would call me up at the weirdest times of night, [and say]: ‘Hey, man, what’s up?’ And I’m like: Miles, man, I’m on top of the old lady; I’m in church! I’ll call you tomorrow.’

“Improvisation, for me and Charlie [Watts], I think we probably lean more now on what we learned when we were kids and we didn’t even know the music. It’s amazing how much you retain of the jazz and the feel. And it becomes more important to me, and it always has been to Charlie, as time goes on. It raises your level [of musicianship]. And you come out with a little bit more knowledge, at least a foggy notion that there are other things and other ways to play this thing. And that’s the impetus to carry on. Because you don’t play rock ‘n’ roll the same way every night either. Rock ‘n’ roll is a part of jazz, and it’s just a very limited form of it. But sometimes the limitations are the most interesting things.”

Lou Reed:

“Hearing Ornette Coleman [at Manhattan’s Five Spot in 1959] gave me license to kill. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I heard the show from in the club. I didn’t have enough money, so I heard it from outside. Having said that, Ornette’s free jazz made me think: ‘What a great thing to do on electric guitar!’ I thought a distorted electric guitar sounded like a sax or a sax section.

“I was very much moved by that aesthetic, and moved for good. Probably the fact that I like Ornette so much-and Don Cherry-made me able to hear and be accessible to Oliver Lake’s horn parts [which are featured on Reed’s 1996 album, Set The Twilight Reeling].

“The thing is, Ornette and his band members could read and write music, and I couldn’t. And they could really play their instruments, and I couldn’t. I still can’t read or write [music], but I think I can play better. And there’s something to be said for a free-form thing, where you just follow the feedback. I have a good sense of pitch, and I wasn’t playing the guitar as a normal instrument, but as a feedback instrument. I thought, with a good sense of pitch, there were wonderful things you could do with it. And if you could be loose with it, you could generate a lot of stuff.”

Randy Newman:

“I don’t know a lot about jazz, but I happened to get a Fletcher Henderson record that I loved. And the early Henderson is better than the early Ellington. But in the early 1930s, it turned around, and Ellington was the top guy, without a doubt. He’s one of the great American composers, along with Gershwin, Ives and Joplin. ‘Caravan’ is one of the greatest things of all time. There are sounds in Ellington’s music, where three instruments are playing in unison, and I can’t tell you what they are. He was a great man, and he got better and better.

“And I was influenced by his arrangements, especially his use of muting. I just did a [film] thing with muting on a trombone. I like that style, where you’ll double a trombone up high, with an alto sax, doing a little shake. I just admire it so much. It’s affected me, in terms of orchestration and harmonically.”

Allman Brothers Band Guitarist Derek Trucks:

“I listen to so much music, and Miles, Coltrane, Sun Ra and Wayne Shorter are a big part of what I do. It’s all the same 12 notes, it’s just the way you approach it. Art Blakey and Elvin Jones are some of my favorite musicians, and I try to take the fire and intensity I hear in their playing. You can take the phrasing from a drum fill, and put in into your guitar playing.

“I’ve just always been really curious. When I listen to musicians I respect, I try to find out who changed them-who changed their lives, or who ruined their lives! I get a list, and it stacks up. And from listening, you can learn. Like, Sun Ra’s group was together for nearly 50 years, but they never had a choice. It was almost written in stone what they would do. Once you get the bug, the music and creativity is first.

“For me, the key is looking back to when it was pure and when it was done for the love of music. If you’re serious about music, you have to search back to when it was really honest, whether it’s Delta-blues by Bukka White and Son House, or jazz. You have to go the source. Coltrane was listening to a lot of Indian music at the end; Charlie Christian was trying to play like a horn player. So I try to dig into that.

“I also love Barney Kessel. There’s something about that whole era of music; most of the musicians then had such sincerity. When you have people like Barney and Tal Farlow, great things happen. That’s the problem now; there’s not a community of musicians bouncing off each other, like there was back then.”

Originally Published