Eddie Daniels is very excited about the Broadway Boogie project, a band he’s formed with Bob James, for performances at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival on Sunday, September 5 and the Blues Alley nightclub in Washington, D.C. for three nights before that, on Thursday, September 2 through Saturday, September 4. JT caught up with Daniels by phone from his home in New Mexico where the 68-year-old clarinetist had just returned from a session on the tennis courts. I initially asked him how this project came about and its connection to Broadway. And I am happy to say that our long and enjoyable conversation eventually got around to the answer.
Daniels explained that for James and him, the project is a reunion of sorts. “Bob and I have had a relationship for many years. I used to work with him as a sideman for many of his albums for Creed Taylor. During that time, I was a wandering studio musician, wandering aimlessly from gig to gig in studios. Well, not aimlessly, because some of the music was phenomenal. Bob James produced a lot of the dates that came out of CTI. And I was one of the first calls on those dates for reeds. For years we stayed in contact. And he played on one of my records that I did for Shanachie called Beautiful Love with Chuck Loeb on guitar, Tim LeFebvre on bass and Wolfgang Haffner on drums. It was kind of a classical thing that I wanted him to do on that record. So he did a piece on Bach, called ‘Waltzing Out,’ [sings chorus].”
Daniels is quick to remind this writer that James has gifts that go beyond his reputation in the Smooth Jazz world. “Not only can Bob do anything, he is everything,” exclaimed Daniels. “He made one of his earliest records with Eric Dolphy when he was in college. Then he accompanied Sarah Vaughan for several years. I met up with him in New York. I found that he’s a great straight-ahead player with tendencies to go out!”
Daniels quickly picks back up on his story about reconnecting with James. “Then I’m wandering again. I’m in Chicago O’Hare airport and I bump into him face to face. We say hi and we reconnect. And he says, ‘You know that album Beautiful Love? A friend of mine was dying of a terminal illness and he swears to me that Beautiful Love helped heal him.’ We didn’t think of it as a healing album. It’s a swinging album with a little touch of Bach. We swore to get together and try and have a project together. If somehow the music we played made people feel so good that they might even heal themselves, then why not?”
Why not indeed? But what is this Broadway Boogie project all about, musically? “The whole idea is that we just love each other’s musicality,” said Daniels. “About a year ago last October, I called Bob and we did four nights at the Iridium [note that the club is located on Broadway] and the music was just so beautiful. The concept of the band for me was an integrated quartet with piano and clarinet, and some saxophone which I’m also playing, tightly-woven and beautiful arrangements, really swinging. It’s not crossover music, it’s not soft jazz, it’s straight-ahead, but with a tinge of a beautiful ensemble sound – MJQ-ish. We don’t look MJQ-ish, but I am Jewish. [rimshot sound here.] Bob is such a great writer. We had four days at the Iridium and a couple of months went by and I spoke with Dawn [Singh, from Tanglewood Jazz] and I told her about this project. So we’ll be at Blues Alley for three nights and then on Sunday, we go to Tanglewood. We’ve got Peter Erskine on drums and James Genus on bass.”
Okay, but we’re almost 600 words into this story, and we still don’t know the connection to Broadway. “Oh, the way the Broadway thing came about was that Bob wrote a tune called ‘Broadway Boogie.’ [sings the head.]”
Wait, what? So it’s not a tribute to the music of Broadway? “No, we’re going to play a lot of our material. See, we come from there, down those streets on Broadway, playing those sessions, back in those days. We’ll do ‘Jitterbug Waltz,’ though that’s not a Broadway tune. I just liked the sound of it. But if you like, I’ll do ‘On the Street Where You Live.’ Wait, wait. There is one Broadway tune that we’re going to do, one that I did an arrangement on. It’s called ‘Pretty Women,’ from the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd. A soft beautiful quiet waltz.”
But, surely as a “wandering studio musician” back in the day, he must have had plenty of experience doing Broadway shows and musicals? “Yes, sure. I sat in the pit for two years. I sat in the pit of many shows. But we’re calling it Broadway Boogie because of that tune and we’re boogeying.”
Well, with Genus and Erskine, they’ve certainly got a swinging yet groove-oriented rhythm section. “That’s right. And that’s what it is. I’m going to play tenor and we’re going to burn out some sophisticated and lyrical melodies that people will go, ‘aaah.'”
I ask Daniels what he likes about Erskine’s playing. “He’s on a lot of my albums. He’s on my Benny Rides Again album. He’s on my Five Seasons album. He’s a drummer for all seasons. Peter can play anything but it’s all artistic. Because of some of these arrangements that we’re doing, which take a little bit of technicality from the drummer to understand them, he’s perfect for it. He’s so groove-oriented. The band can go in so many different directions, he’s perfect for us. And he’s a great guy. He’s not a basher. He’s a sensitive drummer.”
The upcoming dates for this group are at very different types of venues. Does Daniels prefer the club or the festival setting? “I think the club is great place to work out. To play your music every night a lot. So when we finally come to Tanglewood, we’ll be so relaxed, having played all the material. I like playing in a club. Yet the tone that we set will make the club feel slightly like a chamber music concert. It’s not like a band that’s going to crash, bing, bang, kading, kadang. It’s going to have sensitive moments in which the clarinet and piano are doing a soft beautiful thing. One of the things I like so much about Bob is that he can play a melody with his right hand on the piano, and you go ‘wow.’ I don’t know many piano players who can do that with his touch on the piano. The piano is very hard to make legato. You’re hitting a key that hits a hammer that hits a string. With a clarinet you’re blowing air that goes through a reed and it automatically it’s a voice. But with a piano to make it sound lyrical and beautiful… Bob has a way of playing that I haven’t heard anyone else do. I love Fred Hersch, I love Roger Kellaway, and I love a lot of piano players. Bob has this ability to play single not melodies and he is improvising, that it’s almost like the spoken voice.”
One thing for sure, working at a club for an extended run is more unusual these days. I tell Daniels about what Ben Sidran said about bands no longer having that opportunity to work together for extended runs and its negative effect on group cohesion. “That’s true. They don’t have that chance to work it out. It’s like a tennis tournament. Right now they’re doing the series of tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open. They’re working their stuff out, playing hard matches, so when they get to the U.S. Open, they’re ready. So Tanglewood is our U.S. Open and Blues Alley is our warm-up tournament. You get to play tunes a lot of times.”
I tell tennis fan Daniels about recently visiting the Tennis Hall of Fame (for the Newport Jazz Festival) and seeing the grass tennis courts there and how they evoked a different world or a different time. “You know, Tanglewood evokes another world for jazz. I like the concert hall for jazz. Especially Ozawa Hall. It’s beautiful. It’s all wood and it opens up into this green meadow, where everyone is sitting, picnicking and they can look into the hall from the grass. It has an intimacy, but also a large dimension to it. We’re coming from the intimate club, which is more like chamber music where people are right in your face, to this beautiful concert hall where the sound is beautiful because of the room.”
The sound matters to Daniels who, for all his stature as a hot shot soloist on clarinet, is obsessed with what his band projects as a unit. “I want it to be the sound of an ensemble. When we think of jazz groups, we don’t think of it as an ensemble. It’s a guy wailing with a drummer kicking butt. I wanted to get back to four guys weaving in and out. Some of it will be burning and some of it will be quiet.”
I thank Daniels for taking the time and he’s chagrined that we’re done so soon. “Aren’t you going to ask about my playing the saxophone?” Er, well, sure. What about it?
“People who know me from before know that I was a jazz tenor player with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. When I decided that clarinet would be my voice was during the GRP years. I put down my tenor down after Thad’s band and that was around 1972. For many years, people thought of me solely as a clarinet player. Many friends of mine told me, ‘We miss your tenor playing, please play it.’ So on the last couple of records, I’ve been playing some tenor. I’m having a ball. It’s kind of a good balance for me to have more of that aggressive voice. It can be robust or it can be quiet and get to you to make you cry.”
That was a heckuva band back then with Thad and Mel and must have been quite an experience for a young player like Daniels. “Jerome Richardson was the lead alto, Pepper Adams was the baritone, Joe Farrell was the tenor when we started, plus Jerry Dodgion and myself. Roland Hanna on piano, Richard Davis on bass. Snooky Young, Bob Brookmeyer, Garnett Brown. Just a fabulous band. Getting a chance to listen to Joe Farrell and then Joe Henderson was great.”
Heady company for a young tenor player. “Joe was the other tenor player in the band when I was there. And Michael Brecker was a student of mine at one point and was a great friend. I thought, ‘I love the way these guys play, I think they play better than I do.’ But with the clarinet, I thought I’d have my own channel. But eventually I realized that I could come back to the tenor. I don’t have to be Joe Henderson, I don’t have to be Michael Brecker, I’m Eddie.”
The interesting thing about those two tenor players is that for all their incredible talents, they were both very humble people. Daniels thinks that it’s no accident. “When you are making music at that high a level, there’s no time to do anything else but work your art. If you’re not humble, then you’re in the wrong business.”
But then again, there is the hubris of the sax player in the traditional cutting session. “There’s a story about me with Illinois Jacquet. I was doing the Nice Festival with Dick Cavett’s band. I’m about 26 at that time. I’m getting on the plane with my tenor and Milt Hinton, ‘The Judge,’ is there. And Jacquet sees me with a tenor and he says, ‘What you got there boy?’ I say, ‘It’s my tenor.’ He says, “I’m gonna cut your ass on “Cherokee.”‘ We’re walking on a plane, just a bunch of musicians. The Judge is standing there, saying, ‘Well, let’s see what happens here.’ Sure enough, George Wein puts us together on a set. I counted off ‘Cherokee’ as fast as could be and dove into it. It was that ego thing. I was a lot younger then and I had that kind of energy where I could play ‘Cherokee’ all by myself with my horn. I just had to make my statement. When it was over, he came over and hugged me and was beautiful. He said, ‘Thank you.’ That was my experience with the dueling tenor thing. I don’t think guys are like that any more.”
Daniels returns fondly to the subject of his tenor buddies back in the day. “With Michael and Joe there wasn’t that feeling of wanting to kick my butt, but they did anyway.” Well, he likely wasn’t the only one to feel that way.