The July/August ’94 issue was the first in which JazzTimes did a 1:1 interview with two prominent artists. Though new to us at the time, the concept wasn’t a novel one; it was inspired by some of the pairings that Musician magazine had been doing regularly for 15 years, perhaps most notably the John McLaughlin/Yngwie Malmsteen feature in September 1990. Surely Musician wasn’t the first publication to use this format either, but they did it with such verve and personality that it made a strong impression on us. The premise is simple: Put together two artists who have at least a few things in common but who are in fact very different, whether due to age, background, or style. Get a writer who is knowledgeable about both and comfortable steering the discussion, so it’s more than just an exchange of compliments. Then let it rip.
The multi-generational conversation with guitarists Jim Hall and Mike Stern that anchors this issue indeed lets it rip. The cover photo by Gene Martin, with Hall doing a Pete Townshend-like leap with his guitar while Stern looks on laughing, perfectly illustrated the subtext for their dialogue inside by reversing their roles. As Bill Milkowski, our go-to writer at that time for stories about guitarists, so eloquently wrote in his introduction: “They are a generation apart. One grew up in the Midwest with heroes named Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and George Van Eps; the other came from Boston [actually Washington, D.C.] and as a kid idolized the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. The elder statesman personifies a kind of walking-on-eggshells elegance while the younger plectrist can rip the back of your head off with his vicious blues-rock chops of doom.”
That contrast worked beautifully in this case, simply because both musicians were curious and open-minded. Although they later became friends and part of a guitar circle that Hall cultivated in New York, they only knew each other’s work at the time of the interview. It helped that Hall was interested in contemporary influences and that Stern had a deep understanding of jazz tradition. They talked not only about their own approaches to the guitar, but also about Miles, Jimi, Ellington, Bill Evans, and Wes Montgomery. It was, as Marc Maron of the WTF podcast would say, a good talk.
Over the years, we’d go on to do Ron Carter & Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock & Joni Mitchell, Chick Corea & John McLaughlin, Joe Lovano & Jason Moran, Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny, Christian McBride & James Brown, Kamasi Washington & Christian Scott, and several more. About a dozen years after this issue, Mike Stern would return as the elder in a conversation with the young African bass phenom Richard Bona. We’d also go on to fail at doing many more, including Wynton Marsalis & John Zorn, Jack DeJohnette & Dave Weckl, and others I can’t recall now. Just because we think it’s a good idea doesn’t mean that the subjects will. Without their cooperation and, nearly as important, their engagement, the idea remains just that: an idea. (What was it that Orrin Keepnews said about jazz journalism? “A bad idea poorly executed.”)
Fact is, the pairing approach didn’t always work. There were times when a younger musician was simply too deferential toward the veteran player. That genuine respect for elders is one of the wonderful aspects of the jazz community; I don’t think Johnny Rotten would have shown similar regard in a conversation with Mick Jagger during the late ’70s. But if the two are completely in agreement about everything and are filled with mutual admiration, it doesn’t necessarily make for interesting reading. Contrast is what gives the story its resonance.
Looking back at this article and others of its ilk, I’m struck by the real value of dialogue between people with different perspectives. Listening to one another is the first step to understanding, even change. Clearly a lesson we still need to learn.