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Final Chorus: Playing Changes on Jazz Interviews

I expect that if anything I’ve written about this music lasts, it will be the interviews I’ve done with the musicians for more than 50 years. My books on jazz consist mainly of interviews, as do the liner notes I’ve written. My hope is that some of them become part of jazz histories. And I learn a great deal from interviews done by others-particularly by the actual makers of this music.

For example, the late Art Taylor, an extraordinary drummer, wrote a book: Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (Da Capo). The late tenor saxophonist Don Byas (much underestimated these days) told Taylor of advice from his friend Art Tatum. Tatum said to Byas: “Just remember there is no such thing as a wrong note; what makes it wrong is when you don’t know where to go after that one.”

I was reminded of that after a recording session I’d made with Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell. Hawkins, pointing to Pee Wee, said to me: “Way back, musicians used to say he played weird, funny notes. They weren’t funny or weird then, and they’re not now. He makes them the right notes.”

And Dizzy Gillespie told Art Taylor that he once rebuked drummer Teddy Stewart, telling him: “You’re supposed to inspire the soloist.” Unintimidated, Stewart told Dizzy: “Have you ever thought that the soloist is supposed to inspire me?”

“It’s true,” Dizzy told interviewer Taylor.

Currently, some of the most extensive and durably illuminating interviews are by Eric Nemeyer, a vibist, marimba player, drummer, pianist and composer who has worked with Sonny Stitt, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Heath and many more. He also publishes the quarterly Jazz Improv Magazine and its valuable monthly Jazz Improv’s New York Jazz Guide. Among his interviews in both magazines was one with Wynton Marsalis in which Marsalis defined the rare essence of enduring teaching-not only teaching jazz. (I wish I’d had it in mind when I used to teach journalism.)

Marsalis, who has had private students and is a veteran of many clinics, told Nemeyer: “The most important thing you can do is to empower another person to be themselves even if what they’re going to do is going to be the opposite of what you do…you don’t want to teach them a dogma…you’re a part of their story. A lot of times you [as a teacher] look at them as if they’re a part of your story. You [should] try to empower them with tools to do what they want to do.”

And in Jazz Improv Magazine, there was a very long, absorbing interview with bassist Buster Williams, about whom Richard Cook says in his Jazz Encyclopedia (Penguin) that he tends to make every performance a matchless master class. Said Williams: “A piece of music is alive. It’s a misnomer to limit yourself by saying it has a beginning and an end…

“Benny Golson has re-written ‘I Remember Clifford’ many times. I’ve played it with him over the years in all its different forms. And Wayne Shorter says a piece of music never ends.”

Or, as Clark Terry told me about Duke Ellington: “He wants life and music to be always in a state of becoming. He doesn’t even like definitive song endings to a piece. He’d often ask us to come up with the ideas for closings, but when he’d settled on one of them, he’d keep fooling with it. He always likes to make the end of a song sound as if it’s still going somewhere.”

The late Whitney Balliett, a writer on jazz, was known internationally for his ability to transmute seamlessly the sounds of music into words. (It’s inexplicable that New Yorker editor David Remnick, a superior journalist, effectively banished Whitney from the magazine. The publication’s legendary editor William Shawn knew better, but he played jazz piano.)

Balliett was an attentively skillful interviewer, as in his profile of Pee Wee Russell. There were nights when Russell was the most original improviser in jazz, so much so that his colleagues on the stand would wonder how he could possibly come up with anything like a logical ending to one of his solos. I knew Russell, but in our conversations I never found out what was in his mind during those perilous journeys. Whitney was able to do so.

“You take each solo,” Russell told him, “like it was the last one you were going to play in your life. Sometimes I jump the right chord and use what seems wrong to the next guy, but I know is right for me. I usually think about four bars ahead what I’m going to play. Sometimes things go wrong and I have to scramble, but if I can make it to the bridge of the tune, I know everything will be all right.” Then the clarinetist made a statement that was, for me, very illuminating:

“In lots of cases, your solo depends on who you’re following. The guy played a great chorus…[and you think,] how am I going to follow that? Not jealousy, mind you. A kind of competition…What the hell? I’ll try something new. All this goes through your mind in a split second. You start and if it sounds good to you, you keep it up and write a little tune of your own.”

Of all the interviews with musicians that I’ve done, there is one with Duke Ellington that has been a guide for me, not only in writing about music but in everything else I write and do. Ellington taught me to avoid categorizing anything:

“The other night I heard a cat on the radio, and he was talking about ‘modern’ jazz. So he played a record to illustrate his point, and there were devices in that music I heard cats using in the 1920s. These large words like ‘modern’ don’t mean anything. Everybody who’s had anything to say in this music-all the way back-has been an individualist…I listen for those individualists. Like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and like Charlie Parker was.”

As I’ve told my children, who are now no longer children, I’ve learned a lot from talking to jazz musicians about life, which is where their music came from. Originally Published

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff

Over more than 60 years, Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) wrote about music, politics, and many other subjects for a variety of publications, including DownBeat (which he edited from 1953 to 1957), the Village Voice (where he was a weekly columnist from 1958 to 2009), the Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes, to which he regularly contributed the Final Chorus column from 1998 to 2012. Of the 32 books that he wrote, co-wrote, or edited, 10 focus on jazz. In 2004, Hentoff became the first recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters award for jazz advocacy.