David Sedaris: Songs for My Father

A conversation with the best-selling author and humorist on his lifelong love of jazz

David Sedaris

David Sedaris is well known as an author and essayist whose stories about his family and travels have delighted audiences since he began appearing on NPR in the early 1990s. But even the writer’s fans might not be aware of his deep passion for and knowledge of jazz, an interest he inherited in part from his father, Lou. “If anything happens to me,” Sedaris has said, “the one thing my father wants is my iPod.” On that iPod are hundreds of jazz cuts, everything from Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln to Duke Pearson and Jessica Williams. Living mostly in a small village in England, Sedaris is an obsessive walker who can rack up as many as 30 miles per day. It is during those walks that he listens to jazz and to audiobooks and podcasts. (And picks up trash, lots of it.)

Sedaris’ most recent book is a collection of diary items, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. Also newly available is a compilation of the art from his diaries, David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium, edited by his friend Jeffrey Jenkins. Forthcoming projects include Calypso, a book of recent short stories and essays, most of which take place in Emerald Isle, N.C., where he owns a beach house; and a second volume of diary items, A Carnival of Snackery, which covers 2003 to the present. The author also reads his often hilarious, sometimes poignant stories in public, doing around 100 dates a year at theaters throughout North America, Europe and Australia.

Before a performance in August at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., the gifted humorist sat down with JT’s publisher, Lee Mergner, to talk about his lifelong love of the music, how it’s tied to his relationship with his father, and why he no longer does his famous impression of Billie Holiday—at least not in public.

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JazzTimes: In a recent unpublished story you write about how your father introduced you to jazz. Do you remember the first jazz you heard from your father’s stereo?

David Sedaris: It was an album by Charles Mingus with a close-up of a clown’s face on the cover [The Clown; Atlantic, 1957]. It’s funny, because I asked him for that [album] a couple of years ago, and he sent it to me and I used it for a diary cover. I cut it up and used it. It looks so modern and it sounds so modern. It didn’t seem to age at all.

Cover of Charles Mingus album "The Clown"
Cover of Charles Mingus album “The Clown”

That Mingus record would have been pretty new when you first heard it.
I was born in 1956. I had heard jazz before, but I remember being so intrigued by that cover, and I put it together with the music I was listening to. My dad had a huge [78-rpm] record collection. Back then you had the 78 setting on your record player. I remember that he had Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66, and I would have been about 10 years old then. [There was] a lot of bossa nova in the house.

It really seems like it was something unique that you shared with your dad. Did you share that love of the music with your sisters and your mother?
There were certain things that we all liked. My dad had a live Lou Rawls record that we all enjoyed listening to. And he had Jobim’s Wave album. Oh, my God, I remember everyone loved that. I  remember especially the cover with the giraffe running. Those covers were so modern and beautiful.

Did your mother, Sharon, share that interest?
She never expressed any kind of preference for music. She never seemed aware of it the way my father was. My father would say, “Sit down. Listen to this.” And we would, but I feel like I was the only one who heard what he heard. He really wanted us to form a jazz combo. He wanted us to play instruments, and he would take us to hear people like Dave Brubeck.

Was it when he had his sons playing with him?
Yep.

So Lou could use that as an example of what you guys could do?
Exactly.

Well, the Sedaris family jazz band would have been missing the piano-playing father.
Years later I wound up meeting Brubeck’s wife [Iola], who sent my father an autographed picture of him. I also remember hearing Stan Getz. My dad took us to NC State to see concerts, even if it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to see. … He took us to see the 5th Dimension and the Lettermen. The 5th Dimension was the first time I saw that really irritating thing that white people do when a black performer is playing, to show they like it [sways and awkwardly claps]. It’s so embarrassing. I can see the rest of the audience looking at them, like, “You’re ruining what we have going on here. You’re not part of this.”

I saw my father yesterday, and it can be tricky with him, but it was one of those times when it was just heartbreaking to see him.

The frailty?
Yes. He was much more frail than the last time I saw him. I thought, “Why couldn’t I have learned to play the piano?”

To please him?
Just to see the joy on his face. Nothing would have made my father so happy. That’s what I think about when I listen to music. The other day I was watching a television show, I think it was Fargo, and [“Moanin’” by] Lambert, Hendricks & Ross was on it. And I thought, “Why don’t I have any of their music on my computer?” I downloaded one of their albums and it had “A Night in Tunisia” on it. I was walking around Emerald Isle, [and] I bet I listened to that song 30 times in a row that day, imagining it was me playing the saxophone, and my father’s in the audience and he would be so moved and he would be so joyful. I thought, “Why couldn’t I have done that? Why couldn’t I have made him happy and proud in a way that he understood?” He doesn’t understand writing. He said to me before that some neighbor of his has a 20-year-old daughter who wrote something but hasn’t written anything before, and could I get it into the New Yorker? I said, “No, the New Yorker is a magazine for writers.” He said, “Well, you’re in it.”

You should be the one he’s most proud of, given your success and your connection to your audience.
When my father dies, I don’t know if I’ll know who I am—especially because it’s been going on so long. I mean, I’m 60.

You became famous for your Billie Holiday impersonation, which was in “Santaland Diaries” and a few other stories. Did you do it as a kid?
I started doing it when I was young.

Did you do other singers?
I tried. I do a really awful Esther Phillips. I was with my friend Ronnie in San Francisco, and I was trying to sing “Shangri-La,” and it’s embarrassing that it’s so bad. I would love to be able to sing like Esther Phillips.

The Billie Holiday impression became an albatross for you, with people wanting you to do it on command.
I don’t do it anymore. You know how you think you sound in your head, but then you hear it? I heard a recording and I thought, “That’s awful.” I think I did it on [NPR’s] Fresh Air years ago. What I tried to do is her singing Madonna songs or Christmas tunes or commercial jingles—stuff you’d never have heard her do. I stopped doing it because I felt like a trained seal. Plus, I didn’t feel like people were really that familiar with her. They’d say, “Do Billie,” and I would think, “You don’t even have a right to call her by her first name. I bet you can’t name three songs that she did.” It just didn’t feel right to me. To people who don’t really know what she sounds like, sure it sounds OK. But not to people who really know her music.

You’re a very disciplined writer, as your most recent book of diary items well demonstrates. You’re like a trumpeter who has to play every day or something is wrong. They have to have that same discipline.
Really? They have to play every day? Interesting.

Have you always been that disciplined about your writing?
Yes, when I started writing, I started writing every day. I sign books a lot, and I’ll meet people who say, “I want to be a writer.” And I’ll ask, “Do you write every day?” And they say, [dreamily] “No, when I get in the mood.” And I think, “Well, sorry, you need to wake up every day in the mood.”

You like to use Pandora to discover new artists or albums.
Well, you can’t use it in the U.K., so I use it when I come to the United States.

How do you explore new music when you’re home in England?
I have that Apple Music service, too, and although I don’t think it’s as good as Pandora, you can put a name in and get other stuff. I was listening to some Milt Jackson and I thought, “What other vibes players would I like?” And I wrote in “vibes players,” and that’s how I came across Warren Wolf and then Dave Pike and of course Bobby Hutcherson.

Whenever you send me an email to ask about a jazz artist, it’s usually someone fairly unknown.
I used to work in complete silence. About three or four years ago I started listening to music [while I work], but not music with lyrics in it. But there’s always a danger for it to be background music, which I think is disrespectful. Then with some songs I find myself responding and reacting: “Wow, what is that?” And I have to write it down and then buy it to put it on my computer and iPod.

Last year you read with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. How did that come about? What was it like to have an orchestra accompany you?
It was the director of the orchestra who approached me. What was interesting to me is that the musicians were so … meh. I tried everything. I tried talking with them. It was like spending time with union people. I had a big suite backstage at the Barbican and I invited them all back. None of them took me up on it. A musician, a violinist, was going onstage and she had her purse with her. I said, “Really? You bring your pocketbook onstage?” And she said, “Well, you bring your papers.” There were three rehearsals and I had to read through all my stuff with them, which really kills it for me. It’s bad enough to read something Tuesday night and then Wednesday night, but to read it Wednesday and then twice on Thursday, just with them. And they’re like [coughing] and [yawning], and they’re recording it in case I messed something up. I’m like, “Don’t you hate it when the audience does that to you?”

You have to work with jazz musicians. They’d be hanging out backstage, telling stories in your dressing room and laughing and hugging. They’re the most social bunch, and no one puts on airs.
Most of the pieces, I read and then they played, but then there was one in which they played music with me and under me, and it was a composer I got to write the music for my audiobook [Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002] because I really liked what he did. What was strange about it is that I said [during the rehearsal], “Right here I’ll mention Gary [Carpenter],” because he was there. And they said, “No, you wouldn’t mention Prokofiev.” I said, “Well, I wouldn’t mention him because he’s dead and he’s not here.” I was just surprised by how ungenerous they were. … It was just weird to me.

But it must have felt powerful to HAVE the music there.
To be on the stage like that, and to hear the music like that, yes. I think it helped too that the stuff I was reading that they put the music under was just a flat-out funny thing. I noticed with my audiobook that there’s a moment where the introduction turns serious and they put music there—poignant music. And I thought, “Why did you do that there?” It didn’t need it. It’s a little hokey. Like, “Here’s where you’re supposed to feel.” I think they know enough if they’re paying attention.

For your diaries, you use a sort of square, almost album-cover format, David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium includes the artwork of the covers for those diaries. You use album covers sometimes, right?
Yes, it’s 8 by 9 1/2 inches. A lot of the time the covers aren’t necessarily for music that I love. Sometimes it’s just a cover that I’ve found that I think is interesting. I don’t like campy stuff, but some of it borders on that. I really feel that you should take something and then do something to change it.

I don’t know where I got it from, but [one album cover has] Captain Kangaroo marching with some cartoon characters in front of the IHOP. … I didn’t mind Captain Kangaroo but I didn’t like the other [figures]. So I said to Hugh [his partner, Hugh Hamrick, a gifted artist], “Will you paint the others out and will you turn Captain Kangaroo into a skeleton?” So he’s going to do that for me.

Album-cover art in jazz is a real thing, as you know.
Right, with the Blue Note records or the Jobim albums, the photography on the cover looks so modern. Remember that Stanley Turrentine album Sugar, with somebody [licking] a foot? The photography is so modern. The cover really holds up, whereas with other stuff it seems dated.

Cover of Stanley Turrentine album "Sugar"
Cover of Stanley Turrentine album “Sugar”

Do you go to see jazz performed live?
No, I’m not a big live music person. I feel like I’d rather be in a dark room listening to music that I love, and I can emote in whatever way. I don’t feel comfortable doing that in front of other people. Every year I go to Houston, and they have a performing-arts high school there and they have a big band, and those kids get up and play. I can’t believe those kids.

I think I’m the only one who does this: Every year I go and I say, “You have to come up onstage and you have to introduce yourselves.” And I tell the audience, “You have to give these people tips on your way out.” The [young musicians] came up to me and said, “We can’t believe it! We made $900!” I always do it. I can’t believe it, hearing them. When I’m in the lobby it’s hard for me to concentrate to sign books.

A lot of times, before I go onstage the [venue will] ask me if I want them to play music. I’ll say, “Sure. If you have Pandora, just put on some jazz.” And I’ll go to the lobby and they’ll have Kenny G on, and they just don’t know the difference because they think of it as background music. They don’t engage with it. I always feel uncomfortable that way too, like when people say, “We went to the jazz brunch.” I have a friend who says, “Why don’t you ever go to jazz brunch with me?” Because if there are musicians up there playing, I don’t want to be talking and eating. I know what it’s like to be onstage and hear people talking.

Read Lee Mergner’s piece, from the May 2016 issue of JazzTimes, on the funniest musicians in jazz.