I met architect Frank Gehry in 1989 right before he won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, often called the “Nobel Prize of architecture.” I was fortunate to be along on the trip to Japan where Frank was awarded that honor.
Frank was already an architectural rock star when I asked him to be one of my original 13 guests on Jazz Inspired. He immediately said yes without asking me anything about the show, which was an extremely generous gesture considering his insanely busy schedule. He had a line of people waiting to see him the day we got together, each ready to claw me out of the way to get their Gehry moment.
Our conversation below was recorded at Frank’s Santa Monica office in 1999.
Judy Carmichael: So Frank, welcome to Jazz Inspired.
Frank Gehry: What is it that I’m doing here?
JC: And why are you here?
FG: I’m the least jazzy person you know.
JC: Oh, you’re more subtly jazzy, I think.
JC: I think jazz musicians are the cool guys and you’re definitely a cool guy, Frank.
FG: I play intuitive architecture. And I think I play off the beat. Is that jazz?
JC: Yes, absolutely. And I think your buildings also seem very alive. They always seem like they’re moving to me.
FG: Well, it’s about motion, a lot of it. In the old days they had decoration. And since I’m a modernist I can’t do decoration, so I’ve got to find something to put feeling into the building and motion is one way. It’s an old idea, actually, because the Greeks did it in their sculptures. Anyway, I’ve played with that. And it works . . . sometimes. When it works, it’s great.
FG: But I start a thing, I guess, like I fantasize jazz musicians do, where I get the program, I understand the problem, I understand all the issues and I have the language. And then I start. I don’t know where I’m going, but when the answer reveals itself in sort of a normal structure, then I kick it off. And I guess that’s when I play off the beat. I try to find the way to stay away from a normally structured environment.
JC: Which is exactly what I think the best jazz musicians do, because if they’re just playing right on the beat the music is predictable and boring and doesn’t have that wonderful fluid motion.
FG: You don’t know where you’re going when you start. You have a tune that starts you off.
JC: Yes, and you have a commission, a building to be built. I also think working with an office of architects is like playing with a gigantic big band.
FG: I was just saying this morning that all the people weren’t here and I said: ‘How can I play this stuff if we’re not all here at the same time?’.
FG: So I did think of it as a band today, strangely enough.
JC: Well, that’s what it is! The challenge is getting everyone to work in concert to realize your vision but still remaining open to their input to contribute to the whole. It must be difficult. It’s similar to my band improvising their ideas but within the constraints of my stylistic requirements because it’s my band realizing my musical vision.
FG: It’s hard. I find some people can do it and some people just can’t.
JC: Yes, but that’s about choosing the right people to be in your band.
Something that strikes me about your buildings is that every time I go into one of them my view of it changes. It seems completely fresh and different with each visit. Jazz musicians change the way they play a tune each time they play it, and the audience hears it differently each time because they’re listening differently, depending on their mood or level of engagement. Somehow you accomplish this in your buildings.
FG: But that’s the humanity of it. That’s what makes it accessible to people because I’ve given them these entrées. I liken it to a handrail. You know when you’re walking down steps, you need a handrail . . .
FG: And when you go into a building that’s strange for the first time, you need some kind of emotional handrail. So I give people that basic thing in some form or another. I can’t tell you exactly how I do it, but that’s always there. And then they can play off the beat. Then they can do their own readings and become part of it. And you do the same thing when you play jazz. You give them a tune that’s recognizable and improvise from that.
JC: And if it’s too abstract the listener has nothing to hold onto, no handrail.
FG: Exactly. Like when Ella would sing and you’d recognize the tune and words and then she would take off and scat. The handrail’s the tune and I do the same thing in architecture.
JC: Now talk about your Hollywood experience. I love this.
FG: I used to hang out in Hollywood at a bar where Kid Ory played. There usually weren’t many people in the bar, so he’d do his set and then come over and have a drink with me. I loved talking with him so I would go back and we’d have these conversations.
And then, when I did cardboard furniture in ’72, I met Duke Ellington and his sister because they were involved with the people who were my partners with that. My partner’s son–and you may know him, a kid named Brooks Kerr-used to play sets with Ellington. So the Duke came to his house and sat on the cardboard furniture and we would talk and I would go to the Rainbow Room and hear Duke.
Also, when I was in high school I had this job to run the senior dance–or whatever it was–and I had to get the entertainment, so I got Oscar Peterson. He was 19 years old, I remember.
JC: And you hired Oscar Peterson to play your high school dance? You ARE a cool guy.
JC: Now, I want to talk about the Concord Pavilion because I have a special place in my heart for that place because I played my first jazz festival there.
JC: Yes, so it’s very special to me. Did you listen to jazz while you were designing that? I read somewhere that the person who hired you for your project in Seattle asked you to listen to a lot of Jimi Hendrix.
FG: Yes, it was Paul Allen who asked me to do that. And I did listen to Jimi Hendrix. And Purple Haze. I did all that.
JC: Did you design the Concord Pavilion specifically for jazz festivals?
FG: Yes, it was designed for jazz and classical. So I had to do both. But the energy of the place was supposed to be for jazz. Louie Bellson was on the committee and his wife used to come to these meetings.
JC: Pearl Bailey?
FG: Yes, and a lot of others too. Ray Brown?
JC: Bass player. See Frank, you know more about this than you think.
FG: I probably do.
JC: Yes, I think so. Who did you listen to when you were younger, besides your hiring Oscar Peterson, of course? You could have been a jazz promoter, Frank. This whole architecture thing could have been put aside.
FG: Ha! Well, I love Fats Waller and somehow in my memory banks I think I interviewed him for the high school paper, but it may have been a dream. But I did interview Ellington for this high school thing.
JC: So you were meeting all these fabulous people in high school. Was this because you had a big interest in jazz?
FG: Well yes, because I’m a right-brained person so I have trouble with music, and I used to love it. I learned to play Pinetop Blues on the piano by listening to the records.
JC: Then you do have some musical talent. You did it right from the records?
FG: And I learned to do the walking boogie bass. I could still do it if you had your white piano here, Judy.
JC: We will have to do a subsequent interview with the piano, in the studio!
FG: Oh boy . . . I did love all that when I was a kid.
JC: Didn’t you play guitar? I read somewhere that you played a little guitar.
FG: That’s a terrible story.
JC: Oh my, should we not discuss this?
FG: My mother was a violinist when she was a kid and she wanted me to get into music when I was in grade school. We lived in Timmins Ontario, at the time, way up north of Toronto. There wasn’t much music going on, so they got me guitar lessons on the Hawaiian guitar.
JC: You were the “Don Ho of Toronto”?
FG: Yeah, sadly . . . And so I learned to play the Hawaiian guitar but they didn’t teach me music with notes. It was a number method. I could play Aloha.
And I actually played it on the radio once.
JC: So you are a performing musician!
FG: Oh yes, I am . . .
JC: This interview is “the Uncovered . . .
FG: “Frank Gehry”. Yes, my checkered past.
JC: Your checkered past as a musician! Talk further about your creative process. I know you and I have discussed the similarities to my process with music.
FG: I think there is a relationship to architecture.
JC: Talk about your design sketches, which are very jazz-like to me.
FG: Well, my sketches are very jazz-like, I would think. But nobody can read them. But when the building is done and you look at the sketch, then you say: ‘Hey this looks like the building’.
JC: If somebody’s listening right now and they’ve never seen a Frank Gehry building and they keep hearing me say it’s jazz architecture, how would you describe your buildings?
FG: I go blank when you ask me a question like that.
JC: Well, in terms of what you try to accomplish that’s different from other architects. I think of the open-ended quality of your buildings, like what I hear with a great jazz solo. It’s very alive, even after the solo is played.
FG: Well, I try to engage people’s feelings, so that’s an important issue for me. Depending on the project, depending on what kind of project and what’s important. Like I’m doing a little building in Scotland, a tiny, little 2000 square foot club for cancer patients. And the first models of it got too fancy. It has to be just right. It has to have a feeling that these people are not being pushed into some architectural extravaganza to suffer. So it has to be comfortable.
So I worry about the appropriateness of the moves I make for the issues that I’m dealing with. For instance, at M.I.T. I’m doing a building for scientists-computer scientists, and people in linguistics, philosophy and artificial intelligence. There are seven different groups and the building has to be connective so that these different groups have meeting places. I created an interesting group of buildings that kind of look like a Leger Circus painting.
It’s like a group of different objects where the conference room looks like a separate building and the café is kind of a separate building. Each space sits around a courtyard like people, like sculptures, and that creates the scale where the scientists can go for their interaction. Their laboratories look out over this sculpture garden where the connectivity happens. I spend time worrying about these kind of issues.
Then, of course, we have budgets and stuff like that to worry about.
JC: Well, it’s very different from what I do in that regard. You have a client.
FG: With money, and they have a limited amount of money.
JC: And jazz musicians never deal with people with money. We just hope for the best.
FG: You’re just out there.
JC: We’re laughing, but there still are those similarities in our process.
FG: I think every artistic endeavor has the same thing: You have a set of constraints and they’re important, because we use them. If you’re an artist, you use those constraints to your advantage. You manipulate the situation somehow and then express your creation. You solve those problems, but then you make it into something else. And that’s the game we’re in. And I think that’s the same for you.
JC: I think so too. Well, I think you’re definitely jazz inspired, Frank. Thank you for taking this time.
FG: Thanks Judy! It was fun.
To listen to the entire conversation with Frank Gehry, along with the music that inspired him, or to hear interviews with other notable people inspired by jazz, go to Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired website.