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Looking Back at Looking Back: Our Best Artist-to-Artist Interviews

For our 50th anniversary, we searched our archives to find great musicians talking one-on-one about other great musicians

Sonny Rollins in 2004
Sonny Rollins in 2004 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Over the years, we learned that sometimes it was best to have a musician interview another musician, because there would be an instant ease and shorthand between them. Our subjects clearly opened up in these situations, in a way that they would never have done with a jazz writer or critic. We thought you’d enjoy reading a few select excerpts from our back pages, in which artists from the contemporary scene spoke with jazz greats about some of their peers and mentors—all legends in the history of jazz. —Lee Mergner

TONY BENNETT, interviewed by BILL CHARLAP (2006)

CHARLAP: Can you tell me about your relationship with Count Basie?

BENNETT: What happened with Count Basie and myself was a little ahead of time, because the record companies, generally, were very hesitant about having Black artists. The record companies didn’t consider them commercial—they wouldn’t sell down south. I realized personally that it was very wrong, and they were really creating the best music I ever heard. I came up with this idea that I wanted to sing with Count Basie, and we broke a lot of rules in those days. For instance, the Copacabana—I always played there—they never had Black artists. I was able to get Count Basie into the Copa, and it went over magnificently. Then we went into the Casino in Philadelphia, and we recorded there, and it was the beginning of stereo. We did a record in mono, and it was wonderful, but then some foolish producer who was in charge of it—I forget his name at this point—said we had to re-record it in a studio because we have stereo now and we’ll put the applause in. It was a disaster. But then I made a record with Count Basie later on Roulette. And that came out perfect. Ralph Sharon did the charts, but Basie played piano on it. We started at 12 o’clock at night and we went to six in the morning, and did the whole album. And they just got on the bus and went 350 miles to play a gig the next day. Can you imagine? Someday someone’s gonna do a documentary on the history of bands and what hardship they had to go through to just play, and what great souls they were to just carry on and play great music. Woody Herman or Stan Kenton or Ellington or Basie—all the great bands. They were fantastic musicians—every one of them—and great souls, and they knocked the audience right out of their seats every night.

CHARLAP: The two albums you made with Bill Evans represent the highest standard of excellence in terms of vocal interpretation and instrumental accompaniment. With Evans it was a true partnership, and both recordings are regarded as all-time classics. Can you reflect on the process of creating those two masterpieces?

BENNETT: It was all up to Bill. Because I’m a popular artist, the first thing he said to me was, “Send all your cronies home. I don’t want anybody hanging around here.” And it was really beautiful because it was just Helen [Keane], his manager, and the engineer, and Bill and myself. I can remember this so clearly I can hear it as I’m speaking to you right now. We didn’t plan anything. We just said, “What would you like to sing?” “What about this?” And he said, “Okay.” It would take about three quarters of an hour, and he’d work out a production, and what he would want to do. But the music was so intense that I came running into the engineer and I said, “Keep taping this, tape everything he’s doing right now.” Because I never heard anybody play like that. It reminded me of ocean waves in a hurricane, the waves are just comin’ in bada-boom, bada-boom, bada-boom—like that, and I said you gotta record everything he’s playing. They said they were running out of tape—in those days it was on tape—and [the engineer] said, “We won’t have any tape left.” And that was about the best music I’ve ever heard. And finally, after three quarters of an hour, he said, “Okay, let’s try it.” And that’s how the process went down. It was a beautiful experience for me.

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LEE KONITZ, interviewed by ETHAN IVERSON (2011)

IVERSON: Could we play some word association? I’ll say a name and you just react. Charlie Parker.

KONITZ: Charlie Parker was the master of the alto saxophone in the ’40s. He was affected by the substances he used. I think that it kind of excited his music to a breaking point sometimes, but he was so brilliant that it was always musical. It ended up being stylistic. And I think he was stuck with that material. When he heard everybody playing and writing like him, he was obliged to reinvent himself. I think he was too sick to do that. So he left town, I think.

IVERSON: Bud Powell.

KONITZ: Another great musician who was certainly influenced by Charlie Parker, but put it into piano music. He was also a troubled soul. Did I tell you the story about the Birth of the Cool band? Someone sent me a picture recently of Lennie [Tristano], me, and Billy Bauer, and in the picture, on the piano, was a baritone saxophone and a trumpet. Sy Johnson, the arranger, reminded me that I played in Lennie’s band and the Birth of the Cool band that night. I had always said that the Birth of the Cool band only played one solid week, but it was one week and one day, I found out a few weeks ago. I heard that Bud Powell, who was in the Birth of the Cool band, played a great solo on “Move.” Afterwards, everybody congratulated him and he was sitting in a daze at the piano. Gerry Mulligan got up and very graciously embraced him and kissed him on the lips, and gently walked with him off the stage. I thought that was a very gracious thing to do.

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LOU DONALDSON, interviewed by CHRISTIAN McBRIDE (2015)

McBRIDE: I want to throw a couple of names at you, and [I’d like you to say] a few words or [tell] a story you have about these particular musicians. Thelonious Monk.

DONALDSON: Well, what do you want to know about him? He’s the weirdest cat I ever saw. [Laughs] Nobody in the world was as weird as Monk. And he didn’t talk to but two people—and I was one of them; he liked me. He put me on all his gigs and I used to be amazed, but he liked me. He was in Yugoslavia and the promoter came around and said, “Monk, say a few words for the people.” Monk didn’t say anything and I said, “Look, Monk, we getting $20,000 a week. That’s more than you ever got in your life, so you got to say something. We can’t blow this gig.” He said, “All right, I’ll talk to them.” The promoter came back and said, “Now, Monk, you were born in North Carolina and you did this and did that.” And Monk said, “Something.” “What’s your wife’s name?” “Something.”

McBRIDE: Sonny Rollins.

DONALDSON: I’ve known Sonny for a long time. I used to live in the neighborhood where Sonny lived, in Sugar Hill [Harlem]. I used to go up there and see the ballgame for free every day—go up there with spyglasses and look over the fence. But Sonny is a weird cat too because I’ve been [in New York] since 1949 and I never saw Sonny play one job at all in New York, not in Harlem. He played in the Village, but nothing in Harlem, not in the ghetto. Because the crazy stuff he played, he’d get fired. Back then, if you didn’t know “Flying Home,” you’re fired.

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SONNY ROLLINS, interviewed by JOSHUA REDMAN (2005)

REDMAN: The ’50s and ’60s were an amazing age in music, where all these incredible innovations were taking place. Among musicians in my generation, with everything we’ve read and heard, there is a perception that there was more of a life for jazz on the streets of New York, a sense of real community; musicians playing and recording with each other all the time. Is that true?

ROLLINS: Well, in those days—and I’m speaking now primarily of when I came on the scene, the latter part of the ’40s into the ’50s and so on—there was less money to be made. Therefore, the guys sort of stuck together. It was more about the music than about becoming a household name, especially the type of music that was making the break from swing; the guys that were doing that felt marginalized anyway, so they had a community and it was a very close-knit community. There were the usual problems between human beings, but the jazz community, the guys that were playing, they were naturally brought closer together because there weren’t that many places to play. There were just clubs, and clubs were small, and not that much money to be made, not as many records sold.

The musicians were beginning to get a social consciousness, which is one of the reasons I always used to like Charlie Parker, the way he presented himself when he played, his persona. He was really serious, as opposed to some of the guys were a little more jovial on stage. That attitude pervaded a lot of us guys who were coming up under him.

In those days, guys had to do what they did because they were often vilified by the larger community, and they just felt they had to stick together, fight together, create music together and never mind tomorrow. I don’t want to overpreach, but that was just the way things were, more so then. I’m not saying that there are not people that don’t feel like that now.

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PAQUITO D’RIVERA, interviewed by ANAT COHEN (2013)

COHEN: Let’s talk about Dizzy a little bit.

D’RIVERA: What can I tell you about Dizzy? Dizzy was probably the dearest jazz musician ever. He was so generous not only creating a great career for himself, but he enabled others to make their own career, me included. I remember when he called me in 1991. He was supposed to do a two-month tour with his quintet and Toots Thielemans was supposed to be his guest artist. And I had recently arrived in this country and then he called me. I was working in Washington at Blues Alley. They said, “Dizzy Gillespie is on the phone for you.” I thought, “What happened?” And I answered the phone, I said, “Hello, Dizzy. Can I do something for you?” He said, “Yeah, Toots Thielemans had a stroke.” I say, “Oh my God.” “Well, he’s doing fine, but he’s not going to be able to do this tour. He was going to be my guest artist. You want to sub for him?” It’s like someone calling me to do a movie instead of Marlon Brando or something. I said, “Dizzy, I am not as well-known as Toots Thielemans.” And Dizzy, typical, he said, [in a rough voice] “You want to do it, do it, or you don’t!” “Yes, sir!” Then after that tour I remember that the following year I had my first wonderful tour with my own group in Europe. So that is how generous Dizzy was, and what a wonderful person, fantastic musician, you have to talk about that. And he was a blessing in my life and the life of many, many, many, many of us. He will be remembered forever.

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GERI ALLEN, interviewed by RENEE ROSNES (2013)

ROSNES: How would you describe your experience under the leadership of Ornette Coleman?

ALLEN: I think a lot came through the process of playing the music. It was a certain kind of expectation, with the band. When I came into the band, it was a well-developed trio without the piano. So it was more about me finding a space in something that was already complete. At least, it felt complete to me. So he would give me this music and I would hear how he would play. I would hear the velocity and the virtuosity in the approach and the fact that everyone was playing to their full capacity—going for it. So I learned from the combination of hearing him describe the kinds of things that he liked and the kinds of things that maybe were reducing a moment. It was an interesting combination of him articulating the things that were working or not working for him.

ROSNES: Could you give an example of what you’re referring to?

ALLEN: Well, the piano as an instrument has all of these notes, in the sense that we don’t have to breathe air. If you can think of it from the perspective of what it’s like to breathe into an instrument, it changes the way you think about having to play everything that’s there. I think that was a big part of what I had to find in that context: to wait for the notes that were really going to enhance the moment. Instead of the way that we learn to play this or that, it really became about waiting and listening and hearing the melody in relation to these other four melodies.

ROSNES: It’s like you’re painting together, so you have to pay attention to the gradients of light or when to add a bit more color or when to stop.

ALLEN: Yes, very much like the experience of painting something together, where the melodies become the arcs and the shapes. I felt that way when listening to Ornette, the kinds of shapes the line would take or moments of density … with Denardo [Coleman] and Charnett [Moffett] and the way that they would deal with the density of sound, and Ornette’s sound would always shoot through it in a certain kind of way. It’s like if you look at the constellations when you see the stars. He would pick these spots, and everything becomes—somehow—a whole, complete idea.

ROSNES: It’s interesting how visual the music can be. I remember hearing his band in San Francisco one night. To me, the image was a canvas filled with black lines moving quickly and chaotically. When Ornette played, I saw big circles of bright primary colors.

ALLEN: Yes, and then the sound. To hear Ornette’s sound next to you—the impact of what that is, and the sound in and of itself—just the weight of that really made me want to figure out how you develop that when you play a note as a pianist. We have to find a way to do that. It doesn’t feel like a piano anymore, it doesn’t feel like a particular instrument, it’s something more. I think Ornette was looking for that from me: to find that place where it wasn’t really a piano, or it didn’t matter what the instrument was.

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JON HENDRICKS, interviewed by ROSEANNA VITRO (2014)

VITRO: Tell me more about your working relationship with Art Tatum.

HENDRICKS: My mother would save my supper for me, because she knew I was up at Art’s getting my nightly lessons. I’d leave about 9 p.m. and I wouldn’t come back until 2 or 3 a.m. the next morning. Everybody of any consequence who played an instrument—that means all the great bands, Benny Goodman’s entire band—was listening to Art Tatum.

Louis Armstrong heard me, and said, “Boy, you can sing!” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “What are you doing tomorrow about 12 o’clock?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Come to the place I’m staying.” You know they couldn’t check into the white hotels, and there weren’t any hotels in the ghetto, so he had to get a room in a boarding house. So he said, “Come by and wake me up and I’ll take you for a walk.” So I got up and I went down to the boarding house where he was staying and he was dressed and ready—you know, most people would make you wait, but he was dressed and ready. We walked down Indiana Avenue [in Toledo, Ohio] to the downtown area and across the street and all the way back down into the ghetto. He talked all the way down and all the way back. He said, “You know something? You remind me of me when I was the little cat. I knew all I wanted was to learn to play the trumpet.”

VITRO: You’ve truly lived a magical life. Your ghosts have done a fine job watching over. What are a few of your favorite memories?

HENDRICKS: Art Tatum’s mother scrubbed floors in a bank building downtown. One day she came home and said, “Arthur, I saw a piano roll and this fellow said he’d sell it to me cheap because nobody was buying them, so I bought it and brought it home.” I don’t know if you remember piano rolls, but there were player pianos set up to automatically play these pieces that were recorded on the paper rolls, while you pumped the pedals. When she heard this roll being played she said, “That’s pretty. I wonder if Arthur can play it.” She didn’t understand it was two guys playing the music on the piano roll.

She took it home and said, “Arthur, I’d like to hear you play this when I come home from work tomorrow.” Art said, “Momma, I’ll be ready for you to hear it tomorrow. I’ll spend today learning it.” He didn’t know it was two guys. She came home the next day and she asked him, “How are you coming along with that?” He said, “I’m ready!” And he played it! I said, “Whoooo, look at that!” Then I whispered in her ear, and told her it was two guys playing. She said, “It is?” I said, “Yeah!” She was so surprised. He not only played it, he learned it by ear and played it in a day. To this day, I’ll never forget that.

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