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Noel Stookey Lets the Jazz Animal Loose

Famous folk singer revisits archive and records new material for his Fazz album with jazz touches

Noel Paul Stookey
Noel Paul Stookey (photo: Sally Farr)

Singer and songwriter Noel Paul Stookey has had a remarkable career. As the betwixt member of the iconic folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, Stookey has sold millions of records, won numerous Grammys, and toured all over the world. His composition “Wedding Song (There Is Love)” has been a staple at marriage ceremonies for more than 50 years. But all those credits belie a lifelong affinity for jazz, which he is now showcasing with his latest album Fazz: Now & Then (Neworld Multimedia), a mix of old and new material that combines his folk and jazz influences.

The 84-year-old Stookey says that the mash-up term “fazz” was coined by Paul Desmond many years ago, when the Dave Brubeck Quartet did joint concerts with Peter, Paul and Mary. “The quartet would do the first half of the concert, before intermission, and they would call us up and we would do ‘Because All Men Are Brothers’ together,” Stookey explains. “For Desmond particularly, I think he didn’t want the task of introducing us because he was going to have to swallow some of his personal, shall I say, disgruntlement. Because folk musicians are, what, three or four chords, jazz musicians have a tendency to compartmentalize them. I don’t think Desmond was any different. So when he’d introduce us, he’d say, ‘We’re going to bring up some people on stage to do this next song and I don’t know what to call it, fazz or jolk.’ That was his line. We all knew which term he would have preferred—the one in which he didn’t have to pronounce the ‘l.’ But ‘fazz’ stayed with me. And I realized that all through my life with Peter and Mary, that’s what I was doing. I was trying to bridge gaps with these [guitar] chords that sometimes were appropriate and sometimes were not. Now, finally, on this album I get to show how emotionally invested these chords would be.”

His appreciation for jazz began early in his life. Born in Dorsey, Maryland, Stookey was raised in Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, where he realized at a young age that he could combine his love of music and theatrics through writing and performing songs. “Here was a haiku,” he says. “You had three minutes and forty seconds to deliver a message. Admittedly, the messages I was delivering then in the early ’50s were all embarrassingly derivative. But I was learning.”

When he picked up the guitar, it wasn’t to play folk or jazz. “I was in a band that played R&B classics, but also originals,” Stookey says. “There was a R&B record store in Pontiac, Michigan with a crotch-high watchdog that would keep an eye on you as you walked the aisles. That’s where I got a lot of material for the Birds of Paradise, the name of my rock & roll and R&B group in high school.” The group appeared on the Ed McKenzie Saturday Dance Party TV show in Detroit, the same one that Freda Payne went on back in 1955. Stookey says that the cheap 4×5 bronze plaque he received from that show still has a prominent place in his home, more so than the Grammy Awards he won in ensuing years.

Surrounded by great jazz in the Motor City, he immersed himself in it, both on record and in performance. “Because I was into Jazz at the Philharmonic, I went down to what used to be Cobo Hall and I saw Lionel Hampton with the whole band,” Stookey recalls. “I was a high-school kid then. One of the reasons I loved saxophone was the emotional quality. You could honk. Sitting at those shows, the audience would yell during the solos. I don’t know how I ended up on guitar, I would have loved to have been a sax player.”

The first album he bought was by the Firehouse Five, a Dixieland band made up of animators from the Disney studios. “I now realize that the reason I enjoy Brubeck was not only a fascination with Handel and Bach, but Dixieland,” Stookey says. “If you think about the early Dixieland players, they never got in each other’s way. I mean, talk about original contrapuntal music.”

Early in his life, Stookey was a fan of Les Paul and his recordings with Mary Ford, but he didn’t associate that music initially with jazz. “The whole idea of playing jazz on the guitar never really crystallized for me until I heard Charlie Byrd,” Stookey explains. “That was a classical guitar, and he was playing jazz. I went, ‘That’s what I got.’ I never learned the single-note virtuosity, but man, I sure absorbed the color chords.”

He would go on to use those “color chords” in his writing for Peter, Paul and Mary, a trio he formed with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers in New York City in 1961 on the initiative of manager and impresario Albert Grossman, who would go on to manage Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Odetta, among many others. It was Grossman who suggested that Stookey change his name to Paul, because Peter, Paul and Mary sounded better phonetically. Instead, Stookey took Paul as his middle name and returned to using his full name later as a solo artist. Although success came relatively quickly for the group, the early years were lean ones. “The first money I ever really earned as an entertainer was in the Village and I was 20 years old by then,” Yarrow remembers. “The first money I made [playing music] was in a basket. I think it was the Common. Then there was the Café Wha? and across the street was the Gaslight. We played the coffeehouses. I was the master of ceremonies. I was a comedian. I was a singer/songwriter. I was also the maître d’.”

Peter, Paul and Mary would go on to record more than a dozen albums and have numerous hits such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer,” both of which they performed at the historic August 1963 March on Washington, before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Had a Dream” speech from the same stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They broke up in 1970 to pursue solo careers, then reunited in 1978 and continued to tour and record together until Travers’ death in 2009.

The group was often accompanied in concerts by the bassist Dick Kniss, who had previously worked with Woody Herman. Stookey and Kniss had a close relationship, personally and musically. “Dick and I just hit it off,” Stookey says. “Maybe because he was a golfer and I was a golfer. We had such a rapport. He opened my eyes to inversions and chords. We co-wrote a lot. One of the most notable ones was ‘Whatshername.’ Even some of my more recent material is derivative of my time with Dick.”

A jazz man at heart, Kniss rarely recorded with the group because, Stookey says, he would never play the same part twice, which was great for live performances but not so great for recordings. “I felt bad for the guy because it’s great to have those recordings on your résumé, but the only recording we did with him was a live album. Throughout the 16 years he was with us, in the ’60s and when he rejoined us, after our time off for good behavior, in the ’80s and ’90s, Dick’s attitude toward the tune was that he would pick and choose when he’d come in. And he’d pick and choose whether he’d come in arco or plucked. Then he would pick and choose whether it was to answer one of the vocalists or whether it was to keep tempo. I was aware of those choices and I appreciated that personal touch that he brought to everything we did onstage.” In the studio the group often used Bill Lee, father of Spike Lee. “Dick could have done it, but I think it would have killed his spirit. When you come up with the lick in a studio setting, the producer wants to hear that lick again, because that’s what connects you to a listening audience.” Kniss died in 2012, but Stookey still treasures their work together.

Back to Peter, Paul and Mary’s collaboration with Dave Brubeck and his quartet—and the song they played together, Tom Glazer’s composition “Because All Men Are Brothers.” A progressive liberal, Glazer wrote lyrics for J.S. Bach’s hymn “Passion Chorale” and the resulting song was perfect for the socially conscious trio. “Peter, Mary and I did it acoustically,” Stookey explains. “And it’s right up Dave and the quartet’s alley, that counterpoint from Bach that they can handle so easily and improvise within the structure. We proposed it, as all folkies do, as a song that we could all do together.” Which the folk trio and jazz quartet proceeded to do at colleges across the country in the ’60s.

Stookey’s commitment to political and social issues didn’t stop after the ’60s. “I have a natural predilection to describe things in terms that are socially aware, whether it’s the Holocaust or the environment. Last year I put out an album called Just Causes in which I pulled from my library thematic tunes [and donated the proceeds for each] to the charity that it best represented. That’s always run through my life. But Fazz is more of a musical comment for me than a social comment.”

The album combines older material from Stookey’s personal archives and newly recorded compositions. He says that it was particularly interesting for him to comb through his earlier recordings. “I was not aware that I had leaned so heavily in my musical tastes toward jazz until I began this project. When I discovered ‘Long Lonely Night’ from an acetate I made for the publishing company … I was 20 years old then. I’m 84 now. That’s 64 years in development, but it had its start. I was always thinking that way. To that extent, the archives represented a broader palette than the pop music or the folk music that is on the rest of the album.” Other songs pulled from the singer’s past include “Wonderwhy,” fearing Stookey on the koto, recorded during a Peter, Paul and Mary tour in Japan; “There Are No Words,” written in response to 9/11; and “The Water Is Wide,” also recorded during a Peter, Paul and Mary tour.

His arrangement of “God Bless the Child” was originally created for Mary Travers and features Kniss along with Sue Evans on drums. “I’m a character guy,” Stookey says. “That is to say, I like to tell stories. I like to change my voice if it suits the telling of the story. The part that’s both embarrassing and at the same time liberating in ‘God Bless the Child’ is [sings] ‘Don’t you take too much.’”

In one song, he tips his hat to the rhythm guitarists of the ’40s, with “the combo bass, drummer, and guitarist happening at the same time. The closest I came to that was ‘The Lady Says (She Don’t Like Jazz).’ If I had to play those chords for you right now, I’d play the first five or six, but I have no idea what I did after that.” Stookey scats during that tongue-in-cheek song about his wife’s ambivalence regarding jazz: “My phrasing, in the attempt to tell a story, to the degree that I can, emulates Sinatra, who would do, maybe, two takes. That was it. When you repeat something, you lose something—the spontaneity or the magic of the moment.”

For some of the newly recorded material, Stookey was able to reconnect with Paul Winter, Paul Sullivan, and Gene Friesen from the Winter Consort. Stookey had produced their first two albums for A&M and had a longstanding relationship with Winter. “Remember the days when automobiles had tape decks?” he asks. “I had a recording of Handel’s Water Music and I brought Paul into the car and sat him down and played hand drums and mouth drums to Water Music to try to convince Paul that there was a way to do classical music in tempo. That became his hallmark for a while.”

The two reunited to do the bossa-nova tune “Formara” along with keyboardist—and, on this track at least, singer—Henrique Eisenmann. “Paul suggested that I should ask Henrique to play on the tune,” Stookey explains. “And when he sent it back, he included a vocal. ‘Hey, I’m the vocalist here, man!’ [Laughs] But it was so perfect. So I kept it. Curiously, people think it was me, but I’m going to take credit for it because it was pretty hip.” Friesen accompanied Stookey on cello for “Charles Ives,” which the singer says “speaks at best to the passion of following one’s heart and at worst to the distraction of multitasking.”

Stookey says when he’s at home in either California or Maine he listens mostly to classical music, but he has fond memories of one particular jazz album. “I have to say that the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert by Benny Goodman with [Gene] Krupa, you go back and hear that and it’s the arrival of the American musical spirit. The validation and integrity of the music expressed by those musicians. That’s an exciting moment. I could sit and listen to that all weekend.”

He’s not sure that he’ll perform a lot of the tunes from the new album live. “Some of it. I can do ‘Charles Ives.’ I can do ‘Waiting for Angels.’ Wasn’t that a moody piece? Then there’s ‘I’ll Be Seeing You.’” Regardless, he’s proud of how he’s finally reconciled his folk history with his jazz passion. “Bringing up myself in the jazz world was eye-opening in terms of the voicing. I can’t play everything in every key. As a matter of fact, at the age of 84, I’m having trouble remembering how to play anything in any key. I do make my chordal selections, even for folk music, in a sphere of reference that salutes all of the jazz I ever heard. This was a fun album for me. I really let the jazz animal loose.”