Often, jazz documentaries and programs can be either too dry and academic or too reverential. Understandably, such passionate music inspires emotional reaction. It’s a rare occasion when a host is objective and levelheaded, while possessing a vast amount of knowledge and insight. Ben Sidran (pictured) is such a host, and on his program Talking Jazz: An Oral History-which aired on NPR from 1984 to 1990-he defined the art of interviewing jazz musicians.
Now these conversations-60 in total-are available in a 24-CD box set, encased in a beautiful, sturdy shell with an 80-page booklet including liner notes from Sidran, as well as short essays by jazz personalities like Michael Cuscuna, Gene Lees and Craig Werner. Sidran narrowed down his favorite interviews from well over 100; among these are dialogues not only with legends like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, but also with lesser-known but equally relevant artists like Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Don Pullen, Carla Bley and Jackie McLean. Notable non-musicians like recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, spoken-word maverick Ken Nordine and Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon are also represented.
Sidran, himself a renowned jazz/rock pianist, composer and producer-he first gained notoriety for writing the lyrics to Steve Miller’s hit “Space Cowboy,” eventually releasing over 30 albums and producing records by Mose Allison, Tony Williams and Rickie Lee Jones-mastered the art of making his subjects feel comfortable, resulting in these sensitive, and sometimes ornery, musicians revealing themselves and their fascinating stories. During a few interviews, the musician (in this instance, Blakey and Williams) stopped talking to demonstrate something on his instrument. Moments like this are what make this set so special and essential.
Talking Jazz is available for $249 (plus shipping and handling) and can be ordered at www.talkingjazz.com.