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1/24/2017 - Highlights from "The Great Jazz Pianists"

I recently spent an afternoon reading through "The Great Jazz Pianists" which is a book of interviews with (you guessed it) the Great Jazz Pianists. The interviews are conducted and transcribed by journalist Len Lyons, and took place between 1974 and 1979. I had been familiar with the book, and had briefly read through it from various friends' and colleagues' bookshelves over the years, but when I picked it up again recently I couldn't put it down. The interviews, which include pianists ranging from Teddy Wilson to Cecil Taylor, are loaded with rich quotes and anecdotes, ranging from the profound and eye-opening to the controversial and even scandalous.

I've decided to put together a sort of "highlight reel" of some of my favorite quotes from the book, but this list is by no means exhaustive. You could basically open to any page and find an incredible quote, or several. So I'd recommend picking up this book yourself (here it is at Amazon), and if you'd like, feel free to add some of your favorite quotes in the comments. Ok here goes:

Teddy Wilson on Bebop:

"It (Jazz) didn't become listening music until World War Two, when the tax on dancing ruined the dance business. . . When we got into the war, the bottom dropped out because there was a twenty percent tax on every bill at the dance clubs. The musicians had to evolve a way of playing that would draw the customers even though they couldn't dance. That's when they tried to make the harmony more interesting by adding notes to chords that had never been used in them previously. The rhythms were eccentric, too, and technique developed tremendously. . . The technical skill makes for interesting listening music, and it was forced on the musicians by the federal government's tax policy. That was the mainspring of the bebop era. LL: An economic motivation for bebop? Right. It developed on Fifty-Second Street in New York. They put the tables right up to the bandstand so no one could dance. The musicians had to draw the fans just to listen."

The more traditional version of the story is that musicians, inspired by the rapid technical advancements of forward-thinking musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, began to play increasingly more complex music that ultimately isolated their audiences completely and ended jazz's position as a dance or popular music. It would be supplanted by rock and roll.

I like Teddy's version, because it makes the jazz musicians seem less arrogant! Bebop's technical developments were an unintended consequence of a federal tax increase on dancing! Obviously the birth of bebop owes to more than a tax increase, this is just a shocking perspective that I hadn't heard before.

Mary Lou Williams on Teaching:

"People don't know how to teach jazz. It's a feeling, and it can't be taught. LL: Then how do you function as a teacher? In the first lesson I give I go into technique. . . While the student's doing exercises, I massage the shoulders and tell him, "Relax, I love you, baby." I have to teach them love. The technique alone doesn't mean a thing. We've got to save the jazz heritage."

It's worth pointing out that she basically equated the "jazz heritage" with love. A practical interpretation this could be that the role of the teacher is to infuse a love of music in the student, rather than to relay them some technical information. Often times, a massage and some caring words from a master musician would do more to instill this sort of love in a student then a book of patterns. (Probably most of the time!)

Unfortunately in today's climate, if a teacher, especially in a college, massaged a student's shoulders and said "Relax, I love you, baby", getting fired could be the best-case scenario for them.

Instilling love in a student is a complex problem that requires a teacher who can react to each student's needs. Sometimes "conventional" methods like a book of patterns work best. (There was a time when Slonimsky was great for Coltrane!) But other times "unconventional" methods like a massage and some love work best. Unfortunately, schools only cater to "conventional" methods of teaching, and this explains the dilemma of institutionalized music education, particularly in jazz education.

But as Mary Lou reminds us, to teach jazz heritage is to teach love. Wish I could have had lessons with her.

Oscar Peterson on Keith Jarrett:

"I don't have anything derogatory to say about any of the solo playing I've heard from say, Keith [Jarrett], because I enjoy it."

Here are lots of derogatory things that Oscar said about Keith in a 1979 interview with Tom Wilmeth, now posted on JazzTimes' website:

"I don't happen to be a Jarrett fan, I'll be very frank with you . . . I watched a solo Keith Jarrett television special (likely this special) and . . .it was not necessary. He didn't do anything. I don't like to come down on somebody, but he's kidding. . . I can play the piano and I can sit down and go through that kind of performance and buffalo X amount of people. I'm not trying to nail him to the cross; I just don't believe in that type of performance. . . Keith Jarrett is the Liberace of jazz. I'm not trying to hurt him, but it's true-he doesn't play anything!"

In Oscar's defense, he knew that his interview with Lyons would be published, and maybe he didn't think that his conversation with Wilmeth would? (On the JazzTimes website the date of publication is 12/31/2011.)

I had read this JazzTimes interview before, and my first thought was that Oscar probably didn't like Keith because his solo records (particularly his 1975 "Koln Concert") were selling millions, while Oscar's 1970's records were not.

In any case, there's shocking inconsistency from Peterson here, and I find it hard to believe that he truly couldn't find anything of merit in Jarrett's performances.

Bill Evans on Knowing Lyrics:

LL: How do you feel about some of the lyrics to some of those old songs? "I never listen to lyrics. I'm seldom conscious of them at all. The vocalist might as well be a horn as far as I'm concerned."

I love this surprising quote from Bill, who at least opens the door to another side of the "knowing lyrics" argument. Most great jazz musicians would say that in order to truly "sing" a melody you have to know its lyrics. This would typically be followed by a legendary anecdote about Dexter Gordon who lamented after an otherwise beautiful ballad performance because he "forgot the lyrics".

Bill is known for having a singing quality to his playing, especially in ballads. (A short list of classic examples includes "My Foolish Heart" from the Vanguard, "Spring is Here" from Portrait in Jazz, and "Young and Foolish" from Everybody Digs Bill Evans.) We'd expect that this tone came from an understanding of how each note fit a lyric, and how the mood of the lyrics dictated the mood of the performance. With Bill's quote here, we know that isn't the case.

So now there's at least another side to the argument: that even if you don't know the lyrics, you still can make the melody sing. And the proof is that Bill Evans did it.

Paul Bley on Professionalism:

"Everyone wants to paint, write, or play an instrument. The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional can survive the corruption of the marketplace."

This struck me as an unexpectedly practical statement from a typically esoteric artist. But I agree with it. It's noteworthy that he leaves out musicianship or creativity as factors in differentiating between professionals and amateurs - the only difference is an instinct, or tolerance, for survival in an inevitably corrupt market.

Jaki Byard on Free Playing

"Cecil Taylor might play for forty-five minutes, but he's got some patterns in mind. You can quote this: All humans have patterns of thought, and they come out musically. Nobody can change that. There's no argument on it because it's the truth. LL: So there's as much structure to free music. There might be a little more endurance involved in the Cecil Taylor or the Keith Jarrett styles, but that might not last long. When they reach the age of sixty, if they don't slow down, they're supermen."

As we've now entered 2017, with Cecil Taylor aged 87 and Keith Jarrett at 71, it seems that we can safely declare them both supermen.

Keith Jarrett on Performing

"All the experimenting I've done is between concerts. I don't experiment when I play."

An amazing quote: Keith, who adamantly tells us that his improvised solo performances are truly completely improvised, now tells us that he never experiments when he plays, clearly differentiating between improvising and experimenting. This is very important, as it means that improvising is practiced! As necessary as it may be to journey into unknown territory as an improviser, the process of improvising is something that you need to be prepared for. And that preparation involves maintaining an ever-deepening reservoir of musical and pianistic (technical) knowledge, only so you can go on stage and play a bunch of stuff you've never played before!

Chick Corea on Spontaneity

"You see spontaneity is not the same as differentness. You don't have to play something different every time for it to be spontaneous. The only prerequisite for spontaneity is having all of one's attention on the moment."

Another amazing quote. This is why so many of our greatest improvisers still always sound fresh even when they're using material that we've heard them play before. Or a more obvious example, why a concert pianist can still give an electrifying performance a piece that's 200 years old and been performed thousands and thousands of times.

Herbie Hancock on Fusion

"Not that it was done for this purpose, but fusion music has had the virtue of being the first type of jazz the general public could relate to."

I guess he forgot about Louis Armstrong! Or Duke Ellington!

Josef "Joe" Zawinul" on Synthesizers

"You listen to "River People" [on Mr. Gone], the reaction is going to be: "That's a hell of a trombone solo." It's an ARP 2600. There's no trombone player who could play that solo."

You can listen to this track and judge for yourself: River People. Trombone players, be offended.

In Zawinul's defense, he is talking about how he uses his personal experience in playing trombone, clarinet and trumpet to inform how he recreates those sounds electronically, the ultimate goal being an organic electric sound that doesn't sound electric. A lofty goal that I would say he achieves in many cases. However I never thought this solo was a trombone. (Although admittedly it sounds cool.)

Zawinul seems to have a conflicted relationship with the trombone: In the great "Jaco" documentary that recently came out, we hear a story about how he insulted Jaco by telling him his sound was more like a trombone than a bass.

Keith Jarrett on the Ear

"See, no matter what anyone says, the human ear cannot hear more than two lines at the same time."

I'd love to hear what non-pianists have to say about this. Maybe a conductor, or a drummer's opinion would be different. As a pianist, I am relieved, as I tend to think this is true. Maybe pianists tend to hear two lines because we train ourselves to hear what we are playing in each hand. Even as we play multiple notes in each hand, we are always prioritizing one of the notes, so in a way we are really only hearing two lines. If we were able to listen to music without this pianistic limitation, like a conductor could, to what extent could we hear independent lines?

That's it for now, but really this is just scratching the surface of all of the incredible material in this book. Check it out!

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