Interviews » Conversations with Gary Giddins

Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Underrated Jazz Musicians, Part Two

JJM  Why don’t we move on to the clarinet?

GG  Oh, I love the clarinet. I even played it a little bit — one of the many instruments I was not capable of mastering. One of my great experiences as a kid happened at one of the annual jazz festivals that used to be held on Randall’s Island. At this particular concert there was a set by an edition of George Wein’s Newport All Stars. He had these great swing players who would play in different configurations, and at one point everybody left the stage except for the rhythm section and the clarinetists, Pee Wee Russell and Edmond Hall. What an eye-opener that was for me because these two musicians were playing the same instrument, but if you closed your eyes you would have thought they were playing two completely different instruments. The degree of individuality was startling — nothing in classical music or rock and roll prepared me for it.

I adore Pee Wee Russell’s playing — he’s the ultimate jazz eccentric in the sense that he has his own cliches. After a while you sort of know what he’s going to play, but the drama is in how he configures his phrases. He doesn’t play things that anyone else plays. His sound and his phrasing are entirely sui generis. Even the tunes that he writes, “Pee Wee’s Blues” being the most famous, sound like something he might have improvised. It is interesting that some of his greatest work is on recordings with Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins is “Mr. Aggression” and Pee Wee sounds like Casper Milquetoast, blinking in fear that he will be overheard. His every note struggled to be born. But it works because he swings and he is so emotional. He is such a great player, and I feel the same way about Edmond Hall. He made some marvelous records with Teddy Wilson on Commodore, pure swing, and then he also made records with Charlie Christian on Blue Note. His sound is the opposite of Russell’s. It’s huge, gorgeous, warm, in the rounded New Orleans style.

The clarinet was one of the most important instruments at the beginning of jazz. Most people reading this will know who Johnny Dodds was because of the records he made with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, but they may no longer remember Jimmie Noone, who was actually more influential. Benny Goodman used to say that Jimmie Noone was the guy clarinetists of his era listened to and copied, and who influenced everybody. I don’t know if his Apex Club recordings with Earl Hines are still in print or not, but they are worth searching out. In those recordings, you can hear him reaching beyond the more characteristic New Orleans style and repertory.

Another interesting clarinetist from that period is Frank Teschemacher, who died in his twenties and thus made very few records. But he also had an idiosyncratic style, with a strange approach to pitch. When Goodman and Shaw hit, the clarinet sort of became the guitar of the thirties. Other than Count Basie’s band, which basically ignored the instrument, every band’s clarinetist was a potential star. There was Irving Fazola with Bob Crosby and Barney Bigard in Ellington’s band, and, of course, Woody Herman, who was hardly a virtuoso but he used the instrument very well. Woody played in a sort of a New Orleans style — he liked the richness of the traditional timbre. But that all disappeared almost overnight with the coming of bebop because the clarinet didn’t seem to fit in. There was Buddy De Franco and then there was Buddy De Franco. That was pretty much it for a while. It’s sort of odd, because Lester Young doubled beautifully on clarinet and one would think that some of his countless heirs would follow suit.

JJM  Tony Scott played during De Franco’s time……

GG  Yes, but he never achieved the kind of renown De Franco did with his incredible technique. He could sit in with anybody and held his own, even Art Tatum, as demonstrated on their famous Verve session. You know, practically the entire time I have been following the jazz scene, every time a clarinet player comes along it’s like a news story — like, good heavens the clarinet is coming back. During the last decade it’s been Don Byron. The bass clarinet has more practitioners than the b-flat. Weird, isn’t it? A young clarinetist I like is Dan Levinson, but he plays strictly in pre-war styles, unlikely to verge beyond Benny Goodman. But he has the sound and the spirit. And then there’s Kenny Davern, maybe the best all around clarinetist on the scene — a musician who works in a traditionalist context but developed a thoroughly original approach.

Clarinet is a difficult instrument. I’m friendly with a clarinetist who plays in symphony orchestras, and I’ve asked him and other players to explain why the clarinet doesn’t have pads, but none of them are certain. Usually, they say it’s because the instrument is wood and too delicate or that the pads make too much noise. On the other hand, the flute has pads. I am told you can buy a clarinet with pads but most musicians wouldn’t be caught dead playing it. It’s always surprised me that saxophone players double on soprano rather than clarinet, maybe in part because they wanted to mimic Coltrane, but it may also be because clarinet is more difficult to play.

JJM You mentioned Lester Young — it is strange he didn’t have more followers on clarinet.

GG  Yes, he was another wonderful, instantly recognizable clarinetist in the thirties. Some of his best clarinet work is on the From Spirituals to Swing Concert, and he also stretches out on clarinet on his Commodore sessions. But he didn’t play it for very long. While he doubled on clarinet for most of his life, Sidney Bechet also favored the saxophone, even though he was better known as a clarinetist during his early years. It is interesting how an instrument once deemed so sexy — I mean, think of Artie Shaw’s wives, for heaven’s sake — could get sidelined for so long.

JJM  Any other clarinet players come to mind?

GG  Yes, Perry Robinson. Perry’s been around for a long time, and is a total original. I love the record he made with William Parker a couple of years ago, Bob’s Pink Cadillac. It was made on a small “downtown” label, Eremite, and it is a rare chance to hear Perry stretching out on a couple of twenty-minute improvisations.

JJM What about other reed instruments? Who do you think about when you think about the flute?

GG  If I had to pick my favorite jazz flute record, it would be Roland Kirk’s, I Talk With The Spirits. It didn’t get that much attention when it came out, and I don’t know why. Walter Perkins, an excellent drummer with a very recognizable style, is really inspired on this record, as is Kirk, who always had a lot of fun with the instrument — over-blowing and getting his own voice in there. He had several different approaches to tone. He could get a fairly pure sound when he wanted, but mostly he liked to muddy it up and make it a little funkier. That’s a good record. I’m not sure if it’s in print beyond the complete Emarcy Kirk box.

In recent years the outstanding flute player has been James Newton, and I am not sure why we don’t hear him more often. He will infrequently come to New York and stand up for a solo in David Murray’s Big Band, and he doesn’t record as flutist, composer, or bandleader nearly enough. I am struck by what a gifted player he is every time I go back and listen to some of his records. The flute is not his second instrument, as it was for Kirk or Frank Wess, and most of the others — it’s what he does.

JJM  The sixties were an interesting time for the flute. You had people like Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef…

GG  Lateef was a terrific flute player. His records are pretty bizarre, and I don’t always get very far into some of them. He was on a roll when he recorded for Impulse in the sixties. I like most of those albums. On one of them, Live at Pep’s, he plays a blues on oboe (Sister Mami). He had a big, full sound, and he could really play blues on the flute. My favorite of the Impulses is A Flat, G Flat, C and The Golden Flute. Man, I’ll bet I haven’t heard those in thirty years — you are reminding me of a lot of things I used to play a lot, then lost sight of. Lateef was also a helluva tenor player, when he was serious — his solo on Mingus’s “Prayer for Passive Resistance” is a bitch. For a long time, Dolphy was the beginning and the end of flute in jazz for me, although now I prefer his alto and bass clarinet. But he’s extraordinary on the Last Date album, gorgeous sound. Dolphy is one of the great virtuosos because no matter what instrument he picks up, he never sounds like he’s doubling — he sounds as though he never tried any other instrument. Dolphy is yet another jazz figure who died very young, although not as young as we may think. But he had been ignored for the first dozen years of his career, when he was in California, before becoming part of the avant-garde scene in New York.

I presume that his friendship with Dolphy inspired Coltrane to take up flute, but he only recorded on it once — on the last album he supervised before his death, Expressions –– and he didn’t play it very effectively. When I first bought that record I was hanging out with Ted Curson’s quartet and Nick Brignola was in that group; talk about underrated players, he is one of the great baritone saxophonists of all time. Anyway, Nick doubled on everything, including flute, and couldn’t wait to hear Coltrane’s record, just to see what he did with it. At the time it was a big disappointment because everyone expected him to play flute with the authority he brought to tenor and soprano, but he didn’t have that kind of mastery down yet. Nick, on the other hand, played everything with tremendous vitality, but he was most himself on baritone.

JJM Flute players were among the most interesting personalities of the sixties and seventies, especially when you add Sam Rivers to the list. They were so creative, individual, challenging. On the other end of the spectrum, you had guys like Herbie Mann, who reached out to the rock and roll audience, and Hubert Laws, whose playing was brilliant but his CTI recordings were just awful.

GG  Yes, I never understood those records. Hubert Laws was someone I never paid much attention to because once he became known, he made nothing but those kinds of commercial records. Herbie Mann had that huge hit, “Comin’ Home Baby,” and then became pretty predictable, leaning increasingly on Latin rhythms. I never thought he was much of a player, although he once made a good record with Bill Evans early in his career. He’s simply awful on the Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown session — where is an editor when you need him?

JJM  Atlantic tried to market him like a rock star…

GG  They really did. He became huge. Nice guy but certainly not a profound player, though he did a very good deed in producing Jimmy Rowles’s final album. But let’s go back to Sam Rivers. He is another of these players whose records never sell as well as they might, maybe because people grow impatient when they put on a record and hear a piece go on for twenty minutes or half an hour, though he does do short numbers as well, especially with the big band. Remember Crystals? — an impressive album in its day, probably not in print now. He stretches out during live performances, where he does a routine starting on tenor, then moving to the soprano saxophone, then to the flute, then to the piano. Those are exhilarating performances. I don’t know if you want to hear that set every night, but I love going to hear him play. He comes up with something interesting on each instrument, and he doesn’t sound like the same musician on each instrument. Benny Carter was the same way, in that his alto playing is different from his trumpet playing, and both are different from his arranging style. He projects a different musical personality each time.

JJM  Another flute player I just thought of is Henry Threadgill.

GG  He is a wonderful flute player, who also plays alto and tenor. I used to prefer him on tenor, when he first started recording with Air. But he is a terrific player. He has become so involved in conception and composition that I think he under represents himself as an instrumentalist. I like the gritty sounds he gets, especially on the saxophone.

JJM  And let’s not forget the flute player the hippies loved, Charles Lloyd.

GG  I have never been a fan of Charles Lloyd, although I liked his early work when he was with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. He did a piece on tenor with Chico called “One for Joan” that has a stirring Lloyd solo. It doesn’t sound like any other tenor solo of the period. Then he became a hippie star with Forest Flower. Then he did Love-In, on which he played really bad flute. What I never liked about his playing, even in recent years, is that I find his sound on tenor sort of whiney, and his technical élan a bit self-conscious, like he is out-Coltrane-ing Coltrane. It’s self-indulgent and unappealing. I argue routinely with colleagues because most of them think very highly of him.

On the other hand, he has a great new record out on ECM, the last sessions with Billy Higgins, on which he plays long free improvisations. I listen to all the CD’s that come into my office “blindfolded.” My assistant puts them into the changer to try and keep from allowing prejudices or assumptions to color my responses. And this particular recording struck me as having a pretty interesting dialogue. I had no idea who it was until I looked at the label, and it made me reconsider Charles Lloyd. In the past, when I put a record of his on “blind,” I knew within two seconds that it was Lloyd and I would move on to the next album. But on this new recording, Billy Higgins, who Lloyd had such an obvious respect for, is in such a free-wheeling, expansive mood that he seems to bring out a directness and humor in Lloyd’s music that I hadn’t heard in a long time. I usually think of him as humorless, almost “holier than thou.”

JJM How about we talk a little about the violin?

GG  Like the clarinet, the violin has a lot of precedent in early jazz — it goes back to the beginning. In the early New Orleans bands you frequently see photographs of violinists, and Joe Venuti made a huge splash in the twenties, yet it never really caught on as key instrument. One of the first violinists in the territory band era of the middle thirties was Claude Williams, who had an amazing second-act career after he was rediscovered in the seventies and did a number of projects with Jay McShann.

I have a funny Claude Williams story. When Albert Murray was writing Count Basie’s biography, Basie was staying at a hotel near where I live. Al was interviewing him and he brought up Williams, and said he couldn’t understand why Basie fired him and replaced him with Freddie Green, because he sounded so good with the band. Basie denied that Williams ever recorded with him and refused to accept the idea. Now it’s true that Williams never got into the studio with Basie, but he did appear on a broadcast that was widely bootlegged in the seventies, which Basie had not heard. So Al tells Basie this and says that Williams sounded great, soared on the piece like Lester on violin. But Basie didn’t believe it so Al called me and asked if he could come by and borrow the bootleg broadcast. He comes right over, and takes the album back to the hotel to play it for Basie. When it was over, Basie said, “Sounds pretty good!” That’s all he would say. Apparently John Hammond, to whom Basie remained very loyal, didn’t like the idea of violin in the band, and while no one will question the wisdom of recruiting Freddie Green, the change put Williams in the wilderness for a long time, though he was a good swinging player.

I love Stuff Smith. With the possible exception of Joe Venuti, he was probably the most famous jazz violinist during the first fifty years of jazz. He made so many great recordings during the thirties and forties, and, again, talk about being underrated, those spectacular sessions in the fifties with Dizzy Gillespie and all kinds of Norman Granz groups — which Mosaic has collected — are great fun. When he went to Europe, other than a violin summit he participated in, he didn’t seem to record very much and people forgot about him.

A violinist I came to love, largely because of his friend John Lewis, a huge fan, is Svend Asmussen. He has a gorgeous conservatory tone but filled with ideas — a hot, swinging player. Scandinavia’s produced some really extraordinary jazz musicians, and he is one of them. Asmussen made a wonderful album with John in the early sixties called European Encounter, well worth searching for. Another violinist John introduced me to and recorded with is Joe Kennedy, who has as lovely a tone as any jazz violinist ever. When we did Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige with the American Jazz Orchestra, Joe came in from Washington DC, I think, to play the Ray Nance part. Tremendous musician, yet he’s not even listed in Grove. When Jean Luc-Ponty first came on the scene, he promised to be the Stuff Smith of the sixties or “Coltrane on the violin,” but he got into that fusion thing and I lost interest in his work. Michael Urbaniak, similarly, attracted much attention a few years later, but I think Ponty is as close to a violin star that the modern jazz era produced.

JJM  I fell in love with jazz around the music of many musicians, one of them being Stephane Grappelli.

GG  My feeling about Grappelli is that, like Oscar Peterson, he over-recorded. I find his music at times to be glib and pleasantly head-bouncing, and at other times when he is working with great musicians, he has it all — a lovely tone, swings like mad, great fun to listen to.

But I mentioned Nance, who is best known for his cornet playing with Duke and lacks the technical skill of some of the other violinists we’ve mentioned, yet remains one of my favorites on the instrument. Ellington loved the way Nance played violin, and would write pieces featuring it. A highlight for me, though, is the live record he did in 1967 that featured Dizzy Gillespie, Pepper Adams and others at a Village Gate jam session. It was released on Solid State, which I think is now owned by EMI, so Blue Note ought to dig it up. One track is a long, maybe fifteen-minute, reading of “Lover Come Back to Me,” featuring Nance at his romantic best. On another occasion he played with Duke Jordan, the great bebop pianist who had worked with Charlie Parker. They were working a Turkish restaurant on the West Side in the seventies, and the owner of the place liked to play electric bass with them — that was the group, Jordan on piano, Nance on violin and cornet, also singing and high-stepping, and the restaurant owner on amateur bass. I used to go there a lot — one of the great weird New York gigs of that period. Ray was a devoted entertainer, and damn, he could swing! When you listen to a guy like Nance or Stuff Smith or even Ponty, you can’t help but wonder why more young people who go into jazz aren’t more inspired to take up the violin. Everybody wants to be a trumpet player or saxophone player.

JJM  Regina Carter is certainly an important contemporary violinist.

GG  The hot violinist of the day, no question. When she first came along, I didn’t know what to make of her because she was playing commercial music and didn’t sound particularly imposing. Once she began working with the guitarist Rodney Jones, she started playing more straight-ahead jazz, and very effectively. The last few times I saw her she really knocked me out — great tone, great time, and at times shrewd wit. People used to complain that she didn’t know the changes, that she was merely playing on scales, but that’s not true. Regina could probably play anything she wants. She is a very serious musician who seems to be growing, Unfortunately, I thought that last album she did with the symphonic adaptations was a gimmick. It didn’t work for me. It was interesting to hear her but if you want to hear her kicking ass, listen to the duets she recorded with Kenny Barron. She absolutely holds her own with one of the most accomplished musicians of the last forty years.

JJM  What about those who play the violin as an avant-garde instrument?

GG  Ah, yes. Well, Leroy Jenkins was the main guy there, and I really liked his playing with the Revolutionary Ensemble. I covered them frequently. And he made a record for the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association called For Players Only. I haven’t listened to that record in a while, but I used to love it. It was a truly all-star avant-garde orchestra. Everybody on it was a distinguished player, and it ends with an episode that has them all improvise whatever they wanted for twenty or thirty seconds. One after another, they all play, and it is amazingly effective. I used to play that part on the radio — just that excerpt — and Leroy told me that at first he was upset about my excerpting the piece, but after he heard it, he agreed how effective that sequence is. Leroy is well studied, and he knows a lot of interesting techniques — like the col legno style of bouncing the bow off the strings. I’ve never heard him play in conventional jazz mode, but he doesn’t need to — his solo on the Revolutionary Ensemble recording of “Ponderous Planets” is a good example of how much feeling and originality he brought to his music in the halcyon days of the loft era.

JJM  How about Ornette Coleman’s playing of the violin?

GG  I love it. People gave him such a hard time when he would come out on stage with the violin or the trumpet, but he played those instruments much in the way he plays alto — it’s all part of the Ornette sound montage. He doesn’t overdo it, and it provides an extra color. I also admire his writing for string ensembles, especially the great Skies Of America.

Another guy I like is Billy Bang. His pitch is not as great as some other violinists, and people have given him a hard time for his intonation, but he swings and has great honesty and authority. I especially like the duets he recorded with D.D. Jackson, which brought out his best, and the Vietnam record he did recently is a kind of personal benchmark. He plays from the gut and, for me, that counts as much as centered pitch.

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This conversation took place on April 30, 2004