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Bob Thiele: 1922-1996
Bob Thiele
Producer, label boss, songwriter

Born: July 27, 1922 in New York City, New York
Died: January 30, 1996 in New York City, New York

A Personal Appreciation

by Arnold Jay Smith
Copyright © 1999 Arnold Jay Smith

First publication: Jazz Notes 8/2 1996

By this time you have no doubt read about the exploits of our departed member, Bob Thiele. His legerdemain succeeds him: the record companies he headed, the artists he championed, the combinations he produced, the eclectic taste mix. There was a personal side to this larger-than-life human, yes, even a humble one. He down-played that he "produced" anything. He admired good work in others and coaxed the best out of them by implication rather than admonition.

After chasing the ever-busy Mr. Thiele to sit still long enough in a New School (N.Y.C.) classroom to discuss Duke Ellington, he finally acceded, read that, gave in to my cajoling. In October 1992, we sat together and discussed what a producer did when the Maestro was in the recording studio. "You didn't produce Ellington," was Thiele's opening gambit. "You, perhaps, suggested. But in the end he did it his way with some of your suggestions integrated with his own." Thiele was more interested in telling the "Jazz Insights" audience about "Ellington the man . . . my friend."

Bob Thiele, young jazz enthusiast, was about getting to know as much about Ellinngton's music as possible. He attached himself to the one man he least expected to give him advice, a man so busy and such a genius that "just being in his presence was enough." Yet Ellington not only listened, he answered the younger man's questions beyond their simple answers. "He'd sit and talk to me even after a late set, sometimes 3 or 4 in the morning sitting in his car.

"Duke liked to make his orchestra members toe the line. If he felt you were coming on to the bandstand 'too relaxed,' he'd make you work harder." That's maybe why Paul Gonsalves played all those choruses (on "Diminuendo In Blue and Crescendo in Blue"). "Duke used to make him play extra choruses if he saw him nodding, or if Paul arrived late to the bandstand. But Paul always lived up to the pressure."

Ray Nance was another situation. "Ray would always sing a tune in a different key than what the band was playing in. Duke would have to audibly tell the band that Ray was coming down (from his trumpet chair) and the tune would go from whatever (key) to B or B flat, I forget which. Duke figured a Ray Nance vocal was worth the unprofessional prompt."

No matter how hard I tried to get Bob to talk of himself vis-a-vis Ellington, he always came back to Duke, the Mensch, Duke the foreteller of Black Is Beautiful with his "Black Beauty," "Black Brown and Beige," and "Black and Tan Fantasy," all titled when "black" was a pejorative term used to describe African Americans.

While Thiele shuddered at those reminisces of his early times with Ellington, admiration dominated the discussion. "Many people overlooked Ellington as an entertainer. I was on the road with him when he had to contend with rudeness, racism, bad food, audiences which weren't listening, sometimes not even dancing at dances. But he was always the gentlemen, always charming, always giving with the 'I love you madly's,' which eventually became a song title."

Things were often the same in the studio. Bob described instances where a relaxed Duke would encounter even more relaxed sidemen, "but he would rarely say anything to them, never admonish them, or scold them. It was very trying for the producer, let me tell you." Thiele described the stragglers, a recurring Ellington band theme, but he was quick to counter with another. "His ability to recognize when a great performance was complete and not to repeat it - that was the single most important thing I learned from Ellington. The more you do it over, the more downhill it goes. His theory was 'if it happens, it happens; if it doesn't, forget it! Let's go on to something else.'"

Bob had a dream of bringing together the two great innovators of his years in jazz, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The resultant, historical sessions had Duke playing with Louis' All Stars, which, coincidentally, featured former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard. "We did 20-25 tunes in a day. That's what great jazz musicians do when they get together. They don't have to talk to each other; they just look at each other and they know."

But surely at some point the producer must enter into the equation. "It depends on honesty. If the musicians respect you, you don't get belted in the chops when you tell someone to lay out. It takes years of mutual respect. Musicians are the most important asset to my success."

At another of those star-turned, put-together sessions, Coleman Hawkins was the guest. As the story goes, Bean thought he was to play with the entire Ellington orchestra rather than the small band Duke had chosen. So when a final tune was needed Bob was ready with a dozen from Ellingtonia. But Duke wasn't having any. He decided on a repetitive line that became "Limbo Jazz." "In the middle of it, drummer Sam Woodyard starts to audibly answer the theme. I was ready for another take, but Duke kept on going and it became a one-take classic." An example of when a producer should not be heard from.

Unlike the Armstrong/Ellington sessions where Duke sat in with Louis' band, the John Coltrane/Ellington date utilized both Trane's and Duke's rhythm sections in varying combinations, a Thiele concept. "I wasn't sure how things would work out, but Coltrane was ready and so was Duke." And why not? It was Bob Thiele who helped create the Coltrane image when he was the chief producer at Impulse!, having recorded most of the seminal Trane quartet vinyl. Trane trusted him.

"The Coltrane/Ellington session was a great learning experience for Coltrane because (prior to that) he had been used to playing the same things, or at least familiar things his way. So we did 'In A Sentimental Mood.' You could feel that Coltrane wanted to do it again, but Duke was about to say, 'That's it.' So I went over to Duke and said, 'You're the older guy here, you tell Coltrane, that's it.' Duke told him that take was beautiful; why spoil it?" Trane agreed, but something extra resulted. "As I continued to record Coltrane, it became easier, with fewer takes and more concentration."

The class ended as Bob related a story of how he was trying to sell Jazz Magazine, one of his early publishing endeavors, in front of Carnegie Hall where Duke was playing. He was chased by management, so he went to the stage door and complained to Duke about it (the entire magazine was about Ellington). Ellington told the management that unless these "young men" were allowed to sell these magazines, the band would not play. "He would have played," Bob said. "But it was nice of him to say that anyhow."

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With 1 reader comment, posted September 13, 2005