Mike Zwerin: A Life In Jazz

Mike Zwerin
A Life In Jazz

by Farah Nayeri

copyright © 2006 Farah Nayeri

At 75, Mike Zwerin is, unquestionably, one of the deans of jazz journalism. As a musician, he got his first break jamming with Miles Davis. Zwerin's book The Parisian Jazz Chronicles (Yale University Press, 214 pages) interlaces his life story with those of the legends he's encountered: Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter — and Miles, the man "everything comes back to." Late in 2005, Zwerin, who is now the jazz columnist for Bloomberg News, was interviewed by Bloomberg's Farah Nayeri.

Nayeri: Why is your book called an improvisational memoir?

Zwerin: It's always been my ambition to create my own form, not just copy other forms. The publishers came up with that term... It's not really improvised, because I wrote about 85 drafts. I rewrite myself all the time.

Nayeri: Why did you not do music all your life?

Zwerin: I never got enough of a name to have my own band and play with it all the time. That's partly because I wasn't practising enough, because I was writing and reading. I had split myself, which is great. Eclecticism. On the other hand, if you don't really concentrate on music 100 percent of the time, you're never going to be what you could be. Music is a tyrant. I was just not ready to submit to that tyrant. I didn't like to practice.

Meeting Miles

Nayeri: In the book, you don't describe your very first encounter with Miles Davis.

Zwerin: I've told that in previous books.

Nayeri: Please tell it again.

Zwerin: When I was 18, I was living with my parents in Forest Hills, the place where they used to play tennis, in Queens, in New York City. I used to take my horn, drive their car into Manhattan and sit in. Sometimes I went to strip clubs in Brooklyn. This one time, I went to Harlem, to 117th Street, a club called Minton's where bebop was supposedly born. (Thelonious) Monk played there very early in his career, so did Charlie Parker. The night I went, there was Art Blakey. He was going through his Muslim phase, so he was known as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. And he was a fearful cat. He didn't like white people, and he was strong, and he had muscles, and he was the best drummer around, and he knew it. I don't know where I got the courage; I was either dumb or courageous. I walked in with my horn and asked him if I could play. He said sure, and he couldn't have been sweeter. He was nicer than his reputation, that's for damn sure. A lot of those guys were. So was Miles. When I was packing up my horn, I saw that Miles had been at the bar. I hadn't seen him before. He walked over to me and said would I like to come to a rehearsal tomorrow. We were, you better know it, cool. And I said okay, sure. He had just played with Charlie Parker. Miles was 22, four years older than me, and this was his first band. So I knew who he was, but the world didn't know who he was. This was his first time as a leader. When I came to rehearsal, it was the band called Birth of the Cool. Much later, he told me, "I like your sound," which was the biggest compliment I ever got.

Soundtrack of Life

Nayeri: Why do you say everything always goes back to Miles?

Zwerin: Miles has made the soundtrack of the movie of my life. When I hear his early records with Charlie Parker, that's my teenage years. Tutu was my old age. That's the urban music of our time.

Nayeri: Beyond his music, you often go back to what he said.

Zwerin: Sure. His mystique. He was an amazing guy. He's the guy who told (John) Coltrane to take the saxophone out of his mouth. He couldn't stand him playing these long solos. Miles said "Please, man, can't you play shorter solos?" And Coltrane said, "I try, but I can't seem to figure out how to end it, I keep going!" So Miles said, "Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?" That's getting to the heart.


I feel somehow very close to Miles, and when I interviewed (the drummer) Tony Williams and he said "I haven't been the same since Miles died," I thought, neither have I. He was somebody who I didn't really know. I wasn't a friend of his. But he was really important to me.

Didn't the drugs in my book shock you?

Nayeri: They did initially, but then I thought, whatever.

Zwerin: Nobody really cares anymore. It is in the past tense. I decided I would say what I think. I'm 75, and if I don't say it now, gosh, goddarn, heck.

Nayeri: You thought it would wash because of your age?

Zwerin: I was having my say, and part of my say was the drug thing. It's in the past tense, part of my life. I'm not the first one to have that experience, or, unfortunately, the last one. That was part of the ethic of what I thought was being hip, which is really stupid. When you're that age you're immortal.

Classic Junkie

Nayeri: Tell me about Chet and his importance to you.

Zwerin: He wasn't all that important.

Nayeri: Why not?

Zwerin: On a good night — and there weren't enough of them — towards the end of his life, in his 50s, Chet was playing jazz as well as anybody has ever played it. It's not a popular thing to say to Wynton Marsalis. I told him once, and he looked at me as if I was crazy. Chet was the classic junkie. He lasted longer than anybody. He hit the age of 60.

Nayeri: He was sad.

Zwerin: Except in a way he wasn't. He liked being a junkie. He never got tired of it. He was like a kid who found the candy jar and just kept raiding it. Plus he could play really well. The trouble is, he made so many records that most of them were bad. You'd give him $2,000 and he'd make a record. A lot of those records are bad. When you find the good ones, it's really exciting.

Age Brings Peace

Nayeri: Do you still play?

Zwerin: I've started playing again. A friend of mine has a little club and he asked me. I played a couple of times. I play bass trumpet, cousin to the trombone.

Nayeri: You sound pretty happy, on the whole.

Zwerin: I'm in very good shape.

Nayeri: Why is that?

Zwerin: It's the cliche: You do get some peace with age. For one thing, I'm not worried about chasing women. I look a lot, I'm a real voyeur, but I don't need women anymore. I don't mean it personally. I never knew how to handle women, relate to them. They were always a mystery to me. Also, I understand stuff that I didn't understand before. There is no reason to get depressed about stuff, because it's just inevitable. That's what I've come to realize: Dust unto dust is okay.

Nayeri: Do you have more books in you?

Zwerin: I am thinking now of another one. I don't know. I hope so. Right now, I'm only writing an article every two weeks. It's not enough. What do I do in the week in between?

C o m m e n t s

Mike Zwerin Book 1 of 1
Eric Ross
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January 27, 07

Mike Zwerin is a very knowledgeable and perceptive writer. Good book.

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