Living the Jazz Life

Oxford University Press, 2000
ISBN: 0195081080
by W. Royal Stokes
copyright © 2000 by W. Royal Stokes.
Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

A seasoned jazz critic draws on his interviews of forty musicians, from Slide Hampton and Bucky Pizzarelli to Dee Dee Bridgewater and Diana Krall, illuminating their lives, careers, and art. No music is as individual as jazz. And no writer is as deft at bringing out what is individual in each artist as W. Royal Stokes. As a reviewer, feature writer, public radio host, and author of three books on the subject, Stokes has spent three decades covering the jazz scene. Now he draws on that rich store of knowledge and friendship to introduce us to the jazz life. Stokes illuminates the lives of the artists and the sheer pleasure of the sounds they create. In some forty interviews with saxophonists, pianists, singers, composers, and string, brass, and rhythm players, he paints a vivid portrait of their lives and influences, including the role of their families and childhood environments. The musicians discuss how they became interested in jazz as youngsters and how they became part of the jazz scene. Nat Adderley recalls how he and his brother Cannonball grew up across from a Tabernacle Baptist Church and how as boys on Sunday they would listen to the music from the church -- tambourines and trombones and a blind man playing the piano. Stokes ranges across the globe, both physically and culturally, in his interviews, introducing us to vaudeville stars, blues musicians, and a dozen women instrumentalists -- such as acclaimed violinist Regina Carter -- out of the many who now shine on a scene where they were once limited to vocals alone. From legendary veterans Jackie McLean and Louie Bellson to such rising stars as Diana Krall, Cyrus Chestnut, and Ingrid Jensen, Stokes gathers together the brightest lights in the jazz firmament, capturing not only the life of the musician, but how the musician gives life to jazz.

A follower of the jazz scene since his teens in the 1940s, W. Royal Stokes has written about music for such publications as Down Beat, JazzTimes, and the Washington Post, and hosted the public radio shows "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say . . ." and Since Minton's. He is the author of The Jazz Scene and Swing Era New York. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Excerpts from W. Royal Stokes' Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz:

"I tell my students, 'It's an important tradition and you have to go back and hear this music and learn its language all the way through. How are you going to know what's new to play, if you haven't listened to everything that's old?'" Jackie McLean

"Once you start putting the air through the horn or putting your fingers on the piano you can't fool anybody, because people are going to know what you're about." Ingrid Jensen

"I wonder if it would surprise the women instrumentalists of the 1930s and '40s to hear that some fifty and sixty years after their days as young players facing stereotypes and ignorance, I still hear that I'm the first woman saxophonist someone has ever seen." Leigh Pilzer

"You can't say, oh, because you're white or because you're black or because you're fifteen or because you're fifty, you can't do something. You just can't make those type distinctions when it comes to what strikes your soul." Rory Block

"This music belongs to us -- and I'm talking about those of all colors -- it belongs to America. It was discovered here, it was invented here." Bill Cosby

"Flaginzie atflagat flagoot flagoozie magwatnie." Slam Stewart

[Violinist Regina Carter spent two years in Germany in her twenties.] After the first year in Munich, Regina lived in Kassel, a small town in the north. It was here that she applied herself to a strict routine of practicing all day.

"I would transcribe Charlie Parker solos every day, just put it on until I got it and was able to play it. So I just did that every day 'cause I really still didn't have a foundation of how to learn jazz and how to practice it. I said, 'Well, my ear is really good. I'll just learn these solos.' And from doing that I started to understand a little bit of what people were trying to tell me. I did that for a year and then I decided to come back home. 'Cause it just felt like I was living in a fairy-tale land and I needed to get it together."

[Pianist Cyrus Chestnut is a 1985 graduate of Berklee College of Music.] "My graduation out of the little pool into the big pool was the day that Betty Carter came to Berklee," Cyrus continued, laughing. "Went to her master class. . . . I walked up there and she was, like, 'You like jazz, huh?' 'Ye-e-e-h, yeh.' She looked at me, says, 'Okay, let's do something. Know "Body and Soul'?" Said, 'Yeah.' 'Okay. Fine.' She cues the key on me. I started walking. She says, 'In G!' and the 'G' shoots through me from tip to toe like a sword. I felt like I was split in half, I just felt like, 'Oh, no!' I played the song in the wrong key! And Icould not figure out what the first chord was! Terrified! So it got to a point where I just said, 'Well, enough of this!' I'm in this key and I got to try to figure out how to get through it, just get through.' She was singin' around me and I was tryin' to follow her. "We get finished and everybody's on their feet screamin' and I thought for sure that she was just gonna trash me. She gave me a hug and said , 'You're wonderful!' She left and I was in a daze. I was still trying to think what that first chord was."

[Saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin's musical education was quite different.] "When I was sixteen I would sneak into jazz clubs. I had a phony age card and I would just sit there and try to be inconspicuous and listen to the music. Someone said, 'Hey, you hear about this guy in some club in West Philadelphia?' It wasn't a great neighborhood. I tried to get into the club and there was this big bouncer, he must have weighed three hundred pounds. I mean, he was huge, and I'm trying' to get in this club. I could do it at Pep's and Showboat, they kind of didn't bother with me, but there I was too conspicuous. I opened the door and I could hear Trane. I didn't know what he was playing but there was some kind of aura that was captivating. I tried to listen as much as I could but the bouncer kicked me out. That was my first awareness of Coltrane. "I got to hear just about everybody who was active. They'd all come through Philly. If they weren't playing at the Showboat, they'd be at Pep's. Monk played at Pep's, Miles would play at the Showboat, sometimes later on at Pep's. I heard pretty much all of Miles's bands after Coltrane. He had a band with Sonny Stitt, which didn't last very long, and a band with Hank Mobley and one with J. J. Johnson. Basie came through a couple of times and Quincy Jones brought a band in. Maynard Ferguson's band came to town a couple of times. And a kind of small big band that Slide Hampton had. I don't remember Ellington playing in the clubs at that time, so I didn't get a chance to hear him in person until much later."

[Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater has lived in France since the mid-1980s but her travels abroad commenced almost two decades earlier when she dropped out of Michigan State University.] "I was invited to go on a cultural exchange tour of the Soviet Union with the University of Illinois Jazz Band. I was off and runnin'. . . . It was 1968 and there were all the student revolts going on, Kent University and a big student revolt that happened in France that same year. So I guess it was the year when students were, like, saying, 'That's enough, we're not going to take this. I was busy singing, I didn't know what was going on and was just fluffing my way through university and basically just wanted to sing.

"We were followed everywhere. So my first impression of Russia was KGB, bugs in my room, getting our luggage and having my clothes just totally in a mess when I'd open my suitcases, and being very, very paranoid. Walking down the street and seeing kids coming to me and waving, Russian kids, and then seeing little old ladies dragging them off the streets into alleys or into doorways and stuff. It was very, very strange.

"And going to jam sessions in the middle of the night, like you see in the movies, and having to get out of the bus with the bus lights off and go two-by-two to some meeting appointment and having having special locks on the door and people rushing you in and down some stairs and then ending up in some basement with all these young Russian people, and playing music. So it was very strange. I remember that at the end of the six-week tour I was afraid to sleep and really unhappy. That was the time when communism was really strong and the people all wore either navy blue, dark brown, or black. And everywhere you went they sold the same dress, the same suit, the same shoe, they all drove that one make o' car. The couple of times that I got to go out and was invited into people's homes I was just amazed at how they lived, whole family in one room with the toilet down the hall. Poverty, basically, just amazing poverty."

[As did all of the forty musicians profiled in the book, saxophonist John Stubblefield spoke with the author of his earliest experiences in music.] "I remember my father bought a television for our family around '52, I think it was. Okay, so, '53, '54, I'm studyin' piano and the Liberace Show would come on, a 15-minute television show, and after that was the Jimmy Dorsey Show, which I loved. I would see these saxophones bent like this" -- he shaped the curve with his hands -- "in the saxophone section. My father was a Baptist, my mother was from the Holiness Church, and my mother brought me to her church. There was a choir and there was also a piano. So as a kid I would see these instruments, and I'm studyin', you know, learnin' the rudiments of piano and all, and I think it was, like, '55, '56, there was a lady that played saxophone in the church and one of the ministers played trombone. She was a mean lady, mean to the kids. She was so mean, everybody would get out of her way. But she could wail on that saxophone! And for certain songs, when the congregation would sing, man, she would break that horn out of the case, and I remember how she would put the neck on it and you'd look at her and she'd look at you. Mean to kids, man! But she could play! And I used to think, as a kid, 'Man, she must have bent that saxophone up like that.' So I felt sorry for that instrument, I had a passion in terms of my sorrow for that instrument, just the image of it."

[Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison and his drummer brother John decided in the mid-80s to make the scene in New York.] "We figured we'd stay for a year and see what happened. Can't live in a hotel for a year in New York, we'd go broke in a month. I didn't know how to go about renting an apartment or anything there, and I thought that sounds horribly expensive anyway, but I'd looked at the map and I said to my brother, 'Did you know that New York is five boroughs and four of them are islands. This is all surrounded by water. We'll buy a boat!' 'Cause I had always been a boating fan and I had boating magazines from the U.S. and I'd seen the advertisements in them. The prices of boats were a third of what they were in Australia. I said, 'We'll buy a boat and we'll live on it! Because Manhattan's an island.'

"The first day -- we arrived at midnight -- we got up the next morning, it was a Sunday, and I got the New York Times. I read the paper on the circle ferry around Manhattan and I said to John, 'I'll look at the ads of the boats, you watch and if you see anywhere you think we can come back to, mark it on your map.' I went to the classified section, the boating section. I looked through it and I said, 'I've found it!' It was an Owings Cabin Cruiser and I said, 'That sounds great, I don't know what it is but it sounds great.' 'The guy wants twenty-five hundred dollars for it. We can live on it for a year and we can sell it when we leave.' So we caught the subway and went to see this guy at Jamaica Bay. I shudder to think now that I had twenty-five hundred dollars in my pocket! We looked at this boat and said, 'Great!' and we bought it and sailed it back to Manhattan, still not realizing you can't just pull up to Manhattan and tie up.

John had picked the 79th Street Boat Basin -- there's a marina there, on the West Side -- so we came back to there and pulled in. It was about a four-hour sail into Manhattan and we'd named the boat the Koala Bear on the way there.

"Fate must have meant all of this to happen because it's probably the only place in Manhattan you can just pull in and tie up. The people there were very loose and will let you live on a boat there. It's unofficial but we pulled in there and said, 'Hi, we're from Australia.' And they looked at the boat and said, 'Wow! In that boat?' We said, 'Well, not exactly, we picked up this boat on the way.' We didn't elaborate and then we said, 'We need somewhere to stay' and they said, 'Sure, tie up.' They thought for a couple of days and we said, 'Yeah, we'll see how we go,' and we stayed there for nearly a year.

[Bassist Glen Moore recalled the late 1960s.] "Ralph Towner and I had come to New York to eventually play with Miles, that was why we were there. We'd listened to and learned Wayne Shorter's music and to that whole period up past the mid-60s, to Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock. That was really a high ideal at that time. And when Dave Holland and Chick Corea left Miles Ralph and I were at the point of going and being at Miles' door and saying, 'We're the next white guys that you need.' But he decided to go completely electric at that point and his focus became more the street. There were very few white players involved with that and we weren't prepared to want to play electronic. That was a kind of sobering thing to realize, that we weren't going to get to play with Miles.

"Ralph and I had a band, a rehearsal band, with John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, David Holland, and the Brecker brothers. We'd get together and play music that we'd written. We were never a working group, it was a once-a-week get together and we played old tunes and new things that we'd written. So there were a lot of associations during this time. I worked a lot with Jeremy Steig and with Jan Hammer. In fact, Jan and I worked at Bradley's the week the first Mahavishnu Orchestra record was made and Jan talked every night about what it was like to have to kind of unlearn his jazz things and focus on this music that was more like Indian music than any thing else because of the odd meters and the duple feeling rather than a triplet thing. When Return to Forever formed, we were there for the first gigs of that.

"It was the beginning of the times when the jazz musicians were going from the corner of the barroom into the arena. Oregon was formed at the same time as Weather Report and started playing on the same show with Ravi Shankar. Many things were being put together. Musicians were playing together who had not played together. A lot of the jazz walls were being broken down, people were sharing, there were bass choirs, people with like instruments were getting together and sharing all their stuff. Before that it had been all kinda" -- Glen adopted a sneering tone -- "'I have this little thing I can do, but I'm not going to show you or you'll do it and I'll lose my gig.'"The '60s really helped break those walls down."

[Tenor saxophonist Ron Holloway looked back on his association with a legend.] "He was at Blues Alley in June of 1989 when he asked me if I wanted to join. He says, 'When can you start?' and I said, 'I think I already have.' I was in his band from then until his passing in January of '93. Joining Dizzy's quintet was one of the greatest events of my life! If you are a young aspiring musician, then you'd be hard-pressed to improve upon standing next to John Birks Gillespie! When I think back on it, I still have to pinch myself. It's difficult to say whether my life has been enriched more professionally or personally, but I suspect the latter. For, as great a musician as Dizzy was, he may have been an even more remarkable human being. "The last week I played with Dizzy, in February of 1992, was at a very nice club called Jazz Alley in Seattle," Ron sadly recalled. "It wound up being his last booking. I remember he played so strong and with such precision that week that Ed Cherry and myself were pleasantly stunned. We stood dead in our tracks as one set in particular ended, and Ed looked at Diz in amazement and called out Dizzy's name loudly to let Dizzy know how impressive his playing was throughout that entire set. Dizzy just shrugged it off but Ed and I both knew what we had just witnessed. We were both emotionally affected by what we had just heard. It was uncanny, and just a little eerie. It was as if God had smiled down on Dizzy and allowed him to play the way he had twenty years previously. The very next week Dizzy underwent some tests because he hadn't been feeling well. To everyone's shock, the diagnosis was grim -- cancer of the pancreas. Dizzy was forced to cancel his engagements until further notice. On January 6th, 1993, we lost him. By then he had been off the scene for nine months. It was the end of an era. I will forever treasure the time I was fortunate enough to spend in his company, before and after joining his band."

W. Royal Stokes is author of Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press,1991), and Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about their Careers in Jazz, also from Oxford.

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