Best Jazz Albums
“Only twenty years separated the radical influences of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, but the period in between was filled with constantly shifting and widening perspectives…indications are now that the next decade may bring the most organic changes in jazz since the advent of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and other early modernists.” – Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Life 1961
Historic Jazz Sessions
© William P Gottlieb, Library of Congress
New York Public Library
Jazz Oral History – June 1996
© Mosaic Images; photographs by Francis Wolff
It’s one of those deceptively simple ideas – what do things sound like. It is clear that the essence of jazz artist’s work is not on their choice of notes but in the sound of those notes. And, as a corollary, the sound of those notes is determined by the way in which they arrive. Style, then is a function of music that arrives right on time and in absolutely the “right way”. There is a kind of definitiveness about jazz when it’s done right, as if it couldn’t have happened any other way. Style is the expression of a personal imperative. . – Ben Sidran
Ben Sidran recorded 50 conversations between 1985 and 1990 and excerpts are reprinted with his permission.
McCoy Tyner: I mean, that’s the thing, you know. Your sound is within you. I think it has a lot to do with touch, but then it’s a little bit more than that. I mean, it’s just like when John used to pick up a horn, a saxophone, you know, whatever it was. You could say, “Oh that’s still John.” The sound is identifiable. It’s the person. And I think that whatever instrument you play, if you have a definite sound, or one that can be recognized immediately, you know, even if the instrument is not in correct working order, you can still say, “Well, that’s so and so.”
Herbie Hancock: Well, when I did “Maiden Voyage,” one type of approach to rhythm really was close to my heart and still is. It’s integrated with the harmonic approach, having to do with a floating feeling, kind of a putting aside of the traditional harmonies of jazz and makin’ it kind of a mood. A lot of that harmony could be related to a technical word in music, which is modal music. You know, having to do with modes.
And that started, in jazz, with Miles. As a formal approach in jazz, it started with Miles’s album Kind of Blue. And that album had a big effect on me, too.
Because I loved that sound, you know?
Ben Sidran: Part of the message of your music seems to be “be yourself” and you use minimalism to achieve this. Like those pretty notes you play , as opposed to a lot of notes.
Miles Davis: Pretty notes! If you play a sound, you have to pick out . . . It’s like the eye of the hurricane. You have to pick out the most important note that fertilizes the sound. It makes the sound grow, and then it makes it definite so your other colleagues can hear and react to it. If you play what’s already there, they know it’s there. The thing is to bring it out. It’s like putting lemon on fish. Or vegetables. You know, it brings out the flavor. That’s what they call pretty notes. Just major notes that should be played.
And rhythms. I used to, a lot of times, I would tell Herbie to lay out. He wrote a couple of pieces that were up in tempo, and rather than have him play the sound for me, I played the sound for him to listen to, you know? The sound of the composition he wrote. Because if you have too much background, you can’t play an up tempo and really do what the composer tries to give . . . to me. And I try to give to the fans and music lovers.
Ben Sidran: You talk about the “sound” of the composition as if a song has a central “sound” to it, a sound source.
Miles Davis: I try to get his sound, whoever is writing the composition. If I’m going to play something against that, I have to get the sound that he wants in there, without destroying and blowing over it, so as not to bury it. You know what I mean? So it takes a lot… it really takes a long time to do that, you know. But if you’re leaning that way, it doesn’t. But if you aren’t and somebody tells you?
When I was about fifteen, a drummer I was playing a number with at the Castle Ballroom in St. Louis – we had a ten-piece band, three trumpets, four saxophones, you know – and he asked me, “Little Davis, why don’t you play what you played last night?” I said, “What, what do you mean?” He said, “You were playing something out of the middle of the tune and play it again.” I said, “I don’t know what I played.” He said, If you don’t know what you’re playing, then you ain’t doing nothing.”
Well that hit me. Like bammm. So I went and got everything, every book that I could get. To learn about theory. To this day, I know what he’s talking about. I know what note he was talking about.
Ben: What note was it?
Miles Davis: It was raised ninth. I mean a flatted ninth. [Laughs.]
Ben: This conversation about the “sound” of the composition brings to mind the recording Kind of Blue. As you know, Kind of Blue is probably the number one jazz record on virtually all the jazz critics’ lists.
Miles Davis: Isn’t that something?…
Miles Davis: I was put here to play music and interpret music. That’s what I do. No attitude, nothing. That’s all I want to do. And I do it good. ‘Cause my colleagues say, “Yeah,” you know what I mean, and that’s enough for me to keep doing what I do.
I stopped playing the trumpet. Dizzy came over to my house, he said. “What the heck is wrong with you? Are you crazy or something?” I say, “Man, you better get out of here.” He said, “No, I’m not either.” He’s like my brother, you know. But that’s it for me. All the rest, people think I do this, I do that. Yeah, I do that and this. I might do a lot of things, but the main thing that I love, that comes before everything, even breathing, is music. That’s it, you know. Nothing. I buy Ferraris, yeah, but music is always there. Right here.
Art Blakey: Playing together every night, you begin to know each other, trust each other. The band begins to come together. Otherwise, it just can’t make it.
And I know many bands have gotten together with some of the finest musicians in the world, they got together and they play, but they can’t come across the floodlights. You’ve got to come past the floodlights to the people. Because that’s the main thing about playing jazz, is the contact with your audience. You know, it’s one of the most wonderful things in the world because they [the musicians] don’t know what they’re going to play. It’s from the Creator to the artist to the audience. And then from the audience back to the artist and so on.
It’s a rapport between the audience and the music. That’s what makes jazz, jazz. And they [the musicians] don’t know what they’re gonna do. You can change in a split second and play something else. And the only way you know is you begin to know a person so well and like him so well that you look. And the eyes are the windows of the soul, you see. And when we look at each other, they know just what to do. If I look at them in a certain way, they know just what to do, in a split second. They say, “Oh, he’s gonna change this way,” or I’ll make a cue on the drums, say, “Okay, we’re gonna change this.”
Ben Sidran: At the time, even today, your style is very direct. When you’re sitting at the keyboard, there’ very little wasted effort. Most pianists during the 50s were very much under the wing of Bud Powell and other players who tended to play “busier”. How did you develop your style out of that tradition?
Horace Silver: Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk are my two main piano mentors. I had two other mentors before them which were Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum… I was heavily into Bud Powell, before I even knew about Monk. And when I first heard Monk, I actually thought he was putting everybody on at first, when I first heard him, because it sounded so foreign to me and so kind of way out, so abstract, that I didn’t think he was serious, you know. I thought he was kind of joshing around on the piano, or trying to put people on, you know.
And when I found out he was serious, I started listening more intently, and I realized, “God, this man has something very unique here and something very beautiful. You know, let me check him out.” And, I got more heavily into Monk…
Ben Sidran: Everything down to the last three notes of a song like Blowin’ the Blues Away was definitive and simple and right on it.
Horace: I think it takes a composer a while to learn simplicity. Some of the early things that I’ve written were too notey, you know. I wrote a lot of bebop lines in the early days that had a lot of notes to it, that were difficult to play and not much space for the horns to catch their breath in between phrases and all that kind of stuff. But as I got a little older and learned a little more, I began to realize that all that wasn’t necessary. You can cut out all of those notes and it can still be great and might even be greater because more people can understand it. And it still can be profound, you know, and beautiful. Beautiful, profound harmonies and beautiful, profound simple melody
… Simplicity is very difficult, you know.
Now, in my opinion, you have to be very careful with simplicity because, if you’re not careful, you can write a simple melody that can be very trite and nonmeaningful, you know. But it’s most difficult to write a simple melody that is profound and deep. That is a very difficult thing to do. Find some beautiful harmonies that are not too complex but beautiful, different, moving in different directions—interesting, you know, stimulating to the mind, for a player.
Ben: I’m struck by something you once said regarding Charlie Parker. You said as soon as he starts to play, “he creates a complete mood”. Being able to create a complete mood seems to be exactly what you do as well.
Sonny: I don’t remember the quote, but I probably did say it because Charlie Parker was one of my big idols. I put him up there with Hawkins, too. And, of course, I loved anything that he did. We used to follow Bird around, you know. We were a bunch of kids bothering him. He came off of his sets down on 52nd Street and actually he was really good to us, you know. He treated us like sons. But I loved his work, and, of course, when Bird played, we were agape, with mouths open and everything, just checking him out. He was really great, in so many ways . . . musically and he was also sort of a social leader. And a spiritual leader, I guess I should say.
Ben: Of course, your work with Monk, I think, is among the most important historically that you’ve done. How do you see that period of history?
Sonny: Well, first I’d have to say that Monk’s music is difficult. It’s difficult music. As Coltrane said one time, if you miss a change with Monk’s music, it’s like stepping into an elevator shaft when it’s empty. The music is difficult. I was always fortunate. Monk liked my work, you know, Monk really liked me. I mean, you know, I was younger than Monk, much younger than Thelonious, but this was also a great source of strength, the fact that Monk really dug what I was doing. He liked my work all the way along.
Even when I began rehearsing with his band when I was still in high school. We used to go down to Monk’s house there on 63rd Street. And the whole band would be in Monk’s small apartment, rehearsing, you know. And Monk would have what seemed to be way-out stuff at the time, and all the guys would look at it and say, “Monk, we can’t play this stuff. We can’t make this on the trumpet.” And then it would end up that everybody would be playing it by the end of the rehearsal, you know.
It was a beautiful experience, hanging out with Monk and everything. It was hard music. I’m not sure that I was able to capture everything that I wanted to, playing with Monk and playing his stuff. I was not sure about it, but as I said, Monk seemed to feel that I was doing okay, and he encouraged me. And I found out that he really liked my work, so I did it. But I’m not sure that I got out of Monk’s music everything that I could have gotten out of it.
Max Roach: The best drummers know how to beat the instrument into the key that the music is being played in at the particular time. And one person who especially stands out is Art Blakey. Art Blakey gets on the stand with anybody’s drum set. If you’re in F, G, B flat, E flat, the drums sound like they’re in that key. So it’s a way that your ear and your familiarity with the kit, and the cymbals and all that, seem to serve. You just go right to it. But, of course, these are seasoned people who’ve been dealing with it for quite some time.
And also, many of the drummers who can do that are excellent musicians. Art Blakey was originally a pianist, as I was. And you’ll find Elvin Jones is a good guitar player, and Tony Williams, people like that, they’re composers as well. But most drummers do it anyway. I hear drummers and they’ re right there.
The instrument allows it.
Ben: Historically, looking back at your work, you seem to be very much a group-oriented person. You appear to develop very close relationships with the musicians you use, and you tend to use the same players consistently. For example, when you’re playing so strong behind trumpet player Cecil Bridgewater on the front of “Bird Says,” it reminds me of the great duets that Elvin Jones played with Coltrane. And that’s only possible after years of playing together, isn’t it?
Max Roach: Yes it is. I’ve heard that same attitude that you talk about between Elvin and John with Charlie Parker and Dizzy. And I’ve heard it also with Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, when they worked with Baby Dodds and that group. It does come from working together. But the wonderful thing about the music is that it’s based on the personalities within the group.
For example, when Clifford Brown and Richie were killed in that awful automobile accident, I felt that the people, when they booked Max Roach, they’d expect him to play some of the things he did with Clifford. Well, it was impossible to do, because there was only one Clifford. So therefore I had to find a trumpet player and a repertoire that was not that familiar. It took me a long while before I went back to that repertoire. For many reasons, of course.
You know, in the recording industry, you can only survive if you come up with new product. You can’t do what you did before, anyway. You know they’ll tell you in a minute you have to come back. They ask, “What you want to do, Max?,” and if I say “Well, I want to record ‘Dahoud’ and ‘Joy Spring’ and all the wonderful things I did with Brownie,” they’d say, “Well, you already recorded that. You’ll have to come up with something new.” One of the ways of doing that is to change the personnel and try to find the people who do not sound like the people who were with you prior to that period. In the case of Brownie, you’ll never find another one.
So what I looked for were people like Kenny Dorham or Booker Little. They’re different. Because otherwise I would always sound like I’m back in that period. That’s one of the things. So what I’m basically saying is that groups change with the personnel if the leader of the group allows that to happen.
Even Duke Ellington, when Ben Webster was with the band, it sounded totally different than when Paul Gonsalves was with the band. You deal with the musical personalities. My band today is different than the one last year. Attitude, personality. And you try to use as much of each person that’s individual to them as possible.