Jimmy Webb: ‘I love chords, and so do jazz musicians’

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Something connects Jimmy Webb, writer of such intriguing pop songs as Wichita Lineman and MacArthur Park with jazz. In their original form his tunes often sound closer to country or country rock than the Broadway repertoire that dominates the jazz songbook and are clearly a long way from bebop, but the mood – especially in Wichita – and the ingenious chord structures are perhaps what have induced musicians such as Cassandra Wilson (on Belly Of The Sun), Pat Metheny and Kurt Edelhagen to cover his work. In August he returns himself to the Oslo jazz festival and in a few days (5 May) he appears in southern England under the auspices of the Rye International Jazz Festival (see below for the chance to win tickets to the show).

On the phone to Jimmy in Long Island, Jazz Journal began by telling him it was after the jazz connections. Hardly a question was needed – he was ready.

“I’ve always felt a strong connection to jazz. Some of my favourite players were jazz players. My father loved big bands and played them a lot at home. There was Fats Waller and I grew up listening to that, and the Dorsey Brothers, both bands I heard a lot – and the Glenn Miller orchestra”.

So they were around the house when you were young. Did you have any teacher or anyone who showed you tunes with those kind of chord progressions in them?

“Well, my mother put me on the piano bench literally when I was six years old with the intention, which she was quite militant about, of placing me on the church piano bench as pianist, which I was able to do by the time I was 12 years old. My father was a Baptist minister and there I was playing for services.

“On the side I had a little jazz quartet. We played a lot of Howard Brubeck’s transcriptions of Dave Brubeck’s recordings. So we – a saxophonist, a bass player, a drummer and a pianist – we would go out and buy these arrangements and learn them. I can still hack my way through Blue Rondo A La Turk and Take Five, and I remember that one of my favourite records was the Brandenburg Gate record.

‘I would fancy myself a junior Bill Evans and try to emulate and copy his arrangements’

“We made a little bit of money playing Dave Brubeck and some of our own arrangements of standards at fraternity parties and what have you. I was a great fan, and still am to this day, of Bill Evans and would fancy myself a junior Bill Evans and try to emulate and copy his arrangements. This went on for some time – jazz was very important to me and to the crowd that I hung with in school up until the moment when one of the guys came into the rehearsal saying ‘Did you see the Ed Sullivan show last night? There were these guys on from England with long hair like girls and everyone was going crazy over them’. I said ‘Well, that’s not gonna last’. The rest is history.

“That changed the musical landscape for everyone, quite a bit. It didn’t dim my enthusiasm for Charlie Parker and Bill Evans. Or Thelonious Monk, who I was also a big fan of”.

I suppose one might ask why didn’t you go ahead and become a penniless jazz pianist instead of writing successful pop tunes?

“Well, I’d been writing songs since about age 13, and was completely enamoured… you know, playing jazz with these fellas was a way to pick up some extra money, and I was really quite alone in the world. My father had moved back to another state, taken the entire family, and I’d stayed in California to try to stay closer to the professional music scene but I was really on my own, and I was sleeping on a air-mattress and sharing an apartment with three girls, which sounds a lot better than it really was. I was struggling and trying to write songs because I rightly surmised that there could be a good living there, and I seemed to have a knack for it.

“My first job – I say job, because I actually had a contract and was getting a stipend from this company – my first job was at Motown. My first song that actually appeared on a 33⅓ record, a long player, was a Christmas song that I wrote for the Supremes. So suddenly the Supremes were huge in America – they had 15 number one records in a row. So to suddenly have that sort of star power really within my reach gave me a lot of impetus to move towards songwriting.

‘I was always drifting around the outside of the social scene. Without a doubt music was the way I coped with that’

“I never lost my love of jazz and I have a huge collection of vinyl that I love to listen to. I think jazz should only be heard on vinyl. I still play jazz when I’m in my most reflective, interior moments. I can be most often found listening to my analogue equipment, my Fisher amplifier and my Technics turntable”.

You mentioned your interior moments – is this mood something that informs a lot of your songwriting?

“I always found myself, like it or not, sort of on the outside. My father, being a minister, moved us quite a bit. I would say on average we moved every couple of years. And so one was always the new face, always trying to make friends, always saying goodbye, and never really putting down roots of any significance. I never had lifetime friends – my friends were always in the rearview mirror because my father was always on his way. He was upwardly mobile in the most aggressive postwar sense in America – in his case a bigger church, and a more successful church”.

Did that create a sadness of disposition, a longing, in you?

“Definitely for me being on the outside in terms of being a social person. That I never was. I was never a popular kid. I’m not soliciting pity, I’m just saying I was always drifting around the outside of the social scene. Without a doubt music was the way I coped with that. Music gives you something to do, plus at a certain point in your life – if you’re good enough – suddenly you turn out to be a fair piano player and it becomes a bit of a calling card to a more conventional social life – maybe attending a party, maybe meeting a girl, maybe meeting some other guys who love music and playing along with them. Music becomes a passport towards a more normal life, not to be such a satellite. To be accustomed to solitude is kind of a sad thing. But it’s also very inspirational – and it gives you a lot of practice time”.

You’re playing at the Oslo jazz festival in August and this concert in Rye, UK on 5th May, and Jazz Alley in Seattle in June. These organisations wouldn’t necessarily be aware of your early jazz enthusiasms. What do you think prompts them to invite Jimmy Webb to a jazz festival?

“Well, my catalogue has been covered quite a bit by jazz musicians, including Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Pat Metheny. Metheny did a wonderful recording of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Nina Simone also recorded some of my stuff, and Roberta Flack – not jazz artists per se but leaning in that direction. And I’ve always gotten along really well with jazz players. Larry Coryell was a very close friend and I ended up writing music for him, a suite called Glorielle.

“And then I would say my decision to embrace chordal music in all its magnificent complexity. My catalogue by and large is easily adaptable to the jazz vernacular because it has a lot of interesting chords. I love chords, and so do jazz musicians. And therefore if you go through my discography, which is at the back of my biography The Cake And The  Rain, you see there’s an amazing number of covers out there by jazz musicians.

Americana: ‘We love labels in America. We love marketing tools, and if nothing else it’s been a grand marketing tool’

“I think that the organisers of these particular kinds of events are looking for new ways of regarding jazz, and fresh faces, and to invite me is to invite someone who – at the risk of sounding a little pompous – is going to play music that’s written in their language”.

The other thing that strikes me is that in the last 20 years, Americana has become a popular source for jazz musicians.

Yeah, I’m not sure I understand exactly what Americana is, unless it’s me. If it’s me then I understand it”.

Well, country and folk, but not bebop, which as every jazz fan knows comes from China.

“To me it means guys playing mandolins and banjos and things like that. You know, there was a time in recent musical history when we would have called that bluegrass. Today it’s a bit more sophisticated. You have Alison Krauss and Robert Plant doing an album and it’s record of the year. The kind of music involved is meant to be something new called Americana. I have a little bit of trouble decoding exactly what that means”.

I think record company marketing has a lot to do with the creation of that term.

“We love labels in America. We love marketing tools, and if nothing else it’s been a grand marketing tool”.

Do you think country music has anything to do with jazz?

“Well, I’ll tell you this: My father’s favourite band, and an almost overly familiar sound around our house was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, which they used to call Western Swing. Western Swing was nothing more or less than jazz. There are still bands around, like Asleep At The Wheel, paying homage to that West Texas style. Those old bands could play, and the fact that they’re riffing on steel guitars, which are notoriously awkward and difficult to play, and playing very fluid solos is quite marvellous.

Glen Campbell: ‘He was such a highly accomplished virtuoso on guitar, and his favourite player and his inspiration was Django Reinhardt’

“And you know, Glen Campbell comes to mind. He was such a highly accomplished virtuoso on guitar, and his favourite player and his inspiration was Django Reinhardt. It’s very hard to hear him play and not hear him occasionally quoting Django Reinhardt. He had a big painting of Django over the fireplace in his house”. [Try Campbell’s revelatory solo on Gentle On My Mind – Ed] 

“So yes, I think there are touchstones between jazz and country music. They don’t seem on the surface to be the same thing at all, because jazz in America has always been a very down, cool and mostly coastal New York and LA thing and it’s also been a left-leaning thing. And country music has been more of a right-leaning thing. The styles of the music are quite different in their pure state with this one notable exception, which is that improvisation is held in high regard in both jazz and country music. Players gain reputations and become legends in country music for their ability to negotiate the fretboard and to play quickly and come up with a good lick. Those two things are quite highly prized in both African-American influenced and country music.

“There’s an exception to every rule. The most influential record of my young life was Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music – an album by Ray Charles, doing in essence a country music programme. It’s arrangements by Marty Paich, so it’s beautifully orchestrated. You have what should be a clash – country music, Ray Charles (a soulful African American singer) and an orchestra. You think this is going to be a very unusual muffin I’m baking here but it comes out so beautifully, so seamlessly. It was highly influential in my generation. It showed us that really that there’s more magnetism in music than we ever dreamed up to that point. Good music tends to gravitate towards good music, whatever the style”.

Buddy Rich wouldn’t agree, but the connections are clear. [See Buddy Rich’s famous diatribe on country music at 9:46]

“They go so far back, and the mutual influences between white and black I’ve always thought would make a really good treatise for a doctorate”.

Do you remember what was on your mind at the time you wrote Wichita Lineman? Did anything lead you to that chord progression?

“I was talking to James Taylor one day on the phone and he says ‘I’m covering this record and it’s kinda weird. You told me the song’s in F – well, you don’t ever go to F’. I went to the piano and checked all the chords myself and sure enough, he was right – it never really resolves and goes to F”.

Are you bringing a band from the US to Rye or are you playing solo?

“Plans right now don’t really include a band but I stress that plans are not complete. I’m very privileged to have Ian Shaw and Liane Carroll appearing as guests and they’re definitely going to be using a band and covering some material. I’m not sure what their programme is but I know how wonderful they are and I’m looking forward so much to hearing that”.

Rye International Jazz & Blues Festival has two free tickets to see Jimmy Webb at St Mary’s Church, Rye, East Sussex on 5th May. The winner will be the first person out of the hat with the correct answer to this question: In which US city is the MacArthur Park that inspired the Jimmy Webb song of the same name? Answers by 4th May 2019 to Rye Jazz Webb competition.