Talking Jazz – Profiles, Interviews And Musings From Tacoma To Kansai

Randy L Smith collates his jazz articles and interviews, featuring such as Barney Kessel, Bill Crow, Dave Frishberg, Chuck Israels and Satoko Fujii

4892

Randy L Smith has lived much of his life in Japan and Tacoma and here writes about his jazz experiences in each place, including particularly about visits to a jazz festival held in Port Townsend. A substantial part of his book is devoted to interviews with musicians – you may not be familiar with some of them, like pianist Satoko Fujii (13 pages), and saxophonist Bill Ramsay (16 pages). There are interviews with several others, many of them only a page or so long. One of the best essays in the book, five pages long, is also one of the shortest. It’s an attractive tribute to Louis, grandiosely titled “Pops And Me” (I don’t think the two ever met), where Smith writes refreshingly about the trumpeter – not something easily done when everyone else in the world has already had a go at it.

Smith appears a lot in his book because much of it is personal memoir. The writing is usually good but there are some imperfections. One doesn’t expect interviews to be published as raw question-and-answer lists as they are here. With Smith it is his normal routine. Normally material from the interviewee would be embodied in text written by the author to embellish it.

Barney Kessel is the most eminent jazz musician that Mr Smith got to talk to, in 1988 (a lot of Mr Smith’s interviews have lain unpublished for a long time). Mr Smith is disarmingly honest: “Being a novice interviewer… Kessel strutted his stuff as a true talker, spinning my weak questions into extended monologues…” The conversation is confined to Kessel’s teaching activities and so there isn’t much about his jazz playing. Smith’s final question was “What about the instrument that you play?” Kessel replied: “Well, I can’t go into it what it (sic) is because the company I bought it from doesn’t pay me to endorse their (sic) product…” Mr Smith sometimes seems not to know what to leave out.

In his pot-pourri the three interviews that stand out are with Bill Crow, the late Dave Frishberg and Chuck Israels. Frishberg spent a year as accompanist to Carmen McRae. “Not easy to work for?” is Smith’s only question. “No, she wasn’t easy to work for, but it was a rewarding experience.” The reader might wish for more. On the other hand, there’s a come-uppance here for Eddie Condon. Frishberg worked in Condon’s club at an undistinguished period of its existence.

“On week-ends Condon himself would play, so I got to play with him too. But that was at the very end of his career and he wasn’t much interested in playing. He got beat up real bad. I never wanted to know what was going on, but I think he got into trouble. You know he was a mouthy guy, and probably talked wise to one of these people that ran his club, and they took it out on him as only they could, and he was out of commission for quite a while.” Remembering Eddie’s fragility when he was over here, it surprises me that he survived this very sad incident.

“I got to play with Wild Bill quite a lot. I always felt that Wild Bill was Ruby Braff minus Ruby’s kind of fussy persona,” Frishberg told Smith. “I mean Wild Bill got so many sounds out of his trumpet, and of course, his playing was so passionate, and he was such a hard swinger, lead player.” And that’s all there is on Condon and his cornetist soul brother.

Mr Smith did abandon the question-and-answer routine for his piece on Red Rodney, perhaps because in it, to my surprise, he used quite a lot of text from my obituary column in The Independent

Chuck Israels was noted for his time with the Bill Evans trio, where he replaced the late Scott LaFaro. He worked near Smith’s home for a time, and Smith was able to accumulate 14,000 words interviewing him. The extracts he publishes here confirm Israels as eloquent and with plenty of jazz experience.

Of Israels’ time with Evans: “It’s funny that you can work with someone for six years and in a way not get to know him… We didn’t talk; we played music together.

“Bill’s music was organised, and you just jumped on that train. All of it was unspoken. We never talked. Actually, it’s highly arranged music… Bill’s conception of how the piece goes is pretty strong, and he comes in with that conception and you fit your part into it… He would write out little chord sheets for me, so I had a little road map to go on – that was all I ever got from him.” Israels joined Evans’ trio in 1961, finally leaving in 1966.

Stan Getz came next for Israels: “Working with Stan was less fun because of who Stan was as a person, but his music was beautiful. You have to survive to keep a job, so you let yourself be insulted and hurt and come back to work and go back to work again. Some people fight back. I didn’t have the sense of confidence to do that, for whatever reason. Gary (Burton) didn’t either. Gary got reamed by Stan. And then I left, but Gary stayed because he needed it more than I did at that point, for whatever reason.”

And on Mingus: “Mingus was always in there eating, and he would shush people during my bass solo and get up and take the bass away from me and play four measures and hand it back – I mean he played fours with me on the same bass. And you got out of the way because he was a big bully of a guy…”

More excerpts come from an accumulation (the whole published in Cadence magazine) of Smith’s interview with Buddy Catlett, known best for being the bassist in the classic Quincy Jones band and as the last incumbent on that instrument with the Armstrong All Stars (for seven years) as well as putting in five years with Count Basie.

Talking Jazz is a hefty paperback, but its binding seems to be quite robust.

Talking Jazz by Randy L Smith. Independently published, 400pp with 50 b&w illustrations & index, sb, £14.95 (UK) & $19.95 (US). ISBN 9798422243556. Available at amazon.co.uk, and amazon.com.

Randy Smith wrote a reply to Steve Voce’s review added here 12 July 2022:

Concerning Steve Voce’s review of my book, Talking Jazz, I’d first like to thank Mr. Voce for taking the time to do it. That a critic and writer of his stature would agree to look at my book is gratifying. Further, that Steve found the writing “usually good” and my piece on Louis Armstrong “refreshingly” written is praise I am humbled to accept. Finally, his criticisms of my book’s “imperfections” are, I believe, fair.

Of course, a reviewer cannot comment on every aspect of a work, but some of what Steve says may give an incomplete picture of my book.

A few examples:

Steve says I interview unknown musicians such as Bill Ramsay, which is true. However, he says nothing of Ramsay’s anecdotes from his experiences of working with people everybody knows: Benny Goodman, Billy Eckstine, Elvis Presley, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie (and others).

Steve also suggests that I quoted too much from his obituary of Red Rodney in my piece on the trumpeter. Fair criticism. But what I quoted of Voce amounts to about one and a half pages of text in a 20-page article. Perhaps also worthy of mention is that I tracked down two former Red Rodney band members – Garry Dial and Dick Oatts – both of whom provided fresh perspective on this important bebop legend.

Likewise, Steve’s observation that I include straight Q&A interviews is true. (I’m hardly the first writer to use this format.) Why, then, no mention of the dozen or more essays with commentary?

A case in point is my long piece on Gale Madden, not mentioned. Some will argue Madden deserves anonymity. Fair, but consider what my research turned up. First, I offer evidence – corroborated by multiple sources – that Madden had recruited the rhythm section for the original Mulligan-Baker Quartet, and that she gave Mulligan the idea to go without a piano, or encouraged him in that direction. I quote Mulligan himself naming Madden as an important influence on his conception of music and rhythm.

Voce also says I include one-page interviews, but not that those shorts are contained in one section called “Fours!” They are part of my organisational conceit for the entire book that is structured as a jazz performance. He also might have noted the “Fours” are given over to guest writers.

Steve offers praise for three of my interviews, and includes quotes. But if he wanted to quote something on Charles Mingus, why choose the Chuck Israels interview over Bob Hammer? Chuck knew Mingus only in passing while Hammer, as the volatile bassist’s musical director during his most productive period, worked closely with him for years. I should think readers might find Hammer’s eyewitness account of the disastrous October 1962 Town Hall concert of greater interest than the anecdote he quotes from Israels. Hammer explained to me how Mingus had him sitting just off stage, frantically writing music as the concert was in progress! Yet Hammer is not even mentioned.

Also, nothing about the 50 plus B&W images, including original shots of Bud Shank, Red Rodney, Barney Kessel, Lee Konitz, Ray Brown, Conte Candoli, Bill Perkins, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Bobby Shew, George Cables, Emily Remler (barefoot on stage), and many others.

Finally, no word about the geographical organising scheme, nor of my extensive Japan section that some readers might find of interest.

Overall, I find Steve’s review fair, though I believe the omissions catalogued here to be of some, perhaps modest, significance to our understanding of this marvellous music we all love.

And to Steve, I’d like to say: “Mr. Voce, I quote only the very best!”

Randy L. Smith