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

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

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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is the most eminent jazz musician that Mr Smith got to talk to, in 1988 (a lot of Mr Smith’s interviews have lain unpublished for a long time).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.