Sunday, September 16, 2007

‘Talking Jazz: An Oral History’

[NOTE: The following article, written by Lee Ballinger, is from the September edition of Rock & Rap Confidential, the free digital newsletter created by Dave Marsh. You can subscribe to Rock & Rap Confidential by sending your email address to rockrap(at)]

TALKING BOOK... Ben Sidran was once the keyboard player in a band with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs. He played on sessions with Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. But his true passion was jazz, which led him to write the 1967 book“Black Talk: How the Music of Black America Created a Radical Alternative to the Values of Western Literary Tradition.”

Now there is, in a sense, a sequel: “Talking Jazz: An Oral History” (Unlimited Media). This is sixty interviews from Sidran’s mid-1980s NPR show, spread over 24 CDs. Sidran’s subjects range from Miles Davis to Grover Washington, Betty Carter to George Benson, Dr. John to McCoy Tyner.

Collectively, these interviews serve to take stock of the growth and consolidation of jazz as a world-shaking art form, as they were done at a time when the peak of jazz was still in the rearview mirror.

As I spent several days immersed in this collection, the first thing that struck me was how unique and striking each voice was – if someone listened to these interviews who had never heard jazz they would start downloading it immediately to find out more about these extraordinary people.

On the other hand, these artists had much in common – a love of life, a sense of humor and of history, a passion for music and other musicians, a burning desire to get better at what they do. Sidran shares these qualities and each morning I couldn’t wait to enter the world his conversations revealed.

These are ten of my favorite moments, in no particular order:

Sonny Rollins describing how sax men used to battle each other (battles which find their parallel today in the faceoffs between rappers). Rollins also gave a fascinating description of how circular breathing is done.

Dr. John at the piano giving a musical description of the history of New Orleans music.

Tony Williams playing drums for about a minute, revealing a whole new way to hear rhythm.

Gil Evans on how his never-locked mid-Manhattan apartment became a laboratory which helped to shape the development of bebop (also Evan’s answer to the question of why he was absent from 1949 to 1957: “I was waiting for Miles”).

Miles Davis on the limits of formal training and how he often wanted to send his over-playing sidemen to “Notes Anonymous.”

Dizzy Gillespie returning over and over to the theme of using music to promote world peace.

Drummer Steve Gadd on how he got his start as a tap dancer.

Art Blakey on forging a band through love.

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen’s love for jazz, which served as a reminder that there was a time when the love of jazz by many rock musicians, from Roger McGuinn to the Allman Brothers to Jimi Hendrix, brought jazz and rock onto common ground rather than holding them apart, as many jazz musicians do today.

Marcus Miller on how he overcame his indifference to samba by watching the dancers. – L.B.


Ross said...

Great post

DeAngelo Starnes said...

I will be buying that cd collection. I love to listen to jazz musicians get interviewed. I find jazz musicians to be very intelligent people who are able to express their sense of the art and history in a humorous manner. But also because I find the interviewers to be very intelligent and aware. It's not the usual dog-and-pony show that you see or hear from the other formats.

What I would like is for VH1's Classic Albums to stretch into some jazz albums. A good first one that the rock audience might admire is Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. Hit it before the rest of the musicians die.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ I'm with you, DeAngelo. I could listen all day to jazz musicians tell stories. I'm particularly interested in the social contexts in which jazz was made.

Matter of fact, I found this article after spending the weekend checking out the 8-CD Jelly Roll Morton box set, which includes lots of interview material from the Library of Congress archives. I'll be posting a little of that soon.

Bryan Wilhite said...

Jass is as close to telepathy as "we" have gotten...

UBM! Dig: there is a shot of Dizzie G. in Ken Burns' "Jazz" standing at chalkboard TEACHING. Why don't "we" lament over not capturing the TEACHINGS of these greats?

Kudos to Ben Sidran!