The Independent Ear

Why NJF & MJF remain THE jazz festivals

I’ve been fortunate to make scores of what, to paraphrase sports parlance, I consider scouting trips to jazz festivals large and small ever since the early 1970s; always an important part of my own professional development – as a media person, an arts administrator, and an arts presenter. And of course, there’s big fun to be had at jazz festivals large and small. It was in ’74 that I embarked on what became annual treks to the George Wein-produced summer festivals in New York. Depending upon underwriting sponsorship those festivals fell under the names Newport New York, Kool, and JVC Jazz Festival.

The reason Wein’s Festival Productions team decamped in NYC in the first place was a result of controversial jazz festival intrigue. His Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival operation had been – what turned out to be temporarily – suspended by town gentry outraged at the actions of an unruly crowd. This was at a time when Wein was broadening the scope of NJF by seasoning his lineup with assorted rock and crossover acts of the day, something that has become common practice of even the highest profile jazz festivals. In short, some audience members drawn to the tony burgh located on the south end of Aquidneck Island on the shore of the Narragansett Bay apparently arrived expecting free admission and subsequently stormed the barricades in protest. So in the mid-70s Festival Productions built those major NYC festivals in the stylistic image of Newport, at venues ranging from Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Town Hall, to assorted clubs and university auditoriums.

Fast forward to the mid-90s when my 18-year tenure as artistic director of Cleveland’s Tri-C JazzFest commenced (which was augmented for a hot minute in the aughts by a couple of years artistic directing Boston’s Berklee-run Beantown Jazz Festival, an an advisory role in the development of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival). Currently three years in as artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival, jazz festivals large & small have been a passion for over 40 years, including more festivals than I care to recount here, both domestic and foreign. Visiting jazz festivals has been both immensely pleasurable and highly instructive, to the point where trips to the two grandaddies – the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals – have become as mandatory as budget will allow. This year was no exception as we had another round of splendid and very instructive visits – actually they’ve become pilgrimages – to both.

The Newport Jazz Festival audience enjoying a brilliant, deeply heartfelt tribute to Geri Allen

The scene at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival Garden Stage

The Newport Jazz Festival (presented by Natixis Global Asset Management), which about a decade ago expanded its staging from the traditional big stage abutting Fort Adams and facing the idyllic bay, to add a courtyard stage and a harbor stage, is now artistic directed by one of the busiest men in jazz, bassist Christian McBride. The Newport lineup this year certainly reflected McBride’s Philly pride, from his own soulful big band to his occasional Philadelphia Experiment trio with Philadelphians drummer Questlove (McBride’s high school classmate) and keyboardist Uri Caine and guest DJ Logic, to the Benny Golson Quartet, to pianist Orrin Evans playing solo and as part of trumpeter Sean Jones band, to the Roots closing out late Sunday afternoon.

McBride and festival producer Danny Melnick laid out a tasty menu that also included in addition to the Roots, the crossover presence of Afro-Americana vocalist-banjoist Rhiannon Giddens, funk master Maceo Parker, and Jason Moran‘s Fats Waller Dance Party. The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s sumptuous harmonic universe played the main stage, while Cyrus Chestnut‘s ever-swinging trio, and a quartet of trumpeters gave a virtual state of the instrument on the harbor stage, including Sean Jones, Michael Rodriguez (co-leading with his brother pianist Robert), Theo Croker, and Cleveland’s own Dominick Farinacci. Sean (from Warren, OH) and Dominick are always points of pride as both participated in Tri-C JazzFest from their grade school days onward.

Branford Marsalis’ exceptional quartet played a robust set at Newport

The outer edges of the music were well-represented at NJF by Henry Threadgill‘s Zoid, pianist Marilyn Crispell, the Wadada Leo Smith/Vijay Iyer duo, and composer Amir ElSaffar‘s Rivers of Sound Orchestra. Branford Marsalis highlighted the wisdom of keeping a stable quartet (Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis, Justin Faulkner), Cecile McLorin Salvant continued building her rather quirky book with ancient songs of politically incorrect origin (like the Mad Men era “Wives & Lovers”), and the super quartet Hudson (Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski, Larry Grenadier) provided gourmet jam band food for the ears. A major highlight came in tribute to the sad recent passing of pianist Geri Allen. With Allen previously scheduled to join Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding to reprise their marvelous trio, instead TLC and Espe delivered a gorgeous, loving tribute to their partner with rotating pianists Christian Sands, Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer playing Geri’s compositions.

Young pianist Gerald Clayton joined his dad John and drummer Jeff Hamilton as MJF Artists-in-Residence

Difficult topping those Newport proceedings, right? Along came mid-September and the 60th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, which more than lived up to its superb tradition. The Monterey County Fairgrounds welcomed nearly 40,000 patrons to its main (Arena) stage and five grounds stages this year. Delights of the garden were plentiful, from three performances by Showcase Artist violinist Regina Carter (including her Ella Fitzgerald and Southern Comfort projects), to John Clayton‘s commissioned piece celebrating MJF’s 60th through the broad canvas of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. For that occasion Clayton was joined by son Gerald Clayton on piano, brother Jeff Clayton‘s tuneful alto saxophone, and partner Jeff Hamilton on drums stoking the fires. One artist common to both Newport and Monterey was Tony Award winning vocalist Leslie Odom, Jr. from Hamilton, who made scores of new friends with his gracious, sunny performances that included a Nat Cole medley. Another was Vijay Iyer, this time with his bristling sextet onstage at Dizzy’s Den to close out Sunday evening.

MJF Showcase Artist Regina Carter honoring Ella Fitzgerald on the Jimmy Lyons Stage

In the run up to MJF 60 I asked John Clayton about his 60th anniversary commemorative commission and his overall impressions of the festival. “There is a shortlist of components to the festival and my attachment to the festival informed my composition. The fact that this is their 60th anniversary, my interaction as an artist in the festival for so many years, the village/community vibe that permeates the festival grounds, and a general love of the area, all guided my composition.” Asked what makes the Monterey Jazz Festival such a unique experience, Clayton said “The down-to-earth quality is unique. It is one of the most un-stuffy festival environments one can find. People dress comfortably, eat with each other at picnic tables, shop in the open stalls… it’s not a jazz festival atmosphere that you can easily find. Actually Monterey Jazz Festival is one of a kind.”

Saturday evening on the Arena’s Jimmy Lyons Stage (named for the MJF founder) delivered a masterful tenor sax summit, with Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Joshua Redman honoring Sonny Rollins in royal fashion. Crossover delights came via rapper Common, who since his DC Jazz Festival appearance in 2016 has found a new home and creative environment on jazz festival stages, improvising his lyrical content to reflect the setting and giving ample space to the jazz-friendly soloists in his band, including one-to-watch flutist Eleana Pinderhughes. James Carter once again displayed his outrageous mastery of every saxophone nuance Adolph Sax could have ever dreamt up, Sean Jones made Roy Hargrove work hard for the money as guests on Kenny Barron‘s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie’s centennial, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen joined saxophonist Tia Fuller‘s hard driving quartet, bassist Linda May Han Oh (who had earlier collaborated with Fuller, Jensen, and Tia’s sister pianist Shamie Royston, DC Jazz Festival director Sunny Sumter, and moderator Suzan Jenkins for a Women in Jazz Panel that had the esteemed Angela Davis (a MJF regular) taking notes in the back of the room, delighted the Garden Stage with her quintet, and Angelique Kidjo joined Pedrito Martinez for a delightfully successful partnership of Afro salsa.

Four great tenors playing homage to Sonny Rollins

As has become MJF tradition, several first rate Bay Area bands delivered on Monterey stages, as did a nice slate of emerging units, including Monsieur Perine, Ranky Tanky, Con Brio, and assorted student ensembles. Sixty+ years into their respective illustrious runs, the Newport Jazz Festival and Monterey Jazz Festival proved once again why they represent the state of the jazz festival tradition.

What a treat it was to interview Dee Dee Bridgewater and Leslie Odom, Jr. in the Blue Note at Sea Tent on the subject of transitioning from a Broadway show to the jazz concert stage

Panelists for the Women in Jazz discussion L to R: Linda May Han Oh, Shamie Royston, Sunny Sumter, moderator Suzan Jenkins, Ingrid Jensen, and Tia Fuller. When Suzan introduced the great activist-professor Angela Davis in the audience, afterwards Angela came up and said she didn’t know she was gonna be called out, she was back there taking notes!

One of the MJF highlights came when Sean Jones and Roy Hargrove joined Kenny Barron for the finale in Kenny’s centennial tribute to Dizzy Gillespie.


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Robert Fleming’s guide to roots reggae

NYC-based writer Robert Fleming has been a good friend for many years, dating back to our Cleveland days in the 1970s. We spent many moons in his 3rd floor flat on 143rd Street on the city’s east side cogitating on the latest record releases. Included in our collaborative experience was a quite memorable 1975 interview we did with Miles Davis at the old Eastwood Motel in the midst of Miles’ weeklong stint at the late and now-legendary Smiling Dog Saloon, a time when Miles was sporting a raucously murky 3-guitar band (Pete Cosey Reggie Lucas, and Dominique Gaumont). The latest entry in Fleming’s growing bibliography is the new book Rasta, Babylon, Jamming (The Music and Culture of Roots Reggae), about which we had some questions for good brother Fleming.

Independent Ear: I recall rather vividly one of those nights spent at your place after you had your first interview with Bob Marley. Was that encounter one of the seeds of inspiration for this book?
RF: As a I write in my introduction, I was introduced to the musical concepts of roots reggae through the words of Jimmy Cliff in the early 1970s. It was during my time at Scene Magazine. He was very candid with a clear vision of the politics and culture of the music. Cliff knew black music and the plight of American blacks during the age of Nixon. I enjoyed our talk.

Herb, dreads, and all things Jah notwithstanding, Bob Marley’s interview came later as I was really immersed in reggae. He spoke openly between spliffs about the need for global healing and the political chaos going in Jamaica. Some of the talk didn’t make it to the tape. I had no idea how sick he was at the time. Also, this bookis a tribute to my sea-faring grandfather, Will, who lived there in Jamaica before settling in Mississippi.

Inevitably when one makes the list choices this book offers its readers, including “Pivotal Reggae Pioneers,” “16 Essential Reggae Films,” and “Vintage and Modern Reggae Album Collection,” there will be either naysayers or those who decry perceived omissions or question certain choices you’ve made. How would you, or how are you prepared to respond to such criticisms?
I made those choices due to production costs and editorial restrictions. Nobody can say that I didn’t touch on the key
cultural, political, and musical themes of roots reggae. Garvey’s proud teachings, the influence of Selassie’s courage, Seaga vs. Manley and the CIA’s cunning reach. The omissions were deliberate because I didn’t want the text to be overly academic or long-winded. I’m prepared for criticism. This is a primer of the music. This is a survey of the Jamaican music of the 1970s. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the same way some of those perhaps less thoroughly immersed in the contemporary jazz scene might lament that “…ain’t been nothing new in jazz since (Pops, Bird, Coltrane, Miles, Ornette… pick and era”), as someone less thoroughly immersed in reggae who feels that contemporary reggae just doesn’t stand up to the music that Bob Marley and his generation made, how would you respond in your defense of the contemporary reggae scene, or are you of that “ain’t nothing happening since Bob…” mindset?
Roots reggae is when Jamaica found its musical identity. I wanted to reinforce the importance of this period as a golden age in this book. Before this historic period, all that existed there were the producers of Kingston’s
famed “Beat Street,” who only imported American R&B songs. Then something changed and more musicians embraced the spirituality and race pride of the Rastafarian faith. It truly translated into the music and culture of Jamaica.

The music of Marley, Toots, Steel Pulse, U-Roy, Peter Tosh, I-Threes,
Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru – set the standard. It raised the bar like Bird, Dizzy, and Miles did with Bop. Or Ornette. Or Trane. All of the ingredients were there. There were pivotal moments, and and some of what followed paled by comparison. But never fear. There are some strong performers there now.

What would you say is the current state of contemporary reggae music?
Jamaican music is going through growing pains again. It’s on the brink of banning dancehall music. The media is full of Fiyah Roiall, the prince of conscious hip-hop rap and young stars such as Vyby Kartel, Movado, Gaza Slim, Gyptian, Aidonia, Denyque, and Chronixx. Supposedly Yashae, the new pop queen, will someday rival Queen Bey (Beyonce). Folks are singing the recent creation of young Alex Morissey, the world’s first virtual turntable, Virtual Disc Jockey. It’s where you can log on and create music mixes. Tech rules!

Given a choice of one reggae album to place in a time capsule, what would you recommend?
It’s a tie! I would recommend two albums: “Exodus” by Bob Marley and the Wailers and “Entitlement” by Ijahman.

Here are some additional titles by Robert Fleming:

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Woody III: Preserving the Legacy

Besides being a truly great trumpet player, composer and bandleader – and one that too many folks sleep on from the historical lineage of the music – Woody Shaw was a very important figure in my earliest stages of concert presentation and production. That work began back in the late 1970s/early 1980s as president of the former Northeast Ohio Jazz Society.

During that period the late Bruce Lundvall took advantage of what was apparently some unusually broad corporate latitude to sign and subsequently record several of the most vital musicians on the scene, including NEA Jazz Masters Dexter Gordon and Bobby Hutcherson, and such other singular masters as the late alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe and trumpeter Woody Shaw. When Dexter Gordon made his triumphant return to the U.S. after years in European self-exile, he arrived full force at the Village Vanguard in a highly touted week that found him riding majestically on the wings of a deeply complimentary band that had been the working unit of Woody Shaw, which certainly eased Dexter’s way back on the U.S. scene in superb fashion. I contacted Maxine Gordon, who at the time was representing both Dexter and Woody, and what quickly followed were very successful performances by both on separate dates at Cuyahoga Community College Metro Auditorium as part of NOJS burgeoning concert series.

I had first become familiar with Woody’s recorded work a few years prior when my brother George hipped me to his extraordinary 2-LP set Blackstone Legacy and was immediately hooked by his surging, questing sound and singular approach to trumpet expression. Years later we commemorated Woody Shaw’s rich legacy in concert at Tribeca Performing Arts Center as part of our annual Lost Jazz Shrines concert series. It was then that I first came in contact with the very earnest son of Woody Shaw, Woody Shaw III (, who as an infant and a young boy had appeared on two of Woody’s subsequent album covers for Columbia. Fact is Woody Shaw was our last great and true trumpet stylist.

Since his father’s passing Woody III has been busy with his father’s legacy, which recently has included plans to produce a Woody Shaw documentary. Clearly some questions were in order for Woody Shaw III.

IE: You’ve come a long way from that WoodyIII album cover photo with your Dad and Grandad. Talk about your evolution in terms of your education and more recently your Harvard fellowship.
Woody Shaw III: Well, my educational background was in many ways shaped by a decision I made as a younger man, which was to acquire all of the tools necessary to interpret, organize, preserve and curate the legacies of my musical forefathers well into the future. And when I say my musical forefathers, I mean both my biological father Woody Shaw (1944-1989) and my step-father, Dexter Gordon (1923-1990).

Having grown up at the nexus of the artistic and the managerial domains of the jazz world [Woody lll’s mom the historian-educator Maxine Gordon managed both Woody and Dexter], it became apparent as I reached my early twenties that my future would require me to administer these legacies on a professional level, as well as to protect them from any foreseeably egregious forms of legal or economic exploitation, indefinitely. As a result, I wound up getting my B.A. in Ethnomusicology in 2001, my B.F.A. in Jazz Studies in 2004, I did a year of graduate work as an Associate Instructor under David N. Baker (a true pioneer in jazz education) in 2006-2007, and then went on to Columbia University where I received by Master’s in Arts Administration, focusing on intellectual properly law and business.

In 2014 I was awarded a Hutchins Fellowship from the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University to consolidate the research on my father’s music and life that I had been compiling since the age of 21 (I am 38 now), to complete a book, produce a documentary film, and to launch The Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts. In essence this is a series of projects intended to preserve and present my father’s life story as embodied by the multifarious articles (both tangible and intangible) of his vast body of work, his artistic outlook, and his unique musical philosophy.

When and why did you establish the Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts and what is your mission?
The Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts is a vision that was birthed through the process of realizing the true depth and magnitude of the contributions of artists like Woody Shaw, who spent each and every day of their lives assimilating the subtle cultural nuances and influences of the world into their art. The full mission can be read at, but in short, it is to preserve, present, and build upon the aesthetic as well as the symbolic and the social, within Woody Shaw’s worlds of creative thought.

The purpose is bi-drectional, in the sense that I am aware of the need to both preserve and nourish the history, so to speak, but also to keep reinventing, questioning, reexamining, and reimagining the propositions of my father’s art through the introduction and exploration of new interdisciplinary forms and relationships, sometimes cross-cultural, sometimes trans-idiomatic, which speaks to the “global” scope of this endeavor. What I am not interested in is trying to replicate or imitate, and do not think my father had much patience for that either. He was a constant researcher, student, and explorer when it came to music, to sound, symbolism, message, meaning and the organization of his ideas.

My mission is to present a model that serves as an alternative to our conventional institutional and educational formats; that treat the arts and humanities through the often blurred lens of social science, or that entrap the biographical narratives and obfuscate the brilliance of deceased artists to forgone conclusions of tragedy for the sake of sensationalism, or to some clumsily misaligned political or social ideology. I think many of the institutions that have appropriated the world “jazz” have rendered the word almost entirely devoid of meaning by completely overlooking the tremendous sacrifices undergone and pains suffered by the countless human beings who gave so much of themselves, and who were so committed to expressing their unique forms of intelligence and individuality, literally at all costs. I think it’s time to start shining a much brighter light on the humanity of the many long lost and forgotten originators who paved the way for what today gets called “jazz,” with so little if any soul or respect for the history behind that word, which it seems any and everyone can just appropriate, redefine, or oversimplify for their own personal or professional benefit.

There is a suggestion, at least in the complete name of the Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts that your goals for its establishment go beyond the jazz music your father embraced and mastered. Talk about what appears to be your broader perspectives on the development of the Institute.
The institute will draw from Woody Shaw’s body of work not as a rhetorical or cultural cliche of jazz’s “greatness,” or as evidence of its own ingenuity alone, but as part of a starting point to inspire perhaps new or newly-inspired trajectories of thinking, hearing, listening, and creating art, including but not limited to music. I am interested in interdisciplinary and complementarity when it comes to the arts and artistic re-interpretation. Given the broad range of creative and cultural influences that Woody drew from, I have no doubt that he would have wanted his music to inspire and be applied within many other domains of creative self-expression than what the jazz CEOs and professors of the world call “jazz.”

When it comes to the essence of what this thing once was, if Woody Shaw is to be regarded as one of the “last major innovators,” which we know he was, then his music alone should have enough to teach us about what jazz actually is, not to mention where it comes from, and where it can still go. We don’t need to try to play “Woody’s greatest hits” or to run his arrangements into the ground at a much lower level of artistic ingenuity and quality than what he already originated in order to convince ourselves that we are doing justice to the “jazz” agenda. His music speaks for itself, as well as for the music’s entire history. He made certain of that, and both his predecessors and successors loudly attested to that fact.

I am of the belief that there is no sense in calling something by its name, especially if I already know what it is. However, I think many people would agree that the name Woody Shaw and the word “jazz” in its most indigenous sensibility, are fairly synonymous. But at the same time, Woody Shaw strove to transcend any cliches or limitations that were placed on his music or on his artistic identity. That was something he had to fight against throughout his entire life and career, and it is precisely because of his willingness to endure that artistic plight that many people have been able to legitimize themselves as “jazz musicians.” It is because of those sacrifices to be an individual artist at all costs that certain people have been able to validate themselves and their musical ideology without taking half as many risks or paying a fraction of the price to be truly great. So basically, while the essence of our music and where it comes from will always be present, the plight of evading contrivances and defining ourselves on our own creative terms continues.

More recently you’ve launched a campaign to fund a Woody Shaw documentary. Where are you with that project and how might folks continue to assist those efforts?
The campaign has gone very well. I’m not able to disclose numbers at this time, but the project received some very generous support and was backed by some generous and well-respected individuals in the community such as Steve Coleman, Jason Moran (both Associate Producers of the project), Brian Lynch and others.

I have been very inspired to receive constant offers from up and coming filmmakers and film crews who are eager to be part of this project. So I’m currently recruiting, conducting interviews, raising some additional funding, and expect to complete a rough cut by spring 2018.

I was honored that the project, titled Woody Shaw: Beyond All Limits…, was recently chosen as an official selection for the Works-in-Progress (WiP) program at Cucalorus FIlm Festival in Wilmington, NC (Nov. 8-12, 2017). I’m feeling pretty inspired by that, and look forward to a few more developments by the end of the year as well. Read more about the program at
To support the documentary project, visit

Woody’s recorded legacy has lately been enhanced by several posthumous, previously unavailable releases. Are there other previously unreleased Woody Shaw recordings in your pipeline?
Well, The Tour (Vol. 2) with Woody Shaw and Louis Hayes is due out on August 25, 2017. I produced and wrote notes for this series. The CD is on HighNote Records, formerly Muse Records. As you probably know, we recently lost a very important figure in the jazz world, Joe Fields, who originally signed my father to Muse in 1974 and recorded Woody all the way until he signed with Columbia Records in 1977. That Muse period is a very historic era in jazz, marked by so many great recordings by Woody Shaw and his contemporaries. The sound of that era lives in those recordings and so much can be learned, felt, and remembered about where this country was at that time. I will do what I can to make sure that music continues to be heard and re- released.

As far as other previously unreleased material goes, well, I think you know the answer to that… Yeah, there are plans.

Beyond where you’ve ventured with the project thus far, what would you like to be remembered as the impact Woody Shaw made on the music?
Woody Shaw’s impact is only now being realized for its importance, really. The inherent musical complexity, the creativity and philosophical depth of what Woody put into his art and what he expressed is, quite frankly — epic. And he meant for it to be. It captures precisely what he was encountering as a human being; as a Black man, a creative artist, and as a deeply thoughtful and proud musician concerned with the state of affairs in the world and equally committed to improving his environment, and the human condition, through his art.

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Meet the Artist: NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny

As part of DC Jazz Festival’s ongoing series of Meet the Artist interview sessions, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with newly minted class of 2018 NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny. This interview was conducted at the Abramson Family Auditorium of NYU in DC on Monday, June 12, 2017. That evening at his DCJF concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to the audience’s delight and surprise, Pat Metheny was introduced by Ann Meier Baker of the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the 2018 class of NEA Jazz Masters. Although Pat had been notified in advance as part of the NEA’s process. he was clearly humbled by the experience of being introduced to our DCJF audience as a NEAJM. Obviously he was inspired because what ensued was a blistering performance just short of 3-hours with his latest quartet: drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and keyboardist Gwilym Simcock, about whom he speaks glowingly in our interview:

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Conversing with Charlie Haden

California-based veteran jazz writer Josef Woodard has contributed his prose to a prodigious list of periodicals, including the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and the usual suspects… DownBeat, JazzTimes, and Jazziz. His current book, released last January, is the very revealing volume “Conversations With Charlie Haden“. One of the most complex, fearlessly and passionately human rights-astute of all jazzmen, the late NEA Jazz Master bassist-bandleader-composer was more than a little candid in his various conversations with Woodard, which span a considerable segment of Haden’s autumnal life in Los Angeles. The book was such a rewarding read we sought out Joe Woodard for some insights into his many encounters with Charlie Haden.

IE: When did you first become interested in learning more about Charlie Haden?
JW: Although my first interview and years-long relationship with Charlie didn’t begin until 1987, I realize that his sound has had a strong impact on me going back to my early days as a young teenager, discovering the power and breadth of jazz and other related musics. His unique voice and presence on those early records by Ornette Coleman, and on the “American quartet” records by Keith Jarrett in the ‘70s grabbed my ear, and not always in an obvious way. His sense of time, his folk-like directness and blend of freedom and solidity had a strong stamp on what he touched, and spoke to my own sensibilities as a music-lover and also a musician.

As I delved deeper into the music, and became a nerdy student of liner notes, album credits, avid concert-going, and family trees of who-played-with-whom-and-when… and why, I grew to have greater respect for Charlie and his distinctive place on the jazz—and indeed, musical–landscape.


IE: What was your interview experience with Charlie?
JW: I first encountered Charlie when I was a young-ish music journalist, in my late 20s, and when he was settling more deeply into life in Los Angeles, where he had moved back to be close to his children and to tend to his job as the founder of the CalArts jazz program. I had been writing for music magazines since the early ‘80s, and was just starting to focus more on specifically jazz magazines, pursuing my passion for that world.

I interviewed Charlie at the old At My Place in Santa Monica, where he was launching his new band Quartet West—which would fare well for him for over a quarter century. I was there to write a cover story on him for JazzTimes, my first story for that magazine. We immediately hit it off, I felt. Sometimes, an interviewee keeps a certain distance in an interview situation, which is understandable, but he was very warm to me from the outset—I think especially when he discovered what a long and deep fan I was of his work. I do remember a bit of tension when I expressed my surprise this new band would be a “straighter” endeavor than what I was used to from him, but that also became a point of reference in what was really a transition moment in his career.

After that point, around the age of 50, Charlie’s life as an artist who took charge of his own steady flow of interesting new projects, many under his name or creative guidance, really took off. And, partly because I was a member of the thinly-populated ranks of jazz journalists who actually live in Southern California, I was there to talk with him about many or most of these projects for the next twenty years. I think it was clear to him that I was particularly thrilled and plugged-in to his life with his greatest band, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and also plying him with yet more questions about Ornette, the man, the myth, the musical visionary. Charlie was happy to oblige.

IE: As opposed to the usual book of interviews, the title of this book is certainly an accurate reflection of its tone; over time these are indeed more conversations than interviews. Does that reflect an evolution of your relationship with Charlie, or was it pretty much always that way?
JW: This was my second book for Silman-James Press (well, third, after a book on the Montgomery Brothers, which is still on the shelf, but hopefully will see the light of day at some point). After the arduous process of writing my book on Charles Lloyd, which took seven years, I couldn’t really see going that exhaustive route again with Charlie Haden. As I went through my trove of interviews with him, and discovered more lurking on hard drives and in piles of interview tapes (cassette mode), I realized that our interviews really did have a more conversational quality than many of the interviews I’d done, borne of the easy rapport we had.

After discussing it with my editor, I decided to go for the “Conversations with Charlie Haden” approach and title, and keep the book in a fairly straight, chronological and academic format, with my own introduction and minimal intrusions on the back and forth between us. To my surprise, I thought the format worked nicely, and Charlie managed to cover the spread of his amazing, meandering and mercurial life over the course of those interviews/conversations.

IE: One year I had Charlie do a residency at the Tri-C JazzFest (Cleveland) where he played two concerts: Quartet West with Joe Lovano subbing for Ernie Watts, and a Liberation Music Orchestra concert with an exceptional group of Cleveland musicians under the direction of the saxophonist-educator Howie Smith; Charlie was extremely delighted with both evenings, particularly with how the musicians played his Liberation Music Orchestra selections. My wife still recalls times when Charlie called the house looking for me, she’d answer and hear “hey man, this is Charlie, is Willard there?” I’d imagine you were the recipient of such calls considering your many conversations. What were some of your more memorable personal moments with Charlie and Charlie Haden stories?

JW: I know exactly what you’re talking about, concerning Charlie’s social ease and flow. He lacked pretension and was happy to converse on matters of music, politics, the news of the day, or the history of his musical life going back to when he was a two-year old radio star, singing on his family’s influential Midwestern radio show. I think he would avoid idle chatter, but was happy to befriend true music fans and musicians far and wide—and from many cultures.

Personally, he would call up, outside of our official interview sessions, and want to share some new news, or ask if I had any pull with NARAS (he was fairly obsessed with the Grammy Awards, seeking to be represented for his work, especially once he started his Haden-led career chapter in earnest). I think he liked the fact that I was also born in Iowa (though have lived in Santa Barbara, California since I was one) and that I was a musician with a record label and was always working on some musical project or another.

“Hey, man,” he said more than once, “how’s your band Headless Horseman?” I kept correcting him: “thanks for asking. Actually, it’s called Headless Household.” And he’d say “oh, man. That reminds me: people always call my album Haunted Heart Haunted House,” with that classic, Haden-esque belly laugh.

I highlighted one passage in the book that really strikes to the essence of Charlie Haden’s diverse interests: (pg 225) “Whether it’s tango or bolero or fado or whatever it happens to be, I try to do it, and I’m not happy until I do everything that I’ve been thinking about.” I’d have to say Charlie Haden never half did anything. Is that an apt summation of the man?

That quote does get to the heart of what made Charlie such a unique and can-do figure in jazz, and music at large. He would just follow his heart into areas he might not know much about, at first, but his infectious passion drew musicians and record company execs, festival heads and other facilitators into his machinery in the making. He fit beautifully into the contexts of fado, with Carlos Paredes, and boleros with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and assorted genres folded into the wonder of his Liberation Music Orchestra projects—with the generous help of his great arranger-allie Carla Bley. And he had some truly magical piano-bass encounters during his lifetime, with Jarrett, Kenny Barron, and Hank Jones, to name just a few.

Ironically, one album which some thought was another stretch for him—his fantastic old school country project Rambling Boy, from 2008—was, in fact, a return to some very deep roots, going back to his family’s radio show in Iowa and Missouri. Ironically, again, that album—an amazing live show of which I caught at Disney Hall in Los Angeles—was also one of his best-selling albums. So much for genre-tagging, especially for an open-eared, open-hearted artist like Charlie Haden.

IE: If someone were new to Charlie Haden, what would you recommend they listen to in order to get the essence of the man?
JW: He has such a vast discography, as a sideman and under his own name—as well as with his bands Quartet West and the great Liberation Music Orchestra, it’s hard to whittle down to an essential list. To come up with a Top Ten—at least from what strikes me as the essential core of who he is—is a subjective thing. These are projects in which he was clearly the conceptualist and leader, but listening to his work on the early Ornette Coleman records or any to the ‘70s work with Keith Jarrett and Old and New Dreams are important.
Here goes:
Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!), 1969
Folk Songs, with Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti (ECM), 1979
Liberation Music Orchestra, Ballad of the Fallen (ECM), 1982
Quartet West, Haunted Heart (Verve), 1991
Haden with Hank Jones, Steal Away (Verve), 1995
Haden and Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Nonesuch), 1997
Haden with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Nocturne (Verve), 2001
Liberation Music Orchestra, Not in Our Name (Verve), 2005
Rambling Boy (EmArcy), 2008
Haden with Keith Jarrett, Last Dance (ECM), 2014

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