THE AUTHOR’S TAKE (the first in a series of interviews with music journalists on their current work)

The Landfill Chronicles: Unearthing Legends of Modern Music

by Dan Ouellette (publisher: Cymbal Press)

When veteran jazz journalist and Ron Carter biographer Dan Ouellette’s current book The Landfill Chronicles was released (and read the book for Dan’s intro on how he came about that rather cheeky title) I knew given his experience in the field and the focus on his vast artist interviewing history that there would be some real pearls in the volume, and I was not disappointed. After all this is a writer who has not only set his recorder down in front of myriad artists at home, backstage, or somewhere on the road across modern music genres, Dan has also been afforded many opportunities to encounter artists at festival opportunities around the globe for “live” audiences, including conducting DownBeat Blindfold Tests. Given that depth of experience, clearly some questions were in order for Dan on the whys & wherefores of this book.

What motivated you towards a book anthologizing a selection of your many interviews?

Dan Ouellette: Plain and simple… the pandemic made me do it! No shows to go to, zero dollars in my writing world from DownBeat to Billboard. So instead of looking forward, I looked back. Actually over the last few years before I started the book, I noticed online that most of my past writings were untraceable. Basically all that had been written for print in newspapers and magazines had been buried in the landfills. Pretty much, gone forever. Hence my working title: The Landfill Chronicles: Unearthing Legends of Modern Music. I thought at least I could write a compilation book for archival purposes.

Frank Zappa was an obvious first start. I did the last full with him at his Hollywood Hills home in 1993, shortly before he died. It was the cover story for the Tower Records free monthly magazine, Pulse! It was profiled on stands in the stores then moved to the trash when the next month’s issue came out. Those were the pre-digital days, so it was all print and nothing else. Pulse! died when Tower went bankrupt. So I dug through my online backups and came across a lot more than had been printed in the magazine. Essentially the writer’s cut. I had written 4,500 words and the magazine probably published 2,500-3,000 of that word count.

Second was Wayne Shorter who I had talked to and interviewed several times in the aughts. DownBeat, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. So I stitched together all my landfill conversational experiences with Wayne into a narrative.

I kept going: Astor Piazzzolla for the long-defunct Berkeley Monthly; Lou Reed on his last band albums for SF Chronicles and Schwann Spectrum, where I was editor. I made a list of memorable conversations with artists – mostly jazz artists like Jason Moran, Charlie Haden, and Keith Jarrett, but some smart pop artists like Elvis Costello, David Byrne, and Joni Mitchell. It resulted in 27 chapters that I published at the Medium platform.

I wasn’t thinking ahead to publishing beyond Medium until about a year ago Cymbal Press publisher Gary S. Stager contacted me after reading some of my chapters. He was wondering if I had a book in mind – which opened to door for me to work with the wonderful people there to shape and edit the book, especially Cymbal president Sylvia Martinez.

Given your veteran music journalist status, what was your process of selecting these particular 27 interviews, and what was it about these interviews that you found compelling enough to include in the book?

DO: It was following my instincts and my memories. I came up with a list, then tracked them down in my files and considered if what I found was interesting to include. I knew I wasn’t writing a full-tilt biography of each artist, but focusing on artists who were experiencing pivotal moments in their careers when we had our conversations. As it turned out, as I was reading and editing [the interviews], it brought back fond memories where I began to realize this was not only an archive but also a memoir. After I published [The Landfill Chronicles], I was OK’d to write a Volume 2. In search again, I have developed more meaningful Medium chapters on Tracy Chapman, Jimmy Heath, the Charlie Watts/Jim Keltner jazz project, Abbey Lincoln, Jim Hall... More memoir.

Once you made your choices of which interviews to include, what was your process for preparing these interviews for publishing?

DO: I delivered all m y completed and published Medium online files to Sylvia [Martinez, Cymbal Press president] who became my invaluable editor. She raised questions, she helped me rewrite confusing chapters… brought it all together. We came up with chapter headings and even decided to give the collection an alphabetical Table of Contents and provide a road map page at the end as to where these stories originally appeared. We Zoomed and emailed each other regularly.

Were there any of these interviews that you found particularly challenging to achieve?

DO: These stories were written over the course of three decades. Early on, I worked on the art of conversation and how to fashion what the artist and I talked about into the writing. I stress: conversations, not some robotic Q&A.

That brings me to Frank Zappa, who was probably the hugest challenge. But I had three months to prep given his failing health. He had a huge history to study. Plus, Frank had the reputation for eating writers for lunch. Not me. We ended up conversing for nearly 5 hours in his living room and later in his recording studio.

I came to know Wayne Shorter, but my first phone interview with him threw me for a loop. I was talking to him about the 1+1 album he recorded with Herbie Hancock. I had already seen the duo perform a preview show at the Villa Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA. They were returning to the Bay Area at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium. I was writing a preview story for the San Francisco Chronicle and Wayne was my contact. I asked him about the collaboration with Herbie. He answered my query by going through an elliptical thought pattern – cryptic parabolas starting at one point then swinging widely into the stars and finally, miraculously coming back to earth with a soft landing of insight. After I got off the phone, I was worried that I didn’t have anything to work with from this oblique conversation. But I reviewed my notes, listened to the taped interview again, and then realized that his thought process was quite brilliant and wonderful.

You’ve done a lot of DownBeat Magazine Blindfold Tests. Was the Freddie Hubbard DBFT particularly challenging, and if not talk about some of your DBFT challenges.

DO: The Freddy Hubbard Blindfold Test wasn’t challenging. I had done a lot of BFTs by then so I just put together a set list for the IAJE conference in Long Beach, CA. It was all about the music I played. Freddie was iffy on showing up because of his health. But he did come and actually it turned out to be a bit challenging for him. I merely followed his reflections, especially on tunes that he did not like. He was gracefully angry.

One of my most interesting BFT experiences was with all three Heath Brothers. It was a challenge to come up with a set list that would intrigue them. It was hilarious and it will appear in its entirety in Landfill, Volume 2.

My freakiest BFT came at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I was only using one microphone at the time to record the reflections. Chris Botti was in the hot seat. He did great. The next day I tried to listen to the tape and there was nothing there! I remembered the crew had cut the mics onstage before I saved. It was gone. So I somehow called Chris and he remembered his reflections well. It ran perfectly! From then on… 2 mics!

What advice would you give aspiring young music journalists as far as how they approach interview opportunities in terms of deriving the most compelling testimony from an interview subject?

DO: First off, do your homework beforehand. Know the person. Know their music. Try not to query too much about their past, like, when did you start playing music? That’s pretty much available online for your prep. But talk about the process they went through. I interviewed Pharoah Sanders once and he started by saying don’t ask me anything about John Coltrane. I obliged and started our conversation about his new work. Through the course of our conversation once he got going, he ended up talking a lot about Trane. You can share some of what you’re thinking about as it can help the flow of the conversation. But share only as much as it triggers a response and keeps the conversation going. There really is an art of conversation. Lastly, do not resort to a straight Question & Answer format when talking. Like Ques. 1-Ques. 10. Straight Q & As oftentimes make for boring reading.

A few quotes on my “conversational” style.

Joe Lovano: “Dan Ouellette’s The Landfill Chronicles is a must-read collection of conversational encounters. Dan’

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