Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. John P. Cooper

    There is much for thought there.

    I’ve known musicians and I have watched musicians I know and do not know interact with the public on a ‘cold call’ basis. I seem to get the feeling that most older musicians do not want to have to explain everything to the ‘fan’. I have watched and listened as they spoke to see if the fan was on their level of understanding. If so, the conversation may open up a bit. If not so, it is up to the discretion of the musician. A pretty woman has a better chance of finding a tolerant musician willing to explain why such is so and this was that.

    I remember going to a local restaurant a few years back where the legendary bassist Al McKibbon had a small group on Sundays. The place was dead every week, so I could grab a table right up front. After week two or three, I got a nod from Al. After a couple more weeks, he came by and sat down to just to chat. I wasnt asking much and he was complaining about the venue (he was right) and ordering his comp burger for the night. Point being that sets of circumstances come into play.

    Ramble over! 🙂

  2. Thanks for a poignant article, Michael.

  3. John C Graham

    Coda would always surprise and delight -for many years- with their own style of “in their own words” interviewing. Some of it was priceless and often hilarious. i.e. trumpet player Jesse Drake ranting about what life was like on the tour bus with the late edition of the Ellington Orchestra. Slabs of good reading that has, thankfully, been saved for posterity.

  4. Bill Gallagher

    In 1987, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring jazz “a rare and valuable national treasure.” I can almost hear the “harumpf’s,” a la the Mel Brooks scene in “Blazing Saddles.”
    Congress managed to chip in some money and a number of oral histories were prepared under the auspices of the Smithsonian and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers.

    One might think that some of what was hoped to be captured by these interviews would divulge the insights of many famous and also ordinary musicians. I certainly hope so. But I have a copy of one of those transcripts and, in that particular interview, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of attempt to elicit the kind of salient dialog that this blog’s article seeks. Nevertheless, I hope that these oral histories continue to be recorded and can become more widely available.

  5. I haven’t heard them (or read them) myself, Bill, so I can’t comment on what they capture — although a number of quotations have come up in books and the snippets seem tantalizing. But if the results are unrevealing, there are a million reasons: put anyone in a room with an eager interviewer who doesn’t necessarily ask probing questions and the subject can follow the usual paths: I was born here, my mother played the organ in church, etc. Still, I’d rather have a disappointing talk with Sir Charles or Eddie Higgins than none at all. At least I think so! Cheers, Michael

  6. Nice one MS!
    Did Dave Tough contribute some writing to a magazine? I would enjoy reading anything he wrote. Max would tell me snippits of Dave things- like getting so into it he’d stand up, leaning right over his cymbal. Benny and Dave walking past Sulka’s…” let’s go in I’ll buy you a nice tie… I already have a tie.” Dave to Tommy… “I can’t afford this job!” …. working in Texas hotel and TD getting a weekend gig which was in the next town… Dave had to cab it alone with all his gear while the others in the band pooled it/$.
    Although I may think these one-liners humorous others may not- so I kinda keep this stuff myself.
    Closing: Vic heads for Europe but forgets he’s left hamburger meat out on the kitch counter. Days later Red Richards gets a call to go by his apt and check. Ding, ding! I saw, still see, all this as color and find it almost as entertaining as the music. Watson
    ps- What’s the world doing for Big Sid’s 100th?

  7. Dave wrote a regular column for (I think) METRONOME, and excerpts have been quoted in Burt Korall’s book DRUMMIN’ MEN, which I don’t have with me at the moment. The world might need an edition of THE COLLECTED DAVE TOUGH . . . ! As for Big Sid’s hundredth, I don’t know what the world is doing . . . I have a blogpost in the works. Would you like to contribute a paragraph of your own — Sidney from a drummer’s point of view? I can pay you at the usual rates! Loved the stories: send more as they emerge in the memory bank! Thanks much, MS

  8. My jazz-scholar friend Michael O’Donovan pointed out, very gently, that my sad piece didn’t do justice to what has been done in the last thirty years — the lengthy, honest interviews done in the pages of CADENCE (especially forthright) and THE MISSISSIPPI RAG (for whose pages I did a lengthy profile of Kevin Dorn in 2006). Apologies all around! And perhaps the expansive coverage made possible by the internet will mean that jazz musicians playing now will be better documented and better heard.

  9. Marc Myers’ site has lots of very interesting interviews also, some quite extensive.

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