The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility. Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us. This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling. Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t. Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.
MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good. The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly. But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself. One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).
Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude. They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent. The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling. New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography. Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.
But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories. (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.) Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.
Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:
He was a pretty self-centered guy. Kinda selfish. When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show. He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were. He’d say, “People come to see me. I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.” He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.” I’d say to myself, “Good show! I feel like crying.”
Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:
. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix. He said, “Why don’t you turn to music? You can get more girls.” He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.”
Trumpeter John Eckert:
I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965]. A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups. Louis ended the concert. I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded. I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.
To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.
May your happiness increase.