Interviews 1 2
Interviewed by Les Tomkins in 1967
A past criticism may be renewed in London this month. Namely, that it isn’t a good idea to have Ella Fitzgerald sharing the bill with Duke Ellington, because this prevents the band from getting adequate exposure. What is your answer to this?
Oh, that’s completely ridiculous. Obviously, you will always find a few people in any area that would like things done completely their way. If they’re rich enough to subsidise a concert, I’d be delighted to give them Duke Ellington for two-hour shows, eight-hour shows—whatever they’re prepared to pay. But, as long as we’re in a democracy, and I have to give what I think the majority of people will enjoy—and which has reason behind it, too—then this kind of statement is nonsense. I mean, if I were to put on, let’s say, Barbra Streisand and Duke Ellington, one might cavil with that and say this is not jazz, that the combination isn’t good. But to take the best jazz singer and the best jazz band and say that this doesn’t make sense—when each one gets a full hour—is arrant nonsense, I think.
It isn’t as if this is the only time they come here. Ella’s been making tours for seven or more years here—as has Duke. And people have had ample opportunity to hear them for two hours. Also it’s a healthy idea that people get a chance to hear Duke’s band in an accompanying role—which the history of all big jazz bands shows was the way singers started, as well as the bands. First they played for dancing and then they played for singing. So there’s nothing unusual about this idea. To do it, is rather daring on my part, I think—in terms of the economics. So, in fact, they should be glad.
I don’t want to sound as if I’m doing something tremendously special. I’m not. But you must remember that, at root, I also am a jazz fan. And I know that, if I can make an artist like Duke concentrate his efforts into one hour, you get the essence of what he’s doing. I don’t mean that he necessarily pads a show for two hours, but in one hour you get the heart of the matter, as you do with Ella. It’s healthy, I think, for Ella to be heard, not only with a trio, as she has in the past, but with a big band behind her.
Anyway, the band is doing more concerts here on their own than they did last year. And if those who criticise are really sincere—let them take a trip to Leicester, Bristol, Birmingham or Portsmouth and they can hear Duke for two hours. Or, better yet, let them buy tickets for both shows in London—because Duke changes his programme each time. Then they’ll get one hour and one hour. Or let them go to all four houses. This gives them four hours of Ellington —they can get sated on that.
Now, if they say: “But that’s a ridiculous answer that Granz is giving, because we have to pay double”—well, what do they think I’m paying for the show. If they’re sincere enough, they’ll be prepared to pay. But I think we’re dwelling on that point too long.
Yes. You mention being a fan yourself. In fact, you started out as a jazz collector and enthusiast. Having been exposed to it so much over the years—has this in any way dimmed your basic enthusiasm for the music?
No, it’s made my standards, if anything, more strict and higher, I listen to everything that comes out, in one form or another: records, or clubs, if I have a chance. Just as I, say, look at paintings by the most modern of the painters—the fact that I may return to a Picasso or to an impressionist painter, as I return to Ellington and Fitzgerald, simply means that I haven’t found anyone yet that enthuses me enough to want to present them. It doesn’t mean that they oughtn’t to be presented; I’m not derogating them as artists.
I had a conversation in Paris recently with Ornette Coleman. And Ornette put it to me on that basis—he said: “You have a big enough name that you could take all the young people who need a chance, and showcase them.” And I said: no, I wouldn’t. I’m not saying that their playing doesn’t justify presentation, but let someone else do it. Because I’ve reached the stage now, after almost 30 years of doing jazz, that I can enjoy the luxury of liking what I present and, if necessary, as I’ve done in the past, even subsidising shows because I think that the artists should be presented.
I’m not going to put down these other artists. I think that it’s a form of bigotry to do that. Everyone has a chance to be displayed. It’s a matter of doing what I want to hear. There are many artists that I present that I admit that I like less than I do others. But I think that they warrant being presented by my own special personal standards. I won’t debate whether I ought to present Ornette Coleman, let’s say, in place of Sonny Stitt. And I would be the first to admit that I like Sonny Stitt less than I like Duke Ellington. But I still think that, if I want to present Sonny Stitt—that’s the fielder’s choice that I make.
I’m talking as a professional impresario. I’m not judging anybody at all. As a jazz fan—well, then, my taste is completely subjective, and that you don’t have to justify, any more than I would be critical of these people. But what I’ve heard obviously hasn’t enthused me enough as an amateur jazz fan or as a professional concert promoter to want to present them. I’m obviously generalising, because, when I say “these people”, I’m merely talking about a lot of new, younger people that have come up. I wouldn’t like to be too specific or make an inaccurate generalisation but, speaking in the large sense, those are my feelings.
It was a great pleasure recently to be able to enjoy “Jazz At The Philharmonic” again. Why did you discontinue JATP for so many years?
Well, I often tried to put a show together—but I must say I failed completely. I couldn’t get the artists that I wanted. It wasn’t even a question of economics, because the moneys I offered were more than even they thought of asking. But they just didn’t want to accede to the form—which is the jam session. Other than that, there’s no sense in my putting on “Jazz At The Philharmonic”. If I can’t do it in the best possible way—by my own standards —then I don’t choose to do it.
In order to make it possible to perpetuate the JATP name in the future, what about having, say, three set groups each doing their own part of the programme, then the leaders of the groups combining with a rhythm section?
Sure—that could be a marvellous idea. But you can’t even get the leaders to do it. And besides, that isn’t good, really. That’s cheating the audience and being dishonest with oneself. Just to have them all come out, let’s say, to do the blues and one number—it’s too easy, too cheap. They have to pit themselves against each other for a whole evening, under all conditions.
You can’t have a finale that runs one hour. You certainly can’t have a display of the man’s ballad point of view on an ending. So you give each man 40 minutes or so, and you say: “Let’s do a jam session at the end with the leaders.” If they’re willing to do it, you’re still short-changing people—in terms of calling it JATP.
But I’ve presented a lot of groups as groups. I’ve had Mulligan’s Quartet in the company of another group, Coltrane’s group in the company of Gillespie’s Quintet, Jimmy Smith with Dizzy—but this wasn’t “Jazz At the Philharmonic”. This was just presenting a bunch of artists as they wanted to present themselves. I didn’t even routine the show, so I wasn’t even being creative as I would be with JATP, where I don’t dictate the programme—but, let’s say, give it some direction.
But surely JATP has contained established groups in the past—or complete units that have also operated independently?
Only by the definition of the group allowing itself to be broken up and performing two roles—and, obviously, this was always concerned with the rhythm section. The Modern Jazz Quartet did their first tour with me years ago. But then John Lewis would play piano for Coleman Hawkins, Connie Kay would play for Ella, Milt Jackson would work with Dizzy—and so on. So they allowed themselves to be displayed in two ways.
When Peterson had the trio that included Herb Ellis on guitar, he also combined with, say, Buddy Rich to support the horns. So you heard some Peterson trio, but in addition you heard them as accompanists.
Generally speaking, do you feel that there is a greater market for you in Europe nowadays, than in the States?
No, I don’t think it is. It’s a more satisfying one for me. But if you’re talking about objective standards, it isn’t, because the economics of it aren’t at all rosy. If you’re talking about my personal satisfaction in presenting jazz throughout different cities in Europe—well, obviously, I like it, so I do it. But the grosses of many of the shows that I bring to what are considered to be major cities in Europe—say Amsterdam, for example, which must have at least more than a million people—are not good enough to warrant bringing too many shows.
No, I think it’s the same all over. The only area where jazz is really terribly profitable and successful in an economic sense is in Japan. But that’s because they haven’t been exposed enough. Once it catches up with them, then they’ll begin to pick and choose, as they do all over the world now.
A problem in the jazz world seems to be that there are a certain number of groups that make enough money to stay together, and a much larger quantity of good musicians who want to work in regular groups, but don’t have the opportunity.
Yes. And, in fact, there are very few groups that really stay together, anyway. Because, if you look carefully, over 52 weeks a year, you’ll find that the leaders of groups make enough money to be able to afford to work a maximum of 35-40 weeks a year. But what happens to the poor sideman who, at the same time, is a creative and, in many cases, a great jazz artist? It’s the rare one, as you say, that can form a group.
We keep thinking about groups, though. For me, the essence of jazz has always been the big band. Which, as you know, is an almost non-existent field today. So the sidemen who do get names in bands finally form their own groups—but the employment isn’t all that good. I don’t mean to be striking a pessimistic note all the time. I’m trying to be realistic and honest about what I think to be facts.
When I toured Miles Davis in Europe originally, he had Coltrane. Then Coltrane cut out on his own. But I don’t think Coltrane works 50 weeks a year. Neither does Miles. Well, then, what do their sidemen do? And I’m naming two of the most successful groups, by the way. The MJQ does a tour, then breaks up and takes long vacations.
I’ve always worried more about the sideman, in any case. Because where else do you get the growth of jazz, if not from the men who cut out? Like, Count Basie pushed Lester Young in the right direction, and Lester went for himself. Same with Harry Edison, Buck Clayton and a host of people like that. Jimmy Lunceford, too, created certain great names. But now these sidemen have no place to go.
So would you say, then, that all your efforts to raise the status of jazz and to gain greater respect for jazz artists have been in vain?
I think you’re putting it a little too philosophically for me. It certainly wasn’t in vain for the artists concerned. They played before more people, made more money and had more dignity accorded them, and so there was genuine benefit there. You could see it.
Ella Fitzgerald is a perfect example of it. An artist like Lester Young or Charlie Parker, who would hardly have played on concert stages, had direct benefit from this, I’m sure.
But, as to whether I think that, permanently, jazz was uplifted by what I did, I’m not too sure. I might doubt that, because I don’t think that jazz, as any kind of an art form, has any permanence attached to it, apart from the practitioners of it. I don’t think you can take it as a concept and say: “Has ‘jazz’ benefitted?” No. I think you have to be specific about certain artists.
Now, I think, as a precedent, I made it easier for many artists to play in certain areas where they might not have played today. But then if they do or don’t play these places that the precedent was established for—it depends on their talents.
Anyway, Norman, as regards your own future—what plans have you?
Well, I’m hoping, if I can, to do something in television for jazz artists. Because I think that’s the best way to do it now. The record companies, obviously, are interested in the kind of sales they can get from the rock groups —although they do what they can for jazz. Television is the answer for artists in most media. It provides employment for actors who have months between films or plays. It devours talent—and jazz is waiting to be devoured!
I mean, let’s take my present concert tour here in England. We have to travel around to all those cities. Whereas one TV show would have an audience of around 20 million people seeing them. So—if the people at the top have the courage to do it—that’s the next area. I can only hope.
Copyright © 1967, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved