Making a Place for Jazz
The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship not only honors the nation’s greatest jazz musicians, but also its fiercest jazz advocates.
One A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy is awarded each year to an individual who has made major contributions to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the American jazz art form. These honorees include club owners, festival organizers, promoters, and producers.
In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, we’re digging into the podcast archives to reflect on the impact of these jazz champions. Each, in their own way, has ensured the genre’s survival for future generations. Take a listen and then let us know how you’re showing your appreciation for jazz this month on Twitter!
2013 NEA Jazz Master Lorraine Gordon was the owner of legendary New York jazz club Village Vanguard. Gordon passed away in 2018, but the club lives on under ownership of her daughter, Deborah Gordon, and—despite the pandemic—continues its tradition of presenting jazz performances through its virtual concert series. On the podcast, Gordon discussed her devotion to jazz and her extraordinary years at Village Vanguard, which hosted everyone from Mary Lou Williams to Jason Moran.
Lorraine Gordon—Podcast Transcript
LORRAINE GORDON: There's no heat and it's definitely a basement that nobody in their right mind would have ever rented except Max Gordon. Anyway. Once you get down those stairs, you're in heaven. You're away from the world, your in a womb. It's lovely.
JO REED: That's Lorraine Gordon, she's the owner of the legendary New York Jazz club, the Village Vanguard and a 2013 NEA Jazz Master.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
What jazz musician hasn't played at the Village Vanguard in New York City? They are few and far between, as the legendary jazz club has hosted everyone from Mary Lou Williams to Jason Moran. A jazz haven for more than 55 years, the Vanguard is still going strong under the ownership of Lorraine Gordon.
From her teenage years in Newark, New Jersey to her current stewardship of the Vanguard Lorraine Gordon has devoted her life to jazz. In fact, she named her compulsively readable 2006 autobiography Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In and Out of Jazz Time.
Her first husband was Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records. She joined the small company and together, they recorded legendary jazz artists such as James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet and Todd Dameron. They became advocates for the young and virtually unknown Thelonious Monk whom Lorraine most particularly championed.
After the Lions divorced at the end of the 1940s, Lorraine married Max Gordon who had opened the Village Vanguard in 1935. Lorraine was a regular, listening to the music as the club's reputation grew among jazz musicians and becoming according to Nat Hentoff "the closest we have to the Camelot of jazz rooms." When Max died unexpectedly in 1989, Lorraine closed the club for one night. she reopened it the next day, took over management and never looked back. For 23 years, Lorraine has made sure that the Village Vanguard remains synonymous with great jazz. It's no wonder that Lorraine Gordon has been chosen for the 2013 A.B.Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, which is given to an individual who has made major contributions to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of jazz.
I spoke to Lorraine Gordon in her Greenwich Village apartment soon after the award was announced. I wanted Lorraine tell me about her teenage years in Newark in the 1930s, when she and her other jazz-loving friends began what they called The Hot Club.
GORDON: Jazz can be hot, and everybody knows what that means if you like jazz. Anyway it was just a group of kids in Newark that found each other, who had the same likes. We did model it after the Hot Club of France, at least the name. And we'd all have a topic that we'd have to come and bring to, and discuss and our records that we liked. And, say, we don't know who's on this record, does it sound like Louis Armstrong or is it Bix Beiderbecke, you know we had to identify. And it was wonderful, and we loved it. That was my beginning of loving jazz and indulging it. When we were kids, believe it or not, we came here to the Village Vanguard.
REED: You had your first encounter with Max Gordon then, didn't you?
GORDON: I mean actually, he threw down the… gauntlet. I picked it up many years later.
REED: Your brother introduced you to one of the most famous and also one of the very few DJs who played jazz.
GORDON: Oh yes. Well look. We always listened to Ralph on the radio; he was the only connection we had to radio and to jazz. Ralph was giving a speech in New Jersey at the time. And my brother met him at this… place where he was speaking and offered to drive him home to New York. But on the way, [LAUGHS] my brother called me up on the phone and said, "Get downstairs, we're going to take Ralph back to his house in New York." Whoah! I got all dolled up and rushed downstairs, and they did pick me up, and that's how I met Ralph.
REED: You knew the music. He was really instrumental in introducing you to the people who made jazz.
GORDON: Well, he took me to 52nd Street, I will give him credit for that for the first time. I had never been to 52nd Street. That was the most famous place in the world. All those great clubs were lined up, and all those great artists would play. You could go into one club, hear Art Tatum, go into the next one, hear Billie Holiday, go over across the street, you'd hear Lester Young. It was heaven. It was the golden age of nightclubs for me.
We went to Jimmy Ryan's, and sitting across from the banquette I was in was Alfred Lion and Frank Wolf, his partner. And Ralph said, "Do you know who that is?" 'Cause I used to collect all those Blue Note records, the fabulous early Blue Notes. The big 12-inch ones and the 10-inch ones, they were very expensive but that to me was, they were the most modern records I had heard 'cause it was all improvisation, a lot of it was, by certain artists. He introduced me to them. And I don't know, Alfred and I looked at each other, "Hi," you know. Somehow there was a connection, course a couple of years later we were married. I don't remember what happened. And he got drafted into the army, I was a war bride, actually. In any event, he got mustered out of the Army very early in the game
Then Alfred restarted Blue Note records, which he had left in the care of Frank
REED: Frank Wolf.
GORDON: Frank Wolf. Well, Frank couldn't do much without Alfred… And then I came along and became the third wheel there.
REED: How did Blue Note operate as a company? How did you choose who to record?
GORDON: Well, we had this little office on the top floor of 767 Lexington Avenue, and Lambert Brother Jewelers was on the first floor. Well, we had [GESTURES] two rooms. One was where we stocked the records…and Frank did the shipping and orders would come in. And then we did all the recordings with the musicians.
REED: Where did you record them?
GORDON: Oh, well we used to record at… on Broadway there… the wonderful studio.…
GORDON: Yeah, WOR, right. And there was a wonderful guy there who was our engineer and we always used him. Very handsome, I couldn't concentrate on the music. Anyway, we did a lot of recordings there, and I have some pictures of those days. And then we would have to get them pressed. And then we'd have to sell them. I went out finally on a salesmanship tour of the country with my portfolio and sold records. Went to places alone where I'd never been -- Chicago, St. Louis. Whatever was close and had a record store [LAUGHS] I went to them. So, I did that. And then I worked in the office when I'm back. I was the secretary, I did the public relations. I did everything that one had to do to keep the company growing.
REED: When you and Alfred and Frank had an artist in the studio, how many takes would you do? How did that process work of recording them?
Yeah…We never did more than three takes. Usually the first take was it, because there was a rehearsal, they didn't just come in cold turkey and say, "Now we're gonna play la-da-da." Well they got together, they had to know what tunes they were gonna play, they had to like each other, they had to be a cohesive bunch of guys. And if we did three takes, that was a lot. It was usually a first take.
REED James P. Johnson was one of the early artists that you recorded at Blue Note and he's also someone you said was a "true genius."
GORDON: Oh, I think he was, he was the forefather of so many things. And he was a beautiful man on top of it. I mean, to meet him, whoah! You know you're in the presence of someone very special. He was beautiful, not beautiful, beautiful, but monumental man, huge. And he's very kind and sweet, and he'd just want to get down there and play piano and he was the king of that… that beat. That stride piano. We loved that. That was our thing.
REED: Tadd Dameron was part of the Blue Note family. What was he like?
GORDON: Well, he was a terrific composer. A very serious man. And another person who became a friend. All these artists became your friend because you spent a lot of time with them. And we gave him carte blanche. He was the leader. He's writing the music, he's got the groups he put together, well, he was wonderful. He was a really avant-garde at the time.
REED: He wrote the song "If You Could See Me Now."
GORDON: [SINGS] "If you could see me now, you'd know…" [SMILES] That's right. Yeah. That's so beautiful. I love it to this day. When the guy's in the band, or whoever's playing there, I nag them: "Play me something I like!" They say, "Well what do you like?" I said, "If You Could See Me Now." See how many play it.
REED: Somebody else you called a true genius, Sidney Bechet.
GORDON: Oh, well. Sidney didn't need us. He was a genius no matter what. Wherever Sidney went, he left a huge aura of his personality. He was a fabulous guy and the greatest -- who was playing the soprano sax in those days? Only Sidney. He played clarinet as well, but the soprano was where he shone. The big hit was Summertime.
And we got very friendly with him. But he was great, and he was a great cook. He used to come to our apartment down here in the Village and make real southern, New Orleans food for us. Because I, I was not into cooking at the time. And he was great at that. We had a family thing with him.
REED: You had a deep friendship with Ike Quebec.
GORDON: Oh yeah, Ike was a wonderful guy. I thought he was one of the great saxophonists. Never quite made it, but he knew everybody and he was a real terrific musician. And… he was instrumental in introducing us to Thelonious Monk, who we didn't know at the time. You know, we were now, Alfred and I were venturing into new forms of jazz, or new people, the company was zooming along, it got bigger and bigger, and better and better, and we worked at it very hard. And he brought us to Monk who we didn't know. At. All. Didn't even know about him. So that was a great experience, to this day I will never forget it as a cornerstone in my life, meeting Monk, and going to his house and watching him play, and sitting there for the first time, hearing -- the first time I ever heard such music. It was so different than anything that I had been listening to or knew about, and I immediately fell in love with it. I just went 100% for Thelonious and his music. And I spent time there at his apartment, his mother and sisters lived there, we were in and out all the time. We were buddies.
REED: And you recorded him at Blue Note.
GORDON: Well, yeah, those recordings were fabulous. I still love -- I still think they're the best, naturally, but I know they are.
REED: In some ways you were a one-person Thelonious Monk parade. You were just his champion!
GORDON: That's true. I remember I sat down in our little office on my typewriter, and I wrote a letter to Ralph Ingersoll at the time, I said, "There's a genius living in this town and you have to come and hear him or do something about it. He should not remain unknown forever," and blah blah blah, and Ralph Ingersoll called me up and said, "Yes, we're gonna send a reporter to do this man that you're talking -- this genius that you're [LAUGHS] talking about." And he did. He sent me… Seymour Peck. And I had a car, and I drove Seymour to [GESTURES OVER SHOULDER] Hell's Kitchen, is where Thelonious lived. And he got out of the car and I got out and he said, "Where are you going?" to me. I said, "I'm going with you." "No you're not," he said, "I don't have anybody sitting in when" -- I said, "He's not going to talk to you. I'm sorry. You'll see." "No!" I said "Okay, goodbye." So I went and sat back in the car.
And sure enough, he came out a little later and said, "There is no story there." I said, "Not without me there is no story. I told you." I went back to the Ralph Ingersoll, and told him what had happened. He said, "I'll send another reporter. You will go in with him." And I did. And that huge story came out, a double-page spread in the middle of the paper and they wrote all about Monk.
REED: Thelonious Monk was notoriously a quiet man, why do you think he opened up with you?
GORDON: Well I don't know how far he opened up, frankly. He accepted me, you know, if he didn't want to talk, he didn't. Or he'd talk in riddles. You know, riddle me this, riddle me that. He had a style like his music. To me his personality was as quirky as his music. And it just fit together, that's the way he was, that's the way his music was. It was all of a piece. He sat at the piano from morning til night in his one little room, his little bedroom was the size of a long closet with a bed here and the piano there. An upright piano. We would sit on the bed with our feet out -- a cot, kind of -- and look at his back and his hands as he played the upright piano. We did all that we could with Thelonious because we thought he was so great. At that time, the records did not sell that well, but it took time.
REED: It was through Monk that you encountered Max Gordon again.
GORDON: Oh, well, yes… I always call Monk a cupid. He didn't know he was cupid Yes, I inadvertently, I booked Monk into the Vanguard because I met Max at the Fire Island summer place. I happened to be there, he was there. I knew who Max was, although I didn't know him. And he was sitting in a little coffee house there, and I was in there, and I said, "You know, there's a great artist. You ought to hear him." I just went up to him cold. Well, that was easy to do in the summer because I had a cute little yellow bathing suit on. And he's nice and I'm nice [LAUGHS] and he says, "Sit down, tell me all about it." And he booked. He said, "I just happen to have some room in September." Great! I booked him. I didn't even know I was a booking agent now. Booked him. And he did come with a great band: Art Blakey on drums, Sahib Shahab and was there. And nobody came because nobody knew him, and we never had time to promote him or whatever. Max didn't even know who he was, frankly. Max just did it for me. He'd never heard of Thelonious in his life and knew nothing about him.
REED: How did Max respond to Thelonious?
GORDON: Well, not well, not well. Well, not well. Thelonious plays and then he gets up from the piano and dances his little dance, a little jig around the piano. Then sits down and right on the beat. And that song is over and then he gets up and says, "And now human beings, I'm going to play"… Max called me over, he says, "Listen, what kind of an announcement is that?" I said, "Mr. Gordon, you don't understand. The man is a genius. Why don't you listen?" He was Mr. Gordon to me then.
REED: You went from calling him Mr. Gordon to becoming Mrs. Gordon. How did that happen?
GORDON: Yeah, right. He used to call me Lorraine after a while. How did it happen? Well, I don't know. Max was a bachelor supreme and he had no problem en joying his private life as a bachelor. Somehow we connected, and I got tired of living in this little one-room down in the Village, and [GESTURES] Max offered me a big room [LAUGHS] further on the other side of the Village. I decided to take it.
REED: At the time, Max owned not just the Village Vanguard but also the uptown club The Blue Angel.
GORDON: Oh, yeah, that enticed me as well. [LAUGHS] That was the Blue Angel, oh my dear. Those were the beautiful days, you know, where you saw the best acts ever. And the most gorgeous atmosphere, and great food, great wine, great everything. That's where I spent a lot of time. I didn't spend much time at the Vanguard.
REED: Because at the time it wasn't exclusively a jazz club.
GORDON: It wasn't a jazz place at all, it never started out as a jazz place, and Max wasn't a jazz nut like me. He wanted to be a writer. He loved poetry and he loved writing and artists. He was an intellectual, he came to live in the Village, so he decided to open a club where he could invite poets just to read their poetry. And he did. People used to throw money on the floor, that's how they got paid. And Max kept that going because he enjoyed it. And then the break came when these four kids came down the stairs and asked if, Max, if they could show him their act, if they could get up the stage and do their thing. He said, "Yeah, go ahead." And he loved them. And he hired them. And that act, called the Reviewers, with GD Holliday, Betty Comden, and Adolf Green. There was another guy. And sometimes Leonard Bernstein came and played piano for them. These were the kids from New York who were the up-and-coming brains of that musical season. Well, they got so famous that they left and went to the Rainbow Room uptown. But it opened Max's eyes to alternatives.
So that's what happened. And then Max got involved more with jazz musicians. He didn't know them all, but people would come to him. And he listened. And it became a jazz club. Total jazz club. Meanwhile the Blue Angel went bankrupt uptown. Why? Because all the acts that Max and his partner hired up there were now on -- Television came in and changed the whole face of everything. That's how it started in the 50s and that's how it's remained in the 12s.
But, you know, there's a band that plays there, it's now called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, it was originally Mel Lewis / Thad Jones band. 47 years it's been there. Both leaders died: Mel died, Thad died, but we kept the band. And a lot of the same musicians who are in it, or new musicians came and went, and when I had to come down there, I said, "Let's keep the band every Monday night." And today you can't even get in on a Monday night. They built themselves up… Every club in New York that's a jazz club has a band on a Monday night. That is protocol. [GESTURES/CHUCKLES] And it all came from that band at the Vanguard. And they're wonderful still today.
REED: How many people does the Vanguard seat?
GORDON: Oh, a hundred and twenty-three.
REED: So it's very small, it's an intimate space.
GORDON: Oh, it's very small. It's the littlest club ever, it's incredible. You can't get in half the time, you have to have a reservation. You have to have a reservation or you can't get in. And there's two shows a night, that's it.
REED: How did the "Live from the Village Vanguard" recordings begin?
GORDON: Well, I'll tell you how it starts. The sound at the Vanguard is so incredible, there is no recording studio that can equal it. And that's why the musicians like to play there because they like to hear themselves, and they can hear -- relate to the audience and it is a perfect venue for jazz artists and the sound. Because of the shape of the room, the pie shape, I don't know. It's just beautiful sound. And so they say, "Let's do a record down here." And they did come, companies would come or the artists themselves would get some engineers and do it. But mostly it was a record company. And then Coltrane recorded his masterworks there and that became very famous. So now there's been over 100 recordings done down there.
REED: What was it like being in the audience and seeing John Coltrane in that famous set?
GORDON: Well, but nobody thought of it that way then. Nobody knew Coltrane was that great. Miles Davis was there. Bill Evans played for weeks on end, well he was beautiful. They're all wonderful today and they all have records to prove it. But Coltrane was a turning point because he changed the music a lot. They all had different ideas about what it should sound like. And he was very original in that way.
REED: For as much as you knew about jazz, Max wasn't consulting you a lot about who to bring into the Vanguard.
GORDON: No, it was Max's club, I never interfered. I went there to hear the music, he seemed to know what he was doing. People liked him very much, he was a nice guy. I had a job at the Brooklyn Museum, by the way. I've been working all my life. Before the Brooklyn Museum, I had been working at the Post Originals for 15 years, I was in the art world. I did that every day of my life. I raised two children… I went to the clubs at night, and I worked during the day. And after… the poster gallery, I went to the Brooklyn Museum for five years and worked there. I mean, what's it like not to work? [LAUGHS] I have no idea. I can't remember.
REED: In your book, you said while it was never discussed that you would take over the Vanguard, you said and I think this is true, everything in your life prepared you to do so.
GORDON: Well, I had to… You know, make some deep thinking there for a sentence or two. [LAUGHS] But it seemed my whole life was motivated. At the end of the road was the club. All those things along the way were just along the way because the goal was there. And… you finally reached it without trying to. But it was preordained, I think. I think and I think he had confidence it might happen that way. I don't know, I'm guessing.
And then when Max died, you know, I had to take -- I didn't have to take the Vanguard over, he never asked me… Never thought about frankly. But I did. And that's been since 1989.
REED: Lorraine, I want you to describe a typical day. Don't cross your eyes. What time do you get up, what do you do?
GORDON: I generally get up by 10, 11 o'clock, if I am allowed to sleep. If these new people upstairs don't make noise in the bedroom… But I cannot get up early in the morning. I mean, I don't have to because I don't want to, for one thing. And then… you know, I make my breakfast. Max is gone, I'm on my own. I love it. I [LAUGHS] do what I want, I eat what I want, and I read my New York Times religiously every morning, that's my bible. And then I have errands to do. I have to go to the bank. I make the deposits, I do things like that. And I go to the club by 2:30, 3:00. 3:00 is when the club opens for the day for us.
So there I am and the phones ring, the phones, the phones. No wonder I'm deaf because all I do is answer telephones. I don't have to do that, I could hire someone to answer the phones. But it's not the same because I like to hear what people have to say on the other end. I encourage them or I discourage them. So, we do that. And then there's a lot of paperwork. And now that someone invented a computer with an e-mail, I'm swamped with e-mail that I [GESTURES] throw in the basket. I cannot answer those silly questions, as important they are to the people who sent them. I would spend my day doing that, but I don't… And then musicians come down to rehearse. If it's a Tuesday night, they want to come down and they rehearse.
Anyway… I leave the club, I would generally say around 6:00. And if nobody's there, just lock it up 'cause someone comes at 7:00. And I come home. Unless I'm eating out with someone which isn't too… I don't encourage that anymore. 'Cause I come home and I have to take a little nap because I gotta go back at night. And I cook my own dinner and I love to cook so that's a good thing, because it's very creative. Since I don't play an instrument, I like to cook. And and then I go back to the club. 9:00 is the first show. I go for my reward to hear the music. If I like what I'm hearing, I'm happy. I don't stay til closing, you know, I stay for probably one show. And then friends come, you sit and you talk, you know, a little socializing. I get home by 12 or so. You have to unwind because you've been wound up tight all day with a million chores or errands or things happened. There's a leak in the ceiling, you get a carpenter to fix that, you need the electrician, you know… you're constantly babying this room, fixing it up before it falls apart.
REED: Who decides who plays at the Village Vanguard?
REED: And how do you choose?
GORDON: I do it because I know the music and I know what I like. And I'm very selfish. Look, a lot of acts are coming up that people, their managers or agents tell me, "You gotta have this." And I know they're playing all over. I don't like them. I listen. I take -- I listen to records here all the time. But they're not artists that make me happy or make the Vanguard's… aura of what it's like and how it's been, it doesn't make it any better to put in someone you just don't like because they happen to be getting popular. I'm a jazz person. I don't like all those extra, added-on frills that have nothing to do with what I consider jazz. That's how it works for me. It's very simple.
REED: In your book, you write "jazz is more alive today than ever."
GORDON: Yes, well, a couple of years ago, you would hear from people is, "Jazz is dead! Jazz is dead!" I said, "Really? When's the funeral?" I said. Because there's so many people coming here to hear jazz it's not dead. It can't be. You can't even get into the club half the time. So it's hardly dead. Hardly.
REED: That was 2013 Jazz Master and owner of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon. Lorraine and the other 2013 Jazz Masters will receive their awards at the Jazz Masters ceremony and concert on January 14th at 7:30 PM Eastern Time. The NEA is webcasting it live. Go to Arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information.
You've been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "Summertime," composed by George Gershwin and performed by Sidney Bechet, from the album, The Best of Sidney Bechet, used courtesy of EMI Capitol.
Excerpt from "Let's Cool One," and "Evidence," from the album, Misterioso, composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by The Thelonious Monk Quartet, used courtesy of Concord Music Group.
Excerpt from "Ruby, My Dear" composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, from the album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, used courtesy of Concord Music Group.
Excerpt from "Straight, No Chaser" from the album, Straight, No Chaser, composed and performed by Thelonious Monk, used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
Excerpt from "Spiritual" and "Chasin' the Trane," from the album, Live at the Village Vanguard , written and performed by John Coltrane, used courtesy of Universal Music Group
Excerpt from "Sonnymoon For Two" composed and performed by Sonny Rollins, from the album A Night at the Village Vanguard, used courtesy of EMI Capitol.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Arts.gov. You subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, 2013 NEA Jazz Master, Eddie Palmieri
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
2020 NEA Jazz Master Dorthaan Kirk is known as “Newark’s First Lady of Jazz.” Kirk was married to jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk and managed his career until his unexpected death in 1977. In 1979, she became one of the first employees at WBGO – New York/New Jersey’s only full-time jazz station. During her tenure, Kirk served as special events and community relations coordinator, organizing Jazzathon fundraisers, children’s concerts, and the WBGO art gallery –all of which still exist today. On the podcast, Kirk discusses how she turned her love of jazz into a career and why she continues to advocate for the form.
Transcript available soon.
2018 NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan was friend to many jazz icons, including NEA Jazz Masters Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, and Jazz Master Dorthaan Kirk’s husband Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Barkan owned legendary San Francisco jazz club Keystone Korner, and continued to work in jazz in various roles even after the club closed its doors in 1983. Barkan was a record producer with numerous labels and then artistic administrator at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Barkan joins the podcast to discuss his career trajectory, which began with producing concerts while attending in Oberlin College in 1964.
“Love is the Answer” composed and performed by Kenny Burrell feat. The Boys Choir of Harlem, from the album Love Is the Answer, used courtesy of Concord Records.
“Cuarto De Colores” composed by Arturo O’Farrill and performed by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra from the album, The Offense of the Drum, courtesy of Motema Music, LLC.
“Trane’s Blues” composed and performed by Miles Davis, from the album, Bluing: Miles Davis Plays the Blues, courtesy of Prestige.
“My Foolish Heart,” composed by Victor Young, performed by the Bill Evans Trio, from the album, Consecration, courtesy of Fantasy Records.
Todd Barkan: Well, what it means to me to be an NEA Jazz Master is a feeling of acceptance and recognition of particularly of my peers and colleagues and people that I’ve worked with all these years. It feels like coming full circle. It’s one of the most deeply moving experiences I’ve ever had in my whole life in music. Not particularly because it’s an award, as much as it is a feeling of recognition of my life’s work, especially from the people I really most deeply admire and respect, and that’s what’s most touching and most humbling about it. Because we are all lovers of the music. That’s one of the things about working in jazz over the years that has been one of my most abiding joys and sources of inspiration is how much love I feel for so many of the people that work in jazz. I’m feeling like I’m getting my love returned.
Jo Reed: That is 2018 NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Jazz impresario Todd Barkan’s name is inextricably linked with one of the nation’s legendary jazz clubs: the Keystone Korner. Todd opened the San Francisco club in 1972 and it was almost immediately recognized as a musicians’ space. The Keystone Korner was known for Todd’s adventurous bookings and his ability to create a home for audiences and musicians alike. Todd Barkan ran the Keystone Korner with that philosophy for more than a decade until the club’s closing in 1983. And while that alone would make him a significant figure in the jazz world, Barkan also worked as a record producer, producing scores of albums for labels like Fantasy Milestone, Concord, and HighNote. He worked with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center—opening Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where Todd served as program director and MC. Todd Barkan’s deep love of jazz, his respect for the music and its practitioners, and his knack for curating exciting live performances has made him both a respected and beloved figure in the jazz world. Born in Nebraska and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Todd Barkan’s love of music goes back to his earliest childhood.
Todd Barkan: In our home in Columbus, Ohio, in particular, there was always music everywhere and we went to a lot of concerts. My parents were not musicians themselves, but they were real music fans, and some of that love rubbed off on me. And they had records and albums playing all the time, and radio stations playing all the time, and there was music. It was a house of music. And I took—started taking piano lessons really young, at the age of six, so there was always music happening in our home.
Jo Reed: This is the era of rock n’ roll. And yet jazz, somehow, is speaking to you. And I know it’s difficult, but I just wonder, can you remember what it was that you heard that did kindle your imagination?
Todd Barkan: Yeah, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, which was actually a very, very fertile place for jazz music at that time, much different than it is now in certain respects, although jazz is still very popular all over the Midwest. But, it was more almost like culture shock. I remember very well the music that really, really, really made me start thinking and whistling and singing along and making my heart really sing with it were the music of Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, actually Johnny Mathis had a jazz record that my parents had that I fell in love with, of all people. Sarah Vaughan, and then early Jimmy Smith. One of the records that really turned me around early in my life was Mingus Ah Um, with Charles Mingus. That music, I used to memorize all the music in it.
Jo Reed: Todd, specifically, what was it about the music?
Todd Barkan: It was the rhythm of the music, especially the rhythm, and the passion, the intensity of the music. It had a great lyric beauty to me, but also, the intensity. And I could feel that these people were all telling their own story in their own way, even when I couldn’t verbalize that. It was not until years later that I could say those words, but I could tell that these people were really so resolutely individualistic that it really fired my imagination.
Jo Reed: Well you certainly had one really important early mentor.
Todd Barkan: I met Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was on a bus, when I was nine years old, and he became a mentor to me. That was very important to me and that became an abiding relationship. We would spend a whole day just listening to alto saxophone players. Then we would spend another day listening to tenor saxophone players. Then we’d play, spend a day listening to stride piano players. I mean, to have that kind of guidance as a young person, you know, it wasn’t, you know, he didn’t give me quizzes and, you know, he wasn’t real pedantic about it. He just said, “Let’s listen to this, let’s listen to that.” It was just like let me share some food I really like with you. I feel like my whole, you know, my whole career in music really grew out of my friendships with the musicians that I met and got to work with.
Jo Reed: When you went to Oberlin, you began producing jazz concerts there, and you were just a kid. How did you do that?
Todd Barkan: First of all, yeah, I started working on some jazz concerts when I was Oberlin College when I started going there when I was 18, 19, 20 years old—because I had some relationships with some musicians already. I had met some musicians already, and I was able to reach out to the musicians that I knew and just make phone calls. And Oberlin was close enough to New York City that these people would come out. They would drive out to Oberlin. Dizzy came and played and that’s when I first met Kenny Barron. He played at Oberlin in 1964 with Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Kenny Barron, Chris White, and Rudy Collins. That’s when I met Miles Davis, when he came there with Ron Carter and Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. So, I mean, I was very lucky, but there were a lot of kids working together. It was the beginning of the Oberlin Jazz Society. Jazz was kind of an insurgent activity at that time, in the early Oberlin days. You weren’t supposed to play jazz in the practice rooms. Now there’s an Oberlin Jazz Building and an Oberlin Jazz Department, and a whole other. It’s evolved, but I was more in the early days.
Jo Reed: You moved to San Francisco right after Oberlin. That was in 1968. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Todd Barkan: But that—that was the earliest days, and when I, you know, moved out to San Francisco right after Oberlin, I drove out there in a 1941 Cadillac out to California. I started playing right away with a few bands out there, and one was called Quannie and the Quanditos. It was Afro-Cuban jazz band. Quannie and the Quanditos was a great—we played Mongo covers, mainly, and we worked all the time. So I went to the Keystone Korner, which was a blues bar at that time and I went there to get a job and I said, “You know, we can have Latin jazz on Monday nights, free spaghetti.” I was trying to get us a gig, you know. And the guy says, “I—I don’t know about that.” He says, “I’m trying to get rid of this place. Maybe you should buy this club.” I was 25 years old. “Maybe you should buy this club, and then you can hire your own band.” And I said, “Well, I’ve only got $8,500 to my name,” and he said, “Well, come back here in a couple days, and we’ll see what we can do.” So I came back in a couple days, and, voila, all of a sudden, at the age of 25, I owned my own jazz club, although it was a rock club and we made it a jazz club. We repainted the front of the club. He gave me two free nights of Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders that they owed to the club because they’d cancelled a bunch of times. And then all of a sudden, I had Michael White and Bobby Hutcherson and McCoy Tyner, and we were a jazz club.
Jo Reed: And you were off and running. At this point it’s 1972, tell me how the Keystone Korner fit into the culture of San Francisco.
Todd Barkan: To really understand Keystone Korner, you really have to understand that this is still a part of the hippy era. It was a psychedelic jazz club. We had psychedelic murals on the walls. We got ionizers to take the pot smoke out of the air so other customers could enjoy the music without any kind of impediment. So, it was really a hippy-kind-of-bohemian culture that the Keystone Korner grew out of. When I was in San Francisco, there were poets on the street and there were poets in the Keystone Korner handing out poems. There were all kinds of actors, people in the rock community and the jazz community and the classical musicians. The poets and the artists and the musicians would all hang out. There was a real bohemian scene. We were right around the corner from the City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. So, it was a much more of a concentrated artistic community, and also a very multifarious artistic community, and a much better integrated community than it is now. I mean, physically, you had a lot of people, you know, intermingling. It was a home for all kinds of people. One of the most important things about Keystone Korner was the integration of different vectors of our society coming together with our music, which is one of the main reasons that our music is so wonderful, because it does bring so many cultures together and groups of people.
Josephine Reed: Well, you were known for, and I’m quoting now, your “adventurous bookings.” You would have double bills and triple bills, and—but nobody was an opener because all the acts were equally talented.
Todd Barkan: I felt very fortunate that I was able to do a lot of those things, you know, to have adventuresome booking policies where we could have the Dexter Gordon Quartet and the Bobby Hutcherson Quintet and the Max Roach Quartet. And then, I could just put up on the marquis, “Max, Dex, Hutch,” and, you know, I had three bands playing, nonstop from 8:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning. And nobody was an opening act; nobody was a closing act. Everybody was, you know, that was the wonderful thing. It was a real blessing to be able to use the Keystone Korner kind of as an open canvas to do paint many pictures and create many kinds of interesting combinations.
Josephine Reed: Well, musicians loved the club. They loved playing there. It was a musician’s space. How did you make that happen? How did you allow that to happen?
Todd Barkan: Well, I mean, being a musician myself, I think that was a good starting place.
It just evolved very naturally. From the very beginning, it became a home away from home for all the musicians who were playing there. And you know, that’s been one of the mixed blessings of my life in music is perhaps sometimes I’ve been told that I love the music too much, but I’m very proud of that, and I’m going to take that with me all the rest of my days, you know, working with the music. But it became a musician’s place because of all the love that we put into it and all the people we had working there. I mean, the person at the door would be a musician, person in the ticket booth would generally be a musician, and if they weren’t a musician, they were somebody that just totally loved the music.
The sound man and the people working in the office, I mean, we went out of our way to have people that were really committed to playing the music. For one thing, we couldn’t pay that tremendously well, so that made it a lot easier if you were working with people that really loved the music and didn’t need to be tremendously well paid. So that happened very naturally. We had a tremendously dedicated staff of people. The love that was put into there—we made it a home for the musicians. It was a place to play but also a place to hang out. When the gigs were over at night that was just maybe the half-way point. I mean people would hangout until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning or sometimes even later than that. It was a home away from home for the musicians.
Jo Reed: And Musicians came together a couple of times and did benefits for Keystone Korner. For example, for you getting your liquor license, not just beer.
Todd Barkan: When it came time when we needed to raise money for a liquor license or to knock down a wall and add some space and build a kitchen, musicians actually got together and organized benefit concert to raise funds in bigger halls, like the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, my childhood friend, and Freddie Hubbard, who lived in Los Angeles, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones, who were all regular friends of the Keystone Korner. My friends and friends that loved the club—and we raised enough money for a liquor license in 1975. And then Grover Washington, Jr., who was the best man at my wedding, and George Benson, who was one of the earliest artists who played at the Keystone Korner regularly, they did another benefit concert where we built a kitchen and you know, added space and a new ventilation system. So, like I was saying, it was the musicians who helped create this club.
Jo Reed: I read a great story that you told about Miles Davis.
Todd Barkan: Well, talking about friends and the importance of friends in my life and at the Keystone Korner, Miles Davis was the only musician that actually gave us back money. He loved to play the Keystone Korner. At one time, he played a whole week there—six nights and it was a wonderful experience. And we had taken in enough money, we were really taking a big risk for this gig.
We were paying him $12,500 for the week and it was in 1974. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. And I paid the band off because we paid all the musicians in cash, there weren’t any checks. So Miles played a whole week at the Keystone Korner and on Saturday night I paid the band, the roadie was actually the percussionist, Mtume. So I paid Mtume $12,500 cash and I felt good. You know, whatever we take in on Sunday is our money, and I felt really good about the whole thing. And the very next night, Mtume comes back and he’s got one of my envelopes in his hand and it had $2,500 in the envelope. He hands it back to me and he said, “Miles wants you to have this $2,500 because he knows you need it a lot more than he does.” They were very flush at that time. And he said, “Listen, he knows you need this money to pay your bills and he always appreciates playing here, so you take this money back.”
Jo Reed: That’s a great story.
Todd Barkan: So that’s, you know, that’s the kind of thing you live for in our music, and it’s just an indication how sometimes things are not what they appear to be in terms of, you know, Miles was known for being very gruff and very difficult. But he could also took really good care of his friends and people that he really cared about.
Jo Reed: You recorded dozens of albums at Keystone Korner. What was your thinking behind that? What made you decide to do it? How did you arrange to do it? There was money issues, so this had to be an extra cost as well.
Todd Barkan: It was. Well, we basically tried to record as much as we could at Keystone Korner, merely as archival recordings, because it was very evident very quickly that there was a lot of very special music being played at Keystone Korner and we didn’t want it just all to go up in thin air. So we would record, like, on cassettes and then we got real fancy and we had a reel-to-reel player. The quality is mixed. Sometimes it comes out very clear, and sometimes it’s at the mercy of how the, you know, how the band was mic’d at that time. There were some real recording sessions, live recording sessions done at Keystone Korner, like, for example, Rahsaan Roland Kirk Bright Moments, and McCoy Tyner Atlantis, and Yusef Lateef Ten Years Hence, and Tete Montioliu
Live at the Keystone Korner. But that was maybe only 15 to 20 sessions during the whole 11 year existence of Keystone Korner. Otherwise, I tried to record as often as I could archivally. There were a few artists that didn’t want to be recorded under any circumstances and that’s fine. The great Bill Evans, when he was there at Keystone Korner, asked me to record because I think Bill Evans had a sense that it was the end of his days, which it turned out to be right before he passed.
Todd Barkan: So, with Bill Evans, it was at the request of the artist, and even though they were archival recordings, they wound up to be very important because it was at the end of his life, and there wound up to be 16 CDs that came out of that recording, basically all made on cassette.
Jo Reed: And that’s The Last Waltz and Consecration.
Todd Barkan: And Consecration, yeah.
Jo Reed: How big was Keystone Korner? How many people did it seat?
Todd Barkan: Well, when we started out, when we first moved into Keystone Korner, it was about 140 to 150 seats. When we closed, we were closer to 200 seats, so it grew as we knocked down a wall here and there.
Jo Reed: And how much were tickets?
Todd Barkan: Tickets, when we started out, were $3 during the week and $3.50 on the weekend; $1.50 or $2 on Monday nights. And then we had student prices, which were half price for students with student IDs, any night but Friday and Saturday. I was definitely overly idealistic and overly utopian. And if I had to do it all over again, I probably would be the same. I really am proud to get the music to people for the most reasonable price possible in the most humanistically engaging way, just creating a loving environment for both the music and the people listening to the music.
Jo Reed: That is not a lot of money, even then.
Todd Barkan: No, it wasn’t. It was very reasonable. Even then, it reminded of one wonderful story. When Sonny Rollins first played there, we were all excited because Sonny Rollins was coming to the club, and we couldn’t have been more excited, and we raised the ticket price to $4. We were really pumped up. And so, Sonny Rollins, the first set he played was exactly a half hour long, and he thought it was, like, two hours. He was just into it. Nobody left. We didn’t clear the house in those days, anyway, so people stayed for the next set. So I said, “Sonny, wasn’t that a little short? I think we need to make it, like, closer to an hour. That would be nice.” You know, but I didn’t get upset; I was just puzzled. And he said, “Todd, uh, we won’t call them sets. We’ll call them episodes.” So, I took out my Marks-A-Lot, you know, and I put a new sign up in the window with my Scotch Tape and a new piece of stationery. It said, “Continuous music from 9:30 until 2:00,” you know, and he did about three episodes, you know, that evening. But, we went with the flow, you know, and—but that was one of the greatest virtues of that place, you know. I mean, sometimes the sets—guys would play for two hours if the musicians felt like it. Musicians were supreme in that type of environment, you know.
Jo Reed: And, unfortunately, it also closed in 1983. It was just untenable, financially?
Todd Barkan: No, it wasn’t making a lot of money and it closed because, you know, we had financial difficulties. But also, I think we could, at the very end, we could have raised some money, had I been able to renegotiate my lease. So it was a combination of not being able to get my lease and also you know struggling financially, which I always worked by the seat of my pants.
Jo Reed: And then you pulled up stakes and moved clear across the country to New York City.
Todd Barkan: Right, I moved back here in 1983 and I’m very glad I did come back here. But, I’ll always have a tinge of melancholy for my San Francisco experience because it was my foundational experience for my whole life in this music. But one of the most wonderful things about our jazz community is that we’re at home no matter where we are, all over the world. When I came back here, I had many, many friends and started doing some bookings for a club called Lush Life and I renewed my life in the music and started working with the Boys Choir of Harlem.
Jo Reed: Yes, I would love to talk to you about your work with the Boys Choir of Harlem. They sing in so many different styles, their music has such a wide net. And you added jazz to their repertoire.
Todd Barkan: One of the most important things I’ve done in my life in music was working with the Boys Choir of Harlem because I helped create a working ensemble that traveled all over the world.
Jo Reed: You took them on their first tour.
Todd Barkan: Right, I took them on their first national and international tours. I put them together with people like Kenny Burrell and Billy Taylor and Grady Tate and other musicians and we did recordings together. Kenny Burrell did a great recording with him called “Love is the Answer,” which he wrote the music and the lyrics for.
Todd Barkan: Doing that work with the Boys Choir of Harlem was one of the most satisfying experiences of my whole life in music. Working with kids in general, it has to be one of the greatest experiences you can have as a musician, creative person, a producer, or any other kind of function we have in the music, because you always feel like you could be affecting the rest of their lives. Working with children, which I even was recently able to do with the Jazz House Kids for Christian McBride and Melissa Walker and that wonderful organization. And it was one of the most heartwarming experiences of my life, because you can tell, out of a group of maybe 100 kids, that four or five of those kids are going to, you know, turn around and be listening to Sara Vaughan the rest of their lives or John Coltrane, or whatever you’re able to really stimulate there. Instill them with the love you feel, because one of the most wonderful things about our music is that it becomes your friend for the rest of your life. You can turn to it and it’s always there for you. It’s one of the most reliable friends you could ever have. So, with young people, the main responsibility we have who work for this music, is to make them feel that love. It’s all positive.
Jo Reed: I do want to talk about your producing. Because you produced hundreds of jazz recordings. Tell me about the work of a producer. I mean, we all see produced by, but what does that mean?
Todd Barkan: That’s a good question. Well, I started producing albums as kind of a function of having the Keystone Korner and doing some recordings out of there. Some of my earliest experiences producing were with people that were integral parts of the Keystone Korner, like Bobby Hutcherson. But being a jazz producer, being a record producer, is a special kind of situation because you have to wear a lot of hats. To be a producer in the jazz world, you have to be a combination of producer, director, cinematographer, camera grip, and a whole lot of things. The only thing you don’t usually do is run the soundboard, some producers even do that. The main job of a jazz recording producer is to create the nicest environment for the music that you can create, work with the leader in artistically putting together a program. A producer in a jazz recording is intimately involved in you can’t go over the budget, a very real budget. Most of the times you get a finite budget and if you go over the budget you have to pay that out of your own pocket. You have to have control over the budget, but you want to still keep as much artistic love and artistic support. You want to create as welcoming and engaging an environment for the music as you possibly can. In terms of putting together the band and putting together the repertoire and putting together the artistic components. You work in varying degrees, depending on how hands-on the leader is. You give them feedback. That take was seven minutes long, eight minutes long, you know, nine minutes long, so it won’t get much play on the radio. But at the same time, you want to encourage them to express themselves artistically. And sometimes eight minutes is the way it is because that’s what artistically as wonderful as it is. Our music, sometimes takes eight or ten minutes to really tell the story we want it to tell.
Jo Reed: And jumping way ahead, you produced the 2015 Grammy Award Winner for Latin Jazz Album, which was Arturo O’Farrill’s The Offense of the Drum.
Jo Reed: And this had to be really gratifying for you because you worked with his father too.
Todd Barkan: I started playing the music when I got to San Francisco, and then when I came here to New York City, one of the first groups I worked with was Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, which was a very wonderful, cutting-edge Latin jazz band, which led to me starting working with Chico O’Farrill, who was Arturo O’Farrill’s father.
Todd Barkan: And so, I started working with Chico O’Farrill on his comeback record in 1995-96, and then I got to work with Bebo Valdes, and then I got to work with Arturo O’Farrill, Chico’s son, and even Arturo O’Farrill’s children. So I’ve worked with three generations of the O’Farrill family. So I feel like that’s my Latin jazz family, and I’ve had the privilege and the honor to work with those people.
Josephine Reed: You bump into Wynton Marsalis as you’re walking down the street, and suddenly, it’s another page turner for you. What happened?
Todd Barkan: So, in ’81-’82, I had the opportunity to work with Wynton Marsalis as part of the Art Blakey Band. Then, you know, like in a movie, the leaves of the calendar turn, blow in the wind, I’m living in New York and I’m walking down the street, and I bump into Wynton Marsalis on 8th Avenue, and he says to me, “Oh, man,” he says, “I’m starting Jazz at Lincoln Center, and we’re going to have a jazz club in there, and maybe you should come there and work.” And lo and behold, I wind up starting to work with Jazz at Lincoln Center at the turn of this century. I’m working with a guy that I had first worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, 20 years before in my own club. Now I wind up helping to start Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and do so much other work with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Jo Reed: So you booked the acts, and you were the MC. Dizzy’s isn’t Keystone Korner. I mean, it’s—it’s different. But obviously, there’s some overlap, too. What went into your thoughts when you booked Dizzy’s?
Todd Barkan: Well, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola is like a dream come true in terms of creating a wonderfully utopian place for a jazz club with ideal acoustics. It’s a wonderful environment for our music. It’s one of the greatest jazz clubs ever created, physically and artistically. Dizzy’s was another kind of challenge, because Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola being one of three major venues in Jazz at Lincoln Center, we had to integrate the activities of this new creation, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with the other venues. Sometimes I felt like I had less latitude for creating triple bills or double bills, two-hour sets and whatever else I wanted to do, creating festivals in the club. Dizzy’s was another kind of challenge, because Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola being one of three major venues in Jazz at Lincoln Center, we had to integrate the activities of this new creation, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, with the other venues. But at the same time, you know, there were strict set times, and sometimes I—you know, sometimes I felt less—like I had less latitude in terms of creating, you know, triple bills and double bills, and—and all kind—you know, two-hour sets and whatever else I wanted to do, creating festivals in the club. I wound up creating the Women in Jazz Festival at Dizzy’s, and the Generations in Jazz Festival. Now, the Generations in Jazz Festival is still part of my living legacy at Dizzy’s and that happens in September and we have hundreds of musicians play for the whole month of September.
Jo Reed: It’s really hard to balance business with such a deep love for jazz and jazz musicians. You know, it’s a challenge for anyone.
Todd Barkan: Well, I know I’m naïve and I know I’m a little utopian, but I never would have become a jazz club owner if I weren’t that way. I really didn’t know what I was doing when I opened up Keystone Korner, except that I loved jazz. Fortunately, I had enough belief and enough unbelievable energy and dedication to keep at it, to work 16, 18 hours a day, and more. I still feel that kind of utopian idealism. I still feel that. Sometimes I think to myself, Todd, you’re still very impractical in many ways. And I’ve paid for that impracticality, financially and in other ways. But I’m very proud of it at the same time. Take care of the music and the music will take care of you, which has kind of become my motto over the last 50 years or so. I do feel hope swings eternal. So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Jo Reed: That is 2018 NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan. The NEA has just named the 2019 Class of Jazz Masters. They are, drum roll please:Abdullah Ibrahim,Bob Dorough, Maria Schneider, and Stanley Crouch. Find out more about the NEA Jazz Masters— past and present at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Worksproduced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Workswherever you get your podcasts—so please do. And if you’re so inclined, leave us a rating on Apple—it really does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
2012 NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Owens is an educator, trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, and arranger. Owens has performed alongside a number of jazz legends, and his works have been performed internationally by some of the world’s most renowned orchestras. Owens helped found Collective Black Artists, a nonprofit jazz education and performing organization, and the Jazz Musician's Emergency Fund, a program to help individual musicians with medical, financial, and housing assistance. You can hear more about his advocacy and why he refers to jazz as “the heartbeat of the world” on the podcast.
Jimmy Owens: When I was three or four years old, my father used to pick me up and dance with me, holding me in his arms. And there we had a big mirror in the living room, so I used to love to see myself in the mirror and my father, with me in his arms, dancing to Duke Ellington and Art Tatum and Billie Holliday. So that was my introduction to the music I'm sure.
Jo Reed: That was the great trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and now 2012 Jazz Master, Jimmy Owens.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
There is little in the world of jazz that Jimmy Owens hasn't done. For most people, playing outstanding trumpet and flugelhorn would be enough but that's jimmy's starting point; he is also a composer, arranger, educator, and advocate for jazz and jazz artists. He has played with almost every jazz musician of note from Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to Benny Golson and Kenny Barron. He has extensive work as a bandleader and as a soloist. His musical compositions are wide-ranging with scores for orchestras, films, and ballets, as well as for smaller jazz bands.
As an educator, Owens has conducted workshops, seminars, lectures, and concerts at major colleges and universities throughout the world. He was one of the founders of Collective Black Artists, a not-for-profit jazz education and performing organization, and he's served as director of the Jazzmobile program. Jimmy also sits on the board of the Jazz Foundation of America and is a past board member of New York City's American Federation of Musicians, Local 802. In 1990, he was instrumental in the founding of the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund which helps individual musicians with medical, financial, and housing assistance. Jimmy Owens has also served on numerous music panels for the New York City Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Given all he has done and continues to do, it is little wonder that he was named a 2012 Jazz Master. Soon after the announcement of the award, I spoke with Jimmy Owens in NYC. I began our conversation by asking him about his musical introduction to the trumpet.
Jimmy Owens: Well, my introduction to the trumpet was at age 10, and I am a product of the New York City public school system. So I learned music in a special music class, which doesn't exist in enough schools these days. And I took it from there, went to the High School of Music and Art and graduated. I just had my 50th graduation reunion.
Jo Reed: Wow. And Music and Art, of course, is one of the best music schools in the country for high schools.
Jimmy Owens: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Jimmy, what was it about the trumpet that just…
Jimmy Owens: I think what it was really about the trumpet was that when my father picked me up and danced, he played things like Duke Ellington's Trumpets No End. And I had a favorite recording of Charley Shavers, one of our great trumpet players, doing this song called Dizzy's Dilemma and She's Funny That Way. I still have the record, a 78 record. I think that that programmed the trumpet in my ear. And then, Louis Armstrong, you know, just with his success and everything, being able to see him on television, that's what I wanted to do.
Jo Reed: You had success come to you at such an early age.
Jimmy Owens: Well, I don't know if it's success. It's experience that I talk about. I mean, my father took me to see Miles Davis at Small's Paradise.
Jo Reed: Which is in Harlem.
Jimmy Owens: In Harlem, yes, 135th Street it was. And Miles asked me if I played the trumpet. I said yes. He said, "Here. Play me a tune." And I took his horn and put my mouthpiece in and played one of the songs that I knew, "Walkin'." And he was quite impressed and said to the pianist, Bill Evans, "Hey, you hear this kid playing?" And Bill said no. He says, "Here, play it again." So I started to play it again, and then the band joined me. And the band, being Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. So, I played Walkin', and Miles said, "Go ahead and play another one." And I played another song, "Bags' Groove” of his. That was my introduction to years and years of acquaintanceship with Miles Davis. I won't say friendship because we didn't see each other enough to be friends, but a good acquaintanceship and then becoming a professional musician and working on the same stage as Miles Davis many times was very important.
Jo Reed: I love that story, because one always has the impression of Miles Davis as being kind of gruff and standoffish and not somebody who would say to a kid, "Hey, kid, yeah, use my trumpet."
Jimmy Owens: I think people feel that because that's what was reported about him. But as you got to know Miles and you were around him, he was a very sweet person and a very shy person. So, I mean, like when he approached those particular situations, I guess his shyness came out and then his what people would say was his rudeness would come out.
Jo Reed: Uh-huh.
Jimmy Owens: I think the majority of the time, the writers that wrote about him wrote about those things. You know, "Oh, he turned his back on the audience,” you know, or "He walked off the stage.” Those things are really not important.
Jo Reed: The music.
Jimmy Owens: Yeah. The music was important.
Jo Reed: You were part of the Newport Youth Band.
Jimmy Owens: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: Tell us about that experience with Marshall Brown.
Jimmy Owens: Yes. Marshall Brown was one of our very first jazz educators to really gain a lot of success. He put together a band in 1958 called "The International Youth Band,” where he managed to get people from all over the world to join this band. And then, in 1959, he started the Newport Youth Band. I was in the second version of that band. And it was a wonderful experience. When you turned 17, you had to leave the band. Well, I was 16 at that time, and we, every now and then, we would have to stay out of school on a Friday or a Monday because we had a gig someplace, you know. And it was really about learning how to be a professional musician. And that's what he taught us. And the mentors that we had were the kinds of people who were already professional musicians who gave us all of this wonderful information, musically as well as things like being on time. You know, not to be there at 12 o'clock when the rehearsal started at 12, because you had to take your instrument out and put your instrument together. So, it meant being there quarter to 12. And things like that, that really came in very handy in my life as I went on to be a professional musician. And some of the great musicians who came out of that band are still very active professionally.
Jo Reed: I was really struck that Marshall Brown also wanted to be sure that everybody joined the union.
Jimmy Owens: He made us join the union. I joined the union in 1959. And in looking at my pension report that much later, I saw where I had my first contribution in 1959. The Newport Youth Band did a recording session, and we were paid union scale, and money went into the pension fund for me at that time. That was the beginning of the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund.
Jo Reed: Well, becoming a professional musician I know is a very important part of what you take on as a jazz educator.
Jimmy Owens: Uh-huh.
Jo Reed: Conceptually there's the music, but then there's also the practicality of what it means to be a professional.
Jimmy Owens: Yes. Well, you know a lot of that foundation was given to us by Marshall Brown. And as we went out into the real world after the Newport Youth Band, the people who were sensible with their lives, who didn't get sidetracked by substance abuse or something like that. For those who had their head on straight, they look back at what Marshall Brown taught us, and it was really fantastic. And I have to tell you that, oh, about five or six years ago-- I was involved with something with the Library of Congress and found out that the Library of Congress had many, many tapes that Voice of America had recorded. And if you had been on that recording, you could get a copy of it. It cost money. It cost a little bit of money. And I wound up getting copies of the Newport Youth Band performance at the 1960 Jazz Festival at Newport, where a special work was written by Ernie Wilkins, great saxophonist and arranger, who had notoriety with the Count Basie Band, composed this piece for Cannonball Adderley and our alto saxophonist, Andy Marsala, who was 17 at the time. And we premiered that at Newport. We actually performed it twice before the big riot happened and everything was over. But it was recorded the one time that we performed it. And it was great to hear that band. And I tell a number of the students that the bands of today are not as good as the Newport Youth Band was, the high school bands and the college bands. We were really excellent. And we had some of the greatest music written for us at that time. So, all of this sets a tremendous foundation for me to be able to learn more about all of this stuff and to start to give it out to people when I could. And I think about all the people who helped me tremendously. The Donald Byrds, you know, the Billy Taylors, early on Randy Weston teaching me a lot about music publishing and the importance of certain elements. Donald Byrd was doing that to me, you know, teaching me about the business. And just from being around him at 15, 16 years of age, I saw a lot of things that I always remembered saying, "Well, damn, I didn't know that jazz musicians were, ‘that bad off' in many instances.” You know, not having the abundance of money that I thought a great jazz musician would have, and the abundance of being able to do what he or she wanted to do anytime they wanted to do that, you know. So, it was quite a learning experience that carried me on and on. Then it got me involved with all of the types of things that I eventually got involved with to try to help my jazz musician community.
Jo Reed: And especially the youth of that community.
Jimmy Owens: Well, the youth of that community because education was the important element in my having this information. You know, the p Feople like Cannonball Adderley and Nat Adderley, they would answer questions, J.J. Johnson would answer questions when I would go to see them and I would ask them questions, you know. I was one of those people that was always asking questions. And here I'm too young-- I was too young at that time to go to the clubs. But the club, the original Birdland on 52nd Street and Broadway had an area where--actually, it was one or two tables at maximum--where young people could go and sit, and they would just serve us, you know, Coca-Cola or orange soda, whatever. And I used to go all the time and listen to the musicians and then be able to talk to them and what-not, and they would answer my questions. So, that set the foundation for me to know that that's what I had to do as I got older.
Jo Reed: You and the NEA go back a long way. How did you first get involved in the Endowment?
Jimmy Owens: Walter Anderson, who was the director for the music program at that time, had mentioned to Nancy Hanks that he wanted to have Jimmy Owens come and join the panel. So, I joined what was called at that time the Jazz Folk Ethnic Music Panel. And from there, my involvement with the endowment continued right up until today. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I was going to say, 2012. <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: We had some wonderful times in helping many, many jazz artists over the years to improve on what they were doing by being able to get grants. It's unfortunate that we don't give grants now to individuals, you know, except for, like, the Jazz Masters, you know. But over the years, musicians were able to get composition fellowships, performance fellowships, travel study grants, all of those things that were very, very important to many musicians who every now and then they would speak to me and say, "Hey, man, you helped me get a grant in 1973, and that made the difference, you know, for how I became a professional musician.”
Jo Reed: Well, you have played with extraordinary people. Playing with Duke Ellington, what was that like for you? How old were you then?
Jimmy Owens: Nineteen sixty-eight, so I was 24, 25.
Jo Reed: How was it coming into that orchestra?
Jimmy Owens: Oh, it was fantastic. But, you know, at that particular time, I had given up the road, and I just went back with Duke Ellington because Mercer called me and said, "Hey, you know, we need a trumpet player. Would you like to do this for a while?" I said, "Great. Yes." So, I stayed with Duke just a short amount of time, maybe three or four months. And in that time, I did a movie with him called "Change of Mind." And it was fantastic to see him work on this movie and how we recorded the music and how he was composing the music right on the set of the studio. <laughs>
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: That was fantastic, you know. And the other individuals that I performed with, it was always a learning experience. Lionel Hampton, you know, great saxophonist, Hank Crawford, Charles Mingus, you know.
Jo Reed: What was it like working with Charles Mingus?
Jimmy Owens: It was a very interesting experience. Mingus would constantly fire a group of the musicians in the group, then would play with his small group. Then after one or two songs, he says, "Okay. Well, maybe I'll hire these guys back.” <laughs>
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: So, you know, and we'd come back on the stage and perform one of these compositions, you know. It was a tremendous learning experience.
Jo Reed: You were one of the founding members of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band?
Jimmy Owens: Yes.
Jo Reed: And that's another all-star band.
Jimmy Owens: That's right. Thad had called me to see if I wanted to be in the band. And we rehearsed every Monday at midnight. And the hour was set so the other musicians, who were all top flight performing artists, many of them working every day in the recording studios of New York City, that was the best time for them to not have any conflicts with record dates. So, we would rehearse from midnight until about 2:30, 3 o'clock, always in time to break so Thad and a number of the guys could go and get a drink at that late hour, or I should say early hour. <laughs> His music was fantastic. I stayed with the band, and we started at the Village Gate--no, Village Vanguard, excuse me. Village Vanguard, and I left the band when I was working with Herbie Mann, and we were going to Japan and doing a long tour on the West Coast. So I had to leave the band at that time. But when I came back, I started to do some subs for trumpet players who couldn't make it, you know.
Jo Reed: You also toured with Dizzy Gillespie.
Jimmy Owens: Yes. That's right. Actually, I helped the arranger, Gail Fuller, put together the band in 1968. It was called the Reunion Band, and it was a reunion of musicians who had played in the 1956 band, the 1947 band, the 1956 band and now this 1968 band. And we had a wonderful series of concerts in Europe. We stayed over in Europe for three weeks playing concerts all over. And there were a lot of television shows done. And some of those exist today. I've seen one, I've seen one where I was featured on my composition. It was called "Milan is Love,” that I had written for my daughter at that time. She was one-year-old when I wrote the song in '67 for her. And Dizzy performed it and recorded it, you know. So, I mean, like that was a great experience. And again, I'm learning all the time about the life and the plight of the professional jazz artist. By that time, 1968, I'd played a number of benefits for musicians who had gotten ill, couldn't work, couldn't pay a hospital bill, couldn't pay rent or something. And there were always benefits at places like the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate. And that's what turned me on to, hey, something has to happen to make this different. We've done this too many times.
Jo Reed: Is that when you began Collective Black Artists?
Jimmy Owens: Well, that's part of that time. The Collective Black Artists was to help the musicians who were a part of that organization to kind of set more of their own destiny. So, we performed concerts. We performed an ensemble called the Collective Black Artists Ensemble, the CBA Ensemble. And we started to get concerts, you know. We worked up and down the East Coast, Boston, you know, Washington DC; we went out to Detroit. And we did many concerts. And then we started performing in New York at Town Hall. And we had about four years of doing six concerts a year, where we had guest artists come and perform with the CBA Ensemble, who you usually didn't see with a big band. Max Roach, Art Blakey, Archie Shepp, Randy Weston, you know, all of these musicians who you usually did not see in front of a big band. And we would write music, you know, we'd have people write music. Or, like, we did a concert with Benny Golson, and Benny Golson contributed a lot of his music. So, that was important of getting musicians work and being able to help them set their own destiny a little better. The thing that really came into existence in 1989 was the Jazz Foundation of America and the Jazz Musician Emergency Fund, which, along with Jamil Nasser, a very fine bassist, who had worked for many years with Ahmad Jamal. And way back in the '70s, we had said to each other, "This has to stop. We've played too many benefits. We go to too many funerals of musicians that, because they didn't have health insurance, they didn't take care of the illness that they had." And we were both involved with the Jazz Foundation of America and established the Jazz Musician Emergency Fund.
Jo Reed: No, as I understand it, one thing that you were really committed to with the Jazz Emergency Fund was that it would go to individual artists, not to organizations necessarily.
Jimmy Owens: Yes, most definitely individuals, because that's what-- where the problem was, you know? A musician gets ill, can't work, doesn't have health insurance, and bills mount up, so we established things to try to help that situation. We had a idea that I put together called the Physicians Network-- a number of doctors who played music, who loved jazz. And I said-- well, to one person, when he said to me, "Well, if it hadn't been for jazz, I wouldn't have never gotten through medical school, because it gave me the income to help with my medical school expenses.” So I said, "Well, would you like to give back?” And what we established was this Physicians Network, where these doctors would see two jazz artists a year, and take them through whatever was necessary for them to get well, free of charge. And that still is in existence. We really function now with a hospital in New Jersey, in the hospital where Dizzy Gillespie was, in Englewood, New Jersey-- Englewood Hospital. And they have provided, since the early 1990s, over about $5 million worth of free care for jazz artists and their families. So this is one of the things that I'm very, very happy about being involved with.
Jo Reed: I did want to talk about Local 802 because what you did was you kind of breathed new life into the Jazz Advisory Committee.
Jimmy Owens: Right. Well, we started a Jazz Committee, and it was Benny Powell, one of our great master trombonists, that said, "Hey, it needs to be named the Jazz Advisory Committee, because we should be advising Local 802 officials how to deal with the jazz musician and the jazz community.”
Jo Reed: Right, because it's different from a violinist playing at the Philharmonic.
Jimmy Owens: Oh, yeah, exactly. And the violinist performing at the Philharmonic has the possibility of getting a pension.
Jo Reed: Right.
Jimmy Owens: And they're going to have health insurance. And the musician who works on Broadway are going to have those same things. And the jazz musician, I mean, we're still fighting the jazz clubs, where jazz musicians are performing all the time, who won't pay into the American Federation of Musicians' pension fund, won't pay into the health plan for musicians when they work at those clubs.
Jo Reed: On a happier note, Jimmy, you've had a long relationship with Dr. Billy Taylor and collaborated with him on a number of projects, including the Jazzmobile. Explain what the Jazzmobile is for people who might not know.
Jimmy Owens: Well, Jazzmobile started out as a concert stage on a truck, and the truck would move around the vicinity where a concert was going to be, and then it would stop in a place where the concert was going to be, and there would be this great jazz concert. And Billy Taylor saw the need that we needed to bring great jazz artists at first to Harlem, where the people were not going to go downtown and spend the big bucks to see a Duke Ellington, a Count Basie. And he brought all of those people up to Harlem to perform on the Jazzmobile.
Jo Reed: And you've been teaching at the New School.
Jimmy Owens: I started teaching at the New School in 1990. I had taught in a few other places. It was always one day, maximum two days. I was out at the Old Westbury, the State University, New York, and I actually taught two days, and I did that for four years. But this is in between performing. I'm still traveling to Europe and still performing concerts all over the United States at that time, you know? And, as I tell people, I'm a musician first. I'm an advocate second, because I am a musician and have learned the problems that my community has been having, and, with the help of numerous other people, developed programs to try to solve some of these problems.
Jo Reed: Okay, I have a question about the music. When did the flugelhorn come into your repertoire?
Jimmy Owens: I was playing flugelhorn way back at the Newport Youth Band, so trumpet and flugelhorn. Clark Terry was one of the very, very dear people who had played the flugelhorn with Duke Ellington's band. In actuality, he got his first flugelhorn in 1956 on a record date with Billy Taylor. And they brought it in in a box, and he played it on this recording session, you know? And him and Billy always used to laugh about that, because that was the start of Clark's playing flugelhorn. Well, I started to play flugelhorn with the Newport Youth Band, and after that I'm in high school. The sound of the instrument was wonderful. I had a flugelhorn that was a-- it was a French Besson, and I had to have some work done on my horn, so I was up at this music store, and I looked up on the wall. I said-- it was Bob Giardinelli-- I said, "Bob, what is that?” He said, "Oh, that's a German flugelhorn.” It had rotary valves like a French horn. Instead of the valves going up and down like a trumpet, that we were used to seeing, these valves would go around when you pushed them down, just like a French horn. So I said, "can I see it?” He took it down. This-- it's a brand-new instrument. So I went to put my mouthpiece in, and it was too large for my mouthpiece to go in-- my flugelhorn mouthpiece. So he says, "No, you got to play this mouthpiece.” So I put that mouthpiece in, and I played one note, and it just said, "Wahhhh.” It just spoke to me, and I said, "Man, how much is this?” He says, "That's $100.” I reached in my pocket, I gave him the $100, and that was my first flugelhorn, and I've stayed with that company ever since-- Alexander. It's a company that made the world's greatest French horn, all of the French hornists in all of the American symphony orchestras who are playing Alexander French horns.
Jo Reed: Now, I know this might be a tough question, but if you had to describe the difference in sound between a trumpet and a flugelhorn?
Jimmy Owens: The trumpet is a very bright instrument. The flugelhorn has a much darker sound because it has a larger bell and a larger overall tubing throughout the whole instrument, so it has a tendency to sing more than the trumpet.
Jo Reed: Now, when you compose, then, you compose for the trumpet, you compose for the flugelhorn.
Jimmy Owens: Sometimes, yes.
Jo Reed: How do you decide which way you're going to go? <laughs>
Jimmy Owens: Well, it's the sound of the work that you're composing or that you're going to perform. I don't like to play the flugelhorn fast. I don't like to play the flugelhorn high. That's not part of its true meaning to me. So I will play a ballad on the flugelhorn. I will play things in a medium tempo on the flugelhorn. And if it's more excitement that I need, I will take the trumpet.
Jo Reed: You said that, "Jazz is the heartbeat of the world.” Tell me what you meant by that.
Jimmy Owens: Well, I've noticed that in my travels and performances all over the world that the people, when they hear great jazz perform, they love it, and it's just like a heartbeat, that you have to have that kind of performance wherever you are, whether it's Japan or a number of places that I don't feel that I will ever be able to go back to perform--Pakistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel-- many places that have so much turmoil happening. But when the music was being performed, and it was great jazz, the people loved it, and our heartbeats became one. I was telling someone the other day, I just did some concerts in Paraguay. I was telling people down there that I had performed in Managua, Nicaragua. And I started the concert with a spiritual: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. And as I started to play it, all of a sudden, I heard people singing with me, and then finally the whole audience started to sing this melody. It brought tears to me. I started to cry. My musicians were shocked, because we had never seen or heard anything like that in the places that we were performing. And it was a wonderful experience, and to know that this music that we perform is felt all over the world. It's like a heartbeat.
Jo Reed: As we said, you've had such a long affiliation with the NEA. What did you think when you found out that you were a Jazz Master? How did you find out?
Jimmy Owens: I was very, very happy. When Wayne Brown called me, I was on a bus going home. He says, "Well, Jimmy, can I talk to you now?” I said, "Well, yeah. I'm on a bus now.” He says, "Well, when will you be home?” I said, "Oh, in about 10 minutes.” So he called me back to tell me that I had been declared an NEA Jazz Master. Now, I have been involved with the NEA, like I said, from 1972. I've been on numerous jazz panels and music panels, where we were not talking about J-A-Z-Z. So this was a very, very rewarding situation. I'd been there to help select numerous Jazz Masters over the years, you know? I'd been on many panels that do that. So I was very, very happy that my work had been recognized to the extent where I was then being looked at as a Jazz Master.
Jo Reed: Jimmy Owens, many congratulations. It is so richly deserved, and thank you for your time.
Jimmy Owens: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was trumpeter,and flugelhorn player, and 2012 Jazz Master, Jimmy Owens, who is celebrating his birthday December 9! Here's wishing Jimmy a great year! And speaking of great years…. Don't miss the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Awards Ceremony. It will take place at 7:30 p.m. on January 10, 2012, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Along with Jimmy Owens, the NEA is honoring Jack DeJohnette, Von Freeman, Charlie Haden, and Sheila Jordan. The concert may be sold out, but you don't have to miss the action: we are webcasting it live! Go to arts.gov and click on Jazz Masters for more information about this free event and live webcast.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from We're Going Up from the album Peaceful Walking, composed and performed by Jimmy Owens, used courtesy of Jay-Oh Productions, Inc.
Excerpts from "Let's Cool One” from the cd, The Monk Project, which will be released in January 2012, music composed by Thelonious Monk and performed by Jimmy Owens and friends, used courtesy of Jimmy Owens and IPO Recordings.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.Next week, Stephan Manes takes us inside the world of ballet
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Additional Publishing Credit:
"Let's Cool One” by Thelonious Monk used by permission of Don Sickler and Second Floor Music (BMI).
"We're Going Up” by Jimmy Owens used by permission of Jimmy Owens, Jay-Oh Productions
2005 NEA Jazz Master George Wein has been playing jazz piano since his teens, but he’s better known today as a jazz impresario. Early in his career, Wein opened a jazz club in Boston called Storyville, and then went on to start the first outdoor jazz festival in the U.S., the Newport Jazz Festival. Wein also started the renowned New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, also known as Jazz Fest, along with other festivals in cities across the world. On the podcast, hear from Wein on all the facets of his career – which spans more than 60 years.
George Wein—Podcast Transcript
George Wein: What drove me into jazz was pop music back in the '30s. I studied classical piano when I was eight, nine, ten years old, and playing things like "Liebestraum" and I used to sing. "I Wanna Go Back to My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii." My mother used to play a little piano. She wasn't very good, but she could read sheet music. But I always wanted to accompany myself, so I started taking pop piano lessons, which turned into jazz piano lessons. And then I started listening to jazz, and my brother would bring home records. I remember he bought a record player that had 13 Bluebird records with buying the record player. And I mean, those records with Louis Armstrong, "Saints Go Marchin' In," and Jimmie Lunceford "White Heat," and all these jazz records, and that's where I got the message.
Jo Reed: That was the great jazz impresario and 2005 NEA Jazz Master George Wein.
Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Although George Wein has been displaying his chops as a jazz pianist since he was a teenager, the 87 year old is known primarily as Jazz's leading impresario. In 1950, straight out of college, he opened a jazz club in Boston and called Storyville. There he booked most of the leading jazz musicians and went on to establish a Storyville record label. In 1954, he literally invented the idea of an outdoor Jazz Festival when he launched the first one ever held in the United States at Newport. And the Newport Jazz Festival went on to become an annual tradition.
Wein went on to start a number of festivals in other cities, most notably the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, known to all as Jazz Fest. Branching out a bit, he also established the now-annual Newport Folk Festival. His company Festival Productions has also run large scale Jazz events in cities around the world, including Paris and Tokyo.
In 2007, at the age of 81, Wein decided to take a break and sold his production company. But two years later, when the successor company was headed for bankruptcy, Wein jumped back in the game. He was determined that the jazz and folk festivals live on. To that end, in 2010, he founded Newport Festivals Foundation, a not-for -profit whose mission is keeping the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals financially viable and musically vibrant.
George Wein has received many honors for his work - let me just highlight a few. He has been honored at the White House by two American presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters, or APAP, presented him with the Award of Merit for Achievement in Performing Arts. And of course, he's been an NEA Jazz Master since 2005.
I met George Wein in his New York City apartment the week of the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters' Awards Ceremony...I asked him to tell me more about learning to play jazz piano as a teenager.
George Wein: I started listening to small band jazz and collecting records. Then I started to play more and learned this magical thing known as improvisation. How did you do that? Then you learn how to do that, and then that's the rest of your life. I was locked in, and I organized my own band when I was 15, 16. I was like one of the kids with a rock band, except I had three trumpets and two trombones and four saxophones and a drum, bass guitar, my cellar, my house in Newton, Massachusetts. And we were playing "In the Mood" and "Tuxedo Junction," and all those arrangements of the big band, and it was the same thing as a kid in a rock band in his garage band now. And that's where I learned.
Jo Reed: Do you remember the first jazz concert or club or just live performance you saw?
George Wein: I don't know that I remember the first, but I know that I used to go at a very young age to hear Cab Calloway's band at the Southland in Boston, and that's a band that had Cozy Cole on the drums and Dizzy Gillespie was on trumpet. I remember the first time I heard Duke Ellington.
Jo Reed: Oh, tell me about it.
George Wein: I knew of course how important Duke was - I'd heard some of his records, but to hear him live...and I didn't know the guys in the band, and when Johnny Hodges stood up and played, I felt gooseflesh all over me at that sound. He wasn't even playing an Ellington tune. He was playing a tune called "Whispering Grass." But when that beautiful alto came into my heart and my psyche, that changed me forever. And these these things last with you till the rest of your life.
Jo Reed: You played professionally for a while, didn't you?
George Wein: Well, I still do to a degree. I mean, I've been playing this year more than I have in the past few years. I love to play, but I started while I was college. I came out of the Army and went back into...went to school. I went to Boston University. And while I was at Boston University, they needed a piano player for Maxie Kaminsky and Pee Wee Russell, and Miff Mole-- three famous, legendary figures. And they needed a piano player, and I was one that was known, and they taught me the Dixieland tunes, and the next thing I know I was working six weeks with them, seven days and Sunday afternoon, while I was going to college. And then I went to work with the Edmond Hall Quartet in '49, and I was there for like two months or three months-- I don't know. And all the time I was going to school and working seven days and nights-- seven nights a week and Sunday afternoons, and going to school. I never thought I'd be a piano player. I'd been playing all these years, but I mean, I was still a student, and somebody said, "Open your own club." Of course I'd been working in clubs in Boston, and a lawyer said to me he thought that I had a head for business, which I really didn't, but I at least understood that if you spent 10 dollars you had to take in 11. That I did understand. And so I leased a room from a hotel, and I started off with the same kind of music I'd been playing. I had Bob Wilber and his band. But then somebody called me from an agency and says, "Why don't you use George Shearing?" I didn't even know what George Shearing was doing, but he had a big record called "Jumping with Symphony Sid," and "Lullaby of Birdland," and "September in the Rain." And I put a little ad in the paper-- George Shearing-- I was paying him a lot of money-- 2500 dollars a week. I had never paid more than 900 or a 1000 dollars a week for a band. Next thing I know, the place was absolutely packed-- sold out every-- for eight days, sold out. And I guess that's when I realized that I might be a promoter the rest of my life.
Jo Reed: Well, where did the name "Storyville" come from?
George Wein: Well, that's the history of jazz. Storyville was the red light district in New Orleans, and was named after Alderman Story in New Orleans who wanted to relegate all the sin to one section of the city, and that's where Lulu White's Mahogany Hall and all those fabled, mythical names-- that weren't so mythical. Those names came from the history of jazz, and so they rewarded Alderman Story by naming this section of the city after him. They called it Storyville. And I just called it Storyville: The Birthplace of Jazz. That was what the name of my club was, Storyville. George Wein's Storyville. I always put my own name in there. I don't know why. I guess because I liked to see my name in the paper, and since I was paying for the ad, I could my name in the paper. George Wein's Storyville: The Birthplace of Jazz. Then one day Sid Catlett was playing drums with Bob Wilber, and Louis Armstrong had a concert at Symphony Hall with his All Star Group-- Cozy Cole and Barney Bigard and Jack Teagarden, Earl "Fatha" Hines-- all the greatest names in jazz. And I gave Sid, who had played with Louis, said, "You go down to Symphony Hall and get those guys coming back to the club." And I'll never forget this night as long as I live. One by one the guys came in, and Sid, as they walked in the door, Sid brought them to the stand. "And here comes Barney Bigard," and he walked right up on the stage, started to play. "And here's Earl "Fatha" Hines," and he walked and goes to the piano and sits. It was a small room, and they'd come in the big, and he was up the front. And the last one to come in was Louis Armstrong. He walked right to the stage. It was like it was rehearsed. It wasn't. And he sang "Sleepy Time Down South."
[Musical break - Louis Armstrong's "Sleepy Time Down South"]
George Wein: And the electricity in that room was so incredible that I said, "This is what I have to do. I have to be associated with the great people." And that's what directed my life.
Jo Reed: You played there with Lester Young. You played the piano with Lester Young. Tell us that story.
George Wein: That's one of the funniest stories. I had a lot of chutzpah saying I was going to play with Lester. I loved the Basie style and the swing era. I hadn't-- I'm not a-- I'm still not a bebop player. I play more modern than I used to, you know I played sort of a simple, Basie, Teddy Wilson style of piano playing. Lester had great piano players who played with him in the previous eight or ten years of his life, but they'd all been bebop piano players. So I put together a band with Buck Clayton on trumpet, who'd played with Prez in the old Basie band, and I had a good bass player and a drummer. And so Prez came in by himself, and was sitting talking, and he says, "Who's going to be on trumpet, Prez?" He would call me Prez, since I was the boss. I said, "Buck Clayton." "Oh, Lady Clayton, that's fine, man." I said, "Marcus Foster...," and then, "Who's going to be on piano, Prez?" "Well, I'm going to be on piano, Prez." "You're going to be on piano, Prez?" And this conversation went on like that. "Well, I know your tunes, Prez." "Oh, well, cool, Prez." So we get on the stage-- he won't get on the stage. And I said, "What do you want to play, Prez?" "Whatever you're feelings, Prez." I said, "Well, how about 'Pennies from Heaven?'" He said, "That's cool, Prez." I said, "What key?" "Whatever your feelings, Prez." And he wouldn't get on the stage. And I said, "What tempo?" "As you wish, Prez." So I started playing. I played a chorus, and I says, "Prez?" He says, "Have another helping, Prez." I had to play four choruses. After I played four choruses, Prez picked up his horn and came on the stage and said, "You and I are going to be all right, Prez." And my heart just went like this-- I says, "Thank god."
Jo Reed: High praise, indeed.
George Wein: I mean, I had a lot of guts, because I wasn't that good a piano player. But I did know how to comp for him and play simply, not get in his way, and we had a ball.
Jo Reed: You played with Charlie Parker in Storyville too.
George Wein: I just did one number with Charlie Parker. I had the Mahogany Hall All Stars downstairs. We had two clubs-- Mahogany Hall and Storyville. And the Mahogany Hall had traditional jazz and the Storyville had at that time more contemporary music. And so Sunday afternoon we'd have jam sessions. So Bird was playing upstairs, so I asked Bird, "Come up and play a number with us." So we played "Royal Garden Blues." And when he started to play the blues, everybody turned-- he was so strong and so fantastic, and it just wiped everybody out. One chorus, and that was it and something you never forget.
Jo Reed: George, who was the audience that came to Storyville?
George Wein: Boston had a very interesting group of people because all of the colleges, Harvard and MIT and Tufts and Boston University. And we drew a lot of the faculty members they liked jazz, more than the students. Because the students couldn't come-- there was a 21-year-old law about drinking beer, and they just drank at home. They'd go out and get the beer and drink it in their parties, but they couldn't drink in public. And so we didn't draw a lot of the kids. And there was not a large African-American population in Boston, but there was a significant population that liked jazz that came out of where Duke and Basie were part of their social life, and we brought and we sort of broke a few barriers down in that respect. And we drew an audience, a lot of older people that came out of the swing era, and they liked jazz. Still very similar to today; jazz draws an older audience, doesn't draw a lot of young people. And so we started the Storyville Jazz Club for Young People, so we had a young crowd and some of those people that joined in those days, I still run into them. The Storyville Jazz Club became important in the history of Boston's jazz scene, and it was very important in my life because I learned my trade at Storyville. I met all the artists, everybody working-- Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Duke, Louis, Ella, Sara, Carmen.
Jo Reed: Billie Holiday gave one of her last performances at Storyville, didn't she?
George Wein: Her next to last performance was at Storyville. I had been in Europe, because I had started doing business in Europe, and she'd been there the whole week. I came back, and it was a Sunday, and she was doing an afternoon and evening, 20-25-minute performances, two in the afternoon and three at night. And I sat the whole day, and I went up to her afterwards, says, "Billie, I can't believe it. You sound like you did 20 years ago, it's just fantastic. What's happened?" She said, "I'm straight now, man, I'm straight. You got to help me. You got to help me." I said, "Well, good. Look, I'll call Joe, her manager, agent, and said, we'll do Newport." And two weeks later she was at a club called the Blue Moon Café in Lowell, Massachusetts, and I wanted to go up and hear her, but Father O'Connor had gone up to hear her, Father O'Connor, Catholic priest, was the jazz priest, a very close friend, a man I loved dearly, and he says, "Don't go, George." She had just gone so down in those few weeks, and after she finished in Lowell, she went in the hospital, and that was it.
Jo Reed: Tell me about the Newport Jazz Festival. How did it come into being?
George Wein: Well, one night a woman from Newport, Elaine Lorillard came in with a professor from Boston University. And she was auditing some classes at Boston University, and the professor, Donald Borne was a friend of mine. And so he introduced me, and Elaine was saying that, "Newport is dull in the summer," and they tried something the year before with the Boston Symphony or the New York Philharmonic, I guess, and they'd lost a lot of money, and maybe they could do something with jazz. So Donald Borne says, "Why don't you ask George to do something with jazz?" And so she said, "Well, I'll come back with my husband." So she came back with her husband in three nights and I couldn't believe it because people are always saying, "We'll come back and talk about it." And they said, "Yeah, we'd like to do something." And I said, "Well, let me think about it." And I went home and I thought about, you know Tanglewood has a music festival, a classical music festival, why can't there be a jazz festival? And I went back and told them, and I gave them an estimated budget, a concept. And Louis authorized me to draw 20,000 dollars out of his bank in Newport, and then they went to Capri for their vacation, left town. And it just happened. We broke even the first year, and never had to use that 20 thousand dollars, never had to draw on it, and in the business for the rest of my life.
Jo Reed: We're so used to jazz festivals now that I think it's hard to remember that you were really the first to produce an outdoor, multi-day, multi-venue jazz festival.
George Wein: Well, I received that APAP Award which was for changing the directions in which people listened to music in the summer. And I was very appreciative of that award, because when we were doing things, you didn't realize we were pioneers. We weren't going by a book; we were writing the book as we went along. Nobody had ever done these outdoor festivals the way we did them, and learning about sound, learning about how to work with communities, learning all the little things that are par for the course now. And we had to create them as we went along. We learned about outdoor sound. We learned about crowd control. And one thing led to another, and then we did the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I started the Newport Folk Festival. And next thing I know I had a nonprofit board. Pete Seeger came up with the idea of all the musicians, no matter whether they're Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Georgia Sea Island Singers, everybody got 50 dollars a night. We had, seven or eight of the greatest music events that ever happened. They weren't jazz, they were folk. But they were just fantastic events. So all of these things are part of my life. And then out of the folk and jazz festivals is what came the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Jo Reed: Which is huge.
George Wein: Yeah, because I just combined the two together. So those are a few of the things I've done in my life that have had meaning. That's why I was appreciative of the award because, as you say, people almost forget-- they don't almost forget, they forget.
George Wein: So it's nice to be recognized but the point is, it's all nice to be part of history, but now I'm doing one of the more important things I've done in my life, and that's turning Newport back into a nonprofit, because when I went back there in 1962, I had to make it a business to keep it alive. But now I turned it back into nonprofit just last year. Where the mission is that jazz is an ever-evolving music, and if we don't recognize this evolution of the music and the directions that young people are taking, the music is going to die. And we have to give them a stage, and we have to try to build them the image and the reputations of the really talented young players. And so Newport, out of 30 artists, 20 of them will be young, relatively unknown musicians. And it's a big risk on our part, because we're not using any big-name performers to sell the tickets. We're selling a festival. We're selling a festival of jazz and what is happening today. But all jazz, not crossover music. And I'm very excited about it because I'm getting to know all the young musicians. I have them up here for lunch, and we talk about Newport and what it means, and hope that they feel it's important to their career. And the more important they feel Newport is, then the more important Newport is. And I was very pleased to see that we were number one in the Jazz Times poll for the best festival this year.
Jo Reed: Congratulations.
George Wein: So that made me feel good again to be back on top. But that's because of what we're doing. And we have the advantage of the fact that it's not a business, and my board is willing to go along with me, and the fact that I'm putting in money along with them. The profit is not the direction, just putting on great festivals is the direction we're going in.
Jo Reed: 1956, the great Duke Ellington performance at Newport. Gave Ellington's career a huge boost. It got him on the cover of Time magazine.
George Wein: That shows a why the passion for jazz is important. I was very passionate. To me, Duke Ellington was a god. I did not know that Duke Ellington's career was on the wane. I didn't have the slightest idea. To me he was Duke Ellington. I didn't know that he was having career problems, and I just treated him as the star of stars. And he called me two nights before the festival, actually it was when the festival had started, and said, "What's happening up at Newport?" This was a Thursday. I says, "Lot of people coming. Lot of press are going to be"-- I said, "What are you going to play?" He says, "Well, we'll do the medley, do--" I said, "No, you better not do that. You better come in her swinging," I said, "because everybody's going to be here, and you better come in with something happening." And I guess that's when he went in and he came up with the "Reminiscing in Tempo" with Paul Gonzalez. And once he started to play, he saw the crowd start dancing, and he kept it going. And the excitement just kept regenerating itself. More and more and more and more and more and they kept playing, 27 choruses.
[Musical Break - Duke Ellington's "Reminiscing in Tempo"]
George Wein: The first happening at a jazz festival. It was a real happening. Duke used to say ever after that, "I was born at Newport in 1956."
Jo Reed: You had said that you'd never seen a crowd that enthusiastic.
George Wein: At that point, everybody got up out of their seats and started to dance. The crowd was well behaved though, but Duke knew how to treat the crowd. When he did finish, finally, I wanted him to come off the stage. He wasn't about to come off the stage. This was his moment. But he had Johnny Hodges play a slow ballad, and the crowd just settled down. And boy, did I learn from that.
Jo Reed: You were very close with Duke Ellington.
George Wein: I had the opportunity to work with him. There's a book, "Everyday in the life of Duke Ellington" And I went over that book-- so they got the booking sheets I think from Associated Booking-- and it listed every event he did in the last 20 years of his life. I was involved with Duke on 365 different occasions. So in other words, one-twentieth of his life, his last 20 years, I was directly involved with. And we became good friends, and we trusted each other, which means he trusted me, because I always trusted him. He was somebody you could trust implicitly from a performing point of view. And it was never any possibility that Duke might not perform because something wasn't going right. He would say, "I don't care what the problems are or what the-- if I get paid or I don't get paid, or that one thing is wrong or another thing is wrong. I'm going to do my program because people have paid to come see me, and I'm never going to let them down." A lot of other artists didn't feel that way. So if Norman Granz would bring in, if the piano wasn't just right for Oscar Peterson, he'd cancel the concert. Or if something was wrong, he would not do it. I would never do that with an artist. To me, you straighten out the problems, then you don't work with the guy again, or you just whatever it is. But there's a dedication to the music that is absolutely necessary. And as a performer, I'm the same way. Because when I was a kid playing in some of the joints, sometimes the pianos were a half-tone out of tune. And I had to play everything transcribed in the wrong key, and I wasn't that good. But you struggle through and you do it. Hey, what's the difference?
Jo Reed: Why do you think the Newport Jazz Festival, the granddaddy of all festivals, why do you think that festival originally was so successful?
George Wein: A lot of these things relate to destination. I always wanted to go to Newport, I'd never been there. I'd read about the summer cottages, the breakers, and the elms. And there was a fascination about going there, and I never had driven down there. It was a little out of the way. It was 70 miles from Boston, and it was near Providence. But there was one bridge, and the other side you had to take a ferry. There were no trains. No planes went to Newport. And you had, as I said, pay a toll on a bridge, so you had to take a ferry. You couldn't get to the island, you know, no way to get there. So I said, "This will be a good place for a jazz festival."
Jo Reed: Also one thing that unique about Newport is that you had musicians playing different types of jazz. It wasn't a festival of one particular type of music.
George Wein: Well, back in the '50s there was this division in jazz between the swing era and the swing musicians, and this new music that Dizzy and Charlie Parker had created, bebop and modern jazz, and Lennie Tristano. And there was still this strong fight. And in the very first festival, I put Eddie Condon, who represented Chicago jazz, and Gene Krupa and Billie Holiday, the swinger, Teddy Wilson, on the same program with Dizzy Gillespie and Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz. It was the first time people had done that, of just say jazz and people, I'd say "Jazz is a music from J to Z." I always had that feeling. I didn't realize we were pioneering. I knew what my club was. I had many different attractions in the club. One week it would be modern, the next week might be Lee Wiley with Bobby Hackett, and then the next week might be Count Basie's and then Art Blakey and Horace Silver. So I knew all the musicians. I liked it all, and I was getting to know and learn more about music all the time.
Jo Reed: Finally, three wishes for jazz, what would they be?
George Wein: It's tough to ask me that, because I've realized most of my hopes and wishes, and I keep thinking of new things. So now I just want Newport to continue after I'm gone.I have no family particularly, and whatever I have, I am going to leave towards an endowment for the festival to continue. And if that endowment is matched by my board and by friends, the festival will go on forever. At least for the next 20 or 30 years. That's the main wish that I have. The young people want to play the music. There are thousands of young people coming out of schools. I mean, this is what people dreamed of, to making jazz part of the educational system. It is part of the educational system. And I think remarkable things are going to happen. But my wish is very personal, that Newport continue after I'm gone.
Jo Reed: George, thank you so much. And thank you for everything you've done for jazz.
George Wein: Well, thank you.
Jo Reed: That was the legendary Jazz Impresario and 2005 NEA Jazz Master, George Wein. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
The following excerpts were used courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment:
"White Heat" written by Will Hudson and performed by the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, from "Lunceford Special," Jimmie Lunceford, 1939-1940. Used by permission of EMI Mills Music Inc (ASCAP)
"When It’s Sleepy Time Down South" written by Clarence Muse, Leon Rene and Otis Rene, from "Louis Armstrong: Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man," 1923-1934. Used by permission of Shapiro Bernstein Co & Inc. (ASCAP), 35% EMI Mills Music Inc (ASCAP), and 1.667% Colgems-EMI Music Inc (ASCAP)
"Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" and "I've Got it Bad (and that ain't good)" both written by Duke Ellington and performed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra from Ellington at Newport, 1956. Used by permission of EMI Mills Music Inc (ASCAP)
I've Got it Bad (And That Ain't Good) written by Duke Ellington and performed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra from Ellington at Newport, 1956. Used by permission of Sony ATV Harmony (ASCAP)
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, air force veteran and poet Lynn Hill.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
2016 NEA Jazz Master Wendy Oxenhorn was the executive director of Jazz Foundation of America (JFA) for decades, and continues to serve as vice chairman for the organization. During her tenure, Oxenhorn expanded JFA’s operations and raised more than $30 million to support its mission. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Oxenhorn led JFA’s response, which helped more than 1,000 displaced musicians. On the podcast, Oxenhorn talks about the twists and turns of life that led her to become a jazz advocate.
“The Bird Song,” composed and performed by Pharoah Sanders.
“Little Red Rooster,” music and lyrics by Willie Dixon, performed by Sugar Blue.
“Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” traditional, sung by Tana Jaro.
Wendy Oxenhorn: These are people that are used to play on Bourbon Street. These are people that are incredibly talented and keeping the real deal stuff alive. And who brings up the younger kids if you don't hear the elders?
Jo Reed: That is the executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America and 2016 NEA Jazz Master, Wendy Oxenhorn. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Wendy Oxenhorn is a soft-spoken force of nature. Trained as a dancer, she turned a career- ending injury into a lifetime of helping other people. Wendy was co-creator of a number of non-profits including Street News – the first newspaper ever created to be sold by homeless people. She also learned to play a mean harmonica and she self-identifies as a bluesman. All of this led to a job at the Jazz Foundation of America whose mission is to provide jazz and blues musicians with financial, medical, housing, and legal assistance as well as to create performance opportunities for them.
When Wendy Oxenhorn began working there in the year 2000, the JFA had a minuscule budget and a local focus in New York City . By 2005, due to the work of Wendy, the foundation – now with a full-time staff – expanded its outreach throughout the country. Since 2001, Wendy Oxenhorn has raised more than $30 million through events like the now annual concert, “A Great Night in Harlem." Her fundraising efforts has enabled the JFA to increase the organization’s capacity to provide emergency assistance to more than 5,000 cases annually. The JFA was pivotal in helping musicians in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; finding housing, creating employment opportunities, and replacing instruments for more than 1,000 displaced musicians.
Wendy Oxenhorn created the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools programs, which enables hundreds of musicians to perform blues and jazz for more than 80,000 public school students each year.
As you can tell, the woman is non-stop – a creative and fierce advocate for musicians. Which is why Wendy Oxenhorn can now add 2016 NEA Jazz Master to her list of honors.
Like all of us, Wendy’s path is hardly a straight line. Here she is remembering back to when she was seventeen and by happenstance, found a new life outside of dance.
Wendy Oxenhorn: They said I’d be crippled by the time I was thirty if I continued. So, that was … that was devastating. And I was a pretty dramatic kid. I remember just thinking that there’s no reason to live any more. And I called up a suicide hotline because I just was that low. And the woman on the other end of the line was in her fifties and she just started telling me her troubles, you know? And most people used to. I even had cab drivers – it was like confession every time I’d get in a taxi. And she started telling me her troubles and I started counseling her and three days later I was working at the hotline. It was wonderful. It was the cure for all of my depression because I completely got lost in people’s problems and I didn’t have time to think about my own. And that’s what started this whole next half of my life.
Jo Reed: Odyssey <Laughs>. You worked at the suicide hotline and you did a number of nonprofits that you created: Children In Need, Street News, Children of Substance. Were you able to support yourself working at these organizations? I know you’re a single mom. New York – it’s crazy now, but it’s always been expensive.
Wendy Oxenhorn: <Laughs> I have a joke; I wrote a book, and the joke was the title was going to be, You Can Have a Big Life Too on $8 a Day. But yeah, no, single parenting in New York City is hard and running charities. What I did was I ran a boarding house out of my apartment and that’s how I got the rent paid so I was able to do and start these smaller charities. I didn’t do anything alone, you know. You always have wonderful people, you know.
Jo Reed: Before you ended up at the Jazz Foundation of America, you had an interesting time on the subways of New York City. How did you find the blues?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Oh, I like to think the blues found me. I was bit by the blues from the time I was a kid. And then there used to be this man who played in the subway that I would always stop and listen to. And he would always call to me and say, “Come on blues lady,” you know, “Come and sing.” And believe me, I cannot sing. <Laughs>.
Jo Reed: And this is you as ‘grown-up Wendy?’
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes, this is me with a kid in the stroller. And so what happened was I had a love affair with this incredible Italian composer and singer that ended tragically, of course, because he was an Italian composer<Laughs>. What do you think would happen? But one day, during my Italian love affair, he had a harmonica sitting there and he was making some pasta because he was really from Italy. And I picked up the harmonica and Sugar Blue was on a CD playing, “Little Red Rooster.”
And it happened to be the right key and I just started fiddling around. And he turned around, you know, and he was like, “Baby, you got something.” And I was like – I don’t know what I had. At first, I was terrible. But I had that feeling in me just like the ballet, just like dance. And I lit up like a kid at Christmas and I took it home with me. And, of course, you know, it got tragic after that. So everything went into my harmonica.
Jo Reed: And the blues became very appropriate <laughs>.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, this is so amazing how life is, you know. Every time something – just like with the dance, look what happened my life turned around. And then just like with the Italian composer and big love going to hell, I had this beautiful gift come from it that to be honest with you, the blues meant more to me than anything at that moment.
Jo Reed: How did you learn to play the harp? Did you play along with other CDs?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I would get on the express trains at 96th Street on the Number Three. I would get between the cars and I’d have Muddy Waters in my head on an iPod and I would just start playing. I’d hold on to the handle between the cars with one hand. And – because between the cars no one can hear you. So you’re whizzing down and I would play my heart out. And then I would cross the platform and go back. And I would do for about three hours a day.
Jo Reed: Could you hear yourself?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Oh gosh, no. But at least no one else could. Good thing <laughs>! But I was able to, you know, feel it. And then late at night when the kids were asleep and a roommate was home I would go to the platform at 103rd Street and Broadway because the acoustics were amazing. You didn’t need amplification. And I would play my heart out there after 11, 11:30 when I wasn’t disturbing anyone. I’d go by the tunnel, by the entrance and just stand on the last part of the platform and play my heart out. And then one day that same old blues man from Mississippi was where and I looked at him –
Jo Reed: And that’s Floyd Lee.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Floyd Lee, formerly known as Ted Williams. And I flashed my harmonica to him. And he came over and he laughed and he hit his leg and said, “We are going to make goo-gobs of money.” And all he meant was there was going to be a little blonde in a dress that could go get the tip bucket. That’s really what he meant. And so I never learned to play whole songs. And I never played filler. I’d take my solo and then I’d go get the money. <laughs> But we did pretty well.
Jo Reed: I bet.
Wendy Oxenhorn: That was my – it wasn’t my start of fundraising, but it didn’t hurt it.
Jo Reed: And can you think about what you learned from him musically?
Wendy Oxenhorn: He was so real deal. Playing in the train stations probably was the greatest master class I could ever get because it wasn’t about perfection. There were all sorts of things that would happen and you just would go with it because it was blues. You’d make enough money-- I remember I recorded us in the train station and it was the first real CD he had of like his live music, what he really does. And we were making like 200 bucks a piece at rush hour. I’d be home in time to feed the kids. I taught them to count on the money. You know what, they thought we were rich. It was so wonderful, mama would come home with all of these $1 bills. <laughs> And I wouldn’t have to pay a babysitter for any late night clubs. I have so many funny memories – discretion doesn’t allow me to say. <laughs>
Jo Reed: What happened to the subway gig?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I was kicked out of the band.
Jo Reed: What happened?
Wendy Oxenhorn: He got himself girlfriend who just didn’t want another woman in the band. So it was really the blues. There was one blues moment where, you know, I think she’s going to cut me. And he said, “Baby, you’ve got to go.” <laughs> But that’s how I found this job. So should I segue into that?
Jo Reed: Yeah, I really want that segue. It’s a great story.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Okay. You know, I was sitting in a café, again, depressed as hell <laughs> but I didn’t call suicide hotlines anymore now. I just would play – play the blues. And a friend walked by, who had seen me playing in the subway station, and she knew my charitable past. And she said, “You know, I saw this ad for this foundation that takes care of old jazz musicians who have fallen on hard times.” Well, actually, I think she only said old jazz because at that point it was just jazz. And I called them up. And when I told them my history, when I told them I played harmonic in the train station with an old man from Mississippi he got up and he shook my head and he said, “You’ve got the job.” And later I found out I was the only one who showed up for the job <laughs>. How’s that for miraculous?
Jo Reed: I think it’s the way life works, actually.
Wendy Oxenhorn: And it never would have happened had I stayed playing with my beautiful old man from Mississippi.
Jo Reed: Wendy, a little bit about the jazz Foundation of America, if you don't mind.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes.
Jo Reed: When you started, it was really more of a local organization, I think it's pretty fair to say. And everybody working as hard as they can, but how many people were they able to help and what was the budget like?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, it was this wonderful older man, Herb Storfer, who had a really formed the Jazz Foundation with Ann Ruckert, Phoebe Jacobs, Billy Taylor, Cy Blank. And of course then Jimmy Owens, Vishnu Wood, and Jamil Nasser, came to them and said "Hey, there are musicians out there that are in trouble,” and that's when they changed the focus.
Jo Reed: And what had been the focus?
Wendy Oxenhorn: It had just been to promote and keep jazz alive. And then it really began, and then of course Dr. Frank Forte and the Englewood Hospital that took care of Dizzy and started treating musicians for free – that doesn't come along every day, that man is a saint. It was really Herb Storfer in his apartment pulling money out of his pocket, and helping. And he would give them a couple of month's rent, and he was helping about 35 musicians a year.
Jo Reed: Wendy, how did you grow the organization?
Wendy Oxenhorn: You know, I'm just a good workaholic, that's all <laughs>. And, you know, I came in, and this amazing young woman who had just graduated from Vassar, Lauren. And she was like 10 men rolled up in one. She came a year after I started and together we really built it up. And now we have this amazing staff. We also got—my second year there – we got Jarrett Lilien who was – he was not the president of E-Trade yet, he was just this amazingly goodhearted man who was on his way up somewhere. When we asked who had money, they told me, they told me, "Well, there's this guy we know named Jarrett Lilien," because, you know, we had $7000 in the bank. Did I forget to mention that? You know, they offered me this great job and then tell me, “We have $7000 in the bank." So I started for free, and then I met Jarrett and recruited him onto the board. And he had wanted to be on the board, he was wonderful. And then I met Dick Parsons and that's another amazing story. He was CEO of Time Warner at the time. And I think he was their first African-American CEO. And everyone said "He loves jazz. You've got to get this guy." So I wrote to him, and as I was writing the letter, Lauren came in with a letter for me, and it was from him. And there was a check in it, and he had read some article in the New York Times that had been published about us, and he said "I want to help." And he became our interim chairman. I knew he was busy, so I asked him to be our interim chairman. And he's been that for 11 years now <laughs>.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about some of the reasons jazz musicians end up in need. And I know for the most part we’re not talking about established artists – it’s sidemen, it’s pickup musicians. I know finding work can be hard, but then you do and, you know, the hours are long, touring is difficult –
Wendy Oxenhorn: The road is brutal. The road is truly brutal. And when you look at some of these musicians who have been doing it for thirty, forty, fifty years, it wears you down. It wears you down. And this business really doesn’t take care of the music makers. You know, it never really has. In most cases, as far as pay – all of these great old legends that did recordings – even with Frank Sinatra. You would get that one-time buyout for the album. You know, your day of recording, you get 300, you figured that’s great, you’ll pay the rent, and then you would never get any royalty. The record could sell millions and you never got anything further. Usually, only the band leader got a royalty.
Jo Reed: They don’t have control over their music.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Exactly. Or intellectual property for that matter. I know so many people who wrote songs or co-wrote songs and other people took the publishing. You know, a producer took the publishing, a manager took the publishing and then they’d end up with nothing. I mean talking household famous songs, things that made the Rolling Stones famous. You know, we’ve had lots of that. And I’ll give a good example. One of my favorite people in the world was Jimmy Norman. And Jimmy Norman used to run Sweet Water back in the day with Chet Baker and everyone playing there. Everyone came through there. He was also one of The Coasters for 30 years. He was also Bob Marley’s first producer and helped Bob Marley to become Bob Marley. He was the first one making his first breakout album. And he wrote some of the first songs with him. He never benefited from that. He also co-wrote “Time is on My Side”, which made the Rolling Stones famous. And in the beginning he was credited, but his partner was the one who took the publishing and he never saw a minute of that. And when he was in his seventies after a triple bypass he couldn’t tour with The Coasters anymore. And we found out that he was about to be evicted and I went to court with him. And the lawyer for the landlord when I told him who this guy is he goes, “I love the Rolling Stones. I love Bob Marley.” He said, “We can’t let his happen.” So we got him out of that. And then I had gotten a couple of young musicians – we always partner young musicians with the elders because beautiful things blossom from that and these great relationships blossomed and he ended up helping all of these kids with their recordings. But while we were cleaning his apartment we found a cassette of him and Bob Marley in his apartment in the Bronx in the seventies recording tunes and writing tunes that had never been heard, never saw the light of day. So it ended selling – through a friend of his, Frank Beacham [ph?] – It ended up selling at Christie’s. Of course, we made him pay the rent for the next two years. And then he got himself an editing suite and he made his own version of “Time is on My Side.” Julie Collins picked it up. He got a huge breakout article in the Times explaining his story. It was wonderful.
Jo Reed: Tell me what went into your thinking about creating the program, Jazz in Schools – a creative, brilliant, and just obvious idea all at the same time.
Wendy Oxenhorn: It’s so important that when we have this moment to help someone that we think of the most creative solutions that are dignified. You know, Jazz in the Schools program and blues in the schools that allow everyone to perform for the kids. They’re maybe too old or too ill to go on tour anymore or to handle a 3-hour gig at a club, but they can do a 45-minute concert for the kids and the kids run up and ask for autographs. And they’ve got a reason to get out of the house, again. They’re loved again. And they also get paid so they can pay their own rent. These are the kinds of solutions we try to work on the most.
Jo Reed: And how many kids it’s the first time they’ve ever heard a live performance?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I’m so glad you brought up because that’s hard to believe, but kids don’t hear live music anymore. They watch it on YouTube or they hear it in headphones. And that’s the other point to bring up that is so important that now that we are all on these devices, our lives are becoming very isolated. You used to go out and hear music. You know, you would meet people. You would have that connection. You would have that fabulous feeling of excitement. And you’d be moved by the music and we were all in this together.
Jo Reed: There’s something about that community – a group of people coming together to hear a performance – that is, I think, very magical.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Completely.
Jo Reed: In some ways, it’s almost like our secular church.
Wendy Oxenhorn: It is. That’s what we call it. When you are there, things happen. There is this spiritual connection that happens between people. And when you watch it on the tube or on the computer, it’s just not the same. So it’s a great point you make and that’s the problem because live music now, the clubs can’t sustain themselves. And as a result there’s not a whole lot of pay that’s happening. Someone had said to me that they were starting these spaces in Brooklyn and – I’m sure now they’re not even affordable – but musicians would come and they would just hang in these spaces and just to be able to create because the gigs weren’t happening. The paying gigs, the clubs weren’t happening. So people might have been stuck at home rehearsing, practicing, trying to create but without the juice of the other people without the magic it’s not the same.
Jo Reed: No.
Wendy Oxenhorn: And you can’t be brought up, your own level can’t be brought up. I was lucky enough to find that great older blues man in the subway station who was able to bring me up.
Jo Reed: You are marvelous in many ways, but part of it is the connections you make with people – both within the jazz community, but outside the jazz community – and that outreach is something you've done throughout your entire career, working for non-profits.
Wendy Oxenhorn: I'm just lucky, I'm telling you it's just luck. You know why? When you do what you say you do, the money follows and the way opens. I mean for example, when Katrina happened, look how that fell into place. Oh, I wrote to this woman, Agnes Varis, and invited her to this affair we were having with Dick Parsons, and she said yes. And that night, I said to her "You know, with what happened in Katrina, there are over 1000 musicians that are displaced to 38 states. They have no way to get back home, they have no way to pay new rents, the landlords won't even take them because they have no check stubs from Bourbon Street. They have no way to prove they had an income. So if we could put them to work in the schools," and she said, "Write me a letter." And I wrote her a letter, the next day she gave us a quarter of a million dollars and we started putting musicians right away to work. Because of Jarrett and E-Trade, we were able to house people right away and get them into homes, paying first month's rent and security. We were working about 20 hours a day at that point. You know, and we just started helping people.
Jo Reed: When you started at the Jazz Foundation of America, what do you think the biggest need jazz musicians had? And has it shifted at all, as the foundation has done more work?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, I noticed that 9/11 hurt the club scene in a lot of ways. There used to be a big restaurant scene –
Jo Reed: And you started in the year 2000, just so we have our history straight?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes. So it was a year later. There was a big restaurant scene, and they would always pay musicians 50 bucks, 75 bucks per musician, to play in the restaurant. And when 9/11 happened, the restaurants all closed down, no one was going out. People couldn't stay open and they certainly couldn't afford to have music, because no one was going out, for a few months. And what was happening was, the older musicians said "Hey, we've been with you for years. We understand now, we know what it's like. We’ll just pass the basket." And a lot of places didn't want to go back to paying, after that.
Jo Reed: When the business picked up?
Wendy Oxenhorn: When the business picked up again. And that's still the case. Very few places pay like they used to. So that really hurt, you know?
Jo Reed: Yeah and as you said, jazz clubs aren’t doing so well either.
Wendy Oxenhorn: I know so many genuinely, jazz music loving, club owners where they're not making a dime and they keep it alive. I know so many wonderful small clubs that truly sacrifice their lives for this, you know. I watch it all the time.
Jo Reed: And their rents are so high.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Oh, it's insane. But again, people are not going out to hear music like they used to. And this is the only thing that would make the difference. But, you know, you have except life on life's terms. And, you know, this is the way it is. So you know, like Quincy says, "We have come up with other ways to make money off of intellectual property on the Internet. You have to change with the times. You can't wish for it to be the way it was. But I've heard a lot of musicians are moving out to Detroit; that it's becoming quite a scene, and it's quite inexpensive. There are things that are happening out there, you know.
Jo Reed: Wendy, one thing you did about a year after you started, was a big concert at the Apollo, called "A Great Night in Harlem", which has now become a yearly event. What did you have in mind? Had you ever produced anything remotely like that? And how did you pay for it?
Wendy Oxenhorn: <Laughs> Like I said, I'm a lucky girl. You know, and determination is a beautiful thing. So, I was trying to learn more about jazz, because I really knew nothing, okay? I mean, like really nothing. So I rented the DVD for "A Great Day in Harlem," because I thought, "That has all the jazz greats, I'll learn something." And while I was watching it, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have all the current jazz greats, all these legends, and have a Great Night in Harlem. And where else but at the Apollo?” So at the time the Apollo rent was like 15,000, so I went to our amazing E-Trade man, Jarrett Lilien. I said "Look it's 15,000 to rent it, I think we can do this." And, he said "Okay, I got your back." So the board members – they all wanted it to happen but we didn't believe we can ever get 15,000 in those days. You know, I was just starting out and we had very little money –
Jo Reed: You had $7,000.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes. So I just started putting the word out and honestly, I don't even remember, and I remember finding at the time, who was it? And it was just musician after musician started saying "Yes" and I said "Could you bring someone to the table?" We had Hank Jones, we had Ahmad Jamal, we had Joanne Brackeen, we had Ron Carter. I mean we just had just about everyone, I think it was 100 people – Abbey Lincoln, I mean Freddy Hobart. But it was just everyone you could think of, and they all came out and it happened in nine weeks. And we did take a picture on stage that we called "A Great Night in Harlem," with everybody and John Abbott took that and it was beautiful. But basically, that's how it happened, and it happened 13 days after 9/11.
Jo Reed: That was my next question.
Wendy Oxenhorn: 13 days after 9/11 and the house was packed, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. And we made 350,000 without a dinner, you know, just the concert and that is what got us rolling. And we started helping 300 musicians a year, then we started helping 500 musicians a year, we now had a part-time social worker. It just grew from there, it was very beautiful.
Jo Reed: How many musicians a year would you say the Jazz Foundation helps now?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I don't know a year, but I know this; I know we average about 25 to 30 individual cases a day. We also do 5000, or 6000 emergency assists a year, all over the country, and sometimes even around the world now.
Jo Reed: Wendy I want you to make one wish, one big wish, for the Jazz Foundation.
Wendy Oxenhorn: For any billionaire who is out there, and I mean this really with my heart, is to build a player's residence. Because these people are aging out in basement apartments, rent controlled apartments, alone. And, an apartment building, you know, even if it was for 100 people or 50 people and they had each other and the buses of tourists would come by once a night. There would be jams every night, and they just would be with each other. And there would be social workers and then there would be a floor for when you need assisted-living, so you don't go to the state run nursing home. My goodness, when Odetta feel and broke her hip and she was at a nursing home with someone screaming all night next to her. I mean this should just not be for people who have given us this much joy, and made the world this beautiful. They should have their own place. So I'm just putting that out there with a little passion, to anyone who might be able to contribute towards something like that. It's Wendy@jazzfoundation.org is the email <laughs>.
Jo Reed: Wendy, thank you for giving me your time, which I know you have precious little of –
Wendy Oxenhorn: I do want to shout out to the NEA for this moment. Because I have to tell you, and it makes me wanna cry, but I have not stopped since I took the job. And you don’t get a chance to really look back or take anything in. You’re always on to the next emergency. So I just want to thank them for this opportunity to shed some light on the work we do, and the need out there, for these great people who-- they took us through our lives these people, they played in the background of everything we've done, you know, in our own little movies every day. And it's just so beautiful to be able to-- and it's such an honor and a privilege to be able to help them in their times of darkness, you know? They represent freedom to me. They’re the freedom fighters of this world.
Jo Reed: I think we’re all so lucky that you’re doing what you do.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, I don’t do it alone. It’s a “we”.
Jo Reed: It's a "We", like jazz.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes, exactly.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was 2016 NEA Jazz Master and executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, Wendy Oxenhorn. We’re ending with the song, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, sung by Tana Jaro, at Wendy’s request. Wendy plays it when one of the jazz musicians passed because it allows her to experience their spirit being guided back home. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Make sure you mark your calendar for our upcoming 2021 NEA Jazz Masters virtual tribute concert on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT!