Ted Nash

Saxophonist and composer
Headshot of a man
Music Credits: “Ask Not”, “The American Promise”, “Spoken at Midnight”, “The Time for the Healing of Wounds” performed by the Ted Nash Big Band, from the album Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom, composed by Ted Nash. Spoken by Senator Joe Lieberman: “So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Jo Reed: That is former Senator Joe Lieberman reading one of the iconic speeches of the 20th century: President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address which contains the famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you.”  It’s one of eight speeches that served as the inspiration for Ted Nash’s monumental jazz composition Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Presidential Suite is a musical concept that has arrived at the perfect time. As we count down the days until this election is over, the Ted Nash Big Band has released a CD that takes as its inspiration great oratory. Oratory that speaks to our better angels not to our baser selves. Using as his blue print eight political speeches given by world leaders in times of turmoil or transition, Ted Nash has incorporated not just the sensibility but the actual rhythms and cadences of each speech into the musical composition itself. In fact, Presidential Suite includes a CD which has the excerpts of these speeches recorded by actors or politicians so we as listeners actually can trace the lineage of the music we’re listening to. It’s an ambitious project, but Ted Nash is known for his inventiveness and daring. He’s not just an outstanding saxophonist and arranger. He’s been a key member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for almost two decades. He’s led his own singular bands like Odeon and Double Quartet. And he’s played as a sideman with other jazz greats. Ted is also one of the best composers working in jazz today. Ted Nash moves beyond tradition, but he always leaves breadcrumbs, so we can follow where he goes. And the trip is always worth it. Ted and I spoke as he was getting ready to bring his big band to the Jazz Standard for performances of Presidential Suite on when else? Election Day: November 8th and the following day November 9th. I wondered how he decided to focus on political oratory as the basis for a jazz composition. Ted Nash: A couple years ago or so Wynton Marsalis asked me to write a piece of music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and just said, you know, whatever you want it to be. We find inspiration in so many different places. I mean as a musician we – for this I just started listening to speeches. I love the cadence. I love the tone, the pitches, how everybody has a different way of speaking. And besides the messages that these speeches that I chose carried, the theme of freedom, which is really the theme of this record, I was very intrigued with the actual cadence of them and transcribed the speeches for their pitch, their intonation, their actual pitches and made thematic material out of that, so all of this suite is based on the actual pitches of the speeches as well. Jo Reed:  You chose eight speeches and they are ranging historically from FDR to Nelson Mandela. In the final analysis, how did you choose them? Ted Nash: I wish I could’ve gone back to times before we had recording devices because there’s such great speeches all through history, but I chose speeches obviously that I could hear because I wanted to actually transcribe them. So, yeah, but there’s so many great messages, and a lot of these speeches came out of a time of need, of desperation, of tragedy, of war, of things like that, and these speeches had to move me. I had to feel something, goosebumps, tears, which I did in a lot of cases. Jo Reed: Give me an example of one of the speeches you worked with and tell me how and why you chose it. Ted Nash:  Okay, well, there’s the JFK “Ask Not” speech, which is probably one of the most iconic ones on the recording, and everybody’s familiar with that. It’s just become such an important part of history. But my own personal history with it, when I was three years old and Kennedy was assassinated, I remember my father reading a newspaper and crying. And I came into the room and he was crying and he was looking at the paper. And I said, “What’s the matter, dad?” And he says, “Someone killed the president.” I didn’t know what a president was, but I knew that this must’ve been an important person ‘cause it made my father cry. <laughs> So that has stuck with me. Jo Reed:  Another aspect of this CD, you have an excerpt of the speech and then the music that was inspired by it. Ted Nash:  Right, and originally I just wanted to record the music and then thought, wow, you know, it would be very powerful if people could hear what inspired the movement that follows, and then I understood that when you hear these words it does, it does influence you and it compels you to research it a little bit, start to listen to more, and now we can find a deeper meaning in all of this and maybe some guidance through this time. Jo Reed:  How were people chosen to be the readers of these speeches? Ted Nash:  A lot of it had to do with proximity, just natural connection, people’s desire to be part of the project. Glenn Close is a friend of mine, and she knows Sam Waterston, who I’d met. He had been actually at the premier of this piece so I invited them to be a part of it. They brought such an amazing quality to it. I’m so blessed to have them on it. The JFK speech, Senator Joe Lieberman was so happy to be able to read this excerpt because that speech, when he was a teenager and he heard that, it compelled him to choose public service as a career. Deepak Chopra met Nehru and was very, very inspired and influenced by him, so that was a natural. It just all naturally came together. It wasn’t-- I mean Andrew Young, who’s the civil rights leader who lives in Atlanta happens to be my producer’s godfather, and he read the Mandela, so it’s just those kind of natural connections, things that just made sense. They really did. Jo Reed: There’s so much that’s so interesting about this, but I really want to talk about the process of you composing the music because you really did transcribe the speeches on music notation papers. Is that the right term for it? Ted Nash:  Yeah, score paper, whatever. Jo Reed:  Is that the way you began to compose each movement of this suite? Ted Nash:  Yeah. <laughs> It started with me when I was on tour with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. We were out on tour in a bus. I had my laptop, my keyboard, my headphones on, and I just was listening to mainly on YouTube or different places where I could find these speeches and transcribing. I had a notebook paper and music paper and I was jotting down all the pitches as I was hearing them and I was grabbing them. And I ended up with a notebook full of just pitches and groups of notes, and I had the words underneath them, and it just went on. I have pages and pages of this, and it took me days to transcribe that, and that was the first step because then I just came up with basically a thematic material that was just notes, no context, no harmonic system at all. I mean that was a lot of work, but the real challenge came later when I had to find a context for them musically in terms of really coming up with an arrangement for a big band that I could take these notes and make sense out of them, create certain harmonies or through-compose, so it was a lot of work, and I did that on purpose. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to come up with something that I would never have come up with had I just sat at the piano or something and just tried to write some music. This gave me material to work with and then gave me the challenge. Jo Reed: Each movement relates to one particular speech but, I mean to its rhythm and to its cadences. But there’s also a musical relationship to the era and the geographic location in which that speech was given. The LBJ speech, for example, his “We Shall Overcome” speech is very different in every way from the Nelson Mandela. Ted Nash:  Oh, yeah, very much. And of course, LBJ, there’s some private jokes in a sense, I mean not private but I mean like a little tongue in cheek, where I do a cliché sort of cowboy theme at the beginning of the LBJ. Jo Reed:  I was thinking of Aaron Copland. Ted Nash:  Right, of the “Americana,” I mean just embracing the American because that’s what was just so LBJ was that “Americana,” that feeling of America. And although he wasn’t necessarily the most popular president, that speech was so powerful and made Martin Luther King cry when he heard it live, and it took place in 1965. And so I embraced Texas, where LBJ is from. I created a musical mood that was really influenced a lot by Ornette Coleman, who is an alto saxophone player known as a free jazz player who’s also from Texas, so that was on purpose. And then I created a context that really was sort of a free jazz style, so that was embracing the era, of course. <Musical excerpt from “The American Promise” by Ted Nash.> Jo Reed:  I think the speech I was most surprised to see, and it’s also the one that really inflamed my imagination because of when it was given, is the speech by Nehru called “Spoken at Midnight.” Set this up. When did he give that speech? Ted Nash:  Well, this is the independence of India in 1947, and he began his speech late at night. It’s also sometimes known as “The Trist with Destiny,” and it’s the speech where he became the prime minister of India at its time of independence. And it’s a very important time for India, of course, and he was the first leader of the country at that point. Of course after transcribing his notes, I thought about India. I thought about this feeling of another world and traveling somewhere, so I created sort of an ostinato in the beginning that sort of feels like traveling music, like you’re going and you’re traveling and you’re traveling and you get to this place, and then I put this piece into an odd time signature of 7/4, which because India and its classical music is very well known for having odd time signatures, not the normal sort of 4/4 feel that we’re used to or waltzes but odd in a sense that it was uneven, and so I created an uneven time signature to sort of represent that as well. <Musical excerpt from “Spoken at Midnight” by Ted Nash> So those are the little things that I did to try to make each movement have its own personality based on the speaker, the location, and era. Jo Reed:  You yourself, you come from a musical family. You were born in L.A. and your father was a trombonist and your uncle a saxophonist. What kind of music did they play? Ted Nash:  Well, they both started out as jazz musicians and really passionate about it. And my uncle, who passed away about six years ago, he was quite well known back in the late forties. He was on the band, Les Brown Band, which was a famous swing era big band that would travel, and Doris Day was the singer, and my uncle Ted and Doris Day were pretty much best friends for many decades. And he got a lot of recognition and notoriety through that association, but he had a real strong plan. He wanted to be in the studios, so he left the band, moved to California, started a family. And my father five years younger kind of followed in his footsteps. Started out doing the big bands, traveled a little bit, got married, move to Los Angeles and they settled in the studios. And they did so much work together from all the Mancini stuff throughout, from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, Quincy Jones, TV shows, film scores, everything that you can imagine. When I was very, very young I used to go with my dad to the studio just as I was beginning to play, and I would sit behind my uncle and I’d watch him solo on, like, a “Mod Squad” episode, Quincy Jones conducting, or I’d see them doing anything from “Partridge Family,” “Lost in Space,” you know, all of these crazy TV shows that I was watching I knew that my uncle and my father were in them, and I wanted to be a studio musician. I wanted to be a classical clarinet player and a studio musician, and then I heard Charlie Parker and it was all over. I got bit by the Jazz bug and that’s been what’s happening. <laughs> Jo Reed:  And never looked back, as they say. Ted Nash:  Exactly. <laughter> Ted Nash:  People are like, “What are you doing? You’re crazy. You’re leaving Los Angeles. You could make so much money and have a huge house and all this,” and I moved to New York and starved or whatever as a jazz musician, and it’s clear that I’ve made a huge error. No, I’m just kidding. I’m really happy with the choice that I made. Jo Reed:  You played with Lionel Hampton when you were very young. Ted Nash:  <laughs> Yes. Jo Reed:  Was that your first tour? Ted Nash:  It was really my first professional gig. I was 16. I went to Hawaii for a week and we played every night, sitting on the beach during the day, playing swing and jazz at night. I don’t think my life has gotten any better ever since that. <laughs> He was amazing. He was so inspiring. I don't know how old he was then, but he would just play a set and he would not stop. It’d be like two hours and he just couldn’t stop. He was a madman. Jo Reed:  There was a jazz scene in L.A., but you did want to go to New York. Ted Nash:  There was a jazz scene in L.A., but it was a good 25 percent the size and intensity and dedication to what I was seeing in New York. And I had been to New York with my family when I was 16. We went to some clubs. I sat in at the Village Vanguard when I was 16 with my dad, with Clark Terry’s band, and Clark knew me from when I was in high school. So it’s like I got a taste of that. When I was 17 I toured Europe and New York with Don Ellis’ big band. And we went to New York, we were there for a few days, and a friend of mine, Paul Moen, who’s a saxophone player with Lionel Hampton, took me out to different clubs. I heard bands and I heard people that just-- I was like, I have to be here. I have to be here. There’s an energy that I wasn’t getting in Los Angeles, and so as soon as I was 18 I just said, “Bye.” But the funny thing was, it wasn’t so funny to me at the time, but in L.A. I was really starting to work. People were calling me for things. I was doing my own gigs. People were like, “Yeah, la, la, Ted Nash? Yeah, young kid, yeah, blah, blah.” And I got to New York and they were like, “You see that line that wraps around the block twice? Get in the back of that and we’ll see you in a few years.” Jo Reed:  Yeah, that’s so New York. The line forms to the right. <laughter> Ted Nash:  Oh, my God. But that was actually why I came, I guess. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed to have that. Jo Reed:  Well, you played with Gerry Mulligan in New York and, and maybe most importantly, you were with the Neal Lucas Orchestra for 10 years. Ted Nash:  An association that I still am so happy about. Mel Lewis was one of the greatest, most swinging drummers ever, and he and my father happened to be roommates on the Tex Beneke Band in the early fifties, so-- Jo Reed:  Oh. Ted Nash:  Yeah, so there was that connection, and when I moved to New York I called up Mel. I knew him as sort of a family friend, and he was like, “Come on down and sit in,” or whatever, so I started subbing in the band when I was 18, 19, and later a chair opened up and I joined the band in 1982 and was there for at least nine years, I think. Jo Reed:  When did you start composing? Ted Nash:  My first composition-- I composed when I was 15. I was on a break at the all-state high school band that I played with in Monterey--they still have the all-star band there--and we were rehearsing and we had a lunchbreak, and I just sat at the piano and I kind of worked on this little tune. It’s called “Tristemente,” and it’s a bossa nova. And Louie Bellson recorded that on his record “Raincheck” with Blue Mitchell on trumpet, and so that’s my first composition, and it’s nothing amazing but it’s simple. But in Mel Lewis Band, that was really where I started to fool around with orchestrating and writing for big band, and that was a great opportunity. And Mel was very supportive and very encouraging. “Come, bring charts. We could read through them on the gig,” and that’s basically what we did. We would just read down, sight read them on the gig. Jo Reed:  You know, working as a jazz musician in the 21st century is difficult enough, but when you’re composing for big bands at the end of the 20th, early 21st century, that is daunting because there just aren’t that many anymore. Ted Nash:  Well, people always talking about the loss or the gain or what happened to the big bands. The big bands are still out there. It’s just that it’s not as popular because there’s not sort of a dance circuit. But the bands back in the swing era really, even though they were taken seriously for their music, were kinda primarily for dancing. I mean there’s that famous story about Benny Goodman doing the dances in the thirties, forties, and at one point all the dancers just stopped and just-- they weren’t dancing anymore. They were just listening. And then Benny started to play more sort of advanced listening music. And then of course Stan Canton started to write more concert-oriented big band stuff, so the big bands became more serious, in a way. But I love the dance aspect of that and I’ve done dance tours with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and it’s really some of the most fun concerts we’ve done because we’re connecting back to what the music originally was for and not taking ourselves too seriously. But there are such great big bands out there now. You just don’t hear about them as much because it’s hard to tour. It’s very expensive to tour a big band, to record a big band, so it’s not as easy to get that music out for people to hear it. That’s kind of the main issue. Jo Reed:  And as a composer, I’m imagining you can get such a depth of sound when you’re composing for a big band as opposed to a more standard jazz ensemble. Ted Nash:  That’s true. When you’re composing for a big band, it’s almost like you have a different way that you can approach the composition itself because you’re thinking about all of the colors and the layers and the textures and the different instruments that you can get with woodwind doubling and mutes in the brass, the different roles that everyone can play, you can think of the big band as a huge palette to use to paint, and so the end result can be something quite different than composing for a smaller group. Jo Reed:  You’ve been working, as you’ve said, with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis for almost two decades now, correct? Ted Nash:  Oh, my God. When you put it like that <laughs> it’s amazing, yeah. 18 years, yeah. Jo Reed:  Eighteen years, that’s great. Ted Nash:  It is. Jo Reed:  And do you compose with the band members in mind because you know how they play? Ted Nash:  Yeah, it’s such a great question. I don't think a lot of people think of that necessarily, and that’s the beauty. That’s what makes it really special for us to compose music for ourselves ‘cause I know if I want a certain sound on a plunger mute I can give that to Wynton or to Marcus Printup or Kenny Rampton. If I’m hearing a certain sound on the clarinet that might be Walter Blanding or it might be Victor Goines depending on the kind of sound that I’m hearing, so we all write with each other in mind, and it makes the experience much more personal. Sometimes people bring in charts to us when they don’t know us and these sort of generic arrangements, I mean generic in the sense that they’re not specialized for us, and you can hear the difference. They don’t have as much personality. Jo Reed:  And tell me what else about the experience of playing at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis. Ted Nash:  Wynton is one of the most inspiring and dedicated musicians I’ve ever worked with, and he always comes to the gig, to the sound check, to the rehearsal with in mind to play the best that he can and give as much as he can, and he does that, and he doesn’t bring a big ego to this. I mean I think a lot of people think that he’d probably have a big ego, like you couldn’t tell him something, but we’re all in this together. We feel a sense of community, and we could say, “Hey, Wynton, I think you’re rushing that figure,” or he’ll tell us, “I think you’re a little bit out of tune,” and we all learn how to work with each other without bringing a bunch of ego or attitude, and it makes the experience really incredible. But Wynton is very encouraging of everybody in the band, and Wynton could be in a position where he says, “This is my band. I’m gonna be the featured soloist. I’m gonna stand out front and play on everything, and maybe you might get a solo here or there.” He loves hearing people play. He knows that he has to play because people come there to hear him, but he tries to give as much of the spotlight, so to speak, to as many people in the band, and it just feels like such an incredible environment to be in. Jo Reed:  When you recorded Presidential Suite, you also conducted the band. Is that correct? Ted Nash:  I did. Ordinarily I would sit in the section with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and when we premiered it I sat in a section, and other times when we’ve played these movements on the road I’m in the section. But to really-- I wanted a better perspective to hear the music. We only had a few hours in the studio and one day to record all of this. I really wanted to be able to listen and know if we got a good take, if everything, we could move on. And to sit in the section I’d be more concerned about playing my parts and I wouldn’t be listening in a certain way, so it really felt like a better position for me to be in conducting. And so I had Charles Pillow play my chair in the orchestra on the recording. That’s just a much better way to do it. And we’re gonna be playing at the Jazz Standard on November 8th and November 9th, all this music with the band, and I’ll be conducting there as well. Jo Reed:  Oh, perfect timing. I found it interesting that you yourself only had one solo and that was in that wonderful speech by Nehru. Ted Nash:  Again, it’s sort of like I get so much pleasure and I’m so thrilled to hear all these great musicians playing their music, I wasn’t trying to take a spotlight as a soloist. I did want to contribute something and I love, I love improvising, I love playing, so I wanted to have a solo, but mainly I just, this music was really to feature all sorts of different people, different personalities. Each movement has such a different vibe and deals with such a different personality, so I needed to have something from everybody, really. Jo Reed:  I know you’re on the road quite a bit and you’re playing, and you also compose. Keeping your focus has to be, if not difficult, it has to be so important and significant because I think there is a kind of engagement that comes from doing art whether you’re playing or composing that is so mandatory. If it’s not there you’re missing something. Ted Nash:  It’s interesting. Touring is of course an important part of what we do because we need to bring the music out there to people. Touring has become such a bigger part of my life now that being on the road, being in a hotel, being on a bus, that is your home at that moment. Wherever you are there you are. Wherever you are that’s your house. That’s your home. You’ve got to have everything with you. You’ve got to stay focused on everything that you’re doing no matter if you’re touring or if you’re at home, if you’re in a hotel room, on the bandstand. We have to stay focused on so many aspects. I mean and I’m talking about personal life and everything. I mean you might just be talking about creatively, but it’s all tied in, and I’ve become very comfortable with touring. I don’t feel stressed about running around. I love getting on the bandstand. You get on a bandstand and for that couple hours that’s where you are. You’re so focused. You’re so in the moment, hopefully, everything else is not even in your mind and not in your consciousness. You’re playing music. You’re in the middle of that. But the funny thing is that you spend hours and hours traveling, getting here, and your moment on the bandstand is so short compared to all the time you’re traveling and doing all of that preparation, so it’s kind of funny. Jo Reed:  And are you able to get to the place where you’re totally in the moment while you’re composing? Ted Nash:  I can, and when that happens it’s the best, ‘cause sometimes I do feel forcing something, making it happen, trying to create something when I’m not feeling it, I can hear the difference of the outcome than when I just close my eyes. Sometimes I hear where the music is going. Close my eyes and say here’s where I am. Where’s the next place that this is going to go, and sometimes I’ll just hear it. Then you capture it. You hear it first, then you capture it, and that’s the most successful composing ‘cause then it really flows. And sometimes I think about composition like I do sculpture. There’s two different ways to sculpt. One is by adding material, taking clay and adding and adding and adding until you get to what you want. And the other way is to take a big block of marble and chip away at it until you are left with what you want. And sometimes I think of composing as the second method because all the notes, all the possibilities, every chord, every combination of note and feel and rhythm, it all exists and then you just basically are taking everything away and you’re left with what you end up with, so sometimes that feels like the more successful way, in a sense. <Musical excerpt from “The Time for the Healing of the Wounds” by Ted Nash> Jo Reed: And I’m wondering, Ted, with Presidential Suite, is there anything you want your audience to walk away with, when they leave the concert hall or the Jazz Standard after having heard it? Ted Nash:  Hmm. Well, this whole process has been an incredible experience for me just learning. Learning about history and the importance of great oration and rhetoric. We hear a lot of rhetoric these days, which I don’t think is inspiring a lot of people. I think people are not being inspired. They’re being entertained. Fine, okay, <laughs> but we all need inspiration and guidance, and these speeches that I chose for Presidential Suite are among the most inspiring and guiding orations, and my hope is that people will like the music of course and that it stands on its own. That’s why I have two discs in my CDs, because I have one that’s just the music and one that does include the speeches. I want people to hear these speeches. I want them to walk away and say, “I want to hear this entire speech,” and listen to it and just feel it. Get the goose bumps. Get the tears that I got when LBJ spoke “American Promise.” It’ll make you feel like I actually can do something. If enough of us feel this way, we can always help other people see how much we still have to do in terms of human rights around the world, freedom, civil rights. That’s really ultimately my biggest goal with this right now is that people will feel that inspiration. Jo Reed:  It’s so interesting how art, and we can talk about jazz most specifically since you’re a jazz musician and a jazz composer, how it has the ability to transcend politics in the way all art does and to open a door and give people a glimpse of something else, something bigger and more important. Ted Nash:  I hope that’s the case with this piece of music. I think art and music does that, and it’s not political. I mean maybe the artists have a political idea when they’re doing something or perhaps they have strong politics themselves, but the actual output is not political. I always think of jazz as both sides of the fence because you have-- <laughs> it’s liberal in the sense that it’s community and it’s sort of commune in a way. We have a whole bunch of people doing the same thing and everybody’s equal, hopefully, so there’s that side of it. And then the other side is sort of a capitalistic side, that the better you are the more you’ll move up the ladder and be more successful and maybe be paid more and get more opportunities, so it’s really a funny cross of both those things. So I think it sort of represents everything politically. But it is a great opportunity to express something. Everyone chooses. As a musician or an artist you choose how much you want to use to express views that you have, but I think it’s great to understand that you do have some kind of power to influence and guide people, and if you can get to that in your heart it’s wonderful. If you don’t, that’s okay, too. Jo Reed:  Well, Ted, it really was a pleasure talking to you, and it was a great pleasure listening to Presidential Suite. Ted Nash:  Oh, thank you, Jo. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and having me on the show. Jo Reed: That was saxophonist and composer Ted Nash. His most recent work is Presidential Suite. If you’re in New York City on November 8th or 9th, you can catch Ted Nash and his big band doing a live performance of Presidential Suite at the Jazz Standard. For information about the performance, you can go to tednash.com. You’ve been listening to Art Works. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

With Presidential Suite, Ted Nash transforms iconic political speeches into an inventive jazz composition.