July 21, 2010The International Herald Trombone: A Tribute to Mike Zwerin, 1930-201
(by RAFI ZABOR)
For decades Mike Zwerin was the significant American in Paris for a floating readership of world travelers and settled expats, ready with the word about music, delivered in an idiom of cosmopolitan verbal swing on the back page of the International Herald Tribune four or so times a month. In the days before the web he was the fastest friend an American could make abroad. Even if you weren’t a fan of jazz — Zwerin’s principal but far from only music — he was one of the pleasures of taking to the air and landing someplace different.He died in Paris in the early hours of April 2, 2010, six weeks short of what would have been his 80th birthday. One French newspaper had a keen eye for detail and remembered him as the guy sitting in the back of every dark jazz club in the City of Light, handsome well into his 70s, unlined face and assertive jaw beneath the trademark black fedora, and not a listener to take lightly: the only jazz critic — which he wasn’t, really — to have played with the likes of Miles Davis, John Lewis, Max Roach, Thad Jones, Elvin Jones, Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis and Connie Kay without sounding out of his league.
In print he always referred to himself as a trombonist, but in the 27 years that he’d been my friend and sometimes bandmate, I’d never heard him play a note on that piece of plumbing. The bass trumpet accepts a trombone mouthpiece and its tubing has a narrower gauge that bars it from the trombone’s ultimate capacity for blast. You achieve its notes, in the trumpet manner, by means of three valves. It’s an elegant instrument, with perhaps a tad too much weight forward on the hands, and it’s surprising that more musicians haven’t taken to it. Mike Zwerin made it very much his own.
Zwerin was the first jazz writer for The Village Voice, beginning in 1964; the Voice hasn’t bothered to note his passing with a word of any kind.
As for the American newspapers, they managed a few rote obituaries evincing no sense of his contribution to the world of music. Even the Trib didn’t say much, and The Village Voice, whose first jazz writer he was, beginning in 1964 — the Voice ticked along for nine years without taking notice of its village music until Zwerin walked into its shop on Sheridan Square and asked them, ‘How about it?’ — hasn’t bothered to note his passing with a word of any kind.
Mike was a part of my education. I started reading him in the Voice in the middle ’60s when I was a kid learning my way into the music. I also heard some of his music at the time, especially the album he made of Kurt Weill’s theatre songs with an all-star sextet out of John Lewis’s Orchestra USA — a significant recording of the period that needs to be re-reissued. But I didn’t meet Mike Zwerin until 1987 in Paris, when we were both of an age, he in his late 50s, me just over 40, at which one doesn’t make friends as quickly as one used to.
I was passing through on my way back to the States after a year spent farther east. Peter Giron, a South Bronx/New Jersey transplant to the 11th arrondissement and an old friend, was teaching bass at Alan Silva’s avant-garde jazz school, and one night he played a club with Silva’s big band, the Celestrial Communication Orchestra (was the name an esoteric idea? a misspelling? maybe just a goof?). I was surprised to learn that Mike was playing in it: Silva’s anything-goes music didn’t seem his style. I introduced myself as an old reader of his and as someone who had also written about jazz for a time, and played drums, a little. Mike endeared himself to me right off by pulling out a silver hip flask and offering me a pull of Irish whiskey. He told me he’d lain off playing for too long and was trying to get back to it, and that Silva’s band was an undemanding venue in which he could get his chops together.
I’d been reading him in the Trib during my travels, and if he’d laid off the music it didn’t show in his writing, which had great time, natural syncopation, was wise around the edges and swung beautifully. Not to mention that Paris was a nice hop from the Village and the column seemed like a dream gig.
There was something else that linked us. It came up in conversation that back in New York his aged mother was entering the veils of Alzheimer’s, and that soon he’d have responsibilities . . . As it happened, I was traveling after caring for my parents in Brooklyn during the years of their last illnesses, the cruelest part of which was my mother’s frequently angry dementia. I didn’t make much of it the night of Silva’s gig, but before leaving town I made a point of phoning Mike and saying there was something I wanted to talk with him about. He sounded puzzled, but said OK. The usual thing in Paris is to meet in a café but he said I might as well drop by the apartment.
It was a pleasant ground-floor rear flat with a pair of barn-sized wooden doors open on a potted bamboo plantation greening the view of a lot of other people’s rear windows, and we talked for two or three hours during which our friendship put down roots. He told me that his chief regret was that he had always divided himself, first between music and his father’s steel business, then between music and writing when, he’d always felt, if he’d been able to commit himself wholly to music he might have been a significant musician, possibly a major cat on his horn. From what I knew of his playing this was not an impossible dream. I talked about how I’d wanted to live in Paris since my first visit as a kid in 1966, only life had intervened, and how though I wasn’t in his league musically I was on-and-off about the drums and wished I were playing more too.
All this was the conventional materia prima of friendship-formation, a kind easily lost track of in the thickening weave of time and social habit; but I think Mike was touched that I wanted to talk with him about his mother.
Soon enough he was back and forth to New York and mercifully his mother didn’t take as long to go as mine had, and didn’t travel as horrible a path. I stayed on in Brooklyn out of habit but eventually Mike outfoxed my inertia by finding me a cheap sublet on the quiet end of the Île St. Louis — you can’t say no to that — and that’s when I got to know him better, and his wife Martine, who was in her 40s, and their teenage son Ben, over the next couple of years and onward.
Hoping for a more permanent move than turned out to be the case, I’d brought my drums to Paris and Mike and I and Peter Giron put together a trio that rehearsed a lot, played some surprisingly good music but — I’m stymied, can’t quite figure why — never played a single gig.
Early on I borrowed a copy of Mike’s autobiographical Close Enough for Jazz (1983), which began with some of the earliest material he’d contributed to the Voice, his classic account of life on the road with Claude Thornhill, and with a Maynard Ferguson big band in which some of his mates were Don Ellis, Joe Farrell, Jaki Byard, Charles Greenlee and Frankie Dunlop. It was high-note Maynard’s blasting band, but those were players to conjure with. Mike’s writing was nicely judged for an opening gambit in the trade.
He didn’t write like a beatnik or a scholar, or like Norman Mailer, but kept to an intelligent conversational tone, hip but not obtrusively so: casual and inclusive, ready to let you into the inside info he had come across, but never showy or condescending about it. You learned about trombone care and keeping, how to get through a tour with only three hotel check-ins per week. You watched Claude Thornhill’s sad, distracted decline and found out what to call things on the road: Tired Hollow, Stacked Junction, New York City City. The prose fell agreeably on the ear without being ostentatiously musical, and Mike was a keen observer of human nature, especially when it had a horn in its hands. The indelible portrait is that of his roommate in the Thornhill band, pseudonymously “Squirms” in the book, a “road rat with bleary eyes and a green complexion … laying low from the day.… If the gin people had added vitamins to their product he would not have eaten at all…. His idea of a meal was one Drake’s Cake.” Or cough syrup chased with pills. Zwerin then adds, “[H]is fierce and dependable lead trumpet playing was a miracle,” and goes on to explain what it means to be a lead trumpeter and the daunting set of attributes the role requires.
No other jazz writer could have painted the picture.
Squirms was dead before the book saw print.
Mike kept to an intelligent conversational tone, hip but not obtrusively so: casual and inclusive, ready to let you into the inside info he had come across, but never showy or condescending about it.
Close Enough also related the episode that, sure enough, was retold early in every one of his obituaries: how at the age of 19 Mike was hired by Miles Davis to play trombone at the only live dates the legendary Birth of the Cool nonet would ever perform. Mike was standing at the bar at Minton’s up in Harlem after playing in a jam session led by Art Blakey, a drummer who would blast you off the stand if you didn’t have the stuff, when Miles approached this college student on leave from the University of Miami and told him he had nice time for a white guy and asked him would he play the gig. J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding split the trombone duties on the canonical recordings, but one of the very few 19-year-old white kids with the cheek to jam uptown with Blakey would play that music live for the people at the Royal Roost — a date that is now available on CD (The Complete Birth of the Cool).
In comparison to his later style, Mike’s solo on Denzil Best’s “Move” sounds crowded and notey — this was the bebop era after all, and although this was supposed to be the beginning of cool jazz no one had told Max Roach, who was pushing the rhythm pretty hard at the ballsy, nervous teenager in the spotlight. But even so, Mike Zwerin sounds recognizably, if embryonically, like Mike Zwerin.
That trio with him and Peter Giron. We rehearsed it first in hired studios and, later, down the plank steps from his apartment in the damp basement chamber in which he wrote. The music was pretty good, so what was the problem gigwise? Was it that Peter had too many teaching commitments and sometimes canceled on short notice, or because Mike expressed irritation quickly and anything Peter perceived as a slight could smolder in him for months? Was my playing unready? Then there was the matter of Mike’s embouchure, ruined by French dentists and partly repaired by a Swiss one. Some nights his chops turned up, other nights they stepped on their shoelaces at the door.
I loved playing with Mike. Even when his chops were off and he couldn’t execute his ideas cleanly, he had beautiful time — which in a jazz musician means not metronomic regularity but a living, breathing quality that has less to do with rubato than with making room for other musicians to build their own homes in. Playing with Mike improved my own playing on the spot.
On his part, Mike enjoyed playing with us and wanted to get the band going, but obviously it was a long way down from Miles, Dolphy and Elvin Jones — he used to gig with Elvin all the time back in New York.
Mike told me that one good trick was to be influenced by people who played instruments other than yours, and from Lester Young and Chet Baker he’d derived an unhurried legato style of statement: he didn’t run changes and didn’t play licks and at his best shared a quality with Miles Davis of seeming to pursue a line of melodic thought that happened to concur with the sequence of chord changes as if by happy accident.
Mike looked upon Peter, with his perfect pitch, uncanny ears and deeply learned sense of harmony, as his last chance to get back in the game, and after I left Paris for good they finally played a couple of duo gigs in a tiny club in the Marais, but that was all.
On the other hand, sometimes Mike would get a call from big-name musicians passing through Paris — Eric Clapton, Sting, the Mingus Big Band — and he’d play in the horn section for a concert or two. The usual Paris trombone hire would have been Glenn Ferris, a friend of Mike’s and a player he admired, and since the people who called him for these gigs were beyond needing publicity from him, the hires must have been a friendly gesture, a nod of appreciation, the fellow-feeling of a community of spirit.
The columns Mike wrote for the Trib at the time were very finely done. Naturally he had his off weeks, when the supply of musicians passing through Paris did not especially engage him or he had to cover yet another jazz festival, but his mastery of the 800-word form was a treat to read. He seldom analyzed solos, but when, say, tenorist Joe Henderson put out some especially well-received records and won a few awards, Mike pointed out that the main change for Henderson would be more floor space around his hotel bed when he was on the road. When Dexter Gordon died, Mike wrote that Dexter had never taken himself for more than he was and had made no enemies in the world except for a handful of customs inspectors. The fact that musicians knew that Mike understood their lives got him better quotes than other writers — for Chrissake he got along with Miles Davis and Bob Dylan.
The pieces read breezily and appeared to have been written off the top, but I know how hard he worked to achieve the effect, paring things down to their essence and discarding secondary perceptions, stale modifiers, vulgar intensifiers — he’d stuck a warning sign about them on his subterranean plaster wall — and anything resembling b.s. What he hadn’t learned about editing from Hemingway he picked up from Miles, and although he was well schooled in the classical verities and techniques of jazz he was anything but a purist about the music. Miles’s funk, even Miles’s comeback funk, was more than all right with him, and so was a lot of Euro-jazz even if it lacked edge and swing, and in a period during which Paris had been declared the world capital of music Mike was ideally placed to register the richness of the scene in his column. When the proclamation was passed to Brooklyn, he wasn’t fazed at all.
If the musician in him regretted the self-division, he had made the writing life work pretty well, it seemed to me. Of course he had a few problems besides success in Paris, a fine family and variable chops. He dabbled in a heroin habit, though compared to people I’ve known he used extremely small amounts and only snorted it, never shot up, much less mainlined. In the years I got to know him, pathology had begun to outweigh pleasure and it seemed to me that he used just enough to mess himself up and, eventually, his marriage.
In part it was a generational aftermath. In part it was because he hadn’t wrecked his life with drugs in the heyday of his youth and then gone all baptist on the subject.
One of the first stories he told on himself as we were getting to know each other was about a day in New York when the undivided life was the coolest possible prospect and it lay open before him, as one night he was a young man walking from his father’s steel company through the electric midtown neon nightfall carrying his horn to Birdland, where he and Maynard were about to open opposite Count Basie, and man, he told me, I felt so hip.
Yeah, I know, but wouldn’t you?
One afternoon in the Village not too many years later, he would remark to the former Richard Alpert (heir to railroad money, renamed Baba Ram Dass), after the guru had tried and failed to soothe Mike’s anxieties about his carved-up life by referring him to God and then, perhaps in compensation, had complimented him on being such a hipster: “Hip,” Mike said, breaking open a bright ambiguous slash of grin I would get to know well, “may no longer be hip.”
Pressure drop. Mike had an instinct for it, finely honed.
Mike’s tenure at the Voice included a few paid vacations in slicks like Esquire and Playboy, a State Department tour of the Soviet Union with an Earl Hines band, and a largely vanished trio record with Bob Pozar and Jimmy Garrison I’d like to hear again. As a writer he unconfined himself from jazz when he felt like it. One piece started as a meditation on Jim Morrison and what it meant to be a male sex symbol in the ’60s, continued with an account of a Doors concert at which a lot of people got busted, and finished with Mike in one jail cell watching Morrison throwing up in the cell next door. It was, um, memorable, but it may not have felt like enough to write about.
His father was gone and the steel company disposed of, a marriage was ending, and when the Voice asked him if he’d like to be its European editor it couldn’t have been hard — although he devoted a chapter to the decision in Close Enough in which hanging out at Elaine’s looms large among what he’d miss if he left — to see a life of hip rootless cosmopolitanism waving from across the water; and Mike always had an eye on the exit. He moved to London in 1969. As a reader, I missed his regular jazz input, and the European desk crumbled after a couple of years, but he found his way to some stories richly characteristic of the time. The standout had to be the one from Tangiers, where he alone was able to get to Timothy Leary, then a fugitive from American justice but under a virtual house arrest commanded by Eldridge Cleaver, himself on the lam — those were the days, my friend. Mike was the toast of the town and the trade for that one, but if he was running for scoopmeister he’d need a few more hard-news hits, and they really weren’t on his bat.
The move to France had been inevitable. France had Paris in it, not only a prettier lady than London but a better jazz town, and as an American-in-Paris you could turn yourself into a fresh variation on a well-known theme, make use of its good chord changes and natural rhythm. There were places to play and places to publish, and if Mike didn’t spend the principle there was some steel-company interest to cushion him over the gaps. And in one office he passed through, manuscript in hand and at least the aura of his horn under this arm, there was a very smart and pretty French Jewish girl named Martine Halphen.
And France wasn’t only Paris. There could be an idyllic life with a woman you loved, on almost no money and sometimes no glass in the windows, down in the Vaucluse, and since Mike had fathered daughters in the States there could be a son now, a sweet kid from the first note: Ben.
There were writing gigs, film sort-of gigs, dope was surprisingly easy to come by in the boonies, and he could not avoid discovering the extraordinary pianist Michel Petrucciani performing locally in a band with his brothers. Mike set up and played bass trumpet on Petrucciani’s first record. He published books about drug addiction, the nature of small forgotten nations persisting beneath the jigsaw of the regulation maps, and a history, anecdotal rather than authoritative, of jazz under the Nazis.
Inevitably Paris beckoned, or merely asserted its gravity, and Mike’s stint at the Trib began in 1977, a few trial pieces at first, then a regular column, four or so times a month, most often showcased in a box commanding the back page. Mike rode his beat through reams of unsyncopated copy, the setup seeming to flaunt his freedom in a world otherwise composed of working squares. As he told it, most of the Trib’s editorial staff had no idea what he was doing in the paper and made what trouble they could for him — cutting the good stuff, repunctuating phrasing that should have been left alone, inserting unnecessary explanations in, yes, square brackets. But the formidable John Vinocur liked jazz and the way Mike wrote about it, and since Vinocur was the captain of the ship the column stayed where it was and Mike’s sense of line came through more or less intact.
So: Paris, family, a profession, man about town, a series of better apartments until they bought the one with the big back doors and Martine planted the privacy palisade of green bamboo.
So: where’s the inside-straight jazz novel? Or the big overarching book revealing the jazz story that snuck right past the music’s responsible chroniclers and scholars?
In one of his gentler self-characterizations, Mike wrote, “Mike is a misfit, addicted to margins, a dreamer, something of a jerk, innocent in the ways of the world.” It seems to me that halfway through the sentence Mike went out to lunch at a place where only he, or perhaps Martine, would recognize him.
When I borrowed that copy of Close Enough for Jazz 20 years ago in Paris I was so taken with Mike’s charm and the way he carried himself that I managed to read the book without noticing what an anguished tale it told. When one chapter called “The Critic Blues” — a blues I’d sung myself — began, “I’m a frustrated sneeze, a pimple that won’t pop, an orgasm that won’t come,” I thought it was ironic confetti tossed into the air at a party the author was enjoying just fine, thanks. I thought I was a pretty sharp reader at the time, but although I noticed an odd authorial tendency to pull a scene to pieces before it had been lifted into place, I didn’t see how torn up Mike felt himself to be. I read some other book than the one actually in my hands. His pieces in the Trib week after week were so carefree, and I was only 40-what.
His last book, and second autobiographical attempt, The Parisian Jazz Chronicles, published in 2005, is the book we — and by “we” I emphatically include its author — were waiting for. The form is anecdotal and original: Mike took a handful of his favorite Trib columns and opened them up like big band charts to accommodate solos about life, work, old age, late loneliness, the worth of art, the pit of drug addiction, the getting of wisdom, and ended it with a stylishly nouvelle vague celebration of the whole shebang, featuring fireworks, the Eiffel Tower, young lovers kissing and the generations turning, as seen by his well-aged eye.
He’s sarcastic about the uplift-aspect in the book’s Preface: “Our heartwarming story is about Mike’s heroic, uphill, ultimately victorious battle for sobriety and fulfillment. It’s kind of like a screenplay.” But his achievement, and the amount of experience and perception swept up in the book’s narrative arc, is neither the work of a minor writer nor a dilettantish summary of an unattended time on earth. The life in its pages seems to overflow the margins rather than hide in them, this time out. The author’s wit is as keen as ever, his eye accurate and unsparing when it needs to be — when it comes to the truly hard things Mike does not even slightly flinch — while his technical command and startling economy of means are a lesson in how to tell a tale without faking any of it. Don’t let the first couple of pages fool you: This is the real thing.
And, oh yes, it’s also an enjoyable series of professional set pieces about Miles, Dylan, Dexter, Wayne Shorter, Melvin van Peebles and a few more of the usual suspects. (Also some unexpected guests: the Kenny G piece is a comic tour de force in which Mike used not one word of his own, only handed the saxophonist a length of rope and recorded the result; he apologizes for the stunt in a short introduction but, wisely, lets it stand.) I don’t know another book like it, and although it will be nice, one day, to have a fat anthology of his best newspaper and magazine pieces, The Parisian Jazz Chronicles — Mike wanted to call it International Herald Trombone but Yale University Press was the publisher — will always be sitting on the summit of his work, grinning the completed version of that old bright dagger grin and nodding yes.
Not long after Mike left us I heard a half-hour’s worth of Paul Motian on Leonard Lopate’s WNYC radio talk show. Motian was born a year after Mike, in 1931, and he talked the way jazz musicians hardly ever do anymore. When Lopate mentioned, in the customary shocked tone, the people who talked their way through Bill Evans’s classic recorded 1961 live sets at the Village Vanguard when Evans, bassist Scott La Faro and Motian at the drums were revolutionizing the jazz trio, Motian responded with something along the lines of, “Yeah, it was great, everyone was talking and drinking and not paying attention to us, so we could just play, you know? These days at the Vanguard they tell everyone to be quiet and turn their phones off, and they just sit there looking at you, and, damn, it’s hard.” (Branford Marsalis made the same point to me in conversation, but he presented it as one salient of an overall thesis about what is wrong with jazz today.)
He went on for half an hour like that, only better — relaxed, intelligent, funny, unpredictable, without pretensions or b.s. — and I thought: right, here’s something that’s purely Paul Motian but it also belongs to his and Mike’s generation; something that will go out of the world in its original form as they do. FDR is in it, and being in your teens during the War, and being wised-up in the American 1950s of post-bop, easy money and the bomb. It was hard to believe that Ornette Coleman had turned 80 in March, and Sonny Rollins would hit that mark in late August, and Cecil Taylor, it can’t be, was already 81 . . . Was the sound of surprise as surprising as it used to be? Or was the surprise of another kind entirely: postmodern, mix ‘n’ match, less visionary, more combinational, situational, and what if, really, it had always been thus? Who’s to know?
I wondered who, now that Mike was off the scene, would understand the special skill and glory of great lead trumpeters from way back to now and tell us all about it. Yes, we’ll hear it from someone at Lincoln Center, I know; but I thought more generally about the things that go out of the world when a generation passes, this time with Mike Zwerin as the case in point.
The week after Radio Motian I went down to the Jazz Standard to hear the Mingus Big Band and talk with Sue Mingus about our friend Mike and — yeah, now — everyone’s friend Charles. It chanced to be lead trumpeter Earl Gardner’s birthday and after the first set they broke out the cakes and candles and the band played and the audience sang, and what I remembered was how tight Mike and Earl Gardner were — how when Mike and I would drop down to visit the band there were especially big hellos and hugs between him and Earl. And I wondered who, now that Mike was off the scene, would understand the special skill and glory of great lead trumpeters from way back to now and tell us all about it. Yes, we’ll hear it from someone at Lincoln Center, I know; but I thought more generally about the things that go out of the world when a generation passes, this time with Mike Zwerin as the case in point.
As the songs says: he was a friend of mine. Paris and New York, staying on and passing through, with and without Martine. I crashed at that backdoor bamboo apartment when Mike was there and when he wasn’t, and once or twice I even got laid there, and now and then we pissed each other off, once he complained that I was drinking too much of the whiskey I’d brought him (hey, I was having an allergic cat-reaction and wanted to breathe); and how after I left Paris my drums and cymbals stayed in his basement for years until the place had to be rebuilt and they went to Giron’s place; and we talked about Bird, Bach, Miles, Trane, Elvin — we both loved Elvin Jones and agreed that for the sake of jazz he ought to be immortal — Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Elmore, Stone, Mingus, Monk, Marsalises, love, life, age, death, good times and bad, food and wine and coffee, drugs — the almost certainly unpublishable piece Mike never wrote about how what was wrong with jazz these days was that not enough young musicians were doing drugs — opera, piano sonatas, women we’d loved, taste in general, and writing (which I liked to do long and he liked to do short), the price of bread, where to get the best couscous this year, the hip chord changes he wrote for “Eleanor Rigby” (especially the bridge), what a bitch it is to play “Chelsea Bridge,” why I didn’t feel like playing fours, and OK, sure, I can play brushes on that, and why Peter cancelled again; and how Martine was his closest friend even after the breakup and it wasn’t a problem anymore that he was in love with his wife, and how everyone knew to treat Ben like a full adult by the time he was 15, you didn’t have to explain things to him, and now that he was grown up what a remarkable guy he was and such a melodic bassist besides . . . Then the last year, the blood disease, weekly platelet transfusions, Martine on call and exhausted, the barely avoided amputation of Mike’s foot, the falls, bruises, the tiredness, the sleep and no sleep, lags of memory, morphine and no morphine, the last book he might try to write if he had the energy and time, which, face it, seemed unlikely and my hands don’t work right . . . Also that he wasn’t anguished or in pain, that ashes to ashes was all right with him, and that, really, to his surprise, no idea how it happened, maybe just the years, you learn something somehow, reconcile yourself to all kinds of loss and that one too . . . Don’t know if I can explain it to you, it isn’t even loss really, and always remember, the holes in your Swiss cheese might be someone else’s Swiss cheese, insecurity is the fountain of youth, and life isn’t everything.
April 05, 2007Great Music Quotes
"Never look at the trombones, it only encourages
> Richard Strauss >
> "Hell is full of musical amateurs."
> George Bernard Shaw
> > "We never play anything the same way once."
> Shelly Manne's definition of jazz musicians
> "Someone who knows how to play the accordion, and
> Al Cohn's definition of a gentleman
> > "The only tune they play in 4/4 is 'Take Five!'"
> (unknown-talking about the Don Ellis band)
> "If I could play like Wynton, I
> wouldn't play like Wynton.
> Chet Baker
> > "I would rather play Chiquita Banana and have my
> swimming pool than play Bach and starve."
> Xavier Cugat
> > "I am not handsome, but when women hear me play,
> they come crawling to my feet."
> Niccoló Paganini
> "Critics can't even make music by rubbing their
> back legs together."
> Mel Brooks
> "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."
> Mark Twain
> "God tells me how the music should sound, but
> you stand in the way."
> Arturo Toscanini to a trumpet player
> "When she started to play, Steinway himself came
> down personally and rubbed his name off the piano."
> Bob Hope, on comedienne Phyllis Diller
> "In opera, there is always too much singing."
> Claude Debussy
February 25, 2007BORING!!! BORING!!!
MARIO LAGO, a friend who lives in Milan, sent me the following commentary.
Last Friday I went to hear Billy Cobham with his jazz/fusion group at the
Blue Note. Huge noise volume, a cascade of beats and continuos fill-ins, a
bit like a locomotive, (Billy has huge energy and lots of 'prespiration' )
was rendered on two base drums, 5 toms, 5 cymbals etc etc plus all of the five pieces played were rythmically nearly identical and impossible to remember or discern: Frankly cannot be called Jazz..
Unfortunately this also happens often in most of the various summer festivals
which the organisers try to promote as a Jazz Festival to the innocent and
naive (not to say ignorant) general public. The music played is usually without swing, lasting endless number of choruses with no end in sight: Final result BORING!!! Boring!!!
October 13, 2006THE BALLAD OF VALERY PONOMAREV: Or... It's Their Way Or It's Their Way
I met Valery Ponomarev in Moscow in 1967 when I was on tour for the US State Department with Earl Fatha Hines, and he was, like 20. He could play Lee Morgan solos note for note - unusual for a soviet citizen. “Holy sheeit!” said the band, with hipster lucidity. Then he comes to NY ten years later and, ain't God great, ends up playing with Art Blakey.
Lately Valery has been in the news. Here's a story about him I picked up from the internet.
(Front Paged at MLW)
Let me tell you a story...it won't take very long...about how far the Bushist doctrine of fear and power has spread.
How far, how deeply and how dangerously it has spread.
Security people at Charles DeGaulle airport broke the arm of the internationally famous jazz trumpet player Valery Ponomarev last week...an American citizen for over 30 years...because he argued with the gate people at an Air India flight to New York when they demanded that he gate check his trumpet rather than bring it onto the plane. A trumpet that:
A-Fits with no problem whatsoever in the overheads.
B-Had been properly tagged as carry-on baggage before he got to the gate.
Now you must know that musicians try very hard to get their instruments onto planes whenever they can do so. Baggage handlers are notorious for breaking things, and a broken instrument is painful in any number of ways. So is a lost or misrouted instrument. It's not like you can just pick up another one before the gig and play at your usual level of competence. Even if you are lucky enough to FIND one, every instrument has its own quirks and personality, and most professional musicians own instruments that are not easily replaceable. Older instruments or ones that were custom built or modified to their specifications. And since 9/11 and the whole Homeland Security/Terrorism scare-scam, if you DO carefully pack an instrument in a special ape-proof flight case and allow it to be checked as baggage, the minimum wagers that are doing "security" work in the baggage department are often capable of opening the case, taking the instrument out to see if it's a bomb (Duh...a trumpet or violin REALLY looks bomb-like on an X-ray machine.) repacking it backwards and upside down and then forgetting to close the latches.
I have SEEN this happen.
So Valery... 63 years old, maybe 5' 5" tall, 140 lbs... pitched a bitch at the gate when some pissed-off functionary at a loading gate decided to pull rank on him. They called security and four (as he so colorfully put it to me today when he told me the story) "giant asshole cops" took him someplace where there were no witnesses, tried to forcibly take his trumpet away and when he would not let go of it with his right hand, pulled his left arm behind his back and broke it.
And people sniff and moan when the word "fascism" is used to describe what is happening in America and in much of Western Europe as well.
Vaslery did not try to fight these people. As he related today (I wish I could reproduce his great Russan accent) "I grew up in Soviet Union under Stalin and Khruschev. I know enough not to try to hit a cop. Let alone four of them. Big, stupid motherfuckers." (Here he stands on tiptoe and raises his remaining functioning hand as high in the air as he can.) "They were THS BIG!!! FOUR of them!!! I am not THAT stupid."
And indeed he is not.
Here is a man who grew up in Russia when playing "jazz" was almost an act of open rebellion and got so good that Art Blakey hired him to join the Jazz Messengers in the late '60s. And if you do not know how serious THAT was...Blakey was possibly the only equal to Miles Davis in terms of hearing and hiring the best of the best in the post-bop era.
Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter...that level.
The BEST of the best.
So here we have this INSATIABLY positive little Russian guy, authentically playing in an idiom that had its genesis in the riot-torn black ghettos of America during the Civil Rights era. Moving to New York, getting his citizenship, re-starting a life here...a true "American" success story, when there really was such a thing. Now seriously crippled...they had to operate because it was a complex break...and unable to even HOLD a trumpet, because George fucking Bush and his handlers have decided that they are the deciders and we are their subjects.
I just thought I would bring this general "fascism" discussion down to a more personal level. This can happen to ANY of us who do not totally surrender on any level whatsoever to the madness of these people.
It's their way or it's their way.
June 22, 2006Don't Count Sheep
The days start getting shorter today, always a big day on my scale of small horrors. It's all downhill from here. Of course, it's always downhill from everywhere. That's the lay of the land. Why does that not depress me?
Actually, I know why. I'm stoned, and I've been listening to Steely Dan, Sonny Rollins, and Count Basie. When you can't sleep, don't count sheep Count Basie.
June 12, 2006"Let's Start A Magazine"
by ee cummings
"let's start a magazine, to hell with literature, we want something redblooded, lousy with pure, reeking with stark, and fearlessly obscene, but really clean, get what I mean, let's not spoil it, let's make it serious, something authentic and delirious, you know something genuine like a mark, in a toilet, graced with guts and gutted, with grace, squeeze your nuts and open your face."
May 25, 2006Review of “The Parisian Jazz Chronicles” by Nick Catalano on Allabout jazz.com
Mike Zwerin gave up his status as CEO of a steel company to play jazz trombone, winding up in Europe eventually earning his living as the jazz writer for the International Herald Tribune. His book The Parisian Jazz Chronicles (Yale University Press, 2005) offers unique glimpses into the lives of such luminaries as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Wayne Shorter and Dexter Gordon. Actually, Zwerin has chosen to write his “improvisational memoir” in a manner which interfuses his own life in Europe (he recounts love affairs, substance episodes, and expatriate alienation) with chapters in the careers of his interviewees. His writing style contains abrupt segues and changes (he describes these as “interludes, modulations, codas...”) from planned outlines to improvisatory notes in a sort of journalistic stream-of-consciousness. It represents a writing adventure that many who plod along with their have-to-do-it-to-make-a-living newspaper writing would love to try.
Zwerin began at the “Trib” in 1979 and was able to trace the development of European jazz innovators like Michel Petrucciani and Burhan Ocal. He reviewed them and many others in the context of festivals at Siena, Viennes, Agadir as well larger ones like Nice and Montreux (better known to Americans) and recorded their accomplishments. The sum total of his experiences leads him to recognize that jazz, long ago, evolved into a world music or “musica franca”- a development that has been largely ignored by his colleagues of the press here in the U.S.A.
Jazz has always had an enormous following of knowledgeable fans all over Europe. Actually, the French wish they had invented the music and often claim that they established it, through their critics, as a true art form. There is much truth in this latter statement. As far back as the early 20’s, French writers were hailing the music’s praises and extolling Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and others with insight that eluded many early American critics. It is in this context that Mike Zwerin’s book is so valuable. He is the best kind of commentator—a successful musician in his own right—and his comments are uttered in an adventurous style which should delight even readers who aren’t jazz aficionados.
March 31, 2006Don't Blink
I wrote the following while sitting in the gentle April sun on the terrace of the Café Flore in downtown Saint-Germain des Pres. Not really, I just wanted to fuck with your head.
A friend of mine who fucked Daryl Hannah told me that she had a perfect ass. I always imagined that she had small tits - not that there's anything wrong with it. I like tits of any size, except when they are made of plastic. If it were possible to transplant Daryl Hannah's ass on Yasmeen, my opthomologist, she'd be perfect. But that's not necessary. When you have a bright face and a sexy bearing like Yasmeen, a fat ass is not a liability. A sight for sore eyes, she resembles an intelligent Dominique Sanda, if that makes any sense. I once fucked Dominique Sanda, though neither one of us was really there. In any case, I fell in love with Yasmeen when she was looking me in the eye, and she said, in English: "Don't blink."
After the eye exam, I couldn't see very well because of all the gooey drops in my eyes. so instead of reading Tolstoy, I watched a tennis match. Eyes were on my mind. Anastasia Myskina the Russian tennis player has eyes like two cunts. They suck you in. When she plays tennis, she gives the impression of trying to seduce her opponent rather than competing. While Maria Sharapova, on the other side of the net, is 100% will. She needs to dominate, to overpower. At the age of 18, her eyes are already like two $ signs. She doesn't blink.
March 30, 2006Incendiary Comments
People discuss Bob Dylan's lyrics and his singing and what's wrong or right with his bands, but nobody ever seems to talk about just how good his time is. This may sound incendiary, but let me suggest that next time you listen you forget about the words, and listen to how he places his notes. The music, not the poetry. He sounds like a soulful horn player. He has an absolutely consistant groove, and he always swings. Has any jazzman thought about playing instrumental versions of Bob Dylan songs? And just when is Dylan going to win the Nobel Prize for literature he so richly deserves?
The left-wing Catholic philosopher Simone Weil, a convert from Judaism, and the role-model of my first wife Norma, who was in love with doom, once wrote: "Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty."
She also wrote: "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer."
William Pfaff, one of the few interesting columnists remaining in the International Herald Trombone, wrote the following on Thursday, March 30, 2006:
"The [Capitalist} system in the advanced countries has been rejigged since the 1960s to take wealth from the workers, and from the funding of government, and transfer it to stockholders and corporate executives.
"While that may seem an incendiary comment, it seems to me a simple factual observation."
While this is not exactly news, who says the press no longer prints the truth?
March 18, 2006Paul Haines: Not Making What Is Laughingly Called Sense.
Jo Hayward Haines, the widow of my late very special friend the poet, critic, and teacher Paul Haines, who wrote the libretto for Carla Bley's "Elevator Over The Hill," has asked people for their recollections of this "complex, funny, contradictory man." Here are mine.
I first met Paul Haines - it was either the very late 40s or the very early 50s - in Coconut Grove in Miami, where he was living, obviously really happy about it, on Bird Road.
I was majoring in sailing at the U of Miami, and I had just married a woman named Norma, who had three sisters. The older two were already heavily into jazz and drugs. Them was the good old days. Norma’s youngest sister Rosemary, who played basketball, was constantly being nagged by the “hipper” members of the family about going out with all of those dumb football players. I’ll never forget the proud look on Rosemary’s face when she introduced Paul to us. Her first hipster. She later married Don Martin, the cartoonist. (Eventually, when Rosemary found out she had cancer, she said: “Well at least I won’t have to floss any more.”)
When I remember Paul’s face back in those days, the word that comes to mind is clean. It was mostly just being young – we were all around 20, clean, open, stoned, whatever. But mostly, Paul seemed to be more dedicated to curiosity than the rest of us. Dedicated to not making what is laughingly called sense, if that makes any sense.
After Norma left me, I spent the winter of 57/58 in Paris, “finding myself.” I drove my Citroen 2 CV, that classic sardine can of a car held together by rubber bands, down to Nice to hang out with Barney Wilen, and I drove back north through the French Alps so I could stop off and see Paul, who was studying at, if I remember right, the University of Grenoble. I played in some sort of a local jam session and somehow or other I still have a photo of that with Paul listening carefully – boy, he knew how to listen - at a table.
We drove on to Paris together, and it was then that we became close. It was then that I started to learn about how to blow words – I would not become a professional writer until ten years later – how to stretch and bend them. I had read my share of Dostoevsky, and James, and so on, but before that the only thing I really thought about was bebop. I started to take words a lot more seriously after that trip.
Paul’s highly developed senses of irony, ambiguity, and silliness harmonized with my own ditto in a way I’d never experienced with anybody else – except, let me hasten to add, with Norma. I was made what I am verbally, whatever the fuck that means, by Paul Haines, with some help from Bob Dylan, John Cage, and Lenny Bruce.
I pride myself on being marginal. A plague on all your houses. Paul taught me to choose my words more carefully. I guess you could say that he taught me how to communicate with the people who were in the same margin as me. Which is nothing to sneeze at, although, thanks to Paul, I later had to crumple a whole lot of drafts learning how to communicate with ordinary people - but that’s another story.
No it’s not. Paul did not often compromise verbally, something I’ve always admired him for. Self-censorship did not seem to occur to him. If you didn’t understand him it was your fault. He always seemed to be slightly askew. He had a sideways take on life, and I suspect that he must have paid a high price for it.
The last time I saw him was on the “Elevator Over The Hill” tour with Carla Bley. I forget the year, around the millennium sometime in some provincial place, at a festival in Brittany, or Normandy, maybe - Le Mans or Reims perhaps. There were a lot of people around; producers, locals, fans, French musicians, an entire big band doing sound-checks and interviews and stuff, and although Paul was very much a part of, even central to the event, I remember him as being somehow out of focus.
Although I considered him one of my closest friends, I had not seen him in decades. For someone who was so important to me, I spent precious little precious time with Paul. You should know that I am of the impression that I make a better impression when I am not around, so it is possible that it was I who was was out of focus, and that I was just seeing a reflection of my own alienation in somebody with whom I identified so strongly.
But Paul was even more alienated than me (that’s a compliment, I think). He was on a planet of his own. On his planet, people spoke in free verse, and they were of good heart and open ears.
March 12, 2006Bob Dylan on new songs
"The world don't need any more songs. They've got enough. They've got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain't gonna suffer from it. Noibody cares. There's enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred records, and never be repeated. There's enough songs. Unless someone's gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That's a different story"
Bob Dylan, interviewed by Paul Zollo in "Songwriters on Songwriting"
February 06, 2006Anthems for People Who Don't Like Anthems
La Marseillaise, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli
America The Beautiful, Jaco Pastorius
The Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix
Imagine, John Lennon
I’m Black and I’m Proud, James Brown
L'Internationale, Jean-Jacques Milteau
My Way, the Sex Pistols
Precious Lord, sung and recited by James Baldwin (with Bob Stewart, tuba)
Chimes of Freedom, Bruce Springsteen
Get Up Stand Up, Bob Marley
Let It be, The Beatles
Respect, Aretha Franklin
February 01, 2006Interview on Bloomberg News
Jazz Critic Zwerin Remembers Miles, Chet and `Cool': Interview
2005-12-04 21:10 (New York)
(Farah Nayeri is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The views
expressed are her own.)
By Farah Nayeri
Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Mike Zwerin got his first break jamming
with Miles Davis a half-century ago. Miles has been with him ever
The Paris-based jazz critic (for Bloomberg News and The
International Herald Tribune), also a trombonist, has just released
an entertaining mix of flashbacks, ``The Parisian Jazz Chronicles''
(Yale University Press, 214 pages, $26). In it, his life story is
interlaced with that of the legends he encountered: Dexter Gordon,
Chet Baker, Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter -- and Miles, the man
``everything comes back to.''
Zwerin, 75, looked back on his life last week in a telephone
conversation with Bloomberg's Farah Nayeri.
Nayeri: Why is your book called an improvisational memoir?
Zwerin: It's always been my ambition to create my own form, not
just copy other forms.
The publishers came up with that term ... It's not really
improvised, because I wrote about 85 drafts. I rewrite myself all
Nayeri: Why did you not do music all your life?
Zwerin: I never got enough of a name to have my own band and
play with it all the time. That's partly because I wasn't practicing
enough, because I was writing and reading. I had split myself, which
is great. Eclecticism.
On the other hand, if you don't really concentrate on music 100
percent of the time, you're never going to be what you could be.
Music is a tyrant. I was just not ready to submit to that tyrant. I
didn't like to practice.
Nayeri: In the book, you don't describe your very first
encounter with Miles Davis.
Zwerin: I've told that in previous books.
Nayeri: Please tell it again.
Zwerin: When I was 18, I was living with my parents in Forest
Hills, the place where they used to play tennis, in Queens, in New
York City. I used to take my horn, drive their car into Manhattan
and sit in. Sometimes I went to strip clubs in Brooklyn. This one
time, I went to Harlem, to 117th Street, a club called Minton's
where bebop was supposedly born. (Thelonious) Monk played there very
early in his career, so did Charlie Parker.
The night I went, there was Art Blakey. He was going through
his Muslim phase, so he was known as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. And he
was a fearful cat. He didn't like white people, and he was strong,
and he had muscles, and he was the best drummer around, and he knew
Dumb or Courageous?
I don't know where I got the courage; I was either dumb or
courageous. I walked in with my horn and asked him if I could play.
He said sure, and he couldn't have been sweeter. He was nicer than
his reputation, that's for damn sure. A lot of those guys were. So
When I was packing up my horn, I saw that Miles had been at the
bar. I hadn't seen him before. He walked over to me and said would I
like to come to a rehearsal tomorrow. We were, you better know it,
cool. And I said okay, sure. He had just played with Charlie Parker.
Miles was 22, four years older than me, and this was his first
band. So I knew who he was, but the world didn't know who he was.
This was his first time as a leader. When I came to rehearsal, it
was the band called Birth of the Cool. Much later, he told me, ``I
like your sound,'' which was the biggest compliment I ever got.
Soundtrack of Life
Nayeri: Why do you say everything always goes back to Miles?
Zwerin: Miles has made the soundtrack of the movie of my life.
When I hear his early records with Charlie Parker, that's my teenage
years. ``Tutu'' was my old age. That's the urban music of our time.
Nayeri: Beyond his music, you often go back to what he said.
Zwerin: Sure. His mystique. He was an amazing guy. He's the guy
who told (John) Coltrane to take the saxophone out of his mouth. He
couldn't stand him playing these long solos. Miles said ``Please,
man, can't you play shorter solos?'' And Coltrane said, ``I try, but
I can't seem to figure out how to end it, I keep going!'' So Miles
said, ``Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?''
That's getting to the heart.
I feel somehow very close to Miles, and when I interviewed (the
drummer) Tony Williams and he said ``I haven't been the same since
Miles died,'' I thought, neither have I. He was somebody who I
didn't really know. I wasn't a friend of his. But he was really
important to me.
Didn't the drugs in my book shock you?
Nayeri: They did initially, but then I thought, whatever.
Zwerin: Nobody really cares anymore. It is in the past tense. I
decided I would say what I think. I'm 75, and if I don't say it now,
gosh, goddarn, heck.
Nayeri: You thought it would wash because of your age?
Zwerin: I was having my say, and part of my say was the drug
thing. It's in the past tense, part of my life. I'm not the first
one to have that experience, or, unfortunately, the last one. That
was part of the ethic of what I thought was being hip, which is
When you're that age you're immortal.
Nayeri: Tell me about Chet and his importance to you.
Zwerin: He wasn't all that important.
Nayeri: Why not?
Zwerin: On a good night -- and there weren't enough of them --
towards the end of his life, in his 50s, Chet was playing jazz as
well as anybody has ever played it. It's not a popular thing to say
to Wynton Marsalis. I told him once, and he looked at me as if I was
Chet was the classic junkie. He lasted longer than anybody. He
hit the age of 60.
Nayeri: He was sad.
Zwerin: Except in a way he wasn't. He liked being a junkie. He
never got tired of it. He was like a kid who found the candy jar and
just kept raiding it.
Plus he could play really well. The trouble is, he made so many
records that most of them were bad. You'd give him $2,000 and he'd
make a record. A lot of those records are bad. When you find the
good ones, it's really exciting.
Age Brings Peace
Nayeri: Do you still play?
Zwerin: I've started playing again. A friend of mine has a
little club and he asked me. I played a couple of times. I play bass
trumpet, cousin to the trombone.
Nayeri: You sound pretty happy, on the whole.
Zwerin: I'm in very good shape.
Nayeri: Why is that?
Zwerin: It's the cliche: You do get some peace with age. For
one thing, I'm not worried about chasing women. I look a lot, I'm a
real voyeur, but I don't need women anymore. I don't mean it
personally. I never knew how to handle women, relate to them. They
were always a mystery to me.
Also, I understand stuff that I didn't understand before. There
is no reason to get depressed about stuff, because it's just
inevitable. That's what I've come to realize: Dust unto dust is OK.
Nayeri: Do you have more books in you?
Zwerin: I am thinking now of another one. I don't know. I hope
so. Right now, I'm only writing an article every two weeks. It's not
enough. What do I do in the week in between?
January 29, 2006Botox Vs Steroids
I had a thought today, looking at pictures of Oprah Winfrey and Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, in the papers. Both are obviously botoxed, or worse. That’s fine. Nobody minds that. But if athletes are fined for taking steroids, shouldn’t public personalities be fined for their artificially young faces? Or should we just accept the realities of cutting edge technologies?
January 28, 2006Review in The Guardian
The Parisian Jazz Chronicles by Mike Zwerin (Yale, £15.95)
My heart sank when I saw that this was subtitled "An Improvisational Memoir", since in such cases "improvisational" is usually code for tedious stream-of-consciousness reminiscence. But Zwerin, an American trombonist and music critic long resident in Paris, pulls it off superbly, riffing in blue and hot moods, and generally clambering around the staves of his pages like someone for whom the only possible description is a "hep cat". Even his decision to refer to himself in the third person - "Mike" (or sometimes his drug-fuelled alter ego, "Johnny Staccato") - works, probably because he loves also to mock himself.
It also works because Zwerin has such great stories to tell about the giants he met: Dexter Gordon growling at a French policeman who has dared to touch his hat; Bob Dylan in a café confessing to no sense of self; Count Basie deconstructing the inverview scenario, and numerous apparitions by Miles Davis ("everything comes back to Miles"), with whom Zwerin played, and who is the book's guardian angel. There is also a mischievously satirical profile of slush-pop saxist Kenny G, written entirely in the victim's own words. Nice.
by Steven Poole