When you were here a year ago, you were a guest on the radio programme Desert Island Discs. Was that enjoyable for you?
Yes, it was fun. I had a chance to be silly, and while I really don't anticipate ever being alone on a desert island, I suppose that if it ever did happen the records I chose would be the ones I would take with me. I don't suppose it was too clever to take a Ferrari, but I like Ferraris, and it would be nice to sit in!
Well, you could zoom round in circles. But that kind of choice is really arbitrary, I suppose. If you chose again this year, wouldn't you probably have some other thoughts?
No, I would probably pick the same people, though not necessarily the same tunes. On the first show I chose people that I really love and respect, and if I had to be alone, I would feel like I was with old friends. 1 suppose if you were really alone for a very long time, and you had to hear the same old thing over and over again, you'd wind up smashing it. It's like everything else - you just can't listen to one thing forever. But if I had hopes of being rescued, I'd take those people along with me. You can't do much better than Ella or Sarah, or Sinatra and Basie, or Goodman and Miles Davis and Diz. If you're going to be alone, you might as well take your best friends.
But as regards your own records that you've made over the years.
You know the answer to that. I've never enjoyed any of them that I've ever made - with my own band. I've had great fun and great thrills working with people like Lester Young and Bird, and you can go on and on and on with names. I had great times recording with Basie, and I had great times recording with the All-Star people. But for my own band I've never really done anything where I can say: "That is the best thing that this band's ever done, or the best thing that I've ever done."
First of all, I can't stand the way I sound on records, and I've said that all my life. I play things that I think are right at the time - then when I hear it, I say: "Why did I do that?" So to look back and say: "This is the best record" - there is no record I've made with my band that I feel I want to talk about. Especially the last album we did in the States - it's the worst thing that you could possibly listen to. I mean, it should be banned; it should be illegal. The recording is terrible, the band was terrible, the playing was bad; there were mistakes that the engineering let pass. I was away at the time the thing was released, or it never would have been released. What I have done, in the past eight months that the album's been out, is that every night at every concert I tell the audience that our new album is not to be believed, it's terrible, and please don't buy it. I'm saving myself the embarrassment of having people listen to it, and I'm also saving them the money that they would pay for a record that is not worth the price.
This whole area, of trying to capture something worth-while on disc, is fraught with hazards, though, isn't it.
If I'm going to record, my preference, of course, would be to record live because that's the most honest you can be. When you're in front of an audience, everything you do is scrutinised at that moment - right? And if you make a mistake, it's okay because it's a mistake that's involved with the audience participation and everything. You get into a studio, it's sterile, it's too clean. Every musician that walks into a studio knows that if he makes a mistake - so what? You do it again, you splice it, and it comes out right; or if you make ten mistakes, you splice ten times, and it comes out right. When you do it live - what you hear is what you got. That's it. And I prefer to do that. We did two live albums at Ronnie's, and I was satisfied with both of them - as far as recording an album for human consumption, you know. But to go into a studio - I haven't ever done . . . well, I like that album we did with Mel Torme - only because there was a marvellously warm relationship with Mel. We're such old friends, and he's such a total genius, that it was good feeling. But it wasn't a band album and it wasn't a vocal album - it was a good musical album, and I like that one. For my band thing. . . I'm still looking forward to doing something really great one day, when I find the proper writing and the proper conditions. So I'll wait.
Do you ever listen back to some of your old albums, with all the jazz greats?
Oh - never. I have 'em, but I never play 'em. I think the memories would be. . . I don't know - they'd be sad, they'd be good, and I'd be lonely, and I'd miss it. Just knowing that I have it is good enough. And knowing that I did the things with the people that I recorded for is enough of a compliment - to say that, yes, I recorded with the greats. Who's greater than Miles, Diz, Bird, Tatum, Wilson and Basie? If you go down the list of the greatest people in music, I have recorded with, worked with and played with every one of them - and I'm a very, very lucky guy to be able to sit here and say: "Yes, I've done it with all those people." There's nothing like it - that's great. Nat Cole - nobody remembers that I recorded with Nat Cole, when he was one of the best jazz piano players. And hardly anybody ever realised how great a piano player he was. Not only his technique - also his time thing; he was a real percussive player. I loved him - and I go back to '39, '40 and. '41, when we were both recording with the quintet led by Herbie Haymer, who was a great tenor saxophone player. Then there were V-Discs with all the greats. So we could sit here for three days and talk about the people I've worked for and worked with.
I suppose some of them were more a labour of love than others. I mean, The other day I was playing one that you did with Benny Carter and strings, and you were confined to brushes for pretty well the whole date.
Yes, but that's not confinement - that's just another way of playing. It's great that you mention that, because today's thing about: "This guy's a great band drummer, this guy's a great small band drummer, this one works great with a trio". . . when you go back to those days that we're talking about, with Benny Carter, a drummer was a drummer who played with anyone. If you play drums, and you get a call to play with a trio or quartet, you simply acclimate yourself to that kind of sound; if you're called to work with a twenty-piece band, you play that way. Specialisation is a bore to me - the idea that one guy is the best for a certain surrounding. That's insanity; you either play or you don't play. And I like playing with brushes; I wasn't confined - thought that would be the sound that would be right for that kind of playing, that's all. It had nothing to do with anybody saying: "Why don't you play brushes?" That was my own thinking.
Another thing you've done quite a lot of is accompanying singers. Presumably, you regard that as a particular art also.
Well, it all depends now - you have to be specific. What singers?
Two who come readily to mind are Ella and Louis.
Ah, but when you do that, you're really not accompanying, man. You're a part of that entire mood. When I recorded with Ella and Louis - it was a dream. How many guys can sit back and say they've recorded with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson at the same time? To be called for that thing is like being called for meeting the heads of state; you're talking about the people who have done more for that kind of music than anybody else, and there you are sitting in the middle of it - now what better compliment is that?
Popular music trends in the past have brought success to many singers, while bands, however excellent, have been relegated to the background. Have you felt resentment about this?
If you had to resent anything at any time, it's what happened to music. Okay, there was the Sinatra thing, when he first started and made his debut as a single performer, but that was deserved by him - he was a great artist. But when you think about the other people, with not quite the talent, not quite the personality, who have made it, there's a certain amount of resentment. Not that I resent them personally - I resent the fact that there's an audience that will accept mediocrity so readily.
Yes, I resent dumbness; I resent total commercialism, so that there's no real validity behind what a person is doing. If the only thing you're trying to do is to make that gold record, to sell eight billion, then you're not really seriously thinking about anything but money. And I don't think about money all the time - I think about what my band is doing. I make money, but I don't want to make it dishonestly; I don't want to have to subject my own personal taste to somebody else's taste because they say: "If you do it this way, it'll happen, but if you do it your way, it'll just lay there." If I do it my way and it lays there, that's my problem. If I do it my way and it becomes successful, I also take the credit for that - and I would rather have that.
Talking about Sinatra - it is said that his phrasing was originally derived from a study of the breath control Tommy Dorsey had on trombone. Do you know this to be true?
Can you think of a better man to copy? Breath control - that would be the only man. In those days, he could play a sixteen-bar phrase without taking a breath - this was before circular breathing was even considered. So if you must try to copy somebody's phrasing, you copy the best - which he did. Not bad. But Dorsey influenced everybody; to me, Dorsey was the greatest trombone player that ever lived. He was a very strong and very disciplined leader, and knew music as well as anybody. He'd call a rehearsal, and start calling: "You got an A up there, and you got a B flat" and "Change that - make that an eighth note". Although he played sharp, in his ear he had perfect pitch.
The band played sharp, but so what? It was very funny to hear him say to the band: "Tune up" - and he'd be sharp. He's make all the trombone players pull in, and he'd make the saxophones tighten up - but that's what he heard. You can't fight that.
What are your thoughts about the standards Sinatra's singing today?
Well, I don't pay attention to that; I pay attention only to what he has meant to the business, and what he's meant to me. I don't think his talent really has diminished, but the so-called critics like to say: "He's had it". That'll never happen; he will never have had it - he'll be as great ten years from now as he was twenty years ago. If his voice is not the instrument that it was - so what? That doesn't really mean too much - not to me. He's the only lyric-teller I know who makes you believe that he's lonely, or he's in love, or he's rejected; he's the only guy who knows how to do that and bring you some tears at the same time. And he can also turn around and make you feel good when he's doing his up-tempo things. So I don't consider his talent diminished in any way whatsoever.
No, well, I certainly don't. I regard him as on a par with yourself as a phenomenon of the present time.
Itís very nice of you to say that, and I appreciate that, but, you know, he's one of a kind. I tell the guys in my band, if you ever have an opportunity to see this man, even if you have to take a night off - or we have to take a night off - go to see him, because once he retires, if he's serious about it, that's the end. Like Sir Laurence Olivier is one of a kind. And you have to really love them, nurture them, and take care of them, for all the joy and the happiness that they've given throughout the years. I don't look at anybody's talents as ever diminishing. Once it's great, it's great, and that's that. Timeless? Exactly. (Interviewed by Les Tomkins)
This extract was taken from an interview in July 1982. It was lifted from the Crescendo Archives by typing
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