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HOWARD MANDEL INTERVIEW: Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Was there one particular record or performance that ignited your enthusiasm for jazz ?

There were several records I heard as a kid that excited my interest in jazz -- rather random in how they came to my attention. Including: "One O'Clock Jump" by Count Basie Orchestra, and "Sentimental Journey," as sung by Doris Day (from a compilation record called Remember How Great? issued as a promotion by a cigarette company); Ramsey Lewis' "The In Crowd," which I heard on the radio; "Comin' Home Baby," by Herbie Mann (Live at the Village Gate); "Night In Tunisia" by Miles Davis' quartet (on the Prestige lp In The Beginning), and finally Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, the entire album, which I think really persuaded me of the enduring nature of my interest.

Which jazz writers do you most admire, and which writers outside jazz excite you at the moment ?

Nat Hentoff (for liner notes and Hear Me Talkin' To You), Amiri Baraka (as Leroi Jones, writing Blues People) and Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker gained my admiration early on; Fredrick Ramsey and William Russell as editors of Jazzmen impressed me, and Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz and The Swing Era are models of research and analysis. I think are George E. Lewis' book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music is the most significant book on jazz I've read lately, and I also like Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home very much. Outside of jazz, I read quite a lot of crime fiction -- George Pelicanos, James Sallis, Daniel Woodrell, Jose Latour, John Burdett are among my favorites. I've been especially enthralled with the writings of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Dostoievsky, Isak Dinesen, Henry Miller, Franz Kafka, Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber and P.G. Wodehouse, too.

What qualities are essential for a critic ?

A critic's curiosity about what captures his/her attention and what lies just beyond the parameters of previously comprehended work, and generosity towards those who pursue creation are I think essentials. An eagerness to commicate one's understanding and sense of importance of the work to those who may not be aware of it seems to me to be crucial for a critic to persist.

I imagine it doesn't get easier to grapple with new and demanding music as your critical arteries harden.
Is this true ? If it is, how do you deal with it ?

I don't find it more difficult to grapple with new and demanding music -- I find it harder to sift through the flood of relatively conventional or derivative music which may contain a kernel of originality, the seeds of potential, and to identify with those younger musicians whose frames of reference don't seem to be as broad as what I've accumulated as listening experience. Most of the music I found demanding but also rewarding some 40 years ago I still find rewarding, in that I hear new things in it, or hear in different ways. What I like best about the phenomenon is that albums like Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction*, Don Cherry's Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch*, John Coltrane's Impressions*, Miles Davis' On The Corner and Bitches Brew, Cecil Taylor's Unit Structures* and Inside Betty Carter (among a lot of others) still really excite and please my ears.

If you were commissioned to write a substantial article making the case for ONE of your favourite records that is NOT generally considered a classic, or in the conventional "Top Ten ", what would it be, and why ?

Inside Betty Carter would be the one that I think ought to be elevated to general attention, because she sings with such range and verve, completely within the combo she's leading, and with a naturalness that is so spontaneous. "Look No Further," "Something Big Is Going to Happen," and her incomparable 90-second version of "My Favorite Things" ought to be required listening for ALL vocalists, I believe. The sound is eternally fresh and has great drive. I wish this album was better known.

If Could you name 6 CDs recorded since 2000 that confirm your faith in the future of jazz ?

Cassandra Wilson's Belly of the Sun. George Lewis-Muhal Richard Abrams-Roscoe Mitchell, Streaming. Myra Melford's Be Bread, The Image of Your Body. Butch Morris conducting the NuBlu Orchestra. Nicole Mitchell, Indigo Trio Live In Montreal. James Carter's Chasin' The Gypsy. There are more.

If you were running a perfect record company in a perfect world, which musicians, alive or dead, who haven't worked together before would you bring together ?

Sonny Rollins and Don Pullen, with Tony Williams* and Wilbur Ware. Don Cherry and Olivier Messiaen. Robert Dick and Thelonious Monk*. Henry Threadgill and Dewey Redman (maybe with Jaki Byard or Larry Young). Edward Blackwell and Henry Red Allen. Jelly Roll Morton and John Zorn (if the latter would be ever so slightly 'umble and receptively interactive.) Jimi Hendrix and Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

I'm intrigued by your Jazz Beyond Jazz connections ( and realise that some answers to some of the questions above might be in there….! ) and I wonder if you could expand on that concept a little ?

I think the real music (and the genuinely functional life of any art form) that humans are deeply moved by, that affects us profoundly, is beyond any labels (though labels are linguistically unavoidable, often useful and basically necessary) and beyond the conventions of form or process that become stale. I believe jazz has at the core of its original and enduring concept unique structural openness, flexibility and adaptibility, which allows it to absorb many ideas/materials from outside its original parameters and any proposed canon. I do privilege "swing" -- it needn't/shouldn't/can't be in all jazz manifestations, but I think it ought to be recognized for having specific and essentially liberating affects. I think jazz has an integrating principle which need not denigrate or dilute influences drawn from other forms, but rather embraces such ostensibly foreign elements with high regard, while at the same time allowing individuals to express themselves powerfully. I love jazz -- historical jazz, jazz-identified-jazz, Jelly Roll, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Freeman, Charlie Christian, Max Roach*, Bunk Johnson -- but I don't love revivalism, efforts to regenerate the popularity of prior artifacts or styles (conservatism, as in conserving the past, I accept as valuable -- it's good to hear Ellington's music performed live, kept alive for today and tomorrow -- and the blues is, it seems to me, an indelible element of "jazz," though I'm willing to define "blues" pretty loosely or see affinities to American blues in other culture's musical manifestations). I could go on -- as I did, trying to lay out some of the basis and evidence for this, in my book Miles Ornette Cecil --Jazz Beyond Jazz. All three of the musicians I focused on are explorers, innovators, absorbers and re-framers and I think such artists who adopt such postures and approaches break through habits that constrain us from fuller appreciation of life and productivity in whatever we personally do.

If you had to choose a part of a single track to become a theme for a radio program on jazz, what would it be ?

"Hat and Beard" by Dolphy from Out To Lunch

I'm always intrigued by the extra-musical enthusiasms of musicians, ( Wayne Shorter's* study of "The Red Shoes ",the medical connections of Eddie Henderson and Denny Zeitlin, etc.etc. )and I think they're really quite revealing. I'm sure writers are similarly disposed. What other aspects of the "culture " interest you, and is there any cross-pollination with jazz ?

Well, I'm as fascinated by writing as I am by jazz and music in general, though writing seldom has the interactivity of combo improvisation or the immediacy of a soloist in live performance or the simultaneity of multiple dimensions. But I read all sorts of fiction, from folk stories of the world's cultures to classics mostly from Europe, the US, South America, short stories to novels and the occasional epic (Don Quixote, Gravity's Rainbow). I respond to heightened Romantic/expressionistic sensibilities, and themes that embrace urbanity more so than pastoral reflections (maybe there's a relationship to jazz in that). I don't exclude theater and film, or journalism or what's come to be called narrative nonfiction from my reading or study of writing (I mean, I "study" the writing when I experience or reflect on a movie – John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” -- or play “A Tooth of Crime,” Macbeth, or tv show – Deadwood, Burns and Allen, The Shield). I'm interested in radio "writing," good radio production, and comedy, too. Some of the other activities I'm avid about are playing flutes (wood flutes, non-Western reed instruments like bamboo soprano sax, duduk, etc), having spirited discussions with good, smart friends (now that's just like combo improvisation) and bike riding, which helps me get around with the mental zip I associate with jazz, tactile feedback and freedom of responsibility for movement I relate to playing an instrument.

* = Featured on JazzFolio.com

For more on and by Howard Mandel go to www.howardmandel.com and www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz/