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Chris Albertson :: Interview
by Dmitry Zhukov
Chris Albertson is jazz journalist, writer and producer, whose work earned him two Grammys as well as several other prizes, but more important - he is a jazz lover who happens to have excellent memory and strong opinions on the things he saw and the music he heard. Here is a recorded portion of our conversation in Chris’s lovely apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a few blocks from Harlem.
DZ: How did you start getting into this music, Chris?
CA: I was living in Denmark and going to an art school, right after the war, I used to listen to records, which were all 78s, and if you wanted to buy a record you had to bring an old one to the store, because they needed to recycle the material. My grandparents had an old Victrola, and I was looking for classical music, which they didn’t have in the store, so I asked them what they had and they brought out this record which had something like 1939 Super Rhythm Style series on the label. It was John Kirby and his orchestra, so I bought that. It was a good little band with Charlie Shavers. Around the same time I heard Bessie Smith on the radio. Then I went to the US Information Library where they had a huge room full of records, but no Jazz records. except a Lennie Tristano album with two 78s, a very good album, on Keynote, I think it was; and then in the corner I found a box full of US Library of Congress recordings of chain-gang songs. But they had some books on music which I borrowed and read. At the time it was impossible to find new records, but there were second-hand stores, where you could find all kinds of stuff, like Hot Fives, etc, so I bought some records. Then when I heard Charlie Parker for the first time, I’d been listening to Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and the transition seemed so natural, it sounded great right away. Then I bought a recorder and started going to the only jazz club in Denmark and eventually ended up being the head of the club. We brought in a traditional band from England (Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen with Chris Barber), then, when American bands came to town, because I spoke English, I would go backstage and try to get them to come down to jam sessions. As a matter of fact I just read on the Internet something a fellow Dane described as one of the best live music experiences he had, and it was the Lionel Hampton Band with Brownie cutting Art Farmer on the trumpet. I organized that. It was Hamp’s 17th wedding anniversary and I was invited. There I talked a few people into going to a jam session after the party, and they all showed up. Hampton said it was all right to record, except when he was playing, so I put a lid on the tape recorder when he played. It was an interesting band. Quincy Jones was in it, and Brownie cut him real bad.
DZ: What year was it?
CA: It was November 12th, 1953… Then I decided to come over to the US. But before that I got a job at the US Army base spinning classical records and later jazz. Then, after I got my immigration visa, I came to the US in 1957 with $75 in my pocket. I got a room for $8 a week. Then, when I was about to be thrown out because I couldn’t pay the rent, I got $100 from my grandfather. When I had $10 left, I went to a Greyhound bus station and asked where I could go for $10. I went to Philadelphia for $3, found some cheap day-old bread and a week later was a producer and writer for CBS in Philadelphia. After a year, I went to work for WHAT, which was an all-jazz radio station there. The woman who owned it was very strange, there was FM, which was all-white, and AM which was all-black. She had a white dog named FM and a black dog named AM. Strange woman. Her name was Dolly Banks. I interviewed people like Lester Young [only one of the two existing interviews of Young], Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, and Willie The Lion Smith.
Then I called Nat Hentoff in New York, and through him I got a job at Riverside Records as a record producer and liner notes writer. But Orrin Keepnews didn’t like me. He had a tin ear (couldn’t hear what was good or bad) and recorded everybody who came to town. He lucked out with Cannonball.
DZ: I noticed that quite a few Riverside recordings from that time are very uneven in the quality of music.
CA: Well, because he wasn’t able to distinguish between good and bad performance, he had this stern expression on his face, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. This was his way of hiding that he couldn’t react to music either way. Now, Bob Weinstock at Prestige loved the music and had a very good ear. He recorded Monk Coltrane, and Miles. At one point what really did it with me and Orrin was Ida Cox. She was a blues singer who was big in the 1920s, in Bessie’s days. Her obituary appeared in Variety in the early fifties, but someone had told me she was still alive, living in Knoxville, TN. We reissuesd a lot of old jazz recordings, so I asked Bill Grauer if I could go down there and look for her. He got very excited about that, but Orrin did not, he wasn’t interested. But Bill made the final decisions, so I went down there and found her living with her daughter. It took me two months to talk her into coming to New York. We paid her in advance because she didn’t know who we were. So I got together a session — Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton and Sammy Price, a nice little band. All of the jazz press called, Whitney Balliett, Hentoff, John Wilson, all of them wanted to be in the studio; Orrin saw that and just took over the session. He was a half-owner of the company and basically my boss.
DZ: Chris, how did you know she could still sing after being out of the spotlight for so many years?
CA: Her next-door neighbor was a pianist and she did a number for me with him. Balliett wrote a piece on her which is in his new book of collected jazz writings. So, that was pretty much the end of me in Riverside. There was also another thing — I wanted to go down to New Orleans to record the old jazz musicians while they were still alive and able to play. Bill loved the idea and I went down there and we did twelve albums in one week, because these people knew what they were doing, all you had to do is to set up the stuff, tell them to start and they would do it. These albums got incredible reviews. Saturday Review called them modern jazz masterpieces, Whitney Balliett said that jazz history had to be rewritten, it was amazing. All of these albums are still available from Fantasy.
After that I did the same thing in Chicago. We called the series “The Living Legends”. Even though I was no longer working for Riverside, Bill Grauer asked me to do it on the freelance basis. These came out very well, but Riverside was having money problems at the time and rather than renting a studio they sent in a bus that was converted into a recording studio. There were two men operating all this equipment, these two previously recorded something that was called “Sounds of The Home”, you know, water dripping, faucets, things like that; they had never recorded music before and didn’t care much for jazz. The recordings came out so terrible that I almost begged for some of them not to be released, but they put them all out anyway. So I went to Prestige, Bob Weinstock called and asked me to do an album for him, and next thing I knew I was on staff there. I did quite a few albums for them. After that I decided to go back into radio, and I went to work for WNEW, and while I was there I started to volunteer at WBAI.. It’s a listener-supported station, no commercials. This was during the Vietnam war and civil rights struggle; you heard things on WBAI that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. I became the general manager there. I ran it during a very interesting time. Saturday afternoons I had a 3-hour time slot where I had different disc jockeys spinning records, and they were always musicians. They could talk, they could play records, they could bring other musicians with them, Eddie Condon came in with his musicians, Coltrane came in, Toshiko[Akiyoshi] did a show, Kenny Dorham, they were all there. Most of the time they played records, but sometimes they would bring other musicians and talk for three hours. Then I also did a thing for an hour on Thursday nights, Free Jazz, where musicians came into the studio and played. I put Archie Shepp in charge of that. They would start and play one hour pieces, just turn off the lights and play till we signaled them to stop.
DZ: Have you recorded them?
CA: I recorded some of them, but I wish we had recorded them all. I must have these tapes somewhere. I remember one time the station was desperate for money and I needed to raise $25,000 and what we broke into the news program one evening and announced that everything would stop, there would be no more broadcasts if we didn’t receive that money from people who listened to the station.. So we did that. Later I found out that this was the first radio marathon. A lady who’s writing a book about broadcast marathons called me and asked if she could see the father of marathons. Apparently what we did was the first broadcast marathon. It’s not something I should be proud of, ‘cause I hate those things. Anyway, what happened was that somebody called during the first hour and said, ”I don’t have any money, but I have this very nice rug, and I’ll give this rug to anyone who will give the station $200, and right away somebody called up and said they wanted it, then people started calling in, and it started the whole barter thing. We were in a small brownstone on East 39th Street, we had a teletype machine in the bathroom, pretty soon the bathtub was filled with turtles, we had an autographed copy of Mein Kampf, we had baseballs, parakeets, you name it. We raised the necessary sum, and the newspapers had articles about the marathon, even the London papers. A lot of the people who responded were jazz musicians, Art Farmer came in, others too, including Herbie Hancock, and we didn’t have a piano, later we did, ‘cause somebody donated us one, but when he came in we didn’t have one, so my music director, John Corigliano [who later won an Oscar for writing the score for The Red Violin) said he had an electric practice piano and Herbie played it, accompanying Joe Williams. It was the first time he played one—I have it on tape.
DZ: What year it was?
CA: I think it was 1965.
DZ: Interesting. I read that around that time or a little bit later Hancock started to experiment with electric keyboards, and ultimately triggered Miles Davis to take interest as well.
CA: Yes, yes, I recorded the whole thing, Ornette Coleman, a bunch of people discussing avant guard, Martin Williams was there. I sent all my tapes to Copenhagen. Actually, a friend of mine who bought 18,000 records from me, had around 40,000 of his own. He owns the Storyville record label, and has people who are going through these tapes and cataloguing them. There are lots of interviews, as well as music.
DZ: I have a couple of their CDs,-“Stockholm Jam Sessions” with American musicians recorded live in the late 1950s.
CA: There was an album on Xanadu, which is Don Schlitten’s label, called “International Jam Sessions” and one of the tracks on it is from the night that I taped with Lionel Hampton’s Band, the tune is “Back Home Again In Indiana”, with a long solo by Clifford Brown. Of course there were also some local musicians who we thought were wonderful, but they paled in comparison to the American ones.
DZ: Yes, those rhythm sections were not so good, but there are some fantastic musicians in Europe now.
CA: Oh my god, yes, those rhythm sections were awful. Anyway, part of my work at the station was dealing with BBC in London and they offered me a job. There I worked with the Beatles, John Gielgud, all kinds of people. But that’s another story altogether.
DZ: Let’s go back in time a little. Till what year were you with the labels?
CA: I was with Riverside form 1960 till 61, and then 1961 till 63 with Prestige. Then I decided to produce some records on my own and I produced a record that was playing when you came in. Howard McGhee record, which I must say was rather poorly recorded, I couldn’t afford a good studio. It was Howard, George Tucker, George Coleman, Jimmy Cobb and Junior Mance. It’s sort of like a Miles’ group in a way. In fact Howard was playing a pink trumpet that Miles gave him.
DZ: That was the time when he cleaned up his drug problem.
CA: Yes, at that time nobody would touch him. I ran into Howard at the place called Jim and Andy’s, an interesting little bar in midtown where the musicians used to hang out. Jim or Andy was a cat, I forgot which one of them. So I met Howard there one day, and he told me that he was having a hard time, so I organized this recording and let him pick the musicians; then I did another record with Roy Eldridge and Bud Freeman.
DZ: Strange combination.
CA: Yes, it was. Ray Bryant was on piano, Elmer Snowden on guitar and Jo Jones on drums, I think Ray Bryant’s brother, Tommy, was on bass. I also did a quartet session with Bud Freeman.
DZ: Which record that you produced do you like the most?
CA: I think it’s the whole New Orleans series. It was such a joy to do and such a joyful music. It was everything and more than I expected when we first started. I also did an album, Harlem Banjo, with Elmer Snowden. I hate the banjo, but we did that record. Are you familiar with Elmer Snowden?
DZ: I’d heard of him. Is he one of the old time cats? No, not too much.
CA: Snowden was a reed player from Washington, DC, who came to New York in 1925 with his band and they couldn’t get a job so the woman named Brick-Top, who was the owner of the club told him, ”You have to have a pianist”, so he sent for Duke Ellington to come up from DC. Duke was then an unknown, and he later took over from Snowden.
So, when I was a disc jockey in Philly there was a blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson, and Lonnie was a pioneer because he was the first jazz guitarist to play a single string guitar. He did some solos on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five albums and with the Ellington band in the 1920s. I was playing his record on the radio one day and I asked on the air if anyone knew what happened to Lonnie Johnson. Then I got a call from Snowden who said that he ran into Lonnie in the supermarket the other day. So I asked Snowden what he was doing and he said that he was a parking lot attendant in Philadelphia. Then I got a call from someone who said, ”I work with a man named Lonnie Johnson. Don’t know if he’s a musician or not, but he’s very careful with his hands, he always wears gloves. He’s a janitor here at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel.” So I went there and I immediately recognized him. I invited him and Snowden to my home the following week. I called John Hammond, whom I’d never met and Orrin Keepnews whom I hadn’t met before. To my surprise they both showed up. Lonnie and Elmer played all night, but nothing else happened. I taped the whole thing and took the tape to Bob Weinstock. That started the whole series of records with them. Elmer actually played banjo like a guitar. So there were some reviews which said, ”I hate the banjo, but now I love it”.
DZ: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because just the other week I heard on the radio that banjo was an instrument invented by slaves here in the US. I always thought it was a quintessential American instrument.
CA: Actually it is a modification of an African instrument, something the slaves brought with them. I think it has seen better days than now.
DZ: With the obvious success of the recordings you produced for these small labels, wouldn’t it be obvious for the majors to look into that? They probably didn’t cost much to produce. Have you done anything with them?
CA: I was never pushy. The only time I got in with a major label was with Columbia. They owned everything that Bessie Smith ever did. It took me almost three years to convince them to reissue them all; they thought these records wouldn’t sell, but they did very well and got several Grammys. Those recordings were fifty years old at the time and the first album sold 300,000 copies. They wanted me to do phony stereo, because in their minds mono didn’t sell anymore. But it obviously did. I produced several albums for Columbia later, but was never interested in being a producer, which for me was really a byproduct of loving jazz. I recorded these people because it was something I wanted to put on my turntable. If no one else would make an album like that, then I would make it.
Anyway, after I left the BBC I was so sick of all these people, Orrin Keepnewses, Leonard Feathers, I still wanted to be in the jazz business and not put up with that, so I decided to write, and in 1967 I decided to do that and haven’t worked for anybody since then. That’s a long time. I started with “downbeat” and then the “Saturday Review of Literature”, when Lil Armstrong died they asked me to do the story on her. They liked it so much that they asked me to write a cover story on Miles Davis. So I spent a whole day with Miles. I’d met him before, but sort of avoided him because of his reputation. I waited several days to gather enough courage to call him. So I called him and he said in his raspy voice, ”Come over now”, so off I went to his house on 77th Street and he was incredible. I brought a tape recorder, and I didn’t know that he did not like tape recorders, otherwise I wouldn’t have brought one, but I didn’t know it, so sometimes it’s good to be ignorant. We were talking and when he would walk across the room he would pick up the tape recorder and carry it with him so it could pick up what he said. He cooked dinner for me and couldn’t have been nicer. After the article was published I ran into him at a party and asked if he liked what he read. He said, ”It always looks different in print”. So I asked, ”What do you mean? I didn’t put in anything that you didn’t say.” He said, ”I know, I know”. It was funny because the music editor who originally only wanted to replace one period with a semicolon, called me back and said, ”We have to remove three fucks and two shits.” There were more than that, but they had a quota on obscenities. I also wrote for “Stereo Review” for 28 years. Then I wrote a book on Bessie Smith. Two years ago the rights reverted to me; I wasn’t very happy with it, so I decided to rewrite it and finished today, actually.
DZ: That’s fantastic. Which publisher is it with?
AC: St. Martin’s. A question to you – who were the first Western Jazz musicians to play in Soviet Union?
DZ: I read that Sidney Bechet was the first one to come over.
CA: Sam Wooding and his Orchestra played in Berlin in 1925 and after that they went to Leningrad, so that would’ve been in 1926 or 27.
DZ:I didn’t know that. I thought that after Bechet there was a 35-year break and then Mitchell and Ruff came to USSR in the early sixties.
CA: Yes, that’s true. I remember when I was a disc jockey in Philadelphia in ’59-60 we received an LP that was called “Jazz in Leningrad” or something like that, which featured some Russian groups. I forgot who put them out here, but there was an album of Russian jazz. It wasn’t a great jazz, but it was interesting that there was any at all.
DZ: Have you became personal friends with any of musicians you dealt with?
CA: Yes, I was very friendly with Howard[McGhee], Lil Armstrong, Ray Bryant, Junior Mance, Toshiko—it was easier back then because there were places to hang out, places like Jim and Andy’s, and the Copper Rail which was right on Broadway where the Metropole Café once was, right off Times Square. What made Copper Rail so unusual, and it was in the late 50s - early 60s, was that at the time you didn’t see too many black people in that area, and here you had a black place right in the middle of Times Square, like a Harlem place, where you could get pig’s feet, typical Harlem food. A lot of musicians who played in the area used to come in, Henry “Red” Allen, Roy Eldridge, Hampton; you could find Coleman Hawkins there all the time in a phone booth. I didn’t have a TV when I first came to New York, so I went to the Copper Rail to watch the show, The Sound of Jazz. Later, many the musicians who were on the show came to the Rail…of course many of them are dead now…
Let’s change topics here. The Japanese are heavily into jazz and they tend to treat musicians like gods. There’s a Japanese man who collects Louis Armstrong recordings exclusively. He had a book printed up privately to give to his friends, it has color reproductions of every label and every record in his collection. Beautifully done.
DZ: Then he probably has some privately recorded tapes as well?
CA: Yes, and there are even color photos of all the reels and tape boxes. It’s crazy, but that’s what he did.
DZ [laughing]: Thank you for having me over, Chris.
CA: You are welcome. Any time!
published 26.04.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page